Disappointed on Silk Road tour

This item appears on page 30 of the April 2009 issue.

We took a trip along the “Silk Road” to the five “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) and Turkey, Aug. 17-Sept. 9, 2008. The total cost for two was $20,680, which included round-trip air from New York to Istanbul, visa fees (over $500 per person) and mandatory tips ($400 per person).

Except for the sights, which were fantastic, and the friendly local folks, we felt this was not a great trip.

We went with the company Cultural Folk Tours. We had used this company for a trip to Turkey in 1995 that was super-excellent! However, this time our tour leader was the owner of the company, Bora Özkök, and we were very disappointed with many things that occurred.

Most of the hotels we stayed at turned off the air-conditioning at night. It was especially bad whenever the temperature was over 90 degrees.

Our hotel in Turkmenistan was not the one stated in the itinerary or shown in the DVD sent to us but was downgraded. Also, it was not in the center of town.

In addition, in many of the hotels folks had to porter their luggage from and to the bus, as there were no valet services.

We found most of the food in the Stans to be inedible — mostly overcooked and tough meat loaded with fat and bone, plus stale bread — and 18 times out of 42 meals on the entire trip we had the same or a similar meal. It consisted of a small amount of tough meat smothered with onions plus, as a side, a few French fries or rice. Dessert was almost always watermelon. After a while, the group rebelled and would not eat that meal, and Bora had the menu changed.

Most of these meals were served in restaurants. While the restaurants in the DVD appeared delightful, we did not eat at any of those. In addition, many breakfasts were poor, we felt.

At mealtime, wine and vodka were provided but rarely nonalcoholic drinks except bottled water.

We felt the buses were not good (they were beautiful on the DVD). Except in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and on the second bus in Turkey, the air-conditioning on the buses did not work properly, and at times the weather was in the 100s. Except for the one in Uzbekistan, the buses had no bathrooms.

In addition, two of our internal flights were at horrible times. We arrived at one hotel at 5 a.m. and at another at 6 a.m. Ugh!

Except for the local tour guides in Turkey and Turkmenistan, the rest spoke poor English and were difficult to understand, at times.

The DVD that was sent to clients was more than five years old and, in our view, misrepresented what was actually provided.

We cannot recommend this tour.

EPSTEIN, Clarksboro, NJ

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Cultural Folk Tours and received the following reply.

Thank you for sending us the letter from Norman and Carolynn Epstein and giving us a chance to respond to what we feel are some very unfair comments.

We were surprised at the Epsteins’ disapproval of the tour since they did not complain to me or my staff during the tour. We would have been gladly willing to help them if they had brought up any issues they were having during their trip.

Mr. and Mrs. Epstein criticize several of the hotels on the tour and state that one of the hotels was different than that on the itinerary. However, in the disclaimer included on the last page of the day-to-day itinerary that was sent to all the members of this tour, it specifies that it is not recommended to take this tour if American-style hotels and exact adherence to the written itinerary are expected. Most of our tour members understand and do not take issue with this.

Incidentally, prior to taking the tour, Mr. and Mrs. Epstein had not seen the free DVD; they requested it only after they had returned. The video was made in 2001 and covered only one tour, so things can and do change over time.

Mr. and Mrs. Epstein also state that they were disappointed that air-conditioning was turned off at night at most hotels. To save on energy, it is common in hotels in Europe and Asia (in contrast to American hotels) to turn off their air-conditioning at night when it is not required. Even though the Epsteins stated that this was “especially bad whenever the temperature was over 90 degrees,” we received no complaints from the other tour members.

In their letter, Mr. and Mrs. Epstein state that the food in Central Asia was “inedible,” which we feel is unfair. In Central Asia the food is generally not considered to be the finest, especially when compared with that of other countries such as Turkey and other parts of Europe. But the meals served on the tours have not changed in the last 10 years, and most travelers are satisfied with their meals because they understand that these areas are third-world countries that are struggling after separating from Russia.

Even though there is a variety of dishes served along with standard soups, salads and a number of hors d’oeuvres, all these meals supposedly looked the same, according to the Epsteins. In response to their comments that the “group rebelled and would not eat that meal,” this was not true.

In regard to beverages, their comments suggest that nonalcoholic drinks other than water should have been included with the meals. As listed in our brochure, no drinks aside from bottled water are officially included on the tour. Wines and vodka were served as bonus gifts for the group to share.

Tour members always had the option to purchase their own nonalcoholic beverages. If anyone had asked me or my staff for nonalcoholic beverages in place of wine or vodka, we would have happily arranged complimentary beverages for them as well. In fact, several times soda was also served as a treat.

The Epsteins also find fault with the buses and even the times of the flights. It is important to note that these third-world countries are only served by one airline, Turkish Airlines, which offers limited flight dates and hours, which sometimes means flights in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Since there is no other airline available, we often, unfortunately, cannot choose the flight times.

It’s disheartening to hear that the Epsteins were dissatisfied with their tour, because I make it my priority to try and give every tour member a great time.

BORA ÖZKÖK, Owner/Director, Cultural Folk Tours, 5631 Lincoln Ave., Ste. B, Cypress, CA 90630