Day 1: Trip starts in Dushanbe. Explore the Tajik capital on a walking tour of the city
Arrive in Dushanbe. Please note for anybody arriving on flights that arrive into Dushanbe in the early hours of this morning, early check-in will be provided for you. For anyone arriving before today please contact us to book additional nights accommodation.
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.
For those arriving on time today our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 11am for the welcome meeting and to take us on the Tajik Walking Tour. We start the tour with a visit to the National Archaeological Museum of Tajikistan, with its famous Buddha statue and rich collection of archaeological artefacts and collections of fine art. We then move onto the strikingly beautiful Navruz Palace. Hundreds of skilled artisans were appointed to work on the building, with it initially being planned to be built as the largest teahouse in the world. However, when its interior frescoes and mosaic walls turned out to be so impressive, it was instead turned into a palace. After lunch we continue onto the statue of Ismail Samani. This large monument 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.
If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Dushanbe International Airport (DYU), which is 10 minutes' 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 Tajik Walking Tour today, you must arrive at the hotel by 11am. 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 10 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 7:45am the morning of day 2.
Day 2: Set off on the Pamir Highway in 4WDs. Spot Afghan villages across the Panj River
Leaving the city behind this morning, we set off on our journey to the Pamir Highway and across the Pamir mountains. We gradually gain altitude as we drive, with parts of the road remaining unsealed and rather rough in parts. Whilst we will be driving in specially adapted four-wheel drive minivans, we still expect some bumpy stretches. We break to stretch the legs and take in our first breaths of fresh mountain air at Norak Reservoir, before continuing onto the town of Kulob where we stop for lunch. After lunch the road turns up again and climbs up and over the Shuraba Pass at 2,267 metres, bringing us into the border region between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. These mountains have spawned countless adventures over the centuries, from Silk Road traders, adventurers, explorers and of course the region's role in the 'Great Game'. The Panj River forms a natural and geographical boundary between the two countries, and part of our drive today will skirt alongside the river. We hope to arrive into the town Kalai Khum by the late afternoon/early evening where we check-into our comfortable hotel with private, en-suite bathrooms.
*Please note - for the purpose of the GBAO permits, today is the day we will be entering the GBAO*
Day 3: Continue the drive alongside the Panj River to Khorog, the heart of the Pamiri region
We set off for today for another shaky but enjoyable scenic journey, most of which will follow the glacial Panj River. Looking across to the opposite banks of the river, we spot Afghan villages clinging to the hillsides and the pathways that traverse and snake their way through the rocky mountains.
Keeping within Tajik territory, we learn of the unique culture of the Pamiri people. Our guide will explain their traditions, language and religion which are all vastly different from the Tajik people found elsewhere in the country.
Later in the afternoon we reach Khorog, the biggest city and capital of the Pamir region of Tajikistan. We explore the city's bustling bazaar where we notice the characteristic features that distinguish the Pamari people- here, unlike many Tajiks, we find many people have blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes. We continue onto the slightly-elevated botanical gardens which offer a good viewpoint over Khorog, before ending at the day at our hotel. This evening has been left free to explore.
Day 4: Venture into the Wakhan Corridor and take a dip in the Garmchashma hot springs
Leaving Khorog behind this morning we first drive to Garmchashma, the site of a natural hot spring in the heart of the Pamirs. With its alpine-blue water and temperatures upwards of 40°c, the spring has been a popular site for centuries and for those that wish to take a dip, we have some time here this morning.
From here we cross into the Wakhan Valley proper, the shared region between Tajikistan and Afghanistan that was made famous in the 19th century when it was used as a buffer zone between the Russian and British empires during the so-called \ Great Game\ . But the region had already been important for millennia before, acting as a natural corridor for caravans, traders and nomads and the point where eastern and western Central Asia meets.
Our destination tonight is Ishkashim, the administrative centre of the Wakhan region and thus a town steeped in centuries of history. We have some free time this afternoon to explore the village and at dinner tonight we will be treated to a folklore show from a group of local Wakhi dancers and musicians.
Day 5: Continue along the Wakhan Valley, visiting the impressive 3rd century Khahkha Fortress
We continue our journey along the Wakhan Valley today, with several places of interest to see along the way. We first make a small detour off the Pamir Highway to the village of Manadguti, where we find the Khahkha Fortress. Dating back to the 3rd century BC, this fortress is one of several still standing in the area, we will also visit Yamchun Fort which is easily the most impressive. Comprising of thick sandstone walls and high cylindrical watchtowers, the fort was original erected as a defensive fortification but was later thought to play a key role controlling the traffic and policing the great caravans along the Silk Road.
We stop for a picnic lunch at Bibi Fatima Hot Springs, so-named after Prophet Mohammed's sister and where local legend reports that women taking to the waters will increase their chances of fertility.
Continuing on, we stop next at Vrang, home to a 4th century stupa that is a popular pilgrimage spot as it is believed to contain an imprint of Buddha's foot. Our journey today ends in Hissor, where we overnight in a warm and welcoming guesthouse for the next couple of nights. Rooms here are twin share and are basic but functional, with shared toilet and bathrooms.
