Ever wanted to travel to one of the least travelled parts of the world? Sick of the queues to see all the major attractions? Want to get bragging rights over your friends? Then join us for our Central Asian Summer Combo Tour through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
We will start in one of the most surreal cities on earth – Ashgabat, where we’ll take in the sites of what can only be called a real-life Sim City. From there we head to Avaza, the completely unused and almost deserted five-star beach resort, which also happens to be near one of the most amazing canyons in the world – Yangykala. We then journey to the mesmerising ‘Gates of Hell’ where we camp for the night next to the fiery crater.
Crossing the land border into Uzbekistan we’ll find ourselves in the centre of the Silk Road. After exploring the beautiful old cities of Khiva and Bukhara, we’ll go to Samarqand and see the famous Registan, before venturing to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s vibrant capital city, the highlight of which will surely be Tashkentland, Central Asia’s answer to Disneyland.
The next section of the tour takes us to Bishkek for Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day, beginning with the Buzkashi Horse Games (or “dead goat polo”) in the National Hippodrome in Bishkek. After experiencing some amazing national music, dance and food during the celebrations, we’ll leave Bishkek, and make our way into the phenomenal countryside of Kyrgyzstan, experiencing mountains and lakes and having the unique opportunity to spend a couple of nights sleeping in traditional yurts.
Despite Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty and nomadic culture though, we can’t forget that like the rest of Central Asia, this amazing country was part of the Soviet Union and there are still some fascinating relics of this to be explored. On the shore of Lake Issyk Kol, we’ll have the chance to visit an old Soviet heavy water factory, a Soviet brewery that is now responsible for Kyrgyzstan’s best-selling beer and a YPT exclusive outing to the Soviet Meteorology Station.
The LOI application process for Turkmenistan is quite complicated and time-consuming. For the best chance of approval, please get in at least 3 months in advance. Late applications are accepted but the approval rate goes down, in most cases you will get a full refund if the application is rejected.
Meet your local and YPT guides at Ashgabat International Airport.
Driving tour of Ashgabat’s main sites including Independence Park and Independence Monument, the Monument to the Constitution, the Arch of Neutrality, Lenin Park, Ertogrul Ghazi Mosque and the Alem Centre which is the complex that is home to the Wheel of Enlightenment, the largest indoor ferris wheel. And YES, for just $1, you can even take a ride!
Stop for lunch at Berkarar Shopping Centre, where you can go ice-skating, play in the games centre, ride a miniature double-decker bus, and even have a cappuccino in a hipster face (don’t get your hopes up too much about the cappuccino, it is still from a machine which has a “cappuccino” button).
Visit the university bookshop where you can find books written by and about the president, Ashgabat and Turkmenistan in English. They also have postcards and posters, and if you’re lucky they might even have a copy of the Ruhnama, the book written by Turkmenbashy.
Continue on to Nisa, a UNESCO site which was once the capital of the Parthian Empire.
Visit Anau on the eastern outskirts of Ashgabat and see the remains of Anau Fortress and Sheikh Jemaladdin Mosque which was destroyed in the 1948 earthquake.
Return to Ashgabat in the late afternoon.
Night tour of Ashgabat. With the white marble buildings lit up by brightly coloured neon lights, Ashgabat is a truly spectacular place after dark.
We’ll make a stop at the Palace of Happiness in the foothills of the Kopetdag Mountains, from where you can get a fantastic panorama of the whole city.
And another stop at the Altyn Asyr Sowda Merkezi, a new shopping centre in Independence Park which is in the shape of a pyramid, and the outside of which is covered in fountains and colourful lights. We’ll enjoy dinner at the Minara restaurant on the fifth floor, from which you’ll get 360 degree views of the city lights, whilst enjoying a nice cold draught beer.
Overnight in Ashgabat.
Day 2 – Tuesday August 21st – Ashgabat, Gates of Hell
Drive to Kipchak to see the resplendent Turkmenbashy Mosque, where Turkmenbashy is buried beside his mother, father and two brothers in their white marble mausoleum.
Continue on to Kow Ata, in the outskirts of Ashgabat. This natural underground thermal spring is said to have many medical attributes, but is also used by locals as a swimming hole and makes for a very fun and relaxing swim. Admission included.
