Silk Road: The Five ‘Stans of Central Asia

DURATION 29 Days
BETWEEN Ashgabat and Almaty
COUNTRIES VISITED – 5 Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan
MAXIMUM GROUP SIZE 12
TRAVEL DATES
Contact Diesel for all departure dates and latest pricing
WHATS INCLUDED
All Accommodation All tour transportation
Meals mostly full board as listed
Entrance fees as listed Professional Tour Leader
WHATS NOT INCLUDED
Airport Transfers Airport taxes
International Flights Travel Insurance
Visas

Trip Overview

The five ‘stans of Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan – must rank amongst some of the world’s least visited and least well-known destinations, making this trip a true journey of discovery. Offering an incredible diversity of both scenery and culture – from the architectural wonders of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva to the epic scenery of the Tien Shan ‘Mountains of Heaven’ – we’ll cross vast deserts and mighty rivers and experience local hospitality in homestays in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For much of the time we’ll be following ancient trade routes and discovering the remains of a bygone age but we will also experience the Central Asia of today from the bizarre white-marble city of Ashgabat to the cosmopolitan cities of Tashkent and Almaty. This is the perfect trip for anyone who has ever looked at a map and wondered exactly what the area described by Colin Thubron as being The Lost Heart Of Asia was really like. Come and discover it for yourself.


Silk Road: The Five ‘Stans of Central Asia

Wild Frontier’s small group tours are unique, original itineraries offering truly authentic, off-the-beaten-track experiences. The five ‘stans of Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan – must rank amongst some of the world’s least visited and least well-known destinations, making this trip a true journey of discovery.


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HIGHLIGHTS

  • Discovering the contrasts between these five fascinating Central Asian countries
  • Marvelling at the glorious Silk Road architecture of Uzbekistan’s royal cities
  • Enjoying the mountainous beauty of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
  • Enjoying local hospitality during homestays
  • Crossing the Oxus River and Kyzyl-Kum desert

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Day 1: Tour starts in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)

Today, after checking-in to our hotel in Ashgabat, the rather bizarre capital of Turkmenistan (the first of our five ‘stans), we’ll settle ourselves in and have a gentle introduction to this “white-marble city”. Over the course of the day, we’ll see some fascinating reminders of the city’s rich and eclectic past, including the famous so-called Arch of Neutrality. Grand Turkmen Hotel or similar (L, D)

Ashgabat:

Turkmenistan’s capital is guaranteed to be one of the most surreal places you will ever have visited. Combining a bizarre fusion of Las Vegas, Dubai, Shanghai and Moscow, this evergrowing city on the edge of the Karakum Desert totally encapsulates the enigma that is Turkmenistan. Pre-1996, when the nation’s huge gas and considerable oil reserves were taken seriously by the west, Ashgabat – weirdly translating as ‘The City of Love’ – was a two-bit, non-descript post-Soviet town, much like a thousand others. From then until his sudden death in December 2006 President “Turkmenbashi”, Saparmurat Niyazov, was hard at work spending the IMF & World Bank loans, not to mention the considerable sums generated by this nation’s fledging energy industry, transforming it into his idea of the perfect city. There are monuments to the country’s neutrality, to its independence, to the earthquake that killed most of the city’s inhabitants in 1948 – including the President’s family – and to his own enormity (in 1999 he declared himself “President for Life”!). There are swanky new apartment blocks, an ever-growing Olympic village and a giant Turkmen theme park where visitors will soon be able to ride on a roller coaster through the sites of ancient Merv. But all that glitters is not gold. Some of the blue glass office blocks are simply façades behind which crumble soviet tenements, parts of the suburbs are squalid, and as with much of the country, life for the average inhabitant is hard. That said, it is without doubt a place that has a certain style, and if one ignores the billions that have been lavished on it, it surely represents the most interesting modern town in the region.

