Arrive at Ashgabat at any time. The group flights usually arrive very late at night (i.e. around 2am on day 2). Please note that it is obligatory by Turkmen law for tourists to have an arrival transfer arranged by the inviting party (as per your LOI/visa) from Ashgabat airport. For anyone not joining the group transfer, Exodus offers free arrival transfers for any flight, provided you have supplied your flight details in advance - please see the 'joining' section of the Trip Notes for more information.
Hotel Ak Altyn or similar
Ashgabat holds the world record for the most white marble buildings in the world. In the post-Soviet era successive Turkmen leaders have invested in these impressive buildings as a show of the country’s strength and grandeur and can make for quite a surreal experience. Ashgabat has been described as Pyongyang meets Las Vegas and you can see why. Following an initial briefing, we visit some of the city’s greatest monuments, buildings and fountains including Ertogrul Gazy Mosque, Independence Park, the Neutrality Arch and the National Museum. Hotel Ak Altyn or similar
Nisa and Darvaza
Today is a long day 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 2000 years ago, the ruins of Nisa were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
We later head north in jeep convoy into the Karakum Desert some 260kms (4 hours drive) away to one of the world’s more unusual sites, 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. Over 45 years later the crater is still burning. The sight of a big burning crater in the middle of the desert after the sun goes down is quite an experience and likely to be unlike anything else you’ve come across.
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 it is possible to stay behind in Ashgabat.
Hotel Ak Altyn or similar
Leaving the Turkmen capital behind we start our journey east along one of the Silk Road routes of old. Our destination today is Mary, about 5hrs away (plus stops). A short distance outside Ashgabat we make our first stop at the 15th century Anau Mosque which is located 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 completely abandoned for about three centuries, was once a vibrant and important centre. The 12th century city is about 130kms, two hours, from Ashgabat and makes for an interesting stop and an ideal opportunity to stretch our legs. As we continue on the way to Mary 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. Hotel Mary or similar
Merv and to Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Possibly the largest city in the world in its heyday, Merv was razed to the ground by Genghis Khan and his Mongolian hordes in 1221. It is believed 700,000 people lost their lives when the city was destroyed - It never recovered.
Today, this UNESCO site is Turkmenistan’s most important historical site and we take the time to visit it before continuing to the border about 5.5hrs (245kms) away where we say goodbye to our Turkmen leader. We hope to arrive at the border around 4pm and then crossing the border from Turkmenistan into Uzbekistan can take about 1.5hrs. We meet our Uzbek leader on the other side and drive for approximately another 2 hours (100kms) to one of the great Silk Road cities, Bukhara.
Hotel Kavsar or Similar
2000 year old Bukhara has an old centre which 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 Silk Road city including at its heart the historic Lyabi Khauz architectural complex with the oldest reflective pool in Central Asia. It is surrounded by medieval buildings including the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah and Khanaka with a façade of intricate mosaics. We also visit the Poi Kalyan Complex which includes the 48m high Kalyan Minaret which has come to symbolise the city, the Kalyan Mosque with 288 domes covering galleries below, Samanids Mausoleum, the Ark Citadel and Chor-Minor.
Hotel Kavsar or similar
Bukhara to Samarkand
This morning we uncover more of Bukhara’s fascinating history and culture as we explore the Sitorai-Mohl-Hosa Palace, Bukhara’s Emirs’ Summer Palace. After lunch we have a 4-5hrs (300kms) drive 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.
Kavsar Dilshoda / Malika Prime or similiar
Full day sightseeing in Samarkand
Possibly the most famous of the Silk Road cities, Samarkand's blue tiled buildings dazzle in the bright sun. Most impressive is 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 that the square and its madrassah influenced other sites from the great square in Iran's Isfahan to 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, as well as the impressive Necropolis.
Hotel Dilshoda / Malika Prime or similar
Shakhrisabz and Termez.
We start early for the long day ahead, combining driving (approx. 8 hours) with sightseeing.
The day starts with a 3hr transfer to the town of Shakhrisabz. Timurin (from the reign of Tamerlane) city boasts a number of important historic monuments including the ruins of the Ak Saray Palace, the Doruttilyavat Ensemble, the Kok Gumbaz Mosque and others mostly dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Sadly, the city’s historic centre is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage in Danger.
After exploring Shakhrisabz’s sites we continue south heading towards the Silk Road city of Termez, about 5hrs away. We arrive at Termez in the evening.
Hotel Meredian Termez or similar
Termez city tour.
The region around Termez is unusual for the Stans in that it is home to Buddhist ancestry and relics as well as some more traditional Silk Road sites and interesting museums. We spend the day exploring this city often overlooked by visitors (due to its remote location) including the 1st century Fayaz-tepe Buddhism Complex and the 9th and 10th century Samanid Sultan Saodat Mausoleum. Out of town (about 40kms) is the oldest site in Uzbekistan, dating back to the 4th century BC: Kampyr-Tepe. We visit the ruins of this ancient settlement before returning to Termez in order to visit the historical museum.
Hotel Meredian Termez or similar
Cross into Tajikistan; on to Dushanbe.
Another early start to head to country number three, Tajikistan. On the way we hope to visit the village of Jarkurgan, famed for its mediaeval minaret. 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 Termez to Dushanbe is 205km on a good road and takes about 5 or 6 hours (depending on border crossing time) and we will stop for lunch en route.
Dushanbe's origins 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.
Hilton Dushanbe or similar
Into the Fann Mountains and Iskanderkul Lake.
The Fann Mountains are one of two of Tajikistan's great ranges (along with the Pamirs) and have peaks towering up to 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 2,200m. The scenery is stunning as we travel through a beautiful vallley; the drive takes about 4-5hrs/125km - please note that for the last 25km os so the road conditions deteriorate.