After a revitalising swim in the lake, we’ll enjoy lunch at one of the shashlik restaurants just outside the entrance to the cave. Approximately $3-6 pp.
In the afternoon, drive 250km to Darvaza (The Gates of Hell) in 4WD’s.
Visit two other craters – one full of mud, one full of water.
Traverse the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert to get to Darvaza.
Watch the sunset over the fiery crater and experience dusk turn to dark at this breathtaking site.
Set up tents near the Gates of Hell and camp near the fiery crater.
Day 3 – Wednesday August 22nd – Ashgabat
Drive back to Ashgabat.
Free time in the afternoon.
Catch the overnight train to Turkmenbashy.
Day 4 – Thursday August 23rd – Yangykala Canyon, Avaza, Ashgabat
Arrive early in the morning at Turkmenbashy train station.
Head straight into the desert to Yangykala Canyon. Most Turkmens don’t even know that this place exists, but once you’ve been there you’ll start calling the Grand Canyon the “Pretty Good Canyon”. In 4×4’s, we’ll drive over the canyon walls, through the canyon itself, and up the other side, to an excellent vantage point from where you will be able to see all the shapes and colours of this spectacular natural phenomenon.
We will take a packed lunch with us so we can enjoy it at the canyons. You can either buy yourself something at the bazaar on the way, or we can organise a lunch box for approximately $7 pp.
Return to Turkmenbashy and take a driving tour of the beach resort of Avaza. Although the facilities are extravagant and the buildings futuristic, the town is somehow best described as a ghost town.
Fly to Ashgabat.
Overnight in Ashgabat.
Day 5 – Friday August 24th – Turkmenabat, cross the border to Uzbekistan, Bukhara
Fly to Turkmenabat in the morning.
Visit the Lebap Regional Museum. This museum is home to a fascinating array of taxidermy, dioramas, and huge models and murals of the surrounding area. Not to mention some very informative displays about the wheat production and oil production of Turkmenistan.
Cross the border into Uzbekistan and drive to Bukhara.
Overnight in Bukhara.
Day 6 – Saturday August 25th – Bukhara
Explore the main sites of Bukhara.
We’ll visit the Samanid Dynasty Mausoleum, Lyabi Hauz Square, Bolo-Hauz Mosque, the elegant blue-tiled Ulughbek Madrassa (Islamic school), the summer palace of Bukhara’s last Emir and much more.
On your way in and out of town you won’t be able to miss a huge structure that looks like a giant ark. Known as the Ancient Ark Fortress, this was the Palace of Bukhara’s Emirs, and parts of it are still open for us to visit.
Folklore Show in Nodir Devon Begi Madrassah in the evening.
Spend the night Bukhara.
Day 7 – Sunday August 26th – Bukhara, Samarqand
In the morning, enjoy some free time in Bukhara to look around anything you’d like to re-visit, or just relax.
Drive to Samarqand in the afternoon.
Arrive in Samarqand in the early evening and we’ll make our first stop for some wine tasting at the Khovrenko Winery, a small local wine factory with adjoining museum (admission not included).
Dinner at a local restaurant (included in the tour cost).
Day 8 – Monday August 27th – Samarqand
Explore the main sites of Samarqand.
Once known as the “Pearl of the Muslim World”, Samarqand is a city synonymous with the Silk Road, full of towering minarets, shimmering domes and home to a splendid technicolour bazaar, which you will have time to wander around and discover for yourself.
The highlight of your tour around Samarqand is likely to be the famous and spectacular Registan Square which is flanked by three beautifully decorated, sparkling blue mosaic madrassas. Once the city’s commercial centre, Registan Square is modern Samarkand’s centre piece and a pride of the Silk Road.
We’ll also pay visits to Biki Khanum Mosque, Siyab Bazaar, the grave of St. Daniel which is said to grow a foot in length every ten years, and the Afrasiyab Museum – a museum dedicated to the history of Samarqand, especially since the time of Alexander the Great’s Conquest.
Visit Romanenko Fashion Show House, a place that is difficult to describe. This small suburban house has been transformed into a completely unique textile workshop where thirty men and women redesign ancient Central Asian clothing into colourful, modern designs.
Free time in the evening.
Day 9 – Tuesday August 28th – Samarqand, Tashkent
Drive to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city.
