Start: Bishkek Finish: Ashgabat
Physical rating: Medium, Moderate
Special diets catered: Vegans, Vegetarians
Tour code: STA
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Group size: 4 - 16
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Traverse mountains pocketed with turquoise alpine lakes, drive through lush fertile valleys and zip across dry and dusty desert plains by high-speed train. This is an all-encompassing, ever-changing journey through the 5 'Stans of Central Asia.
Fann Mountains - Walk amongst wild mountain scenery and snap the picture-perfect 'Seven Lakes'
The Silk Road - Travel along ancient routes and discover the intricate architecture of Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand
Darvaza - Peer into the 'Door to Hell', the underground cavern that's been aflame since 1971
Accommodation: Hotel, B Bishkek
Meals: No Meals
Arrive in Bishek, a former Silk Road settlement. Kyrgyzstan's capital is a young city, starting life as a clay fort built by the Khan of Kokand in 1825 only to be destroyed by the Russians 43 years later. It was rebuilt in 1878 and it is from this time that Bishkek evolved.
For those arriving on time today our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 11:30am for the welcome meeting and to take us on a sightseeing tour of Bishkek by bus and on foot. We learn about the main monuments and buildings of the city, and take a leisurely walk through Oak Park.
If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Manas International Airport (FRU), which is 40 minutes' drive from the hotel. For those arriving on flights in the early hours of this morning, we'll arrange for your hotel room to be available immediately upon your arrival. For anyone arriving before today please contact us to book additional nights accommodation.
Please note that if you wish to join the Bishkek City Tour today, you must arrive at the hotel by 11:30am. If you are booking your own flights, we recommend giving yourself at least one hour to clear the airport. From the airport to the hotel is around 40 minutes' drive, so therefore the latest your flight can arrive is 9:30am. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information at 6:30pm this evening, or 8:45am the morning of day 2.
Accommodation: B Hotel Bishkek
We set off this morning for Osh Bazaar, Bishkek's bustling centrepiece and a popular meeting place for locals. The bazaar is extensive, and as we walk around we'll see everything from local wares, to freshly baked breads, fruit, nuts and meat. Here we'll buy all the ingredients for a picnic lunch, before making the short drive outside of the city to Ala Archa National Park. After a scenic lunch aside the river, we will set off on foot for a gentle walk through the fresh alpine scenery. Literally translated to 'brightly coloured juniper' the park's scenery is quite spectacular, with snow-capped mountains giving way to alpine forests with glacial rivers carving their way through the landscape. We will spend a few hours on foot exploring the national park before driving back to the capital.
Accommodation: Nomad Lodge
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner
Leaving Bishkek behind this morning, we first drive out to Burana Tower; a piece of Silk Road history that sits sequestered in the wide-open landscape. The 11th century tower is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun, with the tower itself half the height of its former glory. We continue on to Tokmok stadium, which plays host to the wealth of horse games that have remained hugely popular here throughout the centuries. We will witness a demonstration of Kok Boru, a form of polo played with the carcass of a goat, and Kyz-Kuumai which literally translates to ' 'girl chasing' . This game is like a horse-back version of the playground game 'kiss chase' where the men are charged with planting a kiss on the woman, whilst she is armed with a whip to beat the boys away.
After lunch we will continue onto Kochkor, a village that is now synonymous with artisan textiles and carpets. Kochkor's inhabitants have pledged to keep alive the traditions of this region, and before dinner we will visit a woman's cooperative who specialise in making Shiyrdak, a colourful hand-woven felt carpet that is ubiquitous throughout the homes and yurts of Central Asia.
Accommodation: Tamga Yurt Camp
This morning we will embark on a masterclass to learn how to make Boorsok, the national bread and one of the country's staple foods. The doughy mixture is deep-fried in large quantities before being spread across the 'dastorkan' or table, doubling as a table decoration. Cooking an abundance of Boorsok is seen as a sign of generosity on the part of the host, so seldom will you see a dinner table not chock-full with the tasty offerings.
