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Join us on an epic, two-week, four-country road trip as we wind through Kazakh bazaars, wade in Kyrgyzstan’s glassy Issyk-kul lake, discover Soviet relics, explore a former Soviet military base in Tajikistan, and wander through Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road cities. As we make our overland journey, we’ll cover over 2,000 miles; a dazzling diversity of art, music, and architecture; and over two millennia of history.
Welcome to Kazakhstan! Arrive at Almaty International Airport and transfer to our boutique hotel near the city center. Take some time to settle in before we meet for introductions and walk to dinner. We’ll take our first bites of Kazakh cuisine and discuss the adventure ahead of us.
Today, we’ll explore some of Almaty, the former capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. Nowadays, it’s both a bustling cultural center and a leafy oasis—its name translates loosely to “city of apple trees."
Almaty is filled with treasures from the U.S.S.R. as well as a diverse mix of inhabitants from all around the region. It also happens to be home to the highest ice skating rink in the world. You'll dive head first into the history of the region with your guides who will outline our route and trip highlights, and discuss the cultural norms and customs to observe as we travel.
Spend today wandering through the city’s colorful markets (such as the Zelionyj Bazaar), traditional cathedrals, sprawling parks, and lively cafes, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains.
We’ll scope out Soviet mosaics, walk past massive bas-relief tunnels, and pass through bustling bazaars. Our guides will give us more background on Kazakhstan’s relationship with its Soviet past, and the complexities behind sculptures—whether memorials or propaganda—such as the Statue of Panfilov's 28 Guardsmen. You'll have some time in the afternoon to rest or explore on your own before we gather in the evening for a traditional folk performance. Tonight we'll enjoy an after-hours walking tour of the city, our final hurrah in Almaty.
Embark on an adventurous journey along the Kazakh side of the Tian Shan, one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Central Asia. Our first stop will be the wondrous Charyn Canyon (Kazakhstan’s “Grand Canyon”), whose sedimentary red sandstone varies in shade from deep orange to light brown, shaped by millions of years of erosion
After lunch we’ll continue onto the border town of Karkara traveling across an idyllic landscape of green pastures, remote settlements, and majestic dales. Later, we'll enter the Republic of Kyrgyzstan and head straight for the traditional market town of Karakol.
Today we’ll spend the day exploring Karakol and its surroundings.
Tucked away in the Tian Shan mountains, the town boasts a blend of Soviet and traditional Kyrgyz architecture, old churches and bright mosques, and spectacular mountain views. Weave through a series of unique bazaars offering goods ranging from Soviet memorabilia to spices and dried fruit, tasting anything along the way that looks enticing.
In the afternoon, take some time to wander on your own and potentially check out Dungan Mosque, which resembles a Chinese Buddhist temple and was originally built by a group of Chinese Muslim, known as Dungans, who fled from China.
For dinner, we’ll track down some delicious Muslim-Chinese fare that’s become a culinary favorite in Kyrgyzstan—perhaps some cold and spicy Ashlan Fu.
Today we’ll travel west along the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world, as well as the second-largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Due to its salinity and size, it never ices over, even as air temperatures dip below freezing. Dip your feet into the water while taking in breathtaking views of the lapping waters and snow-capped peaks looming in the distance.
En route to Barksoon, we’ll take in natural wonders such as the unusual rock formations of Jeti-Ögüz (which, legend has it, gets it’s bright red color from a very bloody history…) and the snow-capped Terskey Alatau mountains.
We'll explore Barksoon and it's valley, where the pensive face of Yuri Gagarin, the first man to reach space, has been carved into the side of a massive boulder. Then we’ll visit the ruins of Aalam Ordo, an unfinished complex once intended to be a center for culture, spirituality, and science, and stop at several traditional monumental graveyards where a curious local syncretism of Islamic and Soviet symbolism will stupefy even the most equanimous travelers.
We’ll finish in the picturesque townlet of Bokonobaevo where we’ll spend the night in a traditional guesthouse.