Despite certain likenesses between Tashkent and Ashgabat, with their wide boulevards, artificially manicured lawns and pristine facades in front of crumbling buildings, Tashkent is a vibrant capital city with lots to do.
We’ll take several rides on the Tashkent Metro while we’re there, one of only two metro systems in Central Asia (the other one being in Almaty). As with most Soviet built metros, the stations are unnecessarily lavish, but Tashkent’s are particularly ornately decorated. Unfortunately the stations are considered as military installations and it is illegal to take photos inside them.
Having whetted our appetite by riding the metro, we’ll visit the Museum of Railway Techniques’. This outdoor museum is full of all sorts of old locomotives, and they don’t mind us climbing all over them. We can even take a little train ride around the train museum. You don’t have to be a train lover to enjoy this charming museum.
After dinner we can explore the central park of Tashkent and might even stumble across a winter amusement park.
Day 10 – Wednesday August 29th – Tashkent
Away from the grand avenues, we’ll explore the narrow lanes and mud brick houses and madrassahs of the old town, before visiting the huge Chorsu Bazaar, an incredible open-air complex.
Visit the Tashkent TV Tower for fabulous views of the city.
Not only does it have great views of the city, but if you’ve ever wondered about all the tv towers of the world, this is the place to find out about them. Several metre high models of the tallest tv towers flank the entrance to the building, and when you reach the top, smaller models of the rest of them line the walls.
You’ll most likely have tried plov by now, but nothing will prepare you for the Plov Centre. This gigantic hall, decorated as if for a wedding in the 1980’s, is set up for large numbers of people to eat plov in. Mixed and cooked just outside by an army of Uzbek women, it is some pretty good plov, but more than that, it is an exceptionally unique experience.
Visit Tashkent Land, Central Asia’s answer to Disneyland.
With it’s faded welcome sign, crumbling gift shop and creaky rides, this is definitely a step back in time. Most tourists don’t make it to this gem of Soviet infrastructure, but we just can’t resist it. If you’re really game you can try out the “Boomerang” rollercoaster, or if you’d like something a bit more relaxing you can take a ride on the “African tour”, a boat trip through the jungle land.
Fly to Bishkek in the evening and spend the night in Bishkek.
Day 11 – Thursday August 30th – Bishkek
We’ll spend our first day doing a walking tour of Bishkek, beginning with the Frunze Museum, dedicated to Mikhail Frunze, whom the city of Bishkek used to be named after (and why the airport code is still FRU!).
Marking our way to past Victory Square, the circus and Tsum, we’ll visit the Lenin Statue – not quite in its original position, but still in the centre of the city.
Our next stop will be Ala-Too Square, home to the National Museum of Kyrgyzstan and a large Kyrgyz flag. Although this flag isn’t quite as famous as neighbouring Tajikistan and Turkmenistan who have the world’s second and fifth tallest flagpoles, it is still impressive and every hour, on the hour, there’s a changing of the guards. The National Museum itself, which is especially unique because of the spectacular Soviet murals that cover the ceilings of the three storey museum, is unfortunately currently closed for reconstruction, but hopefully it will open again at some point soon.
We’ll continue on to Osh Bazaar, passing on the way the White House.
Experience some of Bishkek’s rapidly gentrifying nightlife, maybe at Save the Ales or Burger House.
Day 12 – Friday August 31st – Bishkek, Independence Day
Bishkek will come alive today with people from all over Kyrgyzstan coming for the Independence Day celebrations taking place all over the city.
Celebrations will begin in the centre of the city, in Ala-Too Square, with performances of traditional music and dance from many backgrounds, including Kyrgyz, Russian, Ukrainian, Dungan, Caucasian and of course some classic Central Asian pop.
Some years there is also a military parade with a whole host of helicopters, light aircraft, missiles, tanks, soldiers etc. And of course there will be the every-inspiring Presidential Speech.
In the afternoon you can have some free time to explore the city, or enjoy the atmosphere in the square. You may even like to attend a concert in the Bishkek Philharmonic Concert Hall (not included in tour price).
In the evening, when all the official celebrations are over, Ala Too Square becomes a giant dance floor, local pop stars take to the stage and Kyrgyzstan’s youth continue the party well into the evening.
And to top it all off, like any good celebration, there’ll be a fireworks show to end the night.