After filling up on bread we will wind our away to the iconic Lake Issyk Kul, quite-rightly dubbed 'The Pearl of Kyrgyzstan'. We trace our way alongside its southern shores to the village of Kyzyl Tuu, one of the centres for yurt production. Here we learn more about how these fascinating structures work and why they have been the chosen dwellings for Central Asian nomads for centuries. Our final stop of today's journey is in Bokonbeavo where we meet an Eagle Hunter. Here we will see how this form of falconry has been practiced and perfected over centuries.
We arrive in Tosor, on the banks of Lake Issyk Kul in the late afternoon, where there will be time for swimming in the lake before dinner. Tonight's yurts will be twin-share with western style toilets and cold showers available.
Accommodation: Reina Kench Guesthouse
After a leisurely breakfast overlooking the shores of Issyk Kul, we drive onto Szaka or 'Fairytale Canyon' , so-called due to the bizarre landscape of captivating rock formations.
We then continue on to the mountain valley of Jety-Oguz, where we plan to take a short walk. The walk takes us over the picturesque Jety-Oguz Pass (2,800 m) before dropping down and along the valley below. The rock formation in this area is a deep-red sandstone that rises out of the green valley below, offering quite a different landscape from that which we have seen so far. From here we continue onto the town of Karakol, where we meet civilisation once again.
Embarking on a tour of the town we discover some of its most interesting sights, including the Dungan Mosque which was built in 1904 without using a single nail, and serving as a place of worship for the country's Chinese Muslims. The architecture is quite striking, foregoing minarets and opting instead for a wooden pagoda-style roof. We also see the Russian Orthodox Church that was constructed entirely of wood in 1869 and is still standing today. Finally we visit the museum of the Russian explorer Przkevalski, after whom the town was originally named. From here we make the short drive out of the city to the village of Tepke, where we spend the night in a farmer's guesthouse.
Accommodation: Kazzhol Hotel
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Bidding goodbye to our hosts this morning we set off for our next country, Kazakhstan. Our route takes us up into the tip of the eastern Tien Shen range when we cross the border at Kegen before descending down to the dry, dusty and hot Kazakh steppe. We stop at Charyn Canyon, often compared to the Grand Canyon albeit on a smaller scale. We visit a part of the canyon known as the 'Valley of Castles' due to its unusual rock formations, and from here we descend 100 metres from the rim down to the river where we have a picnic. It's possible to dip your feet in the river for those that feel in need of a cool-down.
After returning to the road we continue onto Almaty where we aim to arrive in the early evening.
Almaty ceded capital status to Astana in 1997, but it still remains the cultural and financial centre, where Russians, nomadic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tartars and many other ethnic groups rub shoulders in its bustling markets. The city has an almost European feel, partly due to the earthquake in 1911 that flattened Almaty resulting in the complete re-planning and re-building of the city. Wide, leafy boulevards were constructed and lined with low-rise white-washed housing and offices, and the few period buildings that remained intact were restored to their former glory. The city enjoys an enviable position, nestled in the foothills of the Zailiysky Alatau mountains, with beautiful turquoise lakes, snow-capped mountains and chic ski resorts just a short drive away.
Today we set out to explore some of the Almaty's major sites, starting in the Park of 28 Guards. The park is diverse, serving as popular meeting place for locals as well as housing a variety of important monuments and buildings. The park's focal point is the Ascension Cathedral, a beautiful Russian Orthodox style cathedral and one of only two wooden buildings left in the city. Also found in the park are imposing Soviet statues remembering falling soldiers from campaigns such as WW2 and the Afghan War, where many Kazakh nationals fought to support the USSR's interests.
We then move onto Green Market, a fascinating meeting place for the city's locals to come for their daily shop. The market offers an eclectic range of produce brought by nomads as far flung as Korea, all the way through China and Central Asia. Here you can find exotic fruits, vegetables, an extensive butchery section with all types of meat and a wide variety of savoury foods. Make sure to try Kazzan (smoked horse sausage) and Kurt (salted cheese balls popular with beer).