Guest House, Bokonbaevo
Today we’ll continue our journey west along the salty shores of the Issyk-Kul. After a few more photo stops at the various Soviet-era remnants slowly fading away into oblivion, we’ll reach the charming bazaar town of Kochkor, where we'll stock on food before heading up to Song Kol, an alpine lake surrounded by mountains. Tonight we'll spend the night close to its shores in comfortable shared yurts.
Yurt Camp, Song Kol Lake
PLEASE NOTE: The shared yurt overnight at Song Kol is subject to weather conditions. These are prone to change erratically. The safety and well-being of our guests being our absolute priority, we’ll assess on site whether an overnight in the mountains is feasible. If rough weather conditions are forecasted, we’ll descend instead to the nearby village of Kyzyl-Oi (see following day) for the night and reach Osh a day earlier. There is also a low risk of altitude sickness associated with an overnight stay in Song-Kol. An emergency car will be available to those guests wishing to descend for the night.
Today, enjoy a leisurely morning on Song Kol.
Stroll along its shores, meet with local nomadic herders, or, for the courageous among us, try plunging into its icy waters. After an early lunch we’ll then descend towards Chaek, a village in a scenic narrow mountain valley. We’ll check out the Arab mausoleums this village is renowned for, before moving on to the dreamlike hamlet of Kyzyl-Oi, a traditional Central Asian village tucked away in an isolated gorge of flaming red mountains and whitewater streams.
Guest House, Kyzyl-Oi
Prepare for an early wakeup this morning, as today we’ll be setting out on the longest leg of our journey, driving for about eight to ten hours over the course of the day.
As we travel through the valleys of southern Kyrgyzstan, enjoy spectacular views of rolling foothills and vast, arid landscape. We'll take frequent stops to soak up the scenery and admire Soviet-era bus stops, mosaics, and heirlooms from the heydays of the Silk Road scattered along the way. Weave through otherworldly rock formations and ancient structures, such as the ornate minaret and mausoleums of Uzgen.
Once we emerge from the Kyrgyz backcountry, we’ll find ourselves immersed in the urban sprawl of Osh, the second-largest city in the country and home to one of Central Asia’s largest bazaars. Here, we’ll stretch out our legs and track down some dinner.
We’ll spend the morning leisurely exploring Osh in the daylight. We’ll glimpse the controversial Lenin statue that stands directly across from the city hall, visit the elaborate Central Mosque, and wind our way through the stalls of the massive Jayma Bazaar—and maybe even check out Muzey Sulayman Too. Following an early lunch, we’ll set out for northern Tajikistan by way of the Kyrgysz section of the Fergana Valley. As we drive through, we’ll explore the residual devastation of Stalin’s divide-and-rule policy—which we’ll witness close-up as we pass territorial enclaves and exclaves, and learn about the border disputes that continue to rage on today. We’ll arrive in the late afternoon and settle into Khujand, the second-largest city in the country.
Khujand, for a time known as Leninabad, has a rich, documented history that dates back thousands of years before Lenin came into the picture. We’ll trace the city’s many lives through its architecture, glimpsing 20th-century bas-reliefs and mosaics alongside ancient mausoleums and fortresses.
After breakfast, we’ll drive to Istaravshan, where a larger-than-life Lenin statue has found a new home gazing out across a municipal reservoir. We’ll stop along the route at the picturesque hamlet of Khushikat before reaching our final destination for the day, Penjikent—once a thriving settlement of the ancient Sogdiana Empire. Here, we’ll spend the rest of the day exploring local street life, ancient frescoes, and religious relics from the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian civilization that once flourished here.
This morning, we’ll venture deep into the Fann Mountains for a glimpse of the majestic Seven Lakes. Surrounded by gargantuan, jagged peaks, the glittering glacial lakes we’ll encounter are known for their unusual—and breathtaking—hues, ranging from bright turquoise to black. As we traipse through the valley, we’ll stop to visit a local village in the midst of the mountains. The region is particularly conducive to growing apricots, so we’ll keep our eyes peeled for orchards as we travel. In the afternoon, we’ll cross into Uzbekistan and head straight to Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road hub that has for centuries captured the imaginations of travelers and storytellers across the globe.
