Today involves a long trip out of the city. Our first stop, on the outskirts of Ashgabat, is the ancient Persian-era fortress of Nisa, a former capital of the Persian Parthian Empire, which controlled much of the region from Iraq to Pakistan 2,000 years ago. The ruins here were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007. We later head north in a 4WD convoy into the Karakum Desert, some four hours' drive (161mi/260km) away, to a massive burning gas crater in the middle of nowhere in the Darvaza region. In the 1970s, Soviet engineers looking for natural gas deposits came across this area. Attempting to assess the amount of gas present they set up a drill.
The drill collapsed, exposing a big crater and seeping methane gas into the air. The engineers decided to set the gas alight in the belief that it would burn off within a few weeks. More than 45 years later, it is still burning. We have dinner near the crater before returning to Ashgabat after dark, arriving back at the hotel after midnight. If you do not want to travel this distance to see the incredible burning crater at Darvaza, you can stay behind in Ashgabat. Stay: Hotel Ak Altyn (or similar) (B/D).
Leaving the Turkmen capital behind, we start our journey east along one of the old Silk Road routes. Our destination today is Mary, about five hours away (plus stops). A short distance outside Ashgabat, we make our first stop at the 15th-century Anau Mosque, on the edge of a Bronze Age site. From here, we continue to the remains of the Silk Road-era town of Abiverd. The settlement, which was abandoned for about three centuries, was once a vibrant and important centre.
The 12th-century city is about two hours (81mi/130km) from Ashgabat and makes for an interesting stop and an ideal opportunity to stretch our legs. As we continue, look out for camels and small, dusty desert towns. Eventually reaching Mary, we have a late afternoon/early evening city tour taking in the Central Bazaar, Juma Mosque and Russian Orthodox Church. Stay: Hotel Mary (or similar) (B).
The 2,000-year-old city of Bukhara has an old centre that evokes the many centuries of traders and travellers who've passed through here on their way between the Mediterranean and China. We spend the day exploring this fascinating city, including a visit to the historic Lyabi Khauz architectural complex, which has the oldest reflective pool in Central Asia.
It is surrounded by medieval buildings, including the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah and Khanaka, which has a façade of intricate mosaics. We also visit the Poi Kalyan Complex, home to the 157ft (48m) high Kalyan Minaret, which has come to symbolise the city; the Kalyan Mosque with 288 domes covering galleries below; Samanids Mausoleum; Ark Citadel; and Chor-Minor. Stay: Hotel Kavsar (or similar) (B).
The Fann Mountains are one of two great ranges in Tajikistan (along with the Pamirs) and have peaks towering up to 18,008ft (5,489m). Our destination is Iskanderkul Lake (named after Alexander the Great and is thought to be the final resting place of the conqueror's beloved horse, Bucephalus) situated at 7,218ft (2,200m). We travel through a beautiful valley; the drive takes about four to five hours (78mi/125km) ; please note, the road conditions deteriorate on the last 16mi (25km).
This afternoon, we explore the area around the lake, including visiting the biggest waterfall in Tajikistan, a 131ft (40m) cascade affectionately called Tajikistan Niagara. The glacial lake itself is often claimed to be the jewel of the Fann Mountains and one of the most beautiful in the former Soviet Union. Tonight, we stay in cottages with fantastic views overlooking Iskanderkul Lake. There are shared bathrooms and toilets (some indoor and some outdoor). Stay: Cottage (B/D).
Istravashan and Khujand Leaving the Fann Mountains behind, we head into the industrial and agricultural heartland around the city of Khujand (about four hours' drive). En route, we visit the town of Istravashan founded by the Persian king Kier in the sixth century, where we visit the old city, home to a bazaar and the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque and madrassah. While Khujand, today, is not the most attractive of cities it has a complex history.