The rest of the afternoon has been left free to relax, or further exploration. You could take a taxi up to the Medeo ice rink, then travel by cable car to the top of the Shymbulak skiing area for superb views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Accommodation: Hotel Atlas
This morning we take the short flight of around two hours to Dushanbe, Tajikistan's enigmatic capital. The capital of Tajikistan shares little history with many of its great Silk Road counterparts, with most evidence pointing to the fact Dushanbe was a small village until the turn of the 20th century. The city gained prominence when Tajikistan became part of the USSR, with the Soviets establishing the city as a centre for textile production. It was then that the city began to grow, and more recently it has reached the end of a 10 year intensive building programme bringing the city into the 21st century.
This afternoon we will explore some of the city's main highlights, starting the tour at the National Archaeological Museum of Tajikistan. Here we find its famous Buddha statue and rich collection of archaeological artefacts along with collections of fine art. We continue onto the statue of Ismail Samani, the large monument that commemorates the 1,100th anniversary of the Samanid State, which by many is considered to have been the heyday of the Tajik nation when science and arts flourished. From there we walk up to Rudaki Park, dedicated to the great Persian poet Rudaki, who also lived during Samanid time in the 9th century AD.
We end the day with dinner in a local restaurant serving traditional Tajik cuisine. A typical meal in Tajikistan would include vegetable salad starters, followed by a hearty soup similar to the Russian borsch, and a main consists of a meat dish like shashlik or chicken served alongside freshly baked bread.
Today is a more relaxed day with some time for further exploration of the city. We will visit the strikingly beautiful Navruz Palace, Dushanbe's gleaming centrepiece. Hundreds of skilled artisans were appointed to work on the building, with it initially being planned to be built as the largest tea house in the world. But when its interior frescoes and mosaic walls turned out to be so impressive, it was instead turned into a palace. We will also pay visit to the Museum of Musical Instruments, which, in stark contrast to the palace, is hosted in the front room of a local house! Ran by passionate local Iqbol Zavkibekov, the museum is packed with a rich collection of Pamiri, Tajik and Central Asian musical instruments. Here Iqbol carries on the legacy of his father, a famous Tajik musician, by demonstrating how these traditional instruments are deeply ingrained into the nomadic culture of Central Asia.
This afternoon has been left free to relax, or perhaps to take a walk through the city's central market to try and barter for fruit, clothes or textiles.
Accommodation: Hotel Umarion
We set off early this morning for a scenic drive into the mountains. Our first destination is Iskander Kul, so-named after Alexander the Great. Triangular in shape, it is often considered to be the most beautiful lake in all of the former USSR. Standing at an altitude of 2,200 metres, this alpine lake is nestled in the heart of the Fann Mountains and set to a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. We stop on the shores of the lake for a picnic, and there is the chance for a bracing dip before lunch. We take a short walk to a nearby waterfall before continuing the drive to Penjikent, aiming to arrive in the early evening.
The accommodation for the next two nights is a simple but comfortable hotel with twin rooms and en-suite bathrooms.
We set off for a full day in the mountains today, exploring the region of the 'Seven Lakes'. Legend has it that the lakes were formed from the tears of seven daughters after the loss of their father. The father got lost in the valley and after several days of looking it was clear the weren't going to find him. The upset and anguish caused their tears filled up the valleys right where they were looking. What is for sure is that each of the glacial lakes takes on its own form, with their names thought to reflect their individual shapes. Some are set deep in valleys, others wide and on an open plain. Sometimes the appearance of even the same lake can change as the light and cloud cover transforms throughout the day, with the colours changing from blue, to turquoise, to green and black.
We have a picnic lunch besides the fourth lake 'Nofin', before driving further up the valley to the sixth lake 'Marguzor'. It is from here we embark on an hour-long hike up to the seventh and highest lake, Hazorchashma. It's worth the walk, but for those not wishing to make the two-hour round trip can relax on the shores of the sixth lake.
Later in the afternoon we return by bus back to Penjikent.