Believed to be over 2,700 years old, Samarkand was once a diverse trading center along the Silk Road connecting the East to the West, drawing merchants all the way from East Asia to Europe. At the epicenter of it all was the Registan, or “Sandy Place” in Tajik. Comprised of arching, beige madrasas covered in bright blue mosaics, sparkling golden mosques, and sprawling courtyards, the Registan is believed to have been the pulsing heart of the commercial Silk Road city throughout the Medieval Era. We’ll spend the day tracing Samarkand’s spectacular ancient history and architecture, from mosques to mausoleums, alongside its more modern parks and stark Soviet buildings, and tasting some local sweets and specialties.
We’ll depart Samarkand this morning and head west, reaching Bukhara around midday. Bukhara is another spectacular ancient Silk Road city with buildings dating back thousands of years. We’ll wander through the old city center, exploring ancient mosques and the ornate, brick mausoleum of Ismail Samani, who founded the powerful tenth and eleventh-century Samanid dynasty. Later, after a long and leisurely lunch, we’ll visit a massive, Soviet-era wrought iron water tower looming high above the city before taking some time for independent exploration.
We’ll spend the last full day of our Central Asian odyssey exploring the offbeat and unusual sights of marvelous Bukhara, including an all-too-often overlooked stone cemetery that tells the story of a rather obscure Jewish community: the Bukharan are, indeed, an ethnoreligious Jewish sub-group of Central Asia that historically spoke Bukharian, a Judeo-Tajik dialect of the Persian language. In the late afternoon we’ll then indulge in a light (and fun) cooking workshop to learn how to prepare some of the best Uzbek delicacies, on which we will then feast during a grand final dinner to celebrate the conclusion of our journey.
After two adventurous weeks packed with new sights, smells, and sounds, it’s time to say our goodbyes as we head to Bukhara Airport for flights home. Until our next adventure!
The listed price of this trip is per person based on double occupancy.
You’re in good company. Solo travelers typically make up about half of our small groups. With curiosity at the center of our experiences, there’s a natural camaraderie that develops over the course of a trip. We have two options for you:
Shared Room (subject to the latest Covid-19 guidelines): You'll be matched with another solo traveler of the same gender.
Private Room: Have your own room, subject to availability, for a supplemental cost of $690. When booking, please select the single room package option.
Throughout the trip, we'll be staying in comfortable accommodations with standard amenities. In cities, we’ll be in centrally located hotels (three-to-four-star equivalent), while in smaller towns we’ll be in traditional guest houses. In Song Kol, we'll spend one night in comfortable, clean yurts close to the lake.
We’ll be covering a lot of ground over the course of our two weeks across four countries. Most of this transport will take place in a private, air-conditioned minibus, with driving hours per day ranging widely; most days will involve at least a few hours on the road, while our longest day will be around eight hours of driving altogether, with plenty of breaks along the way.
Note that this trip begins and ends in two different locations. You should plan to arrive in Almaty, Kazakhstan by 5 p.m. on Day 1, and to depart from Bukhara, Uzbekistan anytime on Day 17. (Note that your departure airport is Bukhara International Airport*.)
*If your flight requires a transfer at Islam Karimov Tashkent International Airport (TAS), please note that it is quite large and you should give yourself 4-5hrs to transfer from the domestic to the international terminal (you can use an airport taxi to get from one building to another). You might prefer to give yourself a buffer day in Tashkent (which has lots to explore), in which case we can help you arrange for transportation from Tashkent at the end of the tour.
For US and most other nationalities, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan do not require visas. Currently, for many nationalities Uzbekistan asks for easy to obtain electronic visas (eVisas). The eVisa is valid for 90 days from when it is issued. Visa policies are subject to change on short notice and we'll keep you up to date as the trip approaches.
It's important that you check your specific passport to see what is required.
By participating in this trip, you'll directly support independent, local guides and small businesses. In addition, several of the hotels and guest houses we'll be staying at are family-run—and in Kyrgyzstan, we've partnered with an organization focused on community-based tourism to ensure that proceeds go to both the local families hosting us as well as the maintenance of national parks and trails. We'll spend plenty of time chatting with our hosts, local business owners, and unexpected friends we'll encounter along the way. This trip is ultimately crafted around the idea that no matter what, you can always find time for a chat over a cup of tea.