Truly off the beaten track, Kazakhstan sees few travellers, especially outside Almaty. Feel the remoteness of Central Asia on this one-of-a-kind expedition.. Explore the Aral Sea, which suffered environmental and humanitarian devastation in the 1960s due to Soviet irrigation projects. Enjoy a homestay with new friends, meet local fisherman and those working with an NGO to restore the area.. Discover the history and architecture of the Silk Road, visiting ancient mausoleums and mosques on guided tours in the cities of Turkistan, Sayram and Otrar.. Travel alongside locals and admire wild, sweeping vistas on epic train rides across the Kazakh steppe.
Beginning in cosmopolitan Almaty, join us on this exploration through Kazakhstan, from the shrunken Aral Sea to the ancient city of Turkistan, the Silk Road portals of Sayram and Otrar and the majestic, surreal landscapes of Altyn-Emel National Park. Get ready for a rare, fascinating adventure through one of the least-explored corners of the earth.
2018 TRIP CHANGES:
We were recently informed that Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency responsible for the Baikonur Cosmodrome, has decided to increase the cost of visiting the space port over 300% from previous years. Given that this activity already made up a significant part of our total trip costs and that the Cosmodrome is the main reason for visiting Baikonur, unfortunately this means it is no longer viable to Baikonur in our itinerary. From April 2018 we will instead be visiting Altyn-Emel National Park. All other destinations and inclusions remain the same. Please see below for a detailed itinerary.
Breakfast Included: 9 Lunches Included: 3 Dinner Included: 5
Welcome to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Your expedition begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm in your centrally-located hotel. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where it will take place. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting, so please ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader.
If you arrive early, perhaps get your bearings with a walk around town. Until the recent transfer of the capital to Astana, Almaty was Kazakhstan's foremost city. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Tian Shan Mountains, it is still very much the country’s commercial and cultural centre and perhaps Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city.
Embark on a city tour of Almaty today. The development and wealth you’ll see on display as you walk the streets comes from the country's main export – oil (Kazakhstan is one of the world's top five oil-producing nations). Visit Central Square, the colourful Zenkoff Cathedral and Medeo, a huge outdoor ice-skating and bandy rink in a valley just outside the city.
We’ll also visit to Panfilov Park, dedicated to the 28 guardsmen who died defending Moscow against German tanks in WWII, and check out the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments and the State Historical Museum, which features a great collection of cultural relics. Finally, summit Kok Tobe Hill for great views over the city.
Kyzyl Orda - Aralsk
Be prepared for a long travelling day today from Almaty to Aralsk. We head out early to catch our flight to Kyzyl Orda (approx. 1.5 hrs), then another 7 hrs land travel will take us to our destination for the night Aralsk.
Aralsk was the main fishing port on the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes before the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects in the 1960s. The devastation caused, both environmental and humanitarian, was colossal: huge numbers of people lost their livelihoods, and the local climate and landscape was drastically changed forever.
A number of NGOs are now working in the region to restore water (and life) to the communities that once thrived here. During our stay in Aralsk, we’ll visit one such organization – Aral Tenizi, where you’ll have the unique opportunity to hear about their projects and support the work they do. The town still has very limited infrastructure, but the locals are keen to share stories with travellers.
You’ll spend the evening in a local guesthouse or homestay. Depending on the group size, the group may be split between a few houses. Accommodation is basic but cosy and comfortable with communal shower and toilet in the house.
Take a tour of the local area by 4WD today. We'll drive along the former seabed to Tastubek village where you’ll see glimpses of what used to be the biggest body of water in Kazakhstan. If it's good weather you might see locals fishing or swimming. If you feel like it, you might even take a dip yourself. We also visit Akespe - a disappearing village. Akespe used to be a fishing village on the shore of the Aral sea, but now it's being gradually taken over by sands and within a few years may be totally submerged. Tonight is spent in our guesthouse or homestay.
Today is another travelling day, on a different form of transport this time - train. From Kyzyl Orda it's around 7 hours to our next destination of Turkistan. So grab some snacks and sit back and relax as the landscape rushes by. We arrive in Turkistan mid afternoon. Located in southern Kazakhstan, the city of Turkistan contains more historical relics and cultural sites than any other place in the country.
Turkistan - Shymkent - Overnight train
This morning, we'll head out on a city tour, the highlight of which is a visit to the Kozha Akhmed Yasaui Mausoleum, Kazakhstan’s most iconic building.
The stunning blue and while tiled Mausoleum is the final resting place of a great Turkic holy man and Sufi. Built by Tamerlane, it is said that three visits here are equal to one visit to Mecca. As it is a religious site, we recommend that women wear a headscarf when entering. In the surrounds you'll find a rose garden, other monuments, an archeological museum and a mosque, which are all included in the ticket price.
Then we'll continue our journey to Shymkent where we will board our overnight train tonight to take us back to Almaty. On the way, we'll stop at the Otrar ancient settlement. It was first excavated in 1969 and has a history dating back to the 1st century A.D. Remnants of palaces, mosques and bath houses can still be seen today. It is also where Genghis Khan's army is said to have fought heroically (though unsuccessfully) when the Mongols first invaded Central Asia.
There'll be time for some exploring in Shymkent and dinner together before we board the train. We travel in kupe class, which is 4 berths per compartment with a lockable door. There are toilets and hot water for drinks at the end of each carriage. While we aim to group our travellers together, please be aware that compartments are not segregated by gender and you may be sharing with other travellers.
Altyn-Emel National Park
After arriving in Almaty we head the 240km (approx 3.5 hours) out of town to the spectacular Altyn-Emel National Park where we will spend the next 2 days exploring. This is the largest national reserve in the country and preserves many rare plants and animals, including zheyran (goitred gazelles), argali sheep and kulan (wild donkeys) which we may be lucky enough to spot during our time here.
Our program here may vary depending on the weather and the season. Taigak Gorge houses the Kyzyl Lauyz Petroglyphs where you can make out ancient Tibetan inscriptions of the words "Om Mani Padme Om" as well as images o hunting, farming and celebrations. The Besshatyr Burial Mounds date back from the 6th century BC when this area was a shrine of the ancient Saks people and contain a total of 18 royal burial mounds.
We stay in a simple guesthouse within the National Park tonight where dinner is included.
Altyn-Emel National Park - Almaty
Explore the sights not visited yesterday. The best known site in the National Park is the Singing Barkhan - a sand dune extending 3km and up to 120m high. The fine sand hums in windy weather, giving it it's name. The view from the top gives a great panorama of the surrounding Djungarian Alatau, Sogety, Boguty and other mountains. In dry, windy weather the sand dune's "song" can be heard up to a few kilometres away.
The Katutau Mountains have been carved into intricate shapes over time from water and wind, creating a fascinating landscape. The nearby Aktau Mountains have revealed preserved remains of prehistoric animals such as giant rhinos crocodiles and turtles. Many compare these huge natural conical mountains to the man made Egyptian pyramids.
We return to Almaty tonight after a full day in the park.
It's a free day today for you to further explore the city, or relax in one of the many leafy parks or cafes dotted around the place. The Arasan Baths are well worth a visit for a true Russian sauna experience. Almaty has always been heavily influenced by its connections with Russia and was once one of the USSR's regional capitals. You’re likely to hear more Russian spoken here than Kazakh, but now that the nation is independent a resurgence of Kazakh language and culture is underway. Join your group for a final optional dinner tonight.
Your trip comes to an end after breakfast today. As no activities are planned, you are free to depart your accommodation at any time.