Accommodation: Hotel Malika Classic
Leaving Penjikent behind this morning, we head west and make for the border and our forth country, Uzbekistan. Before crossing we stop off at the UNESCO site of Sarazm, dating back to the 4th century BC and bearing evidence of one of the first settlements in Tajikistan, possibly even Central Asia. Continuing onto the border, we cross on foot before picking up our Uzbek bus and making the short drive onto the much-fabled city of Samarkand.
Stormed by Alexander the Great and reduced to ashes by Genghis Khan, Samarkand was nevertheless transformed into the most glittering city in Transoxiana by Tamerlane, who made it his capital in the 14th century. Even today, the monumental scale of the buildings overwhelms visitors. This afternoon, we will visit Registan Square, Samarkand's turquoise mosaic masterpiece. Registan's sweeping public square is flanked on three sides by huge intricately-tiled madrasahs. Meticulously restored during Soviet times, it now echos its former glory, and we will spend time taking in the scale of the monument, as well as learning about its role over the six centuries it has been standing. We will also visit the Gur Emir, the gold-ceilinged tomb of Tamerlane himself, revered as somewhat of a national icon in Uzbekistan.
This evening we will embark on a very different kind of experience, when we are treated to a private fashion show at the workshop of designer Valentina Romanenko. A Moscow-trained designer, Romanenko has transformed her traditional Uzbek home into a workshop and catwalk display area. In this cosy setting, decorated with a selection of locally-made carpets and wall hangings, a number of models will showcase her traditionally made, hand-woven designs.
Accommodation: Hotel Sasha & Son
This morning's sightseeing is accompanied by a local guide and takes us to the Shah-i-Zinda - a beautifully-tiled necropolis of tombs, mosques and mausoleums belonging to Tamerlane's family, friends and the prophet Mohammad's cousin. We will also visit the Ulug-Beg Observatory, considered to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic World. It was here that Ulug-Beg, the great medieval astronomer, built his gigantic sextant which enabled him to calculate the length of a year to within just 10 seconds. We see the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, once the largest in Central Asia; which was built by Tamerlane with loot from Indian campaigns and named after his favourite Mongolian wife.
After dinner this evening we will head to the train station to take the high-speed train to Bokhara, a comfortable journey of just two hours travelling at over 250 kph.
Bokhara was a key trading post on the Silk Road. This UNESCO-listed city has many zig-zagged backstreets, bustling bazaars and historical monuments. Many call it „ Bukhoroi Shareef„ , translating to Holy Bukhara on account of its hundreds of mosques and mausoleums. The city has seen various dynasties battling for influence as it has always stood as a centre of trade, culture, and scholarship.
Today's day of sightseeing starts off with a walking tour. Highlights include the Lyab-i Hauz which once supplied the city's water; the striking blue-tiled Abdul Khan madrasah and the 9th century Mghoki Arrar Mosque. We will also visit the Kalyan minaret, which, as the tallest monument in town, is known as the 'Tower of Death' because prisoners were once hurled to their death from here. In addition, we will take in the trading domes that are the most famous symbol of Bokharan architecture.
This afternoon, we will drive to The Ark - a massive citadel which was used as a fortress from the 5th century until its fall to the Russians in 1920. Today it houses several small museums connected with Bokhara's history. Bokhara was the site of the imprisonment for two British soldiers during 'The Great Game' - an epic battle fought between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia across the vastness of Central Asia.
Finally, we will take in the Char Minar Mosque - the impressive entrance to a now-demolished madrassah, and wander the backstreets of the old town maybe stopping off for a 'chaikhana', at a local tea house.
Accommodation: Orient Star Khiva
This morning has been left free for those who wish to explore the city further. There is the option to visit one of the city's hammams, or a short drive outside the city limits is the the summer palace, known as the 'Palace of Moon-like Stars'.
This afternoon we make our way to the train station for our second high-speed rail journey to Khiva. Completed only last year, Uzbekistan's state-of-the art rail network has cut the journey time in half, with the journey previously taking between 8-9 hours across dry and dusty desert plains.