Day 6: Free day in Hissor with the option for a walk up to petroglyphs and along Engels Meadow
We spend a day in Hissor today, an interesting area to explore and the additional night here serves as a welcome break after the past few days long and adventurous drives. Today can be spent relaxing by the guesthouse, taking in the mountain views and exploring the village on foot, visiting the village shrine or taking part in a bakery lesson.
Alternatively, there is a 16 km hike taking in a number of petroglyphs located above the nearby town of Langar. The walk takes in two petroglyphs before continuing the hike onto Engels Meadow. The trail takes us along remote shepherds trails and where crisp mountain scenery with white snow-capped peaks form a background against lush flat meadows below. The walk is also useful for acclimatisation, as it takes us high up above the town before returning to our lower sleeping altitude.
There will be options to cut the walk short after the first (1 km) and second petroglyphs (3 km and 500 metres elevation gain) for those not wanting a full day's walk.
Day 7: Climb higher into the Pamirs, crossing the Kargushi Pass and driving alongside mountain lakes
We turn back onto the Pamir Highway again this morning, leaving the lush valleys behind as we gradually gain in altitude and the landscape changes to a rockier, almost lunar environment. We cross the dramatic Kargushi Pass at an elevation of 4,300 metres above sea level before dropping back down slightly and onto the village of Alichur. En-route we pass the beautiful high-altitude mountain lakes of Yashikul and Bulunkul as well as making a short stop at one of the regions many impressive geysers. The Eastern Pamirs are part of Tajik territory but are more Kyrgyz in feel, mostly being inhabited by ethnic Kyrgyz. The majority of people in this region still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, living permanently in a village during the harsh winter months, then moving down into the lush summer pastures and staying in yurts during the summer months where their cattle can graze. As we continue our journey we will start to spot yurts in the distance, along with great herds of sheep, horses and yaks as we close in on Murghab, our end point for today.
Day 8: Drive across the high plateau and cross the highest pass in former USSR on the way to Karakul
We wake this morning in the town of Murghab, lying at the centre of the region it characterises the severity of living in such a harsh environment. Literally translated to 'roof of the world', Murghab sits on a desolate flat plateau surrounded by snow-capped peaks, most of which top over 6,000 metres. Life here is hard with short, cool summers followed by long, harsh winters marred by sub-zero temperatures and biting winds. We have some time after breakfast to explore this lunar-like town and having the chance to meet its hardy residents.
We then continue on to cross the highest pass of the Pamir Highway and in fact the highest of the entire area of the former USSR - Ak Baital Pass at 4,655 metres above sea level. From here we gratefully descend altitude down to the village of Karakul at 3,900 metres where we stay in a basic guesthouse with twin rooms and shared toilets.
Day 9: Cross Kyzyl Art Pass, spotting Lenin's Peak. Then descend to the Kyrgyz city of Osh
Driving north today, we cross Kyzyl Art Pass (4,280 metres) which marks the end of our time in Tajikistan as the pass straddles the border. After taking care of the border formalities and clearing customs, we pass into Kyrgyzstan and transfer to our Kyrgyz vehicles to continue the drive north. The road passes the range that contains the impressive 7,134 metre Lenin Peak. We then begin to dramatically lose altitude, driving out of the mountains and onto the plains of the Fergana Valley below. Today's route sees us travel from 4,280 metres to just 1,000 metres above sea level; it's likely we'll notice the difference in altitude with the air appearing immediately thicker and easier to breathe. We arrive in Osh in the late afternoon, where the rest of the day is free.
Day 10: Explore this ancient trading city at the Kyrgyz end of the M-41 - the Pamir Highway
After the long journey over the mountains, today is a day spent firmly in one place, and that is the ancient trader's city of Osh. Thought to be the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan, its roots can be traced back 3,000 years, although it was firmly placed on the map when it was established as a centre of silk production in the 8th Century. Back then the city would welcome nomads from the mountains to sell their livestock, along with traders and caravans from the Far East and Europe selling their wares. This huge coming-together of cultures from far and wide spawned the biggest bazaar in Central Asia and is one that still exists today, aptly named the Great Silk Road Bazaar.
This morning we set out to explore this lively city, a place that still today is a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and ethnic tribes. We start at the bazaar with a walking tour along the great lines of stalls selling everything from sheepskin hats to meats, cheeses and exotic spices. Here is a perfect place to sample some of the national delicacies such as Kurat (dried yoghurt balls) or the popular beverage of Kymyz (a drink made from fermented mare's milk). We then move onto Suleiman-Too hill, which is located right in the centre of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the mosque atop is the focus of many pilgrims and worshippers. There is a pathway that snakes around the hill, and inside a cave that cuts into the hillside is a museum showcasing some of the rich history and archaeology associated with the region.
After this morning's tour we are dropped back to our hotel where the rest of the afternoon is free to relax, or to further explore the city.
