BEN Groundwater discovers that a tour all by yourself offers unique experiences not possible as part of a group.

Shafkat grins, his gold teeth flashing, his face a picture of genuine joy. “To your career,” he says, raising a glass of vodka and then putting it to his lips and draining it in one go. I take a deep breath and do the same.

The vodka is local stuff, made here in Uzbekistan, an entire bottle of which has been placed on our dining table in the same way water would be in other cultures. The food in front of us is distinctly local too, cooked by women from this village just a few minutes earlier. The setting is the basement of a small house, our home for the evening, a drab den with concrete floors and frilly tablecloths.

Shafkat is my drinking buddy, and my private driver. The two of us have been together since my tour began in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road hub, the thriving modern-day metropolis that’s now about a day’s drive from the village we’re currently relaxing in. Shafkat’s English isn’t perfect, but his smile is universal, and his entreaties for me to partake in this Uzbek ritual just can’t be turned down.

“To your family,” I say to Shafkat, following the Russian-style custom of making a toast before every drink. We raise our glasses, tip them back.

This is really Shafkat’s time to shine. Up until now he’s been the silent guy up the front of the car, steering us through Samarkand’s bustling traffic, parking and waiting while I’ve visited mosques and museums and other sights with the help of a professional, English-speaking guide called Ruslan.

©Wendy Wu Tours

You feel like you’re getting the royal treatment in a situation like that, being ferried around in a private car, being shown the sights in a party of one. There’s no tour leader here carrying a flag on a stick and speaking into a microphone: it was just me, Shafkat and Ruslan. We toured the city together, we took tea breaks together, we ate meals together, just the two or three of us at local restaurants.

This is a tour, but not as I know it. It has the itinerary of a tour, but with no other passengers. It’s organised through Wendy Wu Tours. My accommodation is booked, my transfers included, many of my meals are provided and I have the services of a guide and driver at my disposal. What I don’t have is any fellow passengers to deal with: no one turning up late, no one complaining, no one wanting to change the itinerary. Just me, Ruslan and Shakfat.

It frees us up to do things we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. A few nights ago, rather than dine at a local restaurant, I had dinner at Ruslan’s house in Samarkand. This was his family abode, a classic old home in the suburbs of an ancient and fascinating city.

It was a strange evening in some respects, a clash of cultures that I’m not sure I properly understood.

The two of us ate dinner together in an ornate dining room at a huge long table filled with delicious Uzbek food, far too much for the pair of us to ever finish. We drank Pepsi from big two-litre bottles. We ate sweets and finished with tea. Then we went downstairs and I saw the rest of Ruslan’s family — mother, father, brothers, sisters — sitting in the kitchen, all sharing their own, far more modest meal.

Shafkat on a roadside break, ©Ben Groundwater

The private tour allowed us to visit far more of the tourist sites as well, unencumbered by people who show up late or want to stay in certain places longer. Ruslan and I were given special access to climb one of the minarets at Registan, Samarkand’s spectacular main square, ascending endless stairs that wound up through the narrow tower, to eventually enjoy a stunning view over the city from a pedestal that’s only big enough for two.

And we were able to visit a place like this, Ukhum, a village of about 100 people set high up in the mountains in the north of Uzbekistan. They don’t get tour groups up here. They don’t get much of anyone, in fact.

After bidding goodbye to Ruslan in Samarkand, it took some white-knuckle driving over high mountain passes for Shakfat and I to get here. We’re doing a homestay in the village, bunking down with an ethnic Tajik family, enjoying their hospitality while experiencing their way of life.

We went for a walk with the local farmers earlier, watching as birds of prey circled high above, listening as the area’s big-horned sheep bleated from all points of the rocky terrain. We watched, too, as the local women made plov, the classic Uzbek rice pilaf, cooking over fire the traditional way.

And now Shafkat and I are sharing another local tradition, the drinking of vodka over a good meal. “To your good time in my home,” says Shafkat, raising his glass once again.

Now that, I will drink to.

©Wendy Wu Tours

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