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Day 2: Ashgabat

With a full day to explore the city and its surrounds, we will travel out to Nissa, the 3rd Century BC capital of the Parthians, and visit the famous site of Geo Tepe where the Turkmens made their last stand against the Russians. We’ll also visit a nearby stud farm to see some of the beautiful purebred Akhel Teke, or ‘heavenly’ horses’, the Chinese desire for which gave birth to the original impetus for the Silk Road. Later we’ll visit the largest mosque in Central Asia and the mausoleum of the first Turkmen President “Turkmenbashy”. We plan to take dinner at a stunning rooftop restaurant back in the city. Grand Turkmen Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 3: Ashgabat - Mary

A morning’s flight will take us to Mary, our base for the next two nights. Here we’ll drive out to Ancient Merv to see remaining traces of the glorious “Maru Shahu Jahan” – “Queen of Cities”. Due to its size and historical importance, Merv is one of the most significant sites in Turkmenistan, indeed in all of Central Asia. It consists of a series of towns each succeeded by another throughout the course of history. We’ll see the remains of several sites including the Erk Kala (6th C BC) with its citadel and the Mausoleum of Muhammed Ibn Zeid (12th C AD) before later returning to Mary to visit the local history museum, presenting a wide array of archaeological finds (dating back to the 3rd millennium BC through to the late 19th century) from both Ancient Merv and the Bronze Age sites of Margush, which we will visit tomorrow. Mary Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

Merv:

Though not as colourful architecturally as its brother Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, Merv is still a very impressive site, covering a huge area; it has many astonishing buildings and because of its isolation – and lack of foreign visitors – it carries a unique charm and interest. Situated at a major crossroads of the Great Silk Road – where caravans would head west to Khiva, north to Bukhara, east to Balkh and south to Herat – Merv dates back to the time of Alexander the Great and was a melting pot of religion and culture. Of course, like many other great settlements of the region, it was almost totally destroyed by Genghis and his henchmen – some say as many as a million people were put to the sword here – and from this it never really recovered. However, for anyone with an interest in the history of the Near East and the Silk Road, a visit to Merv is a must.

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Day 4: Mary – Gonur Depe - Mary

After an early breakfast we drive northeast from Mary to ancient Margush and the archaeological site of Gonur Depe (40km off-road). Fertile silt brought by waters of the Murgab River delta and a moderate climate created favourable conditions for Bronze Age settlements known as the Margiana Oasis deep in the desert. This is an amazing site said to be the fifth great civilisation of ancient times where, it is believed, the Zoroastrian culture was born. We’ll return to Mary in the afternoon. Mary Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

Gonur Depe (Margush):

About 70km northeast of Merv lies one of the most archaeological sites on earth. Discovered only four decades ago by the Russian-Greek archaeologist, Dr Viktor Sarianidi, it is believed that Gonur Depe – otherwise known as Margush – could represent the capital of the fifth great civilisation of the ancient world and is the largest dig site in the near east. Although Sarianidi’s theory has yet to be agreed by western academics, it has been confirmed as the site of the oldest fire-worshipping civilisation, and is thought to be the birthplace of the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism. Though the Murghab River has long since changed its course, leaving this amazing city – complete with palaces, temples and necropolis – surrounded today by a sea of sand, 4,000 years ago it was a thriving agricultural community that traded with Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and Egypt.

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Day 5: Mary – Bukhara (Uzbekistan)

Leaving Mary we’ll head north and after lunch in Turkmenabat, we’ll have the thrill of crossing the great Oxus (Amu-Darya) River. From here we’ll arrive at the Turkmen border and enter Uzbekistan (the second of our five ‘stans). After customs formalities we’ll transfer to Bukhara, aiming to arrive early afternoon and check in to our guesthouse close to the famous Labi Hauz plaza and pool. This afternoon there will be free time to explore the streets and alleyways of this ancient town before meeting up for dinner. Sasha & Sons or similar (B,L,D)

Bukhara:

There is an ancient saying in Central Asia – ‘Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit’. During the heyday of the Silk Road, Bukhara became so rich from trade that it boasted 365 mosques, one for every day of the year. Lying at a strategically important crossroad between Herat, Kabul, Merv and Samarkand, Bukhara has played a leading role in the colourful history of the region. Home to the Kolan Minaret, once the tallest tower in the Islamic realm (and variously used to call the faithful to prayer, as a beacon to guide travellers in from the desert and, more notoriously, as a means of execution) the famous Arc and beautiful Labi-Hauz, here in Bukhara you will find the true beauty and serenity of urban Central Asia.