Day 11: Full day's drive through the wilds of Kyrgyzstan, passing Toktogul Resevoir to Suusamyr Valley
Leaving Osh this morning, we continue our journey through central Kyrgyzstan with the scenery changing from the rugged, rocky mountainous terrain of the Pamirs to the lush meadows and pastures of central Kyrgyzstan. We stop for a picnic lunch overlooking the beautiful Toktogul Reservoir, the largest of its kind in Central Asia and a vital source for the area's irrigation and electricity.
Continuing east, passing nomad shepherds and flanked by high mountains on our left, we drive towards our accommodation in the Suusamyr Valley, aiming to arrive there in the early evening.
Day 12: Two-day walk through the Kyrgyz meadows and summer pastures
The next few days provide us with the chance to stretch our legs as we ditch wheels for walking boots with a two-day hike to Song Kul Lake.
The morning starts with a short drive to Kyzart Village where we meet our trek support crew before setting off on our hike to Kilemche. The first part of our walk crosses the Kyzyl-Kiya Jailoo, an enormous sea of flat grass that Kyrgyz shepherds take advantage of for summer grazing. We continue on into Chaar-Archa Valley where we break for lunch beside the river, with the holy 4,440 m Baba-Ata Mountain our lunchtime backdrop.
After lunch we cross the river at a natural ford and follow the trail over the verdant hills to Kilemche Jailoo, where we spend the night in a traditional Kyrgyz yurt. Each yurt has room for two people in twin beds, where all bedding and pillows are provided. A basic long-drop toilet is located a short distance from the yurts.
The total distance covered today will be around 14 km with around 500 metres of ascent, and will take around four hours to complete. Overnight luggage can be transported to our campsite by horses.
Please note that the walk can be opted out, anybody not wishing to participate can drive with the main luggage directly to Song Kul, with a free day to relax on the lake's shores.
Day 13: Day two of the walk: cross Jalydyz Karagai Pass and hike down to the shores of Song Kul Lake
After a cosy night under traditional felt, we continue our walk this morning, ascending and crossing Jaldyz Karagai pass (around 700 metres of ascent) which takes us up and over the Song Kul range and into the lake's basin. The morning's climb affords wonderful views over the Kilemche Jailoo in one direction, whilst in the other we get our first glimpses of Song Kul Lake. As we descend the mountain slopes the lake looms larger and larger until we reach its shores and our campsite for the night. The yurt camp here is a more permanent affair, with the same twin-yurt set up but features fixed western-style toilets and even a cold water shower.
This afternoon has been left free to relax among our atmospheric surroundings; alternatively further walking is available or a horse riding lesson.
Day 14: Drive to Lake Issy Kul and stay in a traditional yurt overlooking the lake
Back on the road today, we head for Lake Issy Kul, quite-rightly dubbed as the \ Pearl of Kyrgyzstan\ . En route we stop in the small town of Kochkor for a demonstration on the methods used to weave traditional felt carpets, a product that this area is highly regarded for. Shortly after Kochkor we arrive at Issy Kul and drive 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, giving us the chance to witness how this form of falconry has been practiced and perfected over centuries.
We arrive in Tosor, on the banks of Lake Issy 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.
Day 15: Explore Fairytale Canyon on foot and walk into Jety-Oguz Valley. Stay in a farmer’s guesthouse
After a leisurely breakfast overlooking the shores of Issy Kul, we drive onto Szaka or \ Fairytale Canyon\ , so-called due to the bizarre landscape of captivating rock formations.
From here we embark on an easy-graded walk to Jety-Oguz. 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. The walk in total is around 10 km, and we anticipate it taking approximately 3 - 4 hours. At the end of the walk we drive on to the village Tepke, where we spend the night in a farmer's guesthouse. The farmer here is a renowned horse breeder so we will have a chance to meet the horses and learn how to make \ Boorsok\ , a deep-fried bread typical to this region.
Day 16: Visit the churches and mosques of Karakol before returning to the guesthouse for a folklore show
This morning we head for the city of Karakol, where we meet civilisation once again. Embarking on a tour of the city we discover some of its most interesting sights, including the Dungan Mosque which was built in 1904 without using 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 Hisorical Museum of Karakol which houses Ella Maillart's photo exhibition from her extensive travels through Central Asia in the 1930's.
We return to our guesthouse in Tepke where we are treated to a horse and folklore show.
Day 17: Cross the border into Kazakhstan walk the along the rim of Charyn Canyon
Bidding goodbye to our hosts this morning we set off for our third and final 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 take a dip in the slow-moving 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.
Day 18: Spend time discovering the cosmopolitan city of Almaty
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 also visit the Museum of Musical Instruments, the other wooden-structure that would look more at home in Switzerland than in Central Asia. It showcases a wide-variety of folk instruments that are both native to Kazakhstan, or were brought by travellers from throughout Central Asia and Persia.
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).
This afternoon we take the short drive 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. The rest of the afternoon has been left free.
Day 19: Trip ends in Almaty
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Almaty.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Almaty 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 Almaty International Airport (ALA), which is 30-40 minutes\ from the hotel.