If you are arriving into Beijing on Day 1, there will be one group transfer arranged from the airport to the joining hotel. We will do our best to ensure any wait time at the airport is minimised. If you are not arriving on Day 1, or are arriving outside of a reasonable timeframe of the group transfer (9am-5pm) and would like to arrange a private transfer from the airport, please ask our staff for current prices. This evening you will meet with the rest of the group in the hotel lobby for a trip briefing (your guide will advise you of the meeting time) before you head out for dinner.
We will make an early morning start today to explore the Great Wall at the Mutianyu section. This is approximately a 1.5 hour drive outside of Beijing, slightly further than the popular and very busy Badaling Gate section. On arrival we will have the option to complete a 2 -3 hour walk along this beautiful section of the wall. Mutianyu is renowned for its Ming Dynasty guard towers and superb views. The scene here is as one would expect of one of the world’s great man made wonders, with huge steep ramparts criss crossing this mountainous area. Those deciding not to undertake the walk will be able to enjoy this section of the wall by cable car. The Great Wall of China is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is one of the world’s most unusual and awesome sites. Commenced 2000 years ago, it was built as a defence line to keep out invaders, along the course of several thousand kilometres. The Emperor Qin Shihuang unified the various northern walls into the Great Wall we see today. We return to Beijing in the evening for a traditional Peking Duck dinner.
This morning we visit the beautiful Forbidden City, which is a masterpiece of 5000 years of Chinese civilisation and still vividly displays the power and prestige of the former dynasties. Sprawling over acres, the City is a magnificent group of palaces, pavilions, courtyards and deep terracotta walls. Ornately furnished palace rooms, priceless artworks and treasures are all now open to the public after 500 years of seclusion. Time permitting we will also visit the Summer Palace. In the evening there is an option to see an acrobatic show.
This morning has been set aside for leisure time to rest or catch up on shopping. Our local guides will be happy to make suggestions and organise arrangements as required. In the afternoon, we transfer to the train station for our overnight journey to Xi’an.
Xi'an is the traditional starting point of the Silk Road. Today the old walled city of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is a vivid example of the old and new China. The modernized new city bustles around the quaint, winding lanes of the Old Quarter, where old men can be seen smoking pipes as butchers pull their carcass-laden carts and hawkers sell their wares. We will tour the city wall and visit the Big Goose Pagoda which is a classic example of Chinese temple architecture. Built in 652AD it houses Buddhist scriptures brought back from India along the Silk Road. We also visit the fascinating Shaanxi Provincial Museum which houses a collection devoted to the Silk Road. There is also an option this evening to dine at a special dumpling restaurant, which is highly recommended and very unique.
The thousands of Terracotta Warriors who stand outside the tomb of Qin Shihuang, were uncovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. Each warrior stands over six feet tall and has individual features and characteristics. Some stand in a vanguard with crossbow and longbow bearers, others hold spears, daggers and axes at the ready. They are accompanied by dozens of horse-drawn carriages and enormous terracotta horses. The sight of the warriors arising from their muddy grave, some intact, others still submerged in the ground, is an extraordinary one. This evening we have the option to attend a Tang Dynasty Dance Show.
This morning we transfer to the station to catch the high speed train to Lanzhou. Camel caravans traversed the rugged and barren Province of Gansu, as they threaded their way along the Silk Road. The capital Lanzhou is one of the oasis towns the caravans stopped in along the way. It has since become an industrialised city and remains a hub for travellers to this day. On arrival we enjoy a simple noodle lunch before a visit to the Gansu Provincial Museum. Home to the "Cultural Relics of the Silk Road" exhibition, it has some beautiful artifacts and a skeleton of a giant mammoth. From Lanzhou we ascend out of the city smog and into the clean mountain air, passing through beautiful, mountainous scenery and fascinating microcosms of minority life in China as we head towards Linxia, one of the main religious, cultural and commercial centers of China's Muslim community.
This morning we transfer by bus and boat to Bingling Temple which are a series of grotts filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River. After visiting these fascinating grotts we transfer to the remote town of Xiahe (pronounced Shar-her), which takes approximately 1.5 hours. As we ascend further into the mountains we pass stupas identifying the beginning of the Tibetan minority area. On arrival in Xiahe you may notice the increase of altitude as the town is located at 2900m. In the afternoon, time permitting, we have the option to hire bikes and explore the valley further or you can explore the town by foot.
Within Xiahe is the enormous Tibetan Monastery of Labrang, an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhist monks and is second only in size to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Tibetan nomads dressed in their finest traditional clothing mingle with monks in bright pink robes and lamas in deep burnished saffron robes. Monks can be seen debating and deep in preparations for religious ceremonies, practicing ritual music and meditation. The Lamasery, built in 1709, has more than 10,000 rooms, where over 3,000 lamas were once accommodated. It has a collection of books exceeding 65,000 volumes. Watch out for the huge pot in the Lamasery yard in which four oxen can be cooked together.
