Results tagged “Central Asia” from The travels of Mary Loosemore
I do seem to have spent an awful lot of time getting the photos from my last trip (Central Asia Overland, with Explore) onto Flickr... but they're all up there now, in my imaginatively titled Central Asia Overland set.
All (all!) that's left for me to do is:
- Geotag/map the photos I took in Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Yahoo! mapping is so frustratingly woeful that I can only cope with geotagging one place at a time... Transliteration and the original-versus-Soviet/Beijing place name variations don't help.
- Improve the tagging. I'm sure I've got lots of spelling variations myself... next time I'll be more rigorous at logging the tags I chose, and checking past conventions, before I start.
- Delete some. I'm hopeless at picking which is the best out of any particular bunch. For example, Registan square in Samarkand, the Kalon mosque in Bukhara, not to mention Khiva.....
- Defrost. With London's daytime temperatures hovering around zero our spare room-cum-office is freezing. I've been sitting at my computer clad in 2 pairs of socks plus ancient roof terrace gardening slippers, four top layers including fleece and vast woolly jumper, scarf and hat.... and occasionally resorting to wrapping up in the spare duvet too.
(and remember the Flickr/Yahoo! mapping for Bhutan?)
Photos on Flickr: Central Asia Overland, September/October 2008
Central Asia Overland - 'ello Uzbekistan!
Central Asia Overland - Crossing Kazakhstan
Central Asia Overland - Bye bye Bishkek
Central Asia Overland - Kashgar and the KKH to Lake Karakul
Central Asia Overland - Friday night fever, Yarkand style
Central Asia Overland - Hello from Hotan
The Build Up
Central Asia Overland - Where next imminent: Western China and Central Asia
Central Asia Overland - visa update: all done!
Central Asia Overland - money planning
Central Asia Overland - visa update: China
Central Asia Overland - visa update: Kazakhstan
Central Asia Overland - visa update: Uzbekistan
Central Asia Overland - visas
Central Asia Overland - booked
Well, I can't say Uzbekistan has really lived up to expectations, but perhaps that's the cumulative effects of a four week tour talking... together with rather rose-tinted expectations in the first place.
Although modern Tashkent was a welcome change, and the overnight train to Urgench a very pleasant way to cross the Kyzyl Kum desert, the main historical sights - Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand - were each disappointing in their own ways.
Khiva can only be a ghost of its former self - the whole of the old town has been conserved and restored into a shadow of a city, resembling EuroDisney on a quiet Tuesday. No one really lives there anymore, and we wandered around the sanitised streets avoiding end of season souvenir sellers rather than the genuine detritus of daily life. Hard to believe it was once the capital of the Khanate of Khiva.
Moving onto Bukhara at least offered a slightly more living experience of an ancient Silk Road city, but here too many of the main sights - the domed bazaars, the magnificent Medressas and the potentially lovely Lyab-i Hauz (this is a good map of Bukhara) - were given over to souvenir stalls and tourist troughs. Oh, and there really really isn't anything worth the 2000 sum photo fee at the Ark citadel.
Samarkand should probably have been the highlight - I've wanted to see the Registan for years. It might be the heart of old Samarkand, but I found it sadly soulless - the central area was taken up by a temporary wooden stage and the mosques and medressas that make up the 'ensemble' entirely given over to souvenir shops. I much preferred Russian Samarkand, probably because I had no rose-hued expectations. As for the other main sights - the Bibi Khanum mosque, the Gur-e Amir and the Shah-i-Zinda - these have been almost entirely rebuilt, such that not so much as a whiff of romance or history remains. I like my sites served up in a rather more realistic state, and if that means ruins rather than restoration, so be it. I don't mind maintenance, but not restoration requiring (or resulting in) a complete rebuild with modern materials.
Mind you, I still managed to take a lot of photos; the architecture is amazing and the geometrist in me loves the tile work.
The other feature of this part of the tour was a night at the yurt camp near Yangikasgan, and a (15 minute) camel ride. This too was all a bit too touristy (and male) for my taste - although - again - my reaction says more about my unrealistic expectations as it does about the experience itself.
So no, having now been I don't feel the need to return. But I might pick up my patchworking again.
Day one of the final part of our Central Asia Overland trip.
