Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6pm on Day 1. You can arrive at any time as there are no activities planned until this important meeting; please ask the hotel reception where it will take place. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. 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. We will also collect copies of your passport, visas and migration cards. The capital of the most populous country on earth, Beijing is quickly shedding its historical face in favour of modernity. However, there are still plenty of places to go that will give you a great insight into the nation's ancient past as well as sights that showcase China's contemporary culture
Walk the Mutianyu Great Wall (approx 2 hrs drive from Beijing). An incredible piece of engineering, it stretches 6,000 km westwards from the mountain ridges north of Beijing. It was originally constructed to protect Chinese empires from the 'barbarians' of the north and even though it failed in this purpose, it's still without a doubt one of the country's most remarkable achievements and an iconic destination. Please note that the wall is quite steep in places so make sure you have some appropriate footwear for this activity but it's up to you how far you walk once up on the wall. It's a steep climb to the wall itself so take the cable car to the top and back for a more leisurely experience and great views.
Explore Tiananmen Square - the largest downtown square in the world. It covers an area of 44 hectares, big enough to hold one million people. From the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the north to the southern Front Gate, it measures 880 metres, and from the Museum of Chinese History in the east to the Great Hall of the People in the west, it's about 500 metres. The Forbidden City is the former home to China's imperial rulers. Take a guided tour of the palaces, buildings and seemingly never-ending grand courtyards. Depart on our overnight hard sleeper train to Xi'an (approx 12 hrs). Train travel in China may not be entirely luxurious but it's certainly one of the best ways to come face to face with the country and its people as it's the main form of transport for locals.
The imperial centre of China for 2,000 years, Xi'an is now a vibrant, modern city dotted with many interesting historical sites. A monument pays homage to the fact that this was the start of the famous ancient trading route of the Silk Road and the city is still surrounded by city walls. Visit Xi'an's most famous site - the Terracotta Warriors. It takes around an hour to get there and we'll hear all about this incredible archaeological find, discovered by farmers digging a well in 1976 after being buried for thousands of years. These clay statues of soldiers, horses and chariots all standing in battle formation were commissioned by the emperor of the Qin dynasty as part of his mausoleum and a number of pits are now on view to the public. There's a lot to do here in Xi'an and little time so you'll have some tough decisions to make on how to best spend your free time. For a different view of the city, climb to the top of the Bell or Drum Towers. The Bell Tower is in the centre of downtown Xi'an where the city's four main roads - Bei, Nan, Dong and Xi Dajie (North, South, East and West Avenues) - converge. Originally built in 1582 and restored in 1739, the tower was used to announce the time of day and serve as a watchtower. The previous Bell Tower, dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), stood two blocks to the west. The Drum Tower marks the entrance to the Muslim Quarter. It no longer contains the giant drum once used to signal the closing of the city gates, though it does retain some good views, including one of the Great Mosque. One of the oldest mosques in China, the Great Mosque in Xi'an features an unusual blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture. Still in use today, the mosque serves as a place of worship for Xi'an's large muslim population, made up predominantly of the Hui minority. Although non-Muslims are not allowed within the main hall itself, a visit during one of the five daily prayer times adds another dimension of spirituality, no matter what your religion.
Start the two-night train journey westwards towards Turpan (approx 36 hrs). For a bit of extra comfort we travel soft sleeper class on this leg. These are closed compartments with two-tiered bunk beds (4 to a compartment) - sheets, pillows and a blanket are provided. Luggage storage space is inside the cabins. While we always try to have our groups staying together there may be times where due to ticket availability the group will be staying in different compartments and carriages. If the group number does not divide into four then you can also expect that some group members will be sharing a compartment with other travellers. Stock up at the supermarket before boarding to picnic on board and make sure to bring something extra to share with your fellow travellers, both locals and from your group. Please note that the train can get very hot and dusty as we cross the desert and some trains may not have functioning air-conditioning
It's a long journey across the desert and it can get very hot and dusty, but it's a great chance to watch the landscape change as we head to one of the most remote regions of China. Practice your Mandarin, learn some Uyghur with your travelling companions or learn some local card games. Very few foreigners travel this route, so don't be surprised if our group is the centre of attention and locals are excited to try out their English with you. We follow the path of ancient Silk Road caravans and learn about the unique Muslim Uyghur people of the region. The Silk Road was an interconnected series of ancient trade routes across the Asian continent, namely connecting Xi'an with Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. It extended 8,000 km over land and sea. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilisations of China, Egypt, Persia and Rome, and helped to lay the foundations for the modern world. Our train follows one of these routes past the ancient cities of Lanzhou, Jiayuguan and Hami. There aren't many stops on the way long enough to get off and stretch our legs but we may be lucky enough to find some vendors on the platforms selling local specialities such as seasonal fruits.