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Day 6: Bukhara

This morning we visit the famous Arc – or town citadel – in front of which the British officers Connelly and Stoddard lost their heads in what was one of the most infamous events of the Great Game. We’ll also visit the Kolan Minaret – or Tower of Death, from which Amir Nasirulla Khan threw his enemies – as well as the rest of the beautiful old town. The rest of the day is free to explore Bukhara at your leisure, with opportunities to wander through the bazaar and maybe do a little souvenir shopping. Sasha & Sons or
similar (B,L)

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Day 7: Bukhara

With a second full-day in Bukhara, we’ll spend the morning visiting the Sitorai-Mokhi Hosa, the impressive summer residence of last Emir of Bukhara. Once more the afternoon has been left free for personal exploration of this endlessly fascinating place, which remains for many, the most evocative of all the Silk Road towns. Sasha & Sons or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 8: Bukhara - Khiva

Today we’ll take a long drive across the desert towards Khiva. En route we’ll cross once more the famous Amu-Darya River before arriving in Khiva’s UNESCO-protected old town. This evening there will be time to take a first wander around the quiet streets of this wonderfully preserved Silk Road city. Khiva Madrassa or similar (B,L,D)

Khiva:

Khiva is a fascinating medieval desert town which has been perfectly preserved. It came to prominence in the 16th century as the capital of the Khans of Khiva whose territory stretched from the Caspian Sea to India and was famous for its religious fervour and slave markets. Khiva’s inner walled city or “Ichan Kala” has been described as an open-air museum (or perhaps an abandoned film set). It consists of a maze of narrow medieval streets lined with madrassahs, mosques, caravanserais and palaces.

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Day 9: Khiva

There’ll be ample time to soak up the atmosphere of Khiva today. We’ll visit some of the most colourful and sumptuous sites, including the Kukhna Arc and the Mohammed Khan Madrassa. In addition, there’ll be the opportunity to climb up the Kalta Minor minaret, explore the Jama Majid mosque with its amazing wooden pillars and the Alloquli Khan Madrassa, bazaar and caravanserai. Khiva Madrassa or similar (B,L)

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Day 10: Khiva - Tashkent

After a short drive to Urgench, we’ll take a morning flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s vibrant capital which sat at the heart of the old Central Asian trading routes, gaining prominence under the Mongols and the Shabanids, before finally being absorbed by the expansionist policies of the Russian empire during the 19th century. Flattened by a devastating earthquake in the mid 1960s, the city was reinvented by the Kremlin to represent the very epitome of the socialist ideal. Today a prestigious working madrasah overlooks the sprawling Chorsu bazaar and nearby is the modern complex of the Khast Imam Mosque, which contains the oldest known copy of the Koran dating from 655. Tashkent is a colourful mixture of history and culture which we shall have a taste of today, including visiting the Museum of Fine Art to give an insight of regional decorative styles. City Palace Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 11: Tashkent - Samarkand

Early this morning we take a train ride to probably the most famous of all Silk Road cities, Samarkand. We have the rest of the day in this amazing town, wandering through the gargantuan sights and visiting Guri Amir (Tamerlane’s tomb), Bibi Khanym mosque, Shah-i-Zindar – the street of the dead – and the town’s excellent bazaar. Of course we will also visit the Registan Square, one of Central Asia’s most iconic sights. Malika Prime or similar (B,L,D)

Samarkand:

‘All travellers who set out for Central Asia hold in their hearts the dream of reaching Samarkand.’ In the third century BC Alexander the Great took ‘the Pearl of the East’ and declared, ‘Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is true, except that it is much more beautiful than I’d even imagined.’ In the thirteenth century the celebrated Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, discovered, ‘one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world.’ And in 1898 Lord Curzon was to write, ‘I know of nothing in the East approaching its simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe which can even aspire to enter the competition.’ Even today, standing in Registan Square, surrounded by exquisite fluted domes, mosaic covered madrassas, the majestic arches and towering minarets, the romantic mind drifts easily back to a mystical time of fables, myths and legend – to the world of Omar Khayyam and his famous Rubaiyat; to the colourful Sogdian and Samanid courts; to the slaughter streets of Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane’s renaissance; to the lands through which Marco Polo, Xuan Zang and a thousand other great travellers passed. Over the centuries, nowhere has symbolised the romance of the east more than Samarkand.

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Day 12: Samarkand

Today there will be more time to explore some of Samarkand’s greatest sites including Ulug-Beg’s extraordinary observatory, built in 1437 whereby he calculated the length of a year to within 1 minute of what we now know it to be. The rest of the day will be free for personal exploration. Malika Prime or similar (B,L)

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Day 13: Samarkand - Termez

Heading south from Samarkand, we’ll drive on to Termez, a city whose ancient heart dates back to the 4th Century BC. Built on the banks of the Amu-Darya River, the old city was located at the intersection of many Great Silk Road routes and has a long, rich history. There will be time this afternoon to visit the impressive Fayaz Tepa Buddhist Complex. Ason Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 14: Termez – Dushanbe (Tajikistan)

This morning we’ll visit some of the city’s other notable sites including the Archaeological Museum and the Sultan Saodat Complex, before driving to the border and crossing into Tajikistan, the third our five ‘stans, and heading towards its relaxed capital, Dushanbe. Avesto Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

Dushanbe:

The Tajik capital lies at the confluence of two rivers beneath the snow-capped Hissar mountain range. The word Dushanbe is derived from the Persian for ‘day 2’, which referred to Monday, the day the famous market takes place. Although now a busy city, it was little more than a village a century ago but it grew largely as a result of the arrival of the Red Army and later, in 1929, the railway. Dushanbe is a clean, green city with wide, tree-lined streets and pale, elegant buildings with plenty of cafés in which to enjoy tea and local sweets.

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Day 15: Dushanbe – Fan Mountains

After some time this morning to stroll along Rudaki, the city’s main street and – depending on their erratic opening hours – a chance to visit one of the city’s impressive museums, we’ll continue our journey north into the Fan Mountains, an area of outstanding natural beauty lying to south of the Zarafshan River. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 16: Fan Mountains

We’ll have a full day to explore the famed alpine scenery of this rarely visited part of Central Asia. Abounding in deep blue lakes and sporadically inhabited by Tajik pastoralists, the area is still relatively undiscovered and allows for a fascinating insight into this gem of a country. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 17: Fan Mountains - Khodjent

Leaving the Fan Mountains, we will take a spectacular drive over the Shakristan Pass (3378m) to arrive in Khodjent, which once played host to Alexander the Great’s armies. After checking in to our homestay we can have an optional swim in the famous Syr-Darya river, which runs through the town. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 18: Khodjent – Kokand (Uzbekistan)

As our plan today is to stick as close as possible to the original Silk Road route along the Syr Darya River, we’ll cross back into Uzbekistan and head for Kokand, once a powerful independent khanate whose might once controlled this entire region. Here we’ll visit what remains of the khan’s palace. Khudayarkhan Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 19: Kokand – Osh (Kyrgyzstan)