We've a free morning in Tashkent while Amanda (our Explore leader) goes to collect the new arrivals from the airport, and we start sight seeing this afternoon. It will be weird having new people in the group, plus we'll be 20, which is a big (too big) group.
Tashkent feels very big and modern, a definite contrast to Kyrgyzstan, although some of the mainly Chinese places we stayed in in Xinjiang were similar, if not so big and not so western in terms of products. Tashkent is the first place we've had BBC/CNN news on the TV (plus dodgy Russian pop videos!!) and there are adverts for iPhones, Levis, Rimmel (Kate Moss again) on billboards and TV, and the person before us in our room here left behind Friday's FT. Mind you, having access to international news is a mixed blessing in these times of financial meltdown .... I'll have to work out the impact of the collapse of the icelandic banks, and where that leaves my Icesave-ings...
Next stop after this internet cafe is Il Perfecto, for (what promises to be) a proper cup of coffee....
We arrived in Taskent at 7pm last night having left Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) at 4am - a long day of sitting on the world's highest coach seats, suffering the smelliest squat toilets of the entire trip, and spending hours negotiating the border formalities for a trio of 'Stans.
Our one day in Kazakhstan started with a long wait to get through our exit/entry stamps at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border (c6am) and ended with an even longer time at the Kazakh/Uzbek border c4pm.
That said, there were some key differences at the Kazakh/Uzbek border - we were the entertainment of the month for the Kazakh guys, who were fun rather than fierce as the leafed through dirty laundry and laughed at the half drunk bottles of vodka and whisky we were carrying, whereas on the Uzbek side of things the guards definitely had a more intimidating style of questioning, mainly focussed on how much cash we were carrying.
Still, the main "interrogator" was an English speaking chap and, after inspecting everything in my "handbag" (for wont of a better word) and checking and signing off my entry declarations in duplicate, he had a good look through the photos on my camera, which featured the long and bumpy roads and rainbows of our 12 hour journey through Kazakhstan, together with photos of Bishkek and the beautiful Ala Archa gorge walk. Definitely no pictures of any border crossings or military locations!
Tonight's the end of the Crossroads of Asia portion of our trip, so we had our farewell dinner with those not continuing on to Uzbekistan, and our last night in little old Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan has turned out to be a lot colder than Xinjiang, but not so cold as to require thermals or my fleece top - quite a few items of clothing will be coming back unworn. That said, daytime Kyryzstan was just right - nice fresh sunny days rather than the dusty/drier desert heat of Xinjiang.
Overall, I have been a bit disappointed with the Kyrgyz leg of the tour - not with Kyrgyzstan itself (far from it) but because key elements of the itinerary had to change due to it being late in the season and getting cold. We didn't get to see Tash Rabat at all, which was high on my list of sights. Back in the summer Explore had notified us that we wouldn't be staying there but I was still hopeful that the route might take us past the caravanserai. As it turned out, this was never going to be, given that it lies 26km off the "main road" (ie track) that connects Kashgar with Naryn, where we were staying instead, and it was a long day's drive plus Chinese/Kyrgyz border crossing (one coach - us - heading west vs an awful lot of trucks heading east).
In fact both our yurt nights turned into guest house stays due to the (tourist) yurt camps having been dismantled. The second was a lovely guesthouse on the southern shore of lake Issy-kul, but I'm not sure it was worth the half day's drive it took each way.... The lake is lovely, with snow capped peaks on the north shore, but the scenery doesn't change that much and we arrived at our guest house at dusk and left straight after breakfast, so no time to really walk or paddle; yes, the lake water was warm enough - we'd dipped our toes in at one of the photo stops en route.....
Our two days in Bishkek coincided with a summit of member states of the former USSR, which included (we eventually discovered) a visit by Medeyev - which meant all the main roads on city centre sights were closed to the general public for almost all the time we were there. We managed to explore the Kyrgyz capital despite that, and probably saw more of Bishkek's side roads than we would have otherwise.
The main highlight has been this morning's (Explore optional extra) walk in Ala Archa gorge - but almost didn't as, technically, the gorge was "closed" for the day because the big wigs were due to visit in the afternoon. Luckily our charming local guide, Maria, worked her magic and we were allowed on on the understanding that we'd be gone by 2pm, and by the time we arrived back in Bishkek most of the roads/sights were accessible.