Once an important staging post on the Silk Road, Turpan is an attractive oasis town famous for its vineyards, stone fruits, melons and the nearby Flaming Mountains. The country roads on the outskirts are lined with poplars and lovely old mud brick dwellings of the Uyghur people, while the modern 'inner' town has shiny new buildings, spacious streets and public squares. Visit some of the town's many attractions. Depending on the season, these could include the ruined city of Jiaohe, the Bezeklik Buddhist caves and the ancient Karez underground irrigation system, which still provides water for the agricultural needs of the area. In free time during the evening, choose to join the locals on the square for socialising or visit one the night market for all the flavours of the region and plenty of interaction. There's also a great cultural show held at a nearby hotel where you can witness the fast-paced drumming and dancing traditional to the Uyghur people (and don't be surprised if you are asked to join in!)
Visit the old Uyghur village of Tuyoq where we enjoy a family-style lunch. The grape trellises draped around the city provide welcome shade in the summer months - temperatures can easily reach 45C here!
Return to the station to take our next train journey to Kashgar (approx 24 hrs). Please note that while this is a hard sleeper train journey, the carriages used are often double-decker with compartments for four people. The compartments are smaller than on our previous trains with little luggage storage space so bigger bags will need to be kept on your bed.
Kashgar is very much a frontier town, quickly developing to take advantage of its geographical location right in the heart of Central Asia. From Kashgar, roads lead into Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and beyond. There are few signs that you are still in China - other than the the country's largest Chairman Mao statue, that is. This once ancient city is quickly modernising. In 2011, the Chinese government started rapid demolishing of the Old Town of Kashgar due to being overcrowded, with poor drainage and vulnerable to earthquakes thus relocating Uighur families to newly built apartments. It's hard to predict what will be left in this area in the coming years.
The town's main landmark is the Id Kah Mosque and its surrounding square, from which dusty old lanes lead off, crammed full of shops, food stalls and Uyghur locals living a lifestyle virtually unchanged for a hundred years.
Take advantage of the proximity to Pakistan by having a meal of curry and chapattis at a Pakistani café, play a round or two with the lads handing out at the open door pool tables on Id Kah Square, get lost meandering down lanes and alleyways, stopping at stalls selling tandoori-baked bagels or mulberry juice, learn some funky moves at a Uyghur disco or visit some of the city's holy sites.
Kashgar's main attraction is undoubtedly the Sunday Bazaar, which we'll visit during our stay. Now much modernised, it's divided into two sections - the Downtown Bazaar, which sells clothing, household goods, produce and everything else you could imagine, and the Animal Bazaar just outside the city. We travel by taxi as a group first to the Animal Bazaar to see the frantic bargaining and bustle of local herdsmen and farmers trading and bartering for sheep, goats, cows and even taking donkeys for a 'test drive'. Then return to the city to visit the main bazaar and mingle with the traders and shoppers at your own pace, bringing the legends of one of the world's great trading towns to life.
Depart by private bus for our journey into the seldom-travelled country of Kyrgyzstan, a nation that still embraces nomadic traditions and extends some of the warmest hospitality you'll find anywhere in the world. We'll be travelling for around 11 hours, including about 7 hours of driving, plus border formalities (which can require a lot of patience and plenty of waiting). Cross the breathtaking Torugart Pass (3570 m) high in the Tian Shan, slated as the most exciting route into Central Asia - take note of the changing landscape between China and Kyrgyzstan, and drive down to Tash Rabat (3500 m), a beautifully preserved 14th-century caravanserai. We meet our Kyrgyz guide and driver at the Kyrgyzstan side of the border, they will be with us all the way until we leave for Uzbekistan. There's very little public transport in Kyrgyzstan so to make the most of our time here we have a private van for our journeys. It can be a rough ride in places and often gets quite cold as we ascend higher into the mountains, even in mid summer, so make sure you bring some warm clothes. Stay in our first yurt camp. Yurts are the traditional dwellings of the Kyrgyz people, made of felt and tarpaulins on a round frame. Sleeping arrangements are on a multi-share, mixed gender basis with mattresses on the floor. It can get very chilly in the evenings so there's a stove for heating and plenty of blankets. Our dinner and breakfast are taken in the local caretaker's home - sitting on the floor at the low tables that are customary in this region. There are no bathroom facilities save for the outdoor toilet and the icy mountain stream nearby for an invigorating morning splash! Look out for marmots popping up from their burrows on the surrounding hillsides and take a hike to the top of the hills for a view of the magnificent openness of the virtually uninhabited landscape around us. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!