On this morning's walking tour, we may well feel like we are stepping into a scene from the film 'Arabian Nights' as we explore the majestic Old Citadel. This 12th century fortress dominated the city before a palace, harem, barracks and mosques were constructed. It is worth climbing the steps of the Dzhuma Minaret for a panoramic view of the maze of streets below.
The rest of the afternoon has been left free to explore the mosques, tombs and palaces of this well-preserved city, which has hardly changed since ancient times. This evening, you may choose to explore a bit more of the city after dark, when magical moonlit silhouettes make it even more spectacular.
Accommodation: Hotel Jipek Joli
We leave the well-sealed roads behind this morning on the bumpy drive to Nukus, a journey of around four hours. Nukus is the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, which makes up much of north-west Uzbekistan. A once-thriving region, the Aral Sea distaster in the 1960's/70's devastated this rich delta, leaving it all but dried up when the sea receded far to the north. Eventually, by the end of the 1980's the Aral Sea shrank to just 10% of its original size. Consequently, present-day Nukus has been half-deserted, creating an atmosphere that some describe as like being at the very edge of the world. Hidden in this forgotten city is what is widely regarded as one of the best collections of Soviet art, housed in the Savitsky Museum. After lunch we spend some time appreciating the world's second-largest collection of Russian avant'garde art, which Mr Savitsky helped to keep hidden here, away from the far-reaching eyes of the KGB.
This evening we will dine in the house of a local family of musicians, where we learn what modern life is like in this remote outpost, and how music forms a large part of the culture here.
Accommodation: Darvaza Camp
We set off for the border this morning to cross into our fifth and final Stan - Turkmenistan. The border crossing into Turkmenistan can sometimes be a lengthy affair, so be prepared for a 1-2 hour wait and a thorough search of all bags. It is here we will wave goodbye to our Tour Leader at the Uzbek border, before making our way by bus across no-man's land to be greeted by a local Turkmen leader for the final few days of our trip. We will then make the short drive to Kunya Urgench for lunch and to visit the mausoleums, mosques and minarets that are found here in the former capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
From here we continue on into the Karakum desert for a four hour drive to the incredible Darvaza Crater. There are many stories that surround the so-called 'Door to Hell', the one that most people settle on was that the site was identified by Soviet engineers in the early 1970's as an oil site. Drilling commenced before they hit a gas pocket which caused the collapse of the rig into the crater we see today. Dangerous amounts of toxic gas began to be released, so it was decided to try and burn the gas off by settling it alight. It remains alight today, nearly 50 years later.
After a very apt barbecue dinner, we will have plenty of time to take in Darvaza's deep reds, oranges and crimsons as it burns brightly against the backdrop of the inky-black sky.
We camp tonight aside the crater in two-man tents. The set up is very simple, with temporary toilets and no access to showers. All mats and bedding will be provided.
Accommodation: Grand Turkmen Hotel
Continuing south this morning, we stop via the Erbent Desert community. The most remote part, of the one of the world's most remote countries is an odd place to find a village, but this small, hardy community thrives here against all the odds. We spend some time wandering among the small village's houses and yurts, and learning how the villagers here have adapted to such an extreme environment.
We continue onto Ashgabat, arriving in time for lunch.
The capital of Turkmenistan was a once-prosperous frontier town along the Trans-Caspian railway that was completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1948. It rose from its ashes and rubble and become the capital of an independent Turkmenistan in 1991. The city then became the personal project of President Niyazov, who set about forming it in his own unique image, renaming the streets and changing the face of the city on an almost daily basis as he approved the destruction of its suburbs to make way for a number of controversial planning projects. In the afternoon we have an opportunity to explore the city on a tour that will take in some of the highlights of both the Soviet and Niyazov reigns. We visit Independence Park where we will see the Independence Monument, a large structure designed to resemble traditional Turkmen hats. We will also pay a visit to the Turkmenistan National Museum of History, a rich cache of some 150,000 objects and artefacts that date back to Neolithic times and the Bronze Age era of the Margiana civilisation.