Next stop: Uzbekistan (via Kazakhstan!)
Xinjiang was definitely saving the best 'til last, although lunch at Ali's family's home was a definite pre-Kashgar highlight.
The main treats encountered in this part of the world were:
- the livestock market - strangely (or not) reminiscent of Hereford's Wednesday market. The more famous "Sunday Market" was really not much more than a very busy bazaar - and we saw lots of those during the trip.
- the stunning Abakh Hoja tomb was definitely the highlight, although we only had three quarters of an hour at the site which also includes two beautiful mosques - not to be confused with the Id Kah mosque in the city centre square, which had been remodelled along Chinese lines into a vast open space with even the santised shopping streets kept at a distance.
- a day trip along the Chinese part of the Karakorum Highway (KKH) to Lake Karakul. The mountain scenery was a breath of fresh air after the deserts of Xinjiang, but not a patch on the Hunza valley....
.... plus we were in Kashgar when the earthquake hit Kyrgyzstan and the hotel room definitely wobbled! Twice.
I'd definitely return to Kashgar. Visiting at the end of Ramadan, I don't we got to see the Old Town at its best - most of the shops were shut. Even so, these smaller scale streets were nice enough to wander through and - as we discovered on our last evening - livelier after dark and away from the main drag.
Yarkand has provided definitely the most fun night out so far (and, it turns out, the whole trip). Famed for its mosque, royal tombs and old town (not much left of that; or perhaps it was just the effects of Ramadan again), the highlight for me was our evening at the restaurant and dancehall. Sadly I've no idea what it is called, but it was only a 5 minute walk from the Shāchē (Yarkand) Hotel, and it seemed to be *the* place to go to dance on a Friday night in Yarkand.
We feasted on Eight Treasures Pumpkin and had our first (and last) bottle of local wine (curiously reminiscent of the childhood cherry-flavour cough medicine I loved!). Dinner done, we were courteously invited onto the dance floor by the local chaps where our attempts to dance Uyghur style were decidedly less graceful than the elegance of the young ladies and gents of Yarkand.
First chance to find an internet cafe here in Xinjiang Province, in Hotan on the southern silk road. We crossed the Taklamakan desert yesterday on the brand new cross desert highway - so new it's not on the maps and the toll booths aren't in service yet.
It's hot, hot, hot, which means I've been living out of the top tenth of my rucksack - hopefully not too smelly. Not much call for anything long sleeved, and I should have brought some more short sleeved/T shirts.
The group's a bit of a mixed bag - mainly ladies, with a few couples thrown in for good measure - but I think we're all getting used to one another's quirks.
So far the Western China experience has been a bit disappointing - a lot of cities and sitting on the coach travelling from one to the next. Hardly any historic places or opportunities to get out and about - but then again I think I was being a bit unrealistic to expect much else, both from Explore and from this part of China. The main excitement of every day is shopping at foodstalls for picnic lunch things - but everyone ends up with kilos of stuff - why Explore don't just buy a picnic (the price of things is peanuts) I don't know.
I must sound like I'm not having a good time - I am, but it's just not as exotic or adventurous as I would have liked.
Anyway, we're in Kashgar over the weekend and that should offer some opportunities for exploring on our own - which will be fun. Then it's over the mountains to Kyrgyzstan!
It's almost time to go....