Take the short walk to the caravanserai with our guide to learn about the Silk Road and its travellers who once came through here many years before us. Then board our bus for the ride to Song-Kol Lake, one of the largest lakes in the country (approx 7 hours, 280 km). The roads in Kyrgyzstan see little regular maintenance so even short distances can take a full day and the pass to Song-Kol is not open all year round. When the road to Song-Kol is impassable we will travel to a different destination today - your leader will confirm this with our local partners on arrival in Kyrgyzstan. All driving times are approximate - weather, road conditions and stops along the way will all vary from trip to trip. On the way to Song-Kol we stop for an optional lunch at Naryn, one of the few sizeable townships in the area. Parts of our drive stay at around 3000m above sea level and, like most of our journeys in Kyrgyzstan, offer sensational views and landscapes. As we have our own private van and driver we can stop at the best photo opportunities and really enjoy the ride to the maximum! We arrive in Song-Kol in the late afternoon. This beautiful alpine lake is considered a sacred place for many Kyrgyz people as well as one of the best summer pastures for nomadic herders. In mid summer you will see many flocks of sheep, goats and herds of horses watched over by nomadic herdsmen and their families. Tonight we stay in traditional Kyrgyz yurts once more. Our dinner tonight is included and we share it together banquet style in our yurt.
This morning we have breakfast together at our yurt camp. Then board our bus and descend from the mountains to the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek (7 hours) Enroute stop at Kochkor where women make a variety of different felts used for making traditional Kyryz carpets. There may be a chance to visit the Museum of Felt which has a good selection of souvenirs from this area. Once in Bsihkek, we need to visit the Uzbekistan Consulate to finalise our visas, which will be picked up the following day. Bishkek is a relaxed city of wide streets and handsome houses, and locals boast that it has more trees per person than any other Central Asian city. With plenty of parks and gardens to shelter its inhabitants from the intense summer heat, and many monuments from the country's Soviet past, a walking tour with our local guide is a great way to experience the contemporary face of an ancient nation. TsUM Department Store in the city centre is renowned for having the best range of Kyrgyz souvenirs for some final shopping. If nightlife is your thing, brave the bouncers to join the throngs of young people at one of Bishkek's raucous night clubs. Check out the National Museum, which can't hide from the fact that it used to be the National Lenin Museum - the upper floors with the collections of Soviet memorabilia and murals are a clear giveaway. Bishkek is the only chance for internet access in Kyrgyzstan, and hopefully hot showers in our hotel just outside of the city centre. We have a chance to share an optional group dinner with some of the elderly ladies or 'babushkas' that Intrepid leaders sponsor through the Babushka Adoption project. There are many elderly people in Kyrgyzstan without family support; the majority are ethnic Russians whose families left the country after the break up of the Soviet Union. With state pensions too low to ensure a good quality of life, Babushka Adoption provides a supplement to their monthly income, as well as social and moral support to many elderly people in Bishkek and other cities in Kyrgyzstan. Our babushkas rarely get the chance to eat at a restaurant or socialise so look forward to the opportunity to meet out groups!
After checking out of the hotel and collecting our Uzbek visas we then have a short walking tour of the city centre with our local guide. After lunch in the capital we continue our explorations of this magic country and set off to the Chong Kemin National Park (150 km east from Bishkek 3hours). Chong Kemin Valley is a famous for its perfectly preserved ecosystem, which is confirmed by the incredible number plants and animals inhabiting the territory. We will pass several villages and beautiful meadows which bloom spectacularly with flowers in spring. Tonight we stay in a local guesthouse offering great views of the mountains and traditional home cooked food.
In the morning after breakfast there is an opportunity to hire local herdsmen and horses for a 1-2hr ride which will take you to less seen corners of the park. Travellers should keep in mind that horse riding is optional and undertaken at your own risk.
