Day 1: Beijing
Welcome to China, it's time to get acquainted with your group over oodles of noodles and begin your epic Silk Road adventure. Hop on a rickshaw and hit the markets to gorge on the eight cuisines of China. Forget saut ed scorpions, Beijing's unsung street food hero is the Donkey burger (L rou huoshao). Tender, flavoursome meat tossed with green chillies and fresh coriander squished into a warm flaky bun delish!
Feel the pulse of this bustling city as you ride through the patchwork of old and new. Visit imperial palaces, serene gardens, the ancient hutong district and people watch in Tiananmen Square. Add a day at the start of your journey if you wish to take an excursion out to the Great Wall.
Day 2: To Urumqi
Retrace the path of ancient Chinese caravans across the desert toward Urumqi. About halfway, we arrive at Jiayuguan, the most westerly pass through the Great Wall of China. The arid desert and snow-capped mountains provide the backdrop to the yellow garrison one of the oldest and most intact military buildings on the Great Wall. Known as the 'Gate of Sighs', travellers going east would have exhaled a sigh of relief, finally returning to their homeland. For those going west, a weary sigh would have marked the start of a very long and unknown journey.
Day 3: Urumqi
An emerald gem nestled at the foot of the Tien Shan Mountains, Urumqi has a surprising urban centre. As China's most westerly city and gateway to Central Asia and Europe, the city has always been a multicultural melting pot. Get an understanding of the culture through a visit to The Xinjiang Uygur Regional Museum, then browse local crafts and produce in the Grand Bazaar before following your nose to dine on Urumqi's unique culinary scene. Alternatively, join the locals in the People's Park for a little Tai Chi, or take an excursion to the crystalline waters of Tianchi Lake the Heavenly Lake of Tian Shan.
Days 4-5: To Almaty
Get ready to cross your first border into Kazakhstan. We'll climb upwards to Dzungarian Gate, a historically significant mountain pass between China and Central Asia. Merchants and migrants have been using the mountain pass for centuries as it was the only gateway through the mighty Tien Shan Mountains.
While on board, get to know your group better and plan what sights and activities you wish to experience on the journey ahead.
Day 6: Almaty and to Tashkent
Kazakhstan gets its swagger from a natural abundance of oil. Its cities are modern and surprising. Kazaks are a Turkic people descended from Medieval Mongol tribe. These ancient roots and the geographical position have influenced a distinct Eurasian culture both European and Asian influences can be felt, witnessed and tasted as you explore the city.
Kick things off with a cable car up Kok-Tobe mountain for a whopper of a view before strolling around the leafy streets and soaking up local life before hopping on a train to Tashkent.
Day 7: Tashkent
Over 2000 years old, the original Tashkent was all but lost after a severe earthquake in the 60s. Under Soviet rule, it was quickly rebuilt, creating a bizarre concoction of Soviet blocks, wide boulevards, stately statues and classical Russian architecture sitting seamlessly alongside stunning mosques, mudbrick houses and bustling bazaars. The multi-ethnicity found here is part of what makes it a great Central Asian city.
Taste the oldest Uzbek dish, Plov (aka Pilaf), a rice dish with its roots firmly in Persia. There are hundreds of variations across the region so get your group together for a tasting sesh of Tashkent's finest.
Days 8-9: Samarkand
As old as Rome and one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, you'll quickly fall under the spell of this sapphire spangled Silk Road city. Kick things off in Registan Square for the immediate WOW factor. The beautiful tiled square is bordered by three intricately painted madrassas dating back to the 15th century an enduring symbol of the city's role as a scholarly centre.
Described as the 'crossroads of cultures' Samarkand has been under the rule of Persians, Greeks and Mongols before being founded as the capital of the Timur Empire under conqueror Tamerlane. Bringing together artisans and craftsmen from across his empire, Timur developed Samarkand with creative gusto and turned it into the splendour you see today.
Days 10-12: Bukhara
Get ready to marvel at Bukhara's 2000-year old fortress. The walled-city with its towering minarets, tiled portals and teal domes are sure to give you a sore neck and a slack jaw. Imagine what life here was like when it was a thriving Silk Road city, as merchants came from far and wide to trade and rest before making treacherous journeys across the desert.
One of the only remaining stone pools in the city, rest for a moment by the Lyab-i Hauz oasis under the shade of a mulberry tree before getting lost in the UNESCO labyrinth of the old-town. Follow the ubiquitous smell of fresh bread until you find its source. Bakeries with clay ovens, street carts with mobile tandoors and even baby carriages filled with still-warm creations, each decorated as beautifully as the vibrant local fabrics on display in the market.
Days 19-20: Isfahan
Step back in time as you explore this living museum. Known as the jewel in Iran's crown, Isfahan is an artistic masterpiece. Let your eyes feast upon the Islamic architecture that shimmers in hues of blue and gold. Get acquainted with the city in Naqsh-e Jahan Square a vast public space, lined with majestic buildings and manicured gardens. At the south end of the square, gawk skywards at the detailing on the Imam Mosque, one of Isfahan's sapphire icons.
Rub shoulders with locals in the Grand Bazaar and walk in the footsteps of ancient Persians down Isfahan's oldest street, Chahar Bagh. Into art and culture? The Museum of Natural History and the Contemporary Arts Museum are well worth a visit. By now you'll have worked up an appetite, time to hit the street stalls, the Biriyanis on Hafez Street should hit the spot.
Day 18: Tehran
Welcome to the capital of Iran, and the country's most liberal city. The cosmopolitan knot of commerce and culture is ethnically diverse and rich in heritage, particularly from the last two monarchies of Iran. The royal complexes of Golestan Palace, Sa'dabad Complex and Niavaran Mansion house historical collections from the Qajars and Pahlavi Dynasties. Take time to enjoy a cuppa in a local teahouse and hunt for a magic carpet in the Grand Bazaar.
Day 17: Mashhad to Tehran
Leave behind the spiritual ambience o Mashhad for the bright lights of Tehran. Taking the train, we'll mingle with locals and sample food from the dining car. The train will stop along the way for prayer in a station mosque, if you are non-Muslim, you do not need to partake in this. Ladies, you'll have to keep your headscarf on for the train ride, even inside the compartments. Gaze outside at the mountains and desert before pulling into Iran's modern city.
Day 13: To Ashgabat via Turkmenabat
Gaze out the train window as we leave the spellbinding wonders of Uzbekistan, crossing the desert to the secretive lands of Turkmenistan.
Day 15: Ashgabat
Catch the sun rising over the desert as the encroaching day light diffuses the fiery glow of the crater. This morning, we return to the gleaming marble-clad city, arriving early afternoon. Your Honcho can organise a trip to Tolkuchka Bazaar and point you in the right direction of where to pick up that authentic carpet, or take the Turkmenbashi Cableway for some incredible views of Ashgabat and the surrounding desert there is even an 80 metre high man-made waterfall at the top!
Day 14: Ashgabat and Darvaza Crater
Welcome to Turkmenistan, land of the Turkmen and rising star of the 'Stans. Ashgabat gleams in marble and gold, echoing the extravagant grandeur of Dubai. The streets appear ghostly until you venture off the immaculate white stonework into the old town, where the city comes to life with restaurants, bars and cafes run by inviting locals.
Outside the city boundary, we visit the Parthian ruins of Nisa dated around 224BC and embark on a tour of the city. Later this afternoon we carve our way through the rolling sand dunes into the burning heart of the Karakum Desert to the Darvaza Crater the 'gates of hell' that have been roaring ferociously for over 40 years. Here, we set up camp for the night, just beyond the edge of the earth's gaping scar, to watch the intense flames dance and twirl as they cast an eerie orange haze into the dark night sky.
Note: Don't forget to pack your sense of adventure! This is very basic camping, in the middle of the desert. Sleep mats and sleeping bags will be provided along with a simple barbeque dinner and breakfast. There are no toilet facilities available.
Days 21-22: Yazd
Once in Yazd, it's time to explore the old town. Wander in a labyrinth of narrow alleys, their high mudbrick walls offering a welcome respite from the relentless desert heat. Take note of the unique towers that protrude from rooftops these are badgirs, the ingenious fridge system that traps cool air. Discover the handcrafted tilework of the Masjed-e Jameh mosque and take in the Amir Chakhmaq Complex glowing at twilight.
Day 16: Mashhad
Welcome to Iran, let's kick things off in the holy city of Mashhad. A popular spot for pilgrims heading to the Imam Reza Shrine, the whole place exudes a peaceful feeling.
The main mosque and tomb are off limits to non-Muslims, but there are endless tiled squares, domed buildings and museums to discover sure to elicit a positive energy no matter your religious preferences. You will rarely see a western face and certainly no English signs while in Mashhad, this is where your Honcho will come in handy to introduce you to the sights of the region.
Days 23-25: Shiraz
On the way to Shiraz, we'll pull into one of the world's most significant archaeological sites. Persepolis was an elaborate palace complex founded in 518BC by one of the most powerful empires in history. Modelled on Mesopotamia, the great city acted as the seat of government and cultural centre for the Persian Empire. Today, it's a protected UNESCO World Heritage site and lets us peer into the life of a lost civilisation.
Once in Shiraz, it's time to pat yourself on the back. You've just completed 7,978 km over lunar landscapes and heavenly mountains, tasted local life in exuberant cities and stepped back in time to ancient worlds. We reckon that's something to celebrate.
Explore this wonderful city of flowers and pts, spend a day witnessing the impressive craft of locals past and present. The city shimmers with slack-jaw wonders, gem coloured domes, intricate mosaics and magical perfumed gardens. Head to Nasir ol-Molk Mosque as early as possible to witness its spectacular kaleidoscopic display. Wander in one of Iran's oldest markets, the Vakil complex, a mosque, market and bathhouse fit for a king. See its elaborate twisting arches, vaulted ceilings and ornate portals bursting with colour before picking up souvenirs for your friends and family back home.
Extend your journey: From Iran, you can cross into Turkey or travel north into the three spellbinding Caucasus countries: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.