Day 13 – Saturday September 1st – Bishkek, Kok Boru Horse Games, Cholpon Ata Petroglyphs, Karakol
Leaving Bishkek we’ll drive towards Issik Kol, the world’s second biggest alpine lake and tenth biggest lake.
Our first stop will be to see a game of Kok Boru – a local game played on horseback, where the aim is to get a newly decapitated goat into the other team’s goal. They’ll also demonstrate other horseback sports such as shirtless wrestling.
If you’re game you can even have a go yourself, whether it’s just seeing whether you can pick up the dead goat, or getting on a horse and actually trying to play.
Our next stop will be in Cholpon Ata, on the northern side of the lake, where we’ll make a small detour into the mountains to visit the open-air petroglyph gallery.
Arrive in Karakol after about 5-6 hours of driving. Have dinner and spend the night in a homestay.
Day 14 – Sunday September 2nd – Karakol, Valley of the Flowers, Jetty Ögüz Gorge, Kyzyl Suu
After breakfast, we’ll take a tour of the town, with stops at the Dungan Mosque, shaped like a Chinese pagoda and the Russian Orthodox Chuch.
Visit the museum of N.M.Prjevalskii, a renowned Russian explorer of the 1800’s.
Leaving Karakol, we’ll begin the three hour drive towards Son Kol.
Stop at the Kyzyl Suu Soviet Health Resort, which although being a bit tired, is still functioning. There may be an opportunity to get a massage or take a dip in the pool (not included in tour price), but even if not you can enjoy taking a step back in time.
We’ll take a walk through the beautiful Kök-Zhaik area, which means “Valley of Flowers”, named for the poppies that are strewn all over the valley.
Our next stop will be Jetty Ögüz Gorge, which translates directly into English as “Seven Bulls” Gorge. The name comes from the 35km wall of seven intimidating red-brown cliffs that resemble angry bulls.
There will be several opportunities throughout the day to go on short hikes to viewing areas.
Spend the night in a mountain hut at Kyzyl Suu.
Day 15 – Monday September 3rd – Institute of Glaciers Foundation, Issik Kol
After breakfast with our host family, we’ll explore the nearby Soviet Meteorology Station and the Institute of Glaciers Foundation.
Beginning our descent back down the mountains, stop and have a dip at a small natural hot spring, right on the edge of the glacial river.
Leaving the mountains behind us, drive through the villages in the valley to Issik Kol Lake.
Meet our host family and spend the night in their yurt near the edge of Issik Kol Lake, the second largest alpine lake in the world.
Take a walk to the nearby old camp ground where the Soviet Young Pioneers held camps and retreats right up until the fall of the USSR, but now lies abandoned and overgrown. Assuming the local security guard lets us in, you can explore the dorms, industrial kitchens, shower block, theatre, and whatever else you can find.
Day 16 – Tuesday September 4th – Issik Kol Lake, Son Kol Lake
Before beginning the day, if you’d like to help clean up Kyrgyzstan’s beaches a little, we’ll take some bin bags down and spend an hour or so collecting rubbish from the shore of the lake. This isn’t compulsory!
Just 100m from our yurt camp, we’ll have the opportunity to visit a fascinating old Soviet heavy water factory. Opened in 1955, needless to say, the experiment was a disaster from the beginning. Enduring almost 30 years of issues and failures though, Manufacturing Workshop Number 7 wasn’t closed until 1982. Now it lies abandoned as a relic of one of the USSR’s many failed projects.
Begin the four hour drive to Son Kol Lake, a spectacular example of Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty. Set high in the mountains, the lake itself is in the middle of a fertile plateau, dotted with horses, sheep and yurts.
Stop in the town of Kochkor where we’ll visit the market, take a short walk through the streets, and have lunch in a homestay.
Tonight we’ll stay in a yurt again, this time near the edge of Son Kol Lake.
Depending on how early we arrive, you’ll have the opportunity to go horse riding, or just take a walk around the area (not included in tour price).
Day 17 – Tuesday September 5th – Son Kol Lake, Burana Tower, Bishkek
After breakfast we’ll leave Son Kol and start the drive back to Bishkek.
On the way we’ll make a stop at Burana Tower, a gem of Silk Road architecture, once the minaret of a mosque in Balassagan city.
Arrive in Bishkek in the afternoon. Free time until dinner.