The adventure begins in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. As per Turkmen law, we arrange arrival transfers for all customers. See the Joining Instructions in the Trip Notes for more details. There are no arranged activities today, so you may wish to relax after your flight, there are plenty of adventures to come. Stay: Hotel Sport (or similar).
Ashgabat holds the record for the most white-marble buildings in the world. In the post-Soviet era, successive Turkmen leaders built these impressive buildings as a show of the country's strength and they make for a surreal experience. Ashgabat has been described as Pyongyang meets Las Vegas, and you can see why. Around midday, following an initial briefing, we have an introductory tour of Ashgabat including a one hour visit to the National Museum. Mid afternoon, we head north in a 4WD convoy into the Karakum Desert, some 4. 5 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 and stay overnight in yurts very nearby. Seeing the burning crater by night is a unforgettable experience. Stay: Yurt camp (B/D).
After breakfast, we head back to Ashgabat and then to Nisa, an ancient Persian-era fortress, the 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. Back in Ashgabat, we visit the Russian Bazaar, Ertogrul Ghazi mosque, Independence Park, the Neutrality Arch and Turkmenbashi mosque-mausoleum. Stay: Hotel Sport (or similar) (B).
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).
Possibly the largest city in the world in its heyday, Merv was destroyed by Genghis Khan's armies in 1221. It is estimated 700,000 people lost their lives and the city never recovered. Today, this Unesco-badged attraction is the most important historical site in Turkmenistan and we take time to visit before continuing to the border about 5hr 30min (152mi/245km) away, where we say goodbye to our Turkmen leader. We hope to arrive at the border around 4pm; the crossing into Uzbekistan can take about 1hr 30min. We meet our Uzbek leader on the other side and drive for approximately two hours (62mi/100km) to Bukhara, one of the great Silk Road cities. Stay: Hotel Kavsar (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).
This morning, we uncover more Bukhara history and culture as we explore the Sitorai-Mohl-Hosa Palace, the summer palace of the Bukhara emirs. After lunch, we have a four to five hours' drive (186mi/300km) to the other great Silk Road city, Samarkand. We break up the journey with a short stop at Rabat-i-Malik (a caravanserai ruin) and lunch in Navoi. Stay: Kavsar Dilshoda/Malika Prime (or similar) (B).
Possibly the most famous of the Silk Road cities, Samarkand has blue-tiled buildings that dazzle in the bright sun. It is also home to one of the world's great squares – Registan Square, surrounded on three sides by the madrassahs of Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori. It is said the square and madrassah influenced other sites, including the great square in Isfahan, Iran, and the Taj Mahal in India.
The city was the capital of the great Tamerlane and we spend the day visiting a number of Tamerlane-era sites, including the Gur-Emir Mausoleum, Ulugh Beg's observatory, the huge cathedral-mosque Bibi Khanum, and the impressive Necropolis. Stay: Hotel Dilshoda / Malika Prime (or similar) (B).
We start early for the long day ahead, combining driving with sightseeing. The day starts with a three-hour transfer to the town of Shakhrisabz. The city of Timurin (from the reign of Tamerlane) has several historic monuments, including the ruins of the Ak Saray Palace, the Doruttilyavat Ensemble, the Kok Gumbaz Mosque and others mostly dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Sadly, the historic centre is on the Unesco list of World Heritage in Danger. After exploring the Shakhrisabz sites, we continue south heading towards Boysun arriving in the late afternoon or evening. Stay: Baysun Grand Hotel (or similar) (B).
The district of Boysun holds Unesco World Heritage status for its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is an isolated area with traditions and customs that date back centuries. We'll visit the local bazaar and artisan centre where we can see weavers of the Janda fabric which is made in this area. We'll see embroidery and skull cap making.
We can also take a short walk in Kyzyl Canyon and visit Omonkhon spring, known for its healing properties. We drive 6 mi (100km) onwards to Denau, then a further 30mi (50km) Sangardak waterfall, Uzbekistan's tallest. The falls are 150 metres in length and it is possible to walk in the area. We return to Denau for the night. Stay: Gulistan Grand Hotel (or similar) (B).
It's another early start to head to Tajikistan, country number three.
Upon arrival at the Saryosiyo border, we bid farewell to our Uzbek leader and upon crossing are greeted by our Tajik leader. The drive from Denau to Dushanbe is 68mi (110km) on a good road and we stop for lunch en route. The origins of Dushanbe probably stretch back 3,000 years, though the city grew under Soviet rule as the capital for the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of the Uzbek USSR.
Upon arrival in the Tajik capital, we have a city tour taking in Independence Square, the Samany Monument (dedicated to the founder of the Tajik Government), Rudaki Ave, and a historical museum. Stay: The Rumi Hotel & Residences (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, if time Urumkhodjaev family country estate, a copy of the Russian tsarist palace of Peterhof. 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. We visit 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).
After a few busy days, today is for relaxing in Arslanbob. Around mid-morning, we go for a walk and picnic lunch in the surrounding countryside. The walk takes around four hours (including lunch and stops) and requires walking shoes/boots. The pace is leisurely but if anyone prefers not to join, you are free to opt out. Stay: Homestay (B/L/D).
Our journey today takes us through the central Tien Shan mountains as we drive through picturesque canyons and gorges and around Toktogul Reservoir. The drive takes approximately eight to nine hours (217mi/350km) including lunch and rest/photo stops. Eventually, we reach Chychkan Gorge, home to fir and juniper trees. We spend the night in a simple guesthouse with en suite rooms on the banks of a rushing river. Stay: Oson Guest House (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).
Leaving the high mountains that characterise Kyrgyzstan behind, we head to the capital city, Bishkek (about seven hours' drive), stopping for lunch en route. The former Soviet city is undergoing a transformation with cafes and trendy bars opening.
Upon arrival, we have a short tour of the sites around the main square, Alatoo Square. We visit the Museum of History and have time for souvenir shopping or relaxing (if the Museum of History is closed for renovation or any other reason, we may substitute it for the Fine Arts Museum). Stay: B Hotel (or similar) (B).
Four to five hours from the Kyrgyz capital city (depending on border crossing times) is Almaty, the former Kazakh capital and the biggest city in the fifth country on our trip. We spend the morning driving to what is considered the most European city in Central Asia and set off on a city tour after lunch. We take in Panfilovs Park, home to the Piously-Voznesenskiy Orthodox Cathedral (1907), which was built without any nails; a memorial to victims of the Second World War and the Republic Square. Stay: Hotel Kazzhol Almaty (or similar) (B).
Our adventure comes to an end in Almaty after breakfast. If you're continuing to the Astana extension, you will be taken to the airport in time for the internal flight to the Kazakh capital. Alternatively, begin your return journey home (B).