This morning we drive out to the outskirts of the city to the once-mighty fortress of Nisa. Founded in the 3rd century BC as the capital of the 1st Parthian Empire, its walls and towers (43 in total) protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century. We then continue on to the impressive Gypjak Mosque, or spiritual mosque. The largest mosque in Central Asia, it was constructed in 2002 for a reported sum of $100 million, and mirrors the style of much of city with it's opulent white marble walls and golden domes. After some time for exploration, we return back to the city, where the rest of this afternoon has been left free.
Most return flights from Ashgabat leave in the early hours of the next morning, so a late-checkout has been arranged so the room is available until we leave for the airport.
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Ashgabat.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Ashgabat at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to depart from Ashgabat International Airport (ASB), which is 40 minutes\ from the hotel.
Breakfasts:20 Lunches:3 Dinners:5
1 nights simple camping
1 nights simple guesthouse
16 nights comfortable hotel
1 nights simple hotel
1 nights simple yurt
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1 nights simple camping
1 nights simple guesthouse
16 nights comfortable hotel
1 nights simple hotel
1 nights simple yurt
No, all bedding is provided.
It will depend on the grade and how fit you already are. Check the trip page for details of the walking or cycling grade and how far you’ll be walking/cycling each day. For moderate or challenging trips in particular we’d recommend doing some walks or cycles before you leave to build up your fitness and prepare you for the distances being covered.
We have a wide range of ages nationalities on our small group trips and they come from all walks of life.
Yes–it is a condition of booking that you are fully insured when travelling with us
At Explore, we're the experts in adventure travel. Our small group adventure holidays have been running since 1981. Today, Explore is one of the most trusted travel companies in the UK with over 500 trips to more than 120 countries.
Yes, but there are no concessions for doing so, and we must have a record in your booking advising as such before the trip departs.
Being a responsible company is a large statement, something that has to be entwined within the very fibre of a company. Discover the charities and partnerships we support as part of this at https://www.explore.co.uk/about/sustainability/charities-and-partners
We want to be as clear as and as honest as possible about what happens if you decide to that you no longer wish to travel on your trip. Our booking conditions have details of the costs you’ll incur when you cancel-these charges depend on how long it is before your planned departure.
We choose comfortable accommodation in the best locations possible. We opt for small, local and family-run accommodation where we can, as opposed to large chain hotels. We typically use hotels that are the equivalent of European 3-star, and you’ll usually have an en suite room. Occasionally, where we want to get off the beaten trail we may stay in more basic accommodation.
Sustainability is embedded within the fibre of Explore, it emanates from the inside out. But as we enter a new decade it is clearer than ever that our world needs help, and Explore has created a sustainability strategy based on the 2015 UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Our flexible booking and safety policies mean you're protected before and during your travels with us. Receive a full refund if your trip is cancelled, transfer your trip free of charge up to 10 days before departure minus any irrocoverable costs.
All our trips require some level of active participation. This could be on a cultural trip, trek, safari, expedition or voyage. It is in the interests of all members of the group that everyone should be capable of fully participating in the activities of their chosen trip.
Final documents will include a comprehensive trip itinerary, climate and country information, budgeting and packing advice visa and passport information and details on optional activities available.
Yes on most of our trips.
Most trips are based on customers sharing twin-bedded rooms. If you book a group trip as an individual, you will share a room with someone of the same sex. However, on many trips we offer the opportunity to pay a supplement to pre-book a single room, known as our single room option. On some trips a single room will be provided every night, on others it will be provided o
Explore will only offer hotels that have specific COVID-19 protocols in place and comply with local government guidelines. We will ensure these measures include; enhanced room cleaning, ventilation, social distancing, regular cleaning and disinfection of high frequency touch points in public areas, food safety, staff re-training and minimising contact within the properties.
Good reasons for travelling privately
Make changes to the itinerary, accommodation, or transport method
Spend the majority of time amongst your group to reduce exposure to others
Your tour guide can focus all their attention on your group
Celebrate an important event by only travelling with your friends or family
Multiple Room Types
Multiple room types available. Choose your preferred room type when you book.