Our drive today will take us through the Fergana Valley. This incredibly fertile region was the breadbasket of the Central Asian USSR and is still one of the wealthiest parts of the whole region. Our first stop today will be Rishton, renowned for its blue and green ceramics and later the town of Margilon, centre of the still thriving silk trade in the area. Here we hope to see the entire silk-weaving process from cocoon to end product. In the afternoon we’ll arrive at the Uzbek border and enter our fourth, and probably most beautiful of the ‘stans, Kyrgyzstan. Our night stop will be the ancient Silk Road town of Osh. Reputed to be 3000 years old, Osh is a place steeped in history and dominated by Solomon’s Throne which looms over the town. We plan to stay with our old friend, Iman Jan and his family. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 20: Osh - Arslanbob

Heading into Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous interior we’ll make, by way of the 12th century Uzgen minaret, for Arslanbob village. Considered to be one of the country’s most attractive villages, it sits in the middle of a vast walnut forest. On arrival we will visit the local bazaar and settle in to our community-based homestay, where we stay for the next two nights. Homestay (B,L,D)

Arslanbob:

Situated 1,600 metres above sea level on the south-facing slopes of the Ferghana range, Arslanbob boasts striking mountain scenery, friendly locals and the most prized walnuts in the country. Alexander the Great is said to have brought back large quantities of nuts from Central Asia, but had to give them up once he reached Greece as a payment to the boatmen who transported his troops. The population is predominantly Uzbek and Arslanbob is considered to be rather conservative, as it it close to may Muslim holy sites and due to its isolation from the rest of the country.

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Day 21: Arslanbob

Today we will have the whole day to explore on foot the surrounds of Arslanbob and to see its famous walnut forests, as well as some of the waterfalls and streams which dot the region. The walnut forests are believed to pre-date the 11th century and may even date back to the times of Alexander the Great. In fact legend has it that Alexander brought back large quantities of the nuts from Central Asia, but had to give them up once he reached Greece as payment to the boatmen who transported his troops. While this may just be the stuff of legend, what is certainly true is that Central Asian walnuts regularly formed part of the goods that were transported along the Silk Road, branches of which ran close to Arslanbob. Those preferring a less active day can take shorter walks and relax amidst the beautiful scenery of this small village. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 22: Arslanob – Sary Chelek

Departing Arslanbob, we aim to arrive by midafternoon at Sary Chelek, which was included in the list of UNESCO Protected Biosphere Reserves in 1978. This is one of Kyrgyzstan’s least visited but most striking locations. Centred around a spectacular lake, which sits at an altitude of 1873m, Sary Chelek is almost alpine in appearance and provides some of the finest scenery in Central Asia. We base ourselves here for two nights. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 23: Sary Chelek

Today we plan to head out with a picnic lunch and take an easy but exhilarating walk between and around two of the lakes of Sary Chelek. Being home to over 1000 species of plant, 160 species of bird and 34 different types of mammal we can never be sure of exactly what we might see, but the views all around are spectacular. Homestay (B,L,D)

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Day 24: Sary Chelek – Chychken Gorge

A beautiful drive takes us east towards Chychkan Gorge where there should be time on arrival to explore some of the impressive surrounding area. As we travel we should have the opportunity to observe nomadic herders living in their traditional yurts surrounded by huge flocks of sheep, as well as many horses. We may have the opportunity to stop to see them milking mares in order to make ‘kumys’, a popular drink for the nomads. This is a great introduction to the life of the nomadic shepherd. Oson Guesthouse or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 25: Chychken Gorge - Bishkek

As we head towards the Kyrgyz capital today we will drive over two mountain passes – the dramatic Tuu Ashuu (3586m) and the Ala Bel (3184m) which in Kyrgyz means ‘colourful pass’. Finally we’ll arrive at Bishkek, one of the world’s more relaxed capitals. Asia Mountains Guesthouse or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 26: Bishkek

Today we’ll head to AlaArcha, a grand, rugged but very accessible gorge situated about an hour’s drive from Bishkek. In the Kyrgyz language, Ala-Archa means bright juniper and it grows in abundance here over the mountain slopes. Now converted into a national park, it also offers some good walking possibilities and is a favourite place with the citizens of Bishkek, who like to relax and enjoy picnics here. Asia Mountains Guesthouse or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 27: Bishkek – Almaty (Kazakhstan)