This afternoon we transfer back to Lanzhou before we catch the overnight train to Jiayuguan. Our return journey is just as impressive as mountains give way to fields of wheat and orchards bursting with fruit. Depending on the season, we may stop at one of the many roadside stalls selling local fruit and nuts.
We continue our exploration of the maze of mosques, tombs, alley ways, palaces, fortresses and medressas (Muslim centers of learning). This afternoon there is time to relax, shop or simply wander the streets and observe the local way of life.
Overnight: Malika Khiva Hotel
We travel to Bukhara by coach (8-10 hours) through the desert, along ancient trading routes.
Overnight: Kavsar Boutique Hotel
Bukhara is an ancient city boasting 2500 years of vibrant history. It has been a centre of world learning, succumbed to Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane, and after the Silk Road waned, was a capital for despot Bukhara emirs. We have a full day tour of the mosques, medressas and souvenir shops of the old city. We will visit The Ark, the former Royal City and City Fortress that was the focus of the city for 2000 years, as well as Samanid's Mausoleum.
Overnight: Kavsar Boutique Hotel or similar
This morning we visit the former Summer Palace of the last emir before driving from Bukhara to the ancient city of Samarkand. Over the centuries this road has been travelled by Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane on their incredible journeys.
Overnight: Hotel City Samarkand
Jiayuguan is the western most point of the Great Wall. Built during the Ming dynasty, the wall is guarded by the famous Jaiyu Fort, known as “the most Impregnable Pass Under Heaven”. It was the last major stronghold of the empire to the west and remains an impressive and formidable sight. Then we're on to the Black Mountain to climb a restored section of the wall.
Dunhuang is home to China’s most magnificent Buddhist grottos. The grottos are set amidst mountainous towering sand dunes. The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddhist Grottos, are 1,000 metres long, and are filled with superb Buddhist art, dating from 366AD. Over 45,000 square metres of frescos in the nearly 500 caves record the life of the Buddha. They are one of the great sights of China. In the afternoon, transfer to Liuyan to board the bullet train to Turpan (4hrs). We will be met at the station and transferred to our hotel.
Please note: At Dunhuang Station all passengers and luggage are required to pass through a security check at the station entrance. Blades including pocket knives (Swiss Army style) and all products in pressurised containers (hairspray, deodorants etc) are banned and will be confiscated.
We leave the Great Wall and follow the snaking Silk Road into the desert through the Hexi (pronounced “Hersh”) Corridor. The drive from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang, another of the Silk Road’s oasis towns takes around five hours with the geographic boundaries of the Gobi Desert to the north and the Qilin Mountains to the south defining the Hexi Corridor. On the drive we will pass many beacon towers which were used to send messages along the Silk Road. Oasis meets desert at the Crescent Moon Spring, a lake miraculously lying in the midst of the Singing Sand Mountains. Despite the constantly shifting sands, the 100 meter lake has never been filled. The view from the top of the dunes is magnificent. We might be lucky enough to view a sunset from the Mingsha dunes, the tallest of which, Mingsha Mountain, is 250m high. The dunes make a beautiful backdrop to the city of Dunhuang.
This morning we board our 7:40am flight to Urgench, arriving at 9:20am for a full day of sightseeing in Khiva. The ancient walled city of Khiva is a stunning monument to the rich history of the region. Slave caravans, wild tribesmen and a harsh and unrelenting desert are all part of its tumultuous history. We spend the afternoon exploring the World Heritage Itchan - Kala (the walled inner town of the city) and the Pakhlavan Makhmud complex.
Overnight: Malika Khiva Hotel
The province of Xinjiang lies at the heart of the Eurasian continent. Skirting the hostile Gobi Desert it is a region of endless grassland, the Taklamakan Desert, snow peaked mountains, lakes, and primitive forests. We enter the Turpan basin, home of the Uighur (pronounced “Wee Ger”) people. The town of Turpan is broad and flat with low slung mud brick houses and open channels from which the Uighur draw their water. The slow pace and vast expanses of the surrounding desert and sky make Turpan a wonderful place for relaxation. Grape Valley is a small oasis of vineyards in the desert that we visit with its mazes of grapevines and mud brick buildings used for drying, before heading to Atsana Tombs and the ruins of Jiaohe. The tombs contain portraits of the dead of Gaochang painted on the walls with two well-preserved corpses housed in another. A visit to the Karez Underground Irrigation Channels are also a must. Constructed over 2000 years ago, the Karez are one of ancient China’s most remarkable public works. The 1000 wells that make up the system have been sunk to collect ground water from the melting snow of the Bogdashan Mountains. The water passes from the wells through underground channels to irrigate farms in the valley below, and is fed entirely by gravity.