Destination: The Silk Road: Far Western China and Central Asia
Why: Because it's a part of the world that has been on my list for a long, long time
When: September/October 2008
How: Central Asia Overland, with Explore
- Day 1 Fly London/Beijing
- Day 2 Arrive Beijing
- Day 3 Visit Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City; fly Urumqi
- Day 4 Visit museum; Drive Korla
- Day 5 Drive to Kuqa
- Day 6 In Kuqa; visit ancient sites
- Day 7 Drive to Aksu; visit virgin forest
- Day 8 Drive across Taklamakan Desert to Hotan
- Day 9 In Hotan; visit Cottage Industries
- Day 10 Drive Yarkand
- Day 11 Drive via Uighur knife factory; drive to Kashgar
- Day 12 & 13 In Kashgar; visit famous Sunday market; optional full day excursion through the Pamir mountains to Karakul Lake
- Day 14 Drive via Kyrgyzstan border to Tash Rabat
- Day 15 Drive Song Kul Lake
- Day 16 Drive Bishkek; via Lake Issy Kul
- Day 17 Drive via Kazakhstan to Tashkent
- Day 18 In Tashkent; city tour
- Day 19 In Tashkent; overnight train Urgench
- Day 20 Arrive Urgench; drive Khiva; sightseeing in the Old City
- Day 21 Drive Bokhara
- Day 22 In Bokhara; tour
- Day 23 Drive Karmana; continue to Yangikasgan; 4WD to camp, optional camel riding in desert
- Day 24 Morning at Lake Aydarkul; drive to Samarkand
- Day 25 In Samarkand; visit Gur Emir Mausoleum and Registan Square
- Day 26 In Samarkand; visit Ulug-Beg observatory and museum; afternoon optional visit to Marakanda
- Day 27 Drive Tashkent; fly London
- Wikipedia: Central Asia - Silk Road - China - Xinjiang - Kyrgyzstan - Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan
- Wikitravel: Central Asia - Silk Road - China - Xinjiang - Kyrgyzstan - Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan
- FCO travel advice: Asia and Oceania - China - Kyrgyzstan - Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan
- BBC country profile: Country Profiles - China - Kyrgyzstan - Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan
- Lonely Planet: Asia - China - Kyrgyzstan - Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan
- BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | Freedom to travel in China
- BBC NEWS | In Pictures | In pictures: Life in Urumqi
- BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | Separatists blamed for China attack
- BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | Fatal blasts hit Chinese province
(forecasts from www.accuweather.com)
- Beijing, China (Beijing)
- Urumqi, China (Xinjiang)
- Khotan (Hotan), China (Xinjiang)
- Korla, China (Xinjiang)
- Kuqa, China (Xinjiang)
- Aksu, China (Xinjiang)
- Yarkand, China (Xinjiang)
- Kashgar, China (Xinjiang)
- Naryn, Kyrgyzstan (Naryn)
- Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek)
- Tashkent, Uzbekistan (Toshkent)
- Urgench, Uzbekistan (Khorazm)
- Khiva, Uzbekistan (Khorazm)
- Bokhara, Uzbekistan (Bukhoro)
- Karmana, Uzbekistan (Nawoiy)
- Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Samarqand)
- Home (for comparison):London, United Kingdom
After a small bout of nervousness on Wednesday, it was a great relief to get this email at work on Thursday:
Your passport has been collected from the embassy and has been posted to you today. You should receive it on the next working day.
Thank you for using Travcour UK Ltd.
My nerves resurfaced when there was still nothing in our post box this morning.... especially as the Royal Mail's online tracking system was saying that the delivery had been made yesterday. So I went to enquire directly with the car park attendant, and after a bit of searching in various storerooms and shelves on his part, I spotted my envelope in the small items drawer... incorrectly addressed to 207 BJH - not that I cared at that point!
Four lovely visas, all present and (I hope!!) correct...... now I can start piling up things to take on the spare bed!
I spent last night and this morning trying to work out how much money I need to take with me on the Central Asia Overland trip.
I always find this the most difficult part of the planning - and if you get it wrong and you end up short of cash without an ATM to hand (highly likely in some parts of this trip!), then you're really stuffed. One big attraction of the Wild Frontiers' approach is that it's all inclusive - all you need to plan for is your souvenir spend, booze and sundries. In contrast, the Explore! model means I need to estimate how much I'll need to cover meals, drinks, tips and optional extras as well, in addition to the local payment.
This is what the trip notes offer by way of guidance:
You'll need some extra money to cover meals not included in the tour price, other sightseeing, photography fees (approx. £20) souvenirs, drinks with meals, entertainment, laundry, etc.
Local Currency: China: Renminbi/Yuan. Kyrgyzstan: Som. Uzbekistan: Sum.
Recommended Currency for Exchange: Take your spending money in US$ cash, as many bars and shops only accept hard currency (and often lack the facility to change travellers cheques). We recommend you take new (post 1990), good condition dollar bills.
Where to Exchange: In major towns. Your tour leader will advise you.
ATM Availability: Very limited, do not rely on this.
Credit Card Acceptance: Limited to major restaurants and stores in cities only.
Travellers Cheques: Not recommended for these tours.
Additional Information: Remember to keep your currency declaration form. It may be needed when you cross the next frontier.
Up-to-date information re:global exchange rates can be obtained at https://www.currency-express.com/explore/
Payable in USD cash(not Travellers Cheques) to your Tour Leader at the start of the tour.
Local Food and Drink: CA: 17 breakfasts and 2 dinners; CAU: 27 breakfasts, 1 lunch and 3 dinners are included on this trip; please be prepared to pay for all other meals. Approximate meal costs are given below:
UK China Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Kazakhstan
Tea/coffee £1.20 £0.30 £1.00 £0.20 £1.20
Soft drink 0.80 0.60 0.50 0.50 0.70
Bottled water 0.80 0.60 0.50 0.75 0.40
2 Course Meal* 10.00 2.00 5.00 3.00 5.00
3 Course Meal** 18.00 5.00 7.50 10.00 10.00
*Cheap local fare in a small cafe or restaurant.
**Typical food in a simple, reasonably comfortable mid-range restaurant.
Local Staff: In this area, tipping is a recognised part of life. Some local staff will still look to members of the group for personal recognition of particular services provided. Accordingly, you should allow £40 for tipping.
Tour Leader: At your discretion you might also consider tipping your Tour Leader(s) in appreciation of the efficiency and service you receive.
The following excursions and/or activities are usually available and may be arranged locally. Estimated costs are provided below for guidance only, are on a per person basis unless shown otherwise, and may depend on the number of participants.
BISHKEK Ala Archa Gorge £8.00.
KASHGAR Karakul Lake £20.00; Camel riding at Karakul Lake £2 per hour; Uighur folk performance £5.00.
So, to work out roughly how much money I'll need over the 28 days, I've created a spreadsheet summarising the information from the trip notes, and applying the food and drink estimates. I've assumed the 2 course meal plus 2 soft drinks for lunch and the 3 course meal plus 2 soft drinks for dinner. I've also allowed for two bottles of water a day (I drink a lot!). I've then added in dollops of dosh to cover souvenirs and other expenses, and then rounded up generously. Here's my template, tailored for this trip:
I'll post an update on actual spend on my return.
I then need to work out how best to take it. If possible, I'd rather not be travelling with wads of cash. But the trip notes make it sound like I need to be self sufficient, for 27 days, in US dollars.
Now, I know for a fact that ATMs are common in China, at least in the main commercial and tourist centres. Hazel and I used ATMs throughout our two week trip there last year. We didn't take any travellers' cheques or US dollars. The Beijing Olympics, and the PRC's focus on attracting the tourist spend, will have resulted in increased investment in infrastructure - which in tourist money terms means ATMs. A quick look on the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum confirms that there are ATMs in Kashgar, which is our final stop in China. Plus I can even pre-order Chinese Renminbi from Marks & Spencers! So I'm planning to take enough Renminbi to cover my estimated core spend on meals and drinks, and will rely on US$/Kashgar's ATMs should I need more, and Kashgar's banks and/or M&S buy-back should I find I've got to much of the readies. M&S rates beat those offered by my bank and Currency Express, the online exchange operator Explore! mentions.
It's access to cash and likely spend in Central Asia proper that is a mystery. Time to read the guidebook and to work out what denominations of US$ will work best, balancing the desire to have as few notes as possible against the flexibility in the amount I can change/use at any one time.
The other annoyance is that the trip notes provide estimates in GPB £ - so I have to convert that into US$, which means that the original estimate in local currency has gone through a double conversion, and any errors/inaccuracies in the estimates are magnified twice over. They are only estimates after all! I'm also narked that I didn't buy my US$ when it was $2 to the £!
One final tip. I use XE.com's Full Universal Currency Converter to find out current exchange rates, and always like to take a ready reckoner with me, usually just one easy to remember conversion statistic. So, here they are, based today's rates:
- China Yuan Renminbi: 100 CNY = 8.26486 GBP
- Kyrgyzstan Soms: 100 KGS = 1.63118 GBP
- Kazakhstan Tenge: 100 KZT = 0.474864 GBP
- Uzbekistan Sums: 1,000 UZS = 0.429303 GBP
Next weekend*, packing planning.
(* or possibly the one after. I don't like getting to the "piling up things on the spare bed" stage until everything is definite - which means knowing I've got my visas. I don't like to tempt fate.)