It is important to note that horse riding is usually not covered by travel insurance, horses and saddles may not be as you are accustomed to in your own country and helmets are not available. Another impoirtant consideration is that outside of Bishkek medical facilities are virtually non-existent. It can take up to a few days to reach any modern facilities should you require medical attention whilst on the road.
We board our van after lunch to head to one of the main natural attractions in the country - the massive alpine lake of Issyk Kul (4 hours). The southern part of Issyk Kul is less developed than the north which is a favourite holiday spot for Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Russian tourists. While the north has many resorts, boarding houses and vacation homes, the south is much more tranquil with wild beaches and undisturbed views.
On the way we will stop for lunch in Bokonbayevo village and continue to the Valley of Fairytales". This valley is characterised by weird colourful clay and sand rock formations. Tonight we stay in a simple but clean local guesthouse in Tamga Village. This is where Soviet cosmonauts used to come to recuperate after their journeys into outer space!"
Once we've finished breakfast we continue driving, following the shore of the lake to the Barskoon Gorge region. Here we have a chance to see a waterfall and the stunning natural beauty of Jeti Orgyz and Barskoon Gorges. We will stop for a picnic lunch before arriving in the frontier town of Karakol in the late afternoon. Karakol was formerly called Przhevalsk after the Russian explorer who died here while preparing for an expedition to Tibet. Today it's a city of around 75,000 near the eastern tip of Issyk Kul but set back from the lake nearer to the mountains. We stay in a guest house here with the chance of a shower and if we are lucky, hot water. Take the chance to wander around the tidy streets, some with Russian-style painted wooden cottages. For dinner tonight, we may try Russian or Dungan (Chinese Muslim), different flavours than previous meals over the last few days.
Following breakfast at our guesthouse we visit the main sights in Karakol. The first is the Holy Trinity Cathedral, built by the Russian Orthodox community here and housing the holiest icon in the country - the icon of the Tikhvin Virgin. It has survived numerous revolutions, riots and revolts leading to the belief that Issyk Kul will be under god's protection as long as the icon remains here. We visit is the wooden Dungan (Chinese Muslim) Mosque, built entirely without nails and in fascinating oriental style with its ornamented facades and eaves. Our last stop before heading back to Issik Kul's shores will be museum of great Central Asian explorer N. Przhevalsky Our drive today takes us along the northern shore of Issyk Kul to complete our circumnavigation of the lake (2.5 hours).
We start the day with a visit to Cholpon Ata's petroglyphs. This fascinating sight is a field of boulders carried down from the mountains by glaciers and streams over thousands of years and the carved by the ancient inhabitants of the region with symbols, animals and pictures. A 250 km drive (5 hours) will bring us back to Bishkek where we'll stop for farewell lunch with our guide and driver. We then head to the airport (40 minutes). Bishkek Manas airport is uniquely home to both the country's main international airport and a US military base so don't be surprised to see US airforce planes parked side by side with commercial carriers. Fly to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan (approx 1 hr). After going through the lengthy immigration and customs procedures we take taxis for the short ride to our hotel. The largest city in Central Asia with a population of over 2 million, Tashkent is a mix of Russian and Uzbek style, an indication of the fact that for many years it was a key city of the USSR. Extravagant mosques, both ancient and new sit alongside modern highways and Soviet monuments. Whereas the highlights of Kyrgyzstan are its landscapes and nomadic culture, Uzbekistan's gems are in its architecture and ancient civilisation. The country has strong links to Persia which are visible in the Islamic buildings that we'll see here and later on our trip.
The Tashkent city tour will be accompanied by a local guide for to learn more about the city's fascinating history and see some of the key sights. As well as visiting the museum complex that houses the worlds oldest Koran we also travel by metro to Chorsu Bazaar. This extensive market spills out of the photogenic trading domes into the surrounding streets and squares, with all kinds of goods on sale from fresh produce, to spices, dried fruit and nuts, dairy products, cooked food stalls, household goods, clothing and hot bread. Some recommendations for things to see in your free time are the Applied Arts Museum for those interested in the carpets, ethnic costumes, embroidery and other traditional arts of the region; the Amir Timur (Tamerlane) Museum which depicts the story of this national hero's life and curiously displays what are claimed to be his actual eyebrows; a tour of the opulent Opera and Ballet Theatre and maybe staying on to see one of the performances in the evening; or exploring the maze of dusty streets with their small mosques and mud brick houses in what's left of Tashkent's Old Town.