Weather permitting, this morning we drive to the Ala-Archa National Park, where we can see magnificent scenery as we walk through the national park and enjoy a picnic-lunch. Later today we fly to Tashkent.
Overnight: Shodlik Palace Hotel
The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are picturesquely located on a cliff face overlooking a river valley. We visit them before driving on to Urumqi (approx. 3 hours). Situated at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains, Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. With the opening of the Silk Route, Urumqi became a junction for cultural exchange between the east and west. Today it is an interesting insight into Communist architecture.
Today we drive to Lake Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. Measuring 182 km long by 58 km wide, the lake appeared as a result of volcanic activity. It is heated from below by thermal springs and never freezes even in the depths of winter. In the summer the water temperature reaches 25-28 degrees centigrade (warmer than the air) and you can swim in the lake enclosed on all sides by the snowy peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains. Extremely deep and pleasantly warm, over the centuries the lake has been something of an oasis in this inhospitable mountain environment. With diverse flora and fauna Issyk-Kul Lake and the surrounding environments are rightly considered to be one of Central Asia's most remarkable locations.
We may have to say goodbye to some of the people in our group today as they will remain in China. This morning we will make an early start for the long day of travel ahead. Our bus will make the 63km journey to the new border post in about 2 hours. On arrival we must change to another bus for the 104kms to the old border post, which should take approx. 2.5 hours. Actual timings are dependent on weather conditions and the border staffs’ ability to process our departure from China and arrival into Kyrgyzstan. From the old border post we change vehicles again, and are met by our Kyrgyz guide for the crossing of the pass and the border formalities. The eight hour drive from here to Naryn is spectacular as we are in the Tian Shan mountains and on one of the worlds most remote high altitude roads. We will spend the night in a guesthouse or yurt should you so choose, which is basic but clean and comfortable. Please note that accommodation is very limited in Naryn and that the guesthouse/yurt is located within the town and not in a rural setting. *From our experience this day will be long and at times uncomfortable. We may arrive in Naryn anywhere between 8pm and midnight. Having your sense of humour and a flexible attitude is the order of the day, as is your spirit of adventure! Taking snacks in your daypack and perhaps a set of cards, is recommended.
Overnight: Khan Tengri or similar
Kashgar is a bustling market town which is prominent on the silk route, and is at the junction between the two main north/south arteries. Traders come from all over to sell their livestock, amongst thousands of different types of produce. Being populated by an overwhelming majority of Uygur people (93%), it seems on arrival that you have left China. This impression is quickly reversed on viewing the massive monument of Mao near the Idkah Square. Our time in Kashgar is spent predominantly at the markets where we can watch the traders dressed in their Sunday best (waistcoats and all), selling their sheep which were brought from miles away on their donkey cart. We will also wander through the different sections of the market, where hats, spices, kitchenware, carpets, musical instruments richly decorated, clothing and tailors, and almost any other products are sold. The Fragrant Concubines tomb will be visited in the afternoon together with the Idkah Mosque. Kashgar was the centre of the Great Game staged between Britain and Russia in their attempts to secure the Central Asian states.
From Urumqi we drive to one of the most impressive sights in China - Tianchi, or Heaven’s Lake. Set amid the Tian Shan Mountains below the imposing Bogda Peak (5445m). The deep blue lake is framed by fir trees and mountain peaks, and it is sprinkled with yurts and Kazak nomad summer camps. We return to Urumqi in the late afternoon and take an evening flight to Kashgar.
Today commence our sightseeing with the tomb of Tamerlane who made Samarkand his capital. He set about making it the richest city on earth by pillaging and destroying all other cities and removing their wealth and skilled traders to Samarkand. We will also visit Ulugbek observatory. We also take in the sights of the Registan complex, the remarkable market place of ancient Samarkand. It is enclosed by spectacular medressas on three sides. These huge buildings with domes and minarets covered in a mosaic of azure tiles were built from the 1400s. The Registan is one of the wonders of the ancient world. We visit another highlight of Samarkand - the huge Bibi-Khonum mosque. Tonight is the final night of our trip and therefore the perfect opportunity for one final dinner together to relive our epic journey.
Overnight: Hotel City Samarkand
Today we drive further through spectacular mountain scenery where the peaks are like knife edges, to the quaint town of Bishkek.
Overnight: Plaza Hotel Bishkek
This morning begins with an early transfer (~ 4hr drive) from Samarkand to Tashkent. We arrive in Tashkent by around lunch time. After lunch we start our sightseeing tour of Tashkent. Tashkent is a modern city of three million people but has a relaxed pace, and charming street side cafes. We start with a visit to the Old Town, including Osman's Koran - an essential part of Muslim historical and cultural heritage. Time permitting we will also visit the Courage Monument, Amir Temur Square - the city’s oldest square, and the Museum of Applied Art. In the evening, depending on your onward journey plans, you will be taken either to the airport or to the group hotel, and the trip concludes.