Telephone calls and emails with Travcour today, asking for more paperwork to support my application for a Chinese visa - they need proof of how I'll be leaving China. Tricky, as we are travelling out of China in a minibus over the Torugart Pass into Kyrgyzstan. I'd already sent in the letter that Explore provided to accompany the Chinese visa application which states this, so I've emailed off a copy of the itinerary together with my e-ticket showing Tashkent as my departure point coming back to London.
Update: 05 September 2008 - Travcour emailed to say that they will attach a copy of the itinerary with my application and a note explaining the route, and will let me know if there is a problem when they submit it to the Embassy on Monday.
I presume this means that they've got my visa for Kazakhstan. Hope so!
Another update email from Travcour:
Your visa application has been successfully submitted to the Kazakhstan embassy. You will be notified when your passport has been released.
Travcour have just emailed me to let me know that my passport and visa have been collected from the Uzbek embassy. It's taken 14 working days, which only leaves 17 working days to get the remaining three.....
Central Asia trip visa applications all completed and posted off to Travcour, together with a b.i.g. cheque (just over £300). Fingers crossed for four shiny visas in c. six weeks time: China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan.
Update: 08 August 2008 - Travcour emailed to say that they have received my application pack.
Next trip: Beijing to Tashkent, September/October 2008, courtesy of Explore .... I know, breaking the Wild Frontiers habit... but their Silk Road Odyssey is full, doesn't include the Western China overland element or an overnight journey on the Uzbek train system plus autumn is better time of year than the summer for getting four (4!) weeks off work....
Happy Birthday to me!
Itinerary: Central Asia Overland
Day 1 Fly London/Beijing
Day 2 Arrive Beijing
Day 3 Visit Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City; fly Urumqi
Day 4 Visit museum; Drive Korla
Day 5 Drive to Kuqa
Day 6 In Kuqa; visit ancient sites
Day 7 Drive to Aksu; visit virgin forest
Day 8 Drive across Taklamakan Desert to Hotan
Day 9 In Hotan; visit Cottage Industries
Day 10 Drive Yarkand
Day 11 Drive via Uighur knife factory; drive to Kashgar
Day 12 & 13 In Kashgar; visit famous Sunday market; optional full day excursion through the Pamir mountains to Karakul Lake
Day 14 Drive via Kyrgyzstan border to Tash Rabat
Day 15 Drive Song Kul Lake
Day 16 Drive Bishkek; via Lake Issy Kul
Day 17 In Bishkek; optional visit Ala Archa gorge
Day 18 Drive via Kazakhstan to Tashkent
Day 19 In Tashkent; city tour
Day 20 In Tashkent; overnight train Urgench
Day 21 Arrive Urgench; drive Khiva; sightseeing in the Old City
Day 22 Drive Bokhara
Day 23 In Bokhara; tour
Day 24 Drive Karmana; continue to Yangikasgan; 4WD to camp, optional camel riding in desert
Day 25 Morning at Lake Aydarkul; drive to Samarkand
Day 26 In Samarkand; visit Gur Emir Mausoleum and Registan Square
Day 27 In Samarkand; visit Ulug-Beg observatory and museum; afternoon optional visit to Marakanda
Day 28 Drive Tashkent; fly London
I'd originally gone for the Secrets of Central Asia organised by Peregrine Adventures, which looked brilliant - lots of time camping/hiking in Kyrgyzstan, travel through the Fergana Valley and crossing into China via the Irkeshtam Pass. Got lots of info from them and an invoice.... only to get an email saying they'd mucked up and there weren't spaces after all. To be fair, the trip was a combo of two separate trips, and it was only one that was already full booked, but they were advertising the combined trip as a single tour.
Anyway, foiled on that front, I had a good look at what else was available, and as WF's Silk Road Odyssey was fully booked I've ended up on Explore's Central Asia Overland trip, September/October this year. What sets is apart from all the other Central Asia trips is the 10 days in the far west of China, another place that's been on my wishlist for a while.... plus that overnight train journey in Uzbekistan (I might see that in a more negative light after the event!!).
My main reservations are about going with Explore, given that they're more mainstream and the group size is relatively large. But then again, I would have thought anyone booking for 28 days in Sept/Oct to go to that part of the world isn't going to be that mainstream.