Today we enter our fifth and final ‘stan, Kazakhstan. Depending on border formalities we should arrive in Almaty in time for a visit to the Holy Ascension Cathedral, which is made entirely of wood. Otrar Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

Almaty:

Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan and with a population of almost two million people, it is the most populated city in the country at present. Even though Astana (then Akmola) became the capital in 1995, Almaty is often called the Southern Capital. It can be rightfully called the most beautiful city in the country. Founded in 1854 by Russians in the valley of Almaty, it was just a fort at first, primarily named Zailisky, and then re-named Verny. In 1921 it became AlmaAta and in 1929 it became the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. It was not until 1993 that it became Almaty. The city is located at the foot of Tien Shan Mountains at an altitude of 1500 – 2000 metres above sea level. Unfortunately, because the city is located in a valley, smog easily accumulates here. However, a little higher in the mountains the air is crystal clear and many people have “dachas” (a small garden or an orchard with a small hut or a house) there. A dacha is not only a source of various fruits and vegetables, it is also a place to relax and enjoy the fresh air. The city has a lot of unique architectural sites. Among those are the bathhouse Arasan, the Otrar Hotel, the Cathedral in the Park of the 28 Panfilov Soldiers, and many others. The architectural sites of Almaty are comparatively modern because of the destructive earthquakes that happened in Almaty in 1887 and 1910.

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Day 28: Almaty

After a morning visit to Republic Square to see the Independent Monument and the State History Museum we’ll drive up to Medeo gorge, taking a funicular up to Chimbulak for some great views out over the highest ice-skating rink in the world. Later we’ll drive to Sunkar to learn about the old tradition of falconry – hunting with birds of prey, before returning to Almaty for our final night’s dinner. Otrar Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

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Day 29: Tour ends in Almaty

The tour ends after breakfast this morning. (B)


Tour Dossier Notes

Climate – For a tour which lasts almost a month in duration, covers five countries, crosses deserts & mountains and experiences changes in altitudes from 500m to 3500m it can be quite hard to give a brief summary of the anticipated climate. However as this trip has been scheduled to avoid the extremes of summer and winter, you should typically expect daytime temperatures to range from 15oC – 30oC and night-time temperatures from 5oC to 10oC depending on the location.

Is this trip for me? – It may sound obvious but Wild Frontiers tours are not always for everyone and it is important to us that the tour you choose is the most suitable. The team at Diesel Adventures can provide the details and expertise you need to help you choose the right trip for you.

Airport transfers – Not included but can be arranged. If you’re booking flights yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.

Accommodation – As an overall ethos, wherever possible we aim to use characterful accommodation that enhances the overall travel experience, not just offers a bed for the night. This can obviously vary dramatically from country to country and from trip to trip. On this particular trip we will be in a combination of some comfortable hotels (particularly in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) to some simpler hotels and guesthouses in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. We will also spend several nights in homestays where it may be necessary to share more than 2 to a room. Please note that the accommodation mentioned in the itinerary is intended as a guide only and is always subject to availability.

Transport – On this tour we will use a combination of minibuses, domestic fights and trains.

Guides – Full services of a Wild Frontiers Tour Leader with local guides and drivers.

Meals – In most cases a “Full Board” Meal plan as detailed in the itinerary (B=Breakfast, L=Lunch, D=Dinner) with the majority of meals being taken in local restaurants where viable. Plus bottled drinking water as required

Entrance fees – Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, we can arrange if possible and these would be at your own expense.

Visas – We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then can request for this to be arranged for you. If you need any advice with visas just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as CIBT can assist.

Airport taxes – If there are any departure taxes to pay that are not included within the cost of your ticket, these are at your expense.


Please note that there is more detailed tour dossiers available specific to each departure date, contact our Sales team and we would be happy to send these to you