This afternoon we explore the area around the lake including visiting Tajikistan’s biggest waterfall, affectionately called ‘Tajikistan Niagara’ and is 40m high. 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 spend the night in a cottages with fantastic views overlooking Isanderkul Lake. There are shared bathrooms and toilets (some indoor and some outdoor).
Istravashan and Khujand
Leaving the Fann Mountains behind we make our way into Tajikistan's industrial and agricultural heartland around the city of Khujand (about 4hrs drive). En route we visit the town of Istravashan founded by the Persian king Kier in the 6th century, where we visit the old city with its bazaar and the Kok-Gumbaz mosque and madrassah.
Whilst 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, over the centuries, attacked by successive armies of Alexander the Great, Arab invaders and the marauding hordes of Genghis Khan as well as being an important stop along the Silk Road. There are still traces of the city’s 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.
Khudjand Delux Hotel or similar
Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan
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 5hrs from Khujand but we make a number of 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 on to the small village of Rishtan which is famous for potter dynasties and ceramics masters. We visit a local ceramics studio and witness a demonstration of the craft before having the opportunity to buy some of the iconic earthenware.
Our final stop is at Marghilan where we visit a local silk factory and learn about the material which has given its name to the greatest trade route in history.
Eventually we arrive in Ferghana town where we spend the night.
Hotel Club 777 or similar
To Osh and Arslan Bob in Kyrgyzstan
A short drive gets us to our next border crossing and country number 4. After meeting our Kyrgyz leader we head into nearby Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city and begin our exploration. The order in which we visit places is flexible but we'll visit Osh Bazaar (Central Asia’s largest market), as well as 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.
Later, this afternoon, we leave the city behind and head for Arslanbob Nature Reserve (about 3.5-4hrs away including stops), arriving in the evening. The village of Arslanbob is located in the mountains at around 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).
Full day in Arslan Bob
After quite a few days of moving on every day and covering a lot of ground, today is for relaxing in the picturesque village of Arslan Bob surorunded by walnut forests. We take it easy and at around mid-morning we will go for a walk and picnic lunch in the surrounding countryside. The walk takes around 4 hours (including lunch and stops) and requires walking shoes/boots. The pace is leisurely but if anyone prefers not to walk, you are free to opt out.
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 8-9 hours to cover the 350km (including lunch and rest/photo stops). Eventually we reach Chychkan Gorge with its fir and juniper trees. Here we spend the night in a simple guest house with en suite rooms on the banks of a rushing river.
Oson Guest House
Kyzyl Oi Village
This morning there's a chance to go for another short walk to a nearby gorge before continuing our crossing of Central Kyrgyzstan. In the late morning, we set off on the drive to the village of Kyzyl Oi (4.5/5 hours including lunch and rest/photo stops), which translates as ‘Red Bowl’ and is so named because of the red cliffs surrounding the village like a bowl and who’s clay is used to construct its buildings. The mountains here are hues of red and brown and particularly attractive in the late afternoon and early morning sun. The village itself dates from before the Great October Soviet Socialist Revolution and has kept its distinctive Central Asia character. Whilst the valley opens out, the village itself is located in a narrow gorge on the banks of the powerful Kekermeren River.
Upon arrival there is some 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 will all have dinner together in one of the houses.
Day 19 - 20:
To Son Kul Lake
Leaving the gorges behind we head towards the high pastures surrounding Son Kul Lake (approx. 4 hours drive, including some rough roads), arriving in time for lunch. Considered by many to be the Jewel in the Kyrygz crown for natural beauty, this is a land of nomadic shepherds tending their flocks. Whilst today yurt camps have multiplied around the lake, the people who look after these camps still often tend their flocks and cattle dot the jailoo (high mountain pastures) cared for by men on horseback. The lake’s name means ‘the last lake’ and sat at 3,016m it’s easy to see how it got its name.
We have the whole of the next day to take in the beauty of the landscape. There is the option to go on a 2-2.5 hour walk to the nearby hills - the hills are quite steep and this may not be for everyone but those who make it to the top will find a few petroglyphs. After lunch, we visit one of the Kyrgyz shepherd families close to camp to learn about their lifestyle and perhaps taste some kumis (a natural drink made from fermented mare’s milk) or similar. There is also the option to go horseriding (optional extra)
We experience a bit of the nomad life as we 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 runing (usually morning and evening) but it is not wholly reliable.
Leaving the high mountains which characterise Kyrgyzstan behind we make our way to the Republic’s capital city, Bishkek (about 7hrs 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 for a couple of hours of some of the city’s main sites around the main square, Alatoo Square. We visit the Museum of History and have some time for souvenir shopping or relaxing. (please note that if the Museum of History is closed for renovation or any other reason, we may substitute it for the Fine Arts Museum).
B Hotel or similar
A mere 4-5hrs from the Kyrgyz capital city (depending on border crossing times) is Almaty, the former Kazakh capital city and the biggest city in the fifth country on our trip. We spend the morning driving to what is considered Central Asia’s most European city and set off on a city tour after lunch. We take in the Panfilovs Park with the Piously-Voznesenskiy Orthodox Cathedral (1907) built without any nails; a memorial to victims of WWII, the Republic Square and the high mountain dam of Modeo on the outskirts of town.
Hotel Kazzhol Almaty or similar
Those on the group flights will be taken to the airport in time for their flight. If you’re continuing on to the Astana extension you will be taken to the airport in time for the internal flight to the Kazakh capital. For land only passengers, the tour ends after breakfast.