Unveil the mysteries of space explorations in Baikonur, where the Russian Cosmodrome is located and launches to the International Space Station take off.. Surround yourself with the surreal landscapes of the Altyn-Emel National Park, including the mysterious singing sand dunes, and visit the Grand Canyon’s ‘little brother’ – Charyn Canyon.. Skirting the border with Afghanistan, get glimpses of the other side, from the hair-raising Afghan-built footbridges (ovrings) to the exotic imports on display in Khorog’s local bazaar.. Steeped in Silk Road history and immortalised in many great tales, the UNESCO-protected town of Khiva is as photogenic as it is legendary.
Beginning in the futuristic cityscapes of Nur-Sultan (until recently, Astana), join your small group on an epic exploration from Kazakhstan, through mountainous Kyrgyzstan, the remote lands of Tajikistan, Islam-influenced Uzbekistan, all the way to grand Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. For those counting, that’s five Stans. These vast lands are still oft bypassed, despite offering outstanding beauty and fascinating sights. The allure lies in the heritage of the Silk Road, where ideas, culture and people flowed from East to West, and in the soaring mountain landscapes that still play host to a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Journey through cities featuring reminders of Soviet occupation and out into the stunning wilderness, where ancient history and welcoming hospitality will illuminate a region often left out of the tourist light. Central Asia doesn’t get much more comprehensive than this.
Breakfast Included: 38 Lunches Included: 8 Dinner Included: 10
Welcome to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm in the hotel lobby. Recently renamed Nur-Sultan in honour of the long serving first president, the city was purpose built to become th capital city of Kazakhstan in 1997. Similar to Washington D.C. in the United States or Canberra in Australia, Nur-Sultan is a planned city with the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa as its master mind. Now, Nur-Sultan is one of the most vibrant cities in Central Asia. If you arrive early, take the time explore and admire the futuristic city skyline. Join your leader in the evening for an included local dinner tonight.
This morning, head off on a city tour with your leader and see some of the most impressive designs of this ambitious new city. Visit Nur-Astana Mosque, built in 2005 – with its capacity of 5000 worshippers inside and an additional 2000 outside it is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia. Then you'll stop at Palace of Peace & Reconciliation, a pyramid shaped conference hall that's considered to be Astana's symbolic center. You'll also visit the President's Culture Center which houses an array of exhibits that tell of the past, present and future of Kazakhstan, and of course, as its name suggests, the many achievements of it's President. The rest of the day is free to spend as you wish.
Today, take an early morning flight from Nur-Sultan to Kyzyl Orda (approximately 1.5 hrs) and from here you'll head to one of the most unique destinations on this trip, Baikonur (approximately 3.5 hrs). Located on the desert steppe of Kazakhstan, Baikonur has been leased to the Russian Federation until 2050. The town was originally constructed to service a huge space base that dispatches astronauts and supplies (and during the Soviet Union, cosmonauts) to the International Space Station. Firstly named Zarya (Russian for sunrise) it was renamed Baikonur by Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1995. We will have some free time this afternoon and evening before our in depth tour of the sights tomorrow.
Get ready for a full day of exploration today. Visit the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s first and largest operational spaceport. Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, was launched from here. Stop in at the nearby museum where you’ll see a range of space artifacts, and check out the cottage once occupied by Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to ever venture into outer space.
Today is another travelling day, this time by train. Drive back to Kyzyl Orda and from there it's around 7 hours to the next destination – Turkistan. Grab some snacks, sit back and relax as the epic landscape rushes by. Located in southern Kazakhstan, the city of Turkistan contains more historical relics and cultural sites than any other place in the country. Your train will arrive in the late afternoon. We'll visit the main attraction of the Yasaui Mausoleum tomorrow morning, but you'll have the option to see it illuminated at night today.
Turkistan – Shymkent/Overnight train
Head out on a city tour this morning, the highlight of which is a visit to the Kozha Akhmed Yasaui Mausoleum, Kazakhstan’s most iconic building. The 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 entry ticket. Continue the journey to Shymkent (approximately 4 hours) by private vehicle, stopping at the ancient settlement of Otrar on the way. It was first excavated in 1969 and has a history dating back to the first century AD. Remnants of palaces, mosques and bathhouses 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 some time to spend in Shymkent before boarding the overnight train (approximately 11 hours) to Almaty.
Altyn-Emel National Park
Arrive in Almaty, grab some breakfast and drive the 240 km (approximately 3.5 hours) out of town to the spectacular Altyn-Emel National Park, where you will spend the next two 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 you may be lucky enough to spot during your time here. The program may vary depending on the weather and 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 of hunting, farming and celebrations.There are also the Besshatyr Burial Mounds, which date from the sixth century BC when this area was a shrine of the ancient Saks people. Tonight you'll stay in a simple guesthouse within the national park where lunch and dinner is included.
Altyn-Emel National Park – Almaty
Explore the sights not visited yesterday, of which the best-known is the Singing Barkhan – a sand dune extending 3km and up to 120m high. It gets its name from the way the fine sand hums in windy weather and 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. These mountains have revealed preserved remains of prehistoric animals including giant rhinos, crocodiles and turtles, and many compare the huge, conical mountains to the man-made Egyptian pyramids. Return to Almaty tonight after a full day in the park.
Today embark on a full-day guided city tour of Almaty. 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 in the world. Visit Central Square and the colourful Zenkoff Cathedral in historic Panfilov Park, dedicated to the 28 guardsmen who died defending Moscow against German tanks in WWII. Check out the fascinating Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments and the State Historical Museum, which features a great collection of ancient relics. Finally, summit Kok Tobe Hill for great views over the city before returning to the hotel after a long but fulfilling day.
Almaty – KAZ/KGZ Border Crossing – Karakol
Today before saying goodbye to Kazakhstan, stop at spectacular Charyn Canyon (approximately 4 hours' drive). The colorful formations of different shapes and sizes are no less impressive than the Grand Canyon in the United States, (though it's much smaller!). Continue to the border and enter the mountainous nation of Kyrgyzstan. Tonight you'll stay in the peaceful town of Karakol.
This mainly Russian town was officially founded on 1st of July in 1869 by the military. At this time the town already had a lage population of military officers, explorers from the Russian Geographical society, merchants and artisans. The town’s Soviet name was Przhevalsk after the Great Russian explorer of Central Asia and China, Nikolai Przhevalsky. His last expedition ended here and he is buried on the lakeshore near Karakol. Stroll along Karakol's streets spotting Russian-style 'gingerbread' houses. Visit the Dungan Mosque, Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, a local market and the Przhevalsky Museum. After lunch, drive for about 1 hour for a hike (approx. 2 hours) in the picturesque Jety Oguz Valley, aka Seven Bull Valley. Your leader will guide you through the forest to a waterfall (with jaw dropping panaromic views). Return to Karakol for the night.
Today is a full day's drive to Bishkek along the northern shore of Issyk Kul – the second largest alpine lake in the world after lake Titicaca in South America. The views are lovely along the way, especially seeing Issyk Kul surrounded by snow capped mountains. On the way, you'll stop at Cholpan Ata, visit a petroglyph's site and take a short boar ride onto the lake to enjoy its sheer size and scale. Arrive in Bishkek in the late afternoon.