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Piles of Spices in a spice shop
© Zuyet Awarmatik / Unsplash

Silk Road: The Five 'Stans of Central Asia

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.

This thrilling 28-day adventure is offered through the award winning travel company Wild Frontiers Travel. Learn more here

© Wild Frontiers Travel
© Wild Frontiers Travel

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.


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.


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 pure-bred 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.


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.


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.


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.

© / Instagram
© / Instagram


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.

© Shirly Hamra / Flickr
© Shirly Hamra / Flickr


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.

© Mavluda Tashbaeva / Pexels
© Mavluda Tashbaeva / Pexels


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Discover the peaceful places of the country's capital © Nicole Ashley Rahayu Densmoor / Pexels
Discover the peaceful places of the country's capital © Nicole Ashley Rahayu Densmoor / Pexels


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.


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.


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.


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.


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, Imanjan and his family.


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.


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.


Departing Arslanbob, we aim to arrive by mid-afternoon 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.


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.


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.

Though many might not associate this region with mountainous vistas, those who do visit are delighted© Azamat Esenaliev / Pexels
Though many might not associate this region with mountainous vistas, those who do visit are delighted© Azamat Esenaliev / Pexels


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.


Today we’ll head to Ala-Archa, 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.


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.


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.

This exceptional itinerary is brought to you by Wild Frontiers. CHALLENGING PERCEPTIONS, INSPIRING CONNECTIONS

Wild Frontiers is an award-winning adventure travel company, founded in 1998 by travel writer Jonny Bealby. We specialise in stylish and original small group tours and tailor-made holidays worldwide.

They are firm believers that travelling is all about the experience and it’s in the details – the places you stay, the transport and route that gets you there, and the people you meet along the way – that make the trip; we therefore specialise in drawing on our own extensive local knowledge and array of contacts to give our clients the very best experience possible.