Today we can leave our main luggage behind at the hotel and pack a smaller bag to carry for the next 5 days until we return to Tashkent. Take taxis to the station to board a local train to Samarkand (approx 4 hrs). Please note that due to train schedules, the order of visiting Samarkand and Bukhara may be reversed on some departures. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Samarkand remains one of the most attractive in Central Asia despite a turbulent history of war and earthquakes. The city blossomed under Amir Timur, known in the west as Tamerlane, a tyrannical 14th-century ruler. A lover of art, Timur was responsible for the colourful domes and exquisite minarets that now form the city's skyline. Although Samarkand fell into disrepair during the Soviet days, restoration is slowly progressing and the sights here are a photographer's dream.
Join a local guide for an in-depth tour of Samarkand's sights, first heading to the incredibly extensive Shah I Zindah Mausoleum complex - a holy site for local Muslims and where the Prophet Mohammed's cousin is buried. From there we walk to the massive Bibi Khanum Mosque, no longer functioning but impressive in its proportions and extravagance. We cover the short distance to the Guri Amir Mausoleum by taxi to see Amir Timur's final resting place before finishing at the most spectacular of all - the Registan. The Registan is probably the most recognisable of all Central Asia's monuments. The facades of the two medressas facing the central square are decorated in elaborate mosaic, tiles and intricate geometric brickwork, flanked by towering minarets and topped by azure-hued domes. The interior of some of the buildings are just as impressive and there's so much to explore, including the many handicraft and souvenir stalls in the courtyards and rooms. We see some of the main rooms and have a chance to ask our local guide for interesting insights before having time here on our own to marvel at our own pace.
Travel by private transport to the town of Shakhrisabz (approx 3 hrs). Shakhrisabz is the birth place of Tamerlane and while not nearly as spectacular as Samarkand in terms of sights, the ruins of the once immense Ak-Saray Palace will challenge our imaginations to envisage what a truly powerful leader he once was. Climb to the top of Ak Saray's remaining entrance portal for views of the neatly-laid city stretching into the distance. Our stay here is a great chance to see typical Uzbek town life as we take a walk around the shady streets and spend time with a local family. We stay in a large family home in the centre of town and while only limited English is spoken, their warm welcome crosses any language barrier. Rooms here are multishare and we share the basic bathroom facilities with the family. We also try our hand at some Uzbek cooking, joining our hosts in preparing the evening meal - perhaps some plov (rice cooked with meat, spices and carrots) or dolma (rice and meat wrapped in vine leaves). Enjoy our meal in the family courtyard and sip green tea as the sun goes down.
Take our private van further to Bukhara (approx 4 hrs) - a favourite Silk Road city for many travellers. Meet our local guide for a walking tour around the beautiful Old Town, past beautifully restored mosques, medressas and covered markets - a real open-air museum of the city's history. There's plenty of time to explore the artisan shops and wander the narrow twisting streets and alleyways on your own. This is one of the best places to pick up some local handmade souvenirs such as embroidered hangings and cloth, silk, carpets, pottery, woodwork, miniature paintings and jewellery. Don't expect it to be cheap however as each item takes painstaking labour to create and many of the sellers are the artists themselves.
We have the option of visiting our friends from Bright Beam Women's Crisis Centre at their home for a family dinner. The ladies of Bright Beam do amazing work promoting human rights for women in difficult family situations in the face of tremendous obstacles from the government and cultural tradition. We have the chance to learn about their work, perhaps buy some handcrafts from the women they support and contribute to their cause while having a home-cooked meal together. In the evening you can join the locals and other travellers around Lyabi Hauz, a pool of water surrounded by ancient mulberry trees in the Old Town's centre. Have a meal here of shashlyk (roasted meat on skewers) with non bread and green tea, head to the charming puppet show in the theatre nearby or see tradition meet contemporary culture at the nightly fashion show across the plaza.
Travel to Tashkent by train (approx 4 hrs). Arriving back in Tashkent we check back into our hotel and have the option of heading out for a final optional group dinner at a local restaurant chosen by your leader to celebrate the completion of our incredible journey.
There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart our accommodation at any time. Please check the 'Finishing Point Hotel' section for checkout times and luggage storage possibilities. Please note that your visa will be valid for a maximum of two days after your trip finishes so unless you have booked additional accommodation through Intrepid at the time of your trip booking, you'll need to depart Uzbekistan by that time.