Believed to be one of the oldest in Central Asia, it was attacked by Alexander the Great, Arab invaders and Genghis Khan, as well as being an important stop along the Silk Road. There are still traces of the glory days and we take in a tour of the sites, including the Sheikh Maslikhiddin Mausoleum, the Payshhambe bazaar and Urumkhodjaev family country estate, a copy of the Russian tsarist palace of Petergof. Stay: Khudjand Delux Hotel (or similar) (B).
We return to Uzbekistan via the border crossing at Andurkhan, where we say goodbye to our Tajik crew and re-join the Uzbeks. The total driving time to Ferghana town is about five hours from Khujand, but we make several stops along the way. The first of these is at Kokand, which was the capital of the 19th-century Kokand Khanate. We visit the Khudoyar-Khan Palace (1871) home to a museum, the Norbuta-Biy Madrassah and the Modarikhon Mausoleum. From here, we continue to the small village of Rishtan, home to potter dynasties and ceramics masters.
We visit a local ceramics studio and witness a demonstration of the craft before the opportunity to buy earthenware. Our final stop is at Marghilan, where we visit a silk factory and learn about the material that gave its name to the greatest trade route in history. Eventually, we arrive in Ferghana town where we spend the night. Stay: Hotel Club 777 (or similar) (B).
A short drive gets us to our next border crossing and country number four. After meeting our Kyrgyz leader, we head into nearby Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second city, and begin our exploration. The order of our stops is flexible, but we'll visit Osh Bazaar, the largest market in Central Asia; the sacred Sulayman Mountain, a holy Muslim site (and burial place of the prophet Sulayman (Solomon) ; and the central point on the Silk Road. The walk to the top of Sulayman Mountain is paved with some steps and can be tiring in the heat but the views over the city and valley below, small museum and 15th-century church are worth the effort.
This afternoon, we leave the city and head for Arslanbob Nature Reserve (about 3hr 30min to four hours' away including stops), arriving in the evening. The village of Arslanbob is in the mountains at around 5,250ft (1,600m) – though the top and bottom of the village vary considerably in altitude – and is surrounded by an ancient walnut forest believed to be the largest in the world. We spend the next two nights in a basic homestay with outside drop toilets and outside showers (normally with hot water). Stay: Homestay (B/D).
This morning, there's a chance for another walk to a nearby gorge before continuing our crossing of central Kyrgyzstan. In the late morning, we drive to the village of Kyzyl Oi (4hr 30min to five hours including lunch and rest/photo stops). Kyzyl Oi translates to Red Bowl, named for the red cliffs surrounding the village, and the red-brown mountains here are particularly attractive in the late afternoon and early morning sun. The village dates from before the Great October Soviet Socialist Revolution and has kept a distinctive Central Asian character.
While the valley opens out, the village is in a narrow gorge on the banks of the powerful Kekermeren River. Upon arrival, there is free time to explore the village and surrounding area or interact with the families in whose homestays we will spend the night. We will usually be spread across a few houses, but we all have dinner together in one of the houses. Stay: Homestay (B/D).
Leaving the gorges behind, we head towards the high pastures surrounding Son Kul Lake (9,895ft/3,016m above sea level). The journey takes approximately four hours, including some rough roads, and we arrive in time for lunch. The jewel in the Kyrygz crown for natural beauty, this is a land of nomadic shepherds tending their flocks. Today, yurt camps have multiplied around the lake, but the people who look after them still tend their flocks, while men on horseback care for cattle on the jailoo (high mountain pastures). We have the whole of the next day to take in the beauty of the landscape.
There is the option to go on a 2hr-2hr 30min walk to the nearby hills – the slopes are quite steep, and this may not be for everyone, but at the top are a few petroglyphs to admire. After lunch, we visit one of the Kyrgyz shepherd families close to camp to learn about their lifestyle and perhaps taste kumis (a natural drink made from fermented mare's milk) or similar. There is also the option to go horse-riding (optional extra). We experience the nomad life with a stay in a yurt camp. There are now Western-style toilets and a 'shower yurt' with proper showers and wash basins. There is hot water when the generator is running (usually morning and evening) but it is not wholly reliable. Stay: Yurt camp (B/L/D).