Day 1: Shiraz
Known as the 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 bartering for a handcrafted rug or escaping to the serenity of a Persian garden.
Days 2-3: Yazd via Persepolis
On the way to Yazd, 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 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.
Days 4-5: 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 6: 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 7: Tehran to Mashhad
Today you leave the hustle and bustle of Tehran behind to travel to your final stop in Iran, the holy city of Mashhad. Gaze out the window as you cross over mountains on a ride that's particularly popular with pilgrims on the way to Imam Reza Shrine. Taking the train is a great way to mix with and meet locals in close quarters. 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.
Day 8: Mashhad
Soak up the spiritual ambience as you explore the enormous Imam Reza Holy Shrine. Known as the 'Vatican of Iran' due to its holy significance, ornate architecture and intricate artworks. 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.
Day 9: Ashgabat
Welcome to Turkmenistan, land of the Turkmen and rising star of the 'Stans. This secretive state is starting to open up to tourism, so take a look before everyone else. 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, your Honcho can organise a trip to the Parthian ruins of Nisa dated around 224BC.
Day 10: Ashgabat and to Darvaza Crater
After this morning's city tour, 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 barbecue dinner and breakfast. There are no toilet facilities available.
Day 22: 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 20-21: To Urumqi
It's time to head to our final frontier and cross the border into China. 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.
Days 18-19: Almaty
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. Enjoy wandering around the easy to navigate streets, leafy and lined with cafes; you'll settle into local life in no time. Visit the ancient relics and archaeological finds at the Central State Museum, and chat with local young people over beers to get up to speed on what it means to be a Kazak today.
Day 17: To Almaty
All aboard for your 4th border crossing. Gaze out your train window as the landscape completely transforms. Vast empty deserts become lush, green, textural scenes of steppe, hillsides and mountains. Look out for yurts that dot the landscape, the traditional homes of the nomads throughout Central Asia.
Day 11: Ashgabat to Bukhara via Turkmenabat
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!
Later in the day, you leave behind the glitzy mirage of Ashgabat and cross the desert landscapes into Uzbekistan.
Days 14-15: 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 12-13: Bukhara
Welcome to the land of the Uzbeks. Get ready to marvel at two of the Silk Roads most significant sites. First up, Bukhara's 2000-year old fortress. Explore the walled-city, its towering minarets, tiled portals and teal domes 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.
Day 23: To Beijing
Retrace the path of ancient Chinese caravans across the desert toward Beijing. About halfway, we arrive at Jiayuguan. The first and 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 16: Tashkent
Over 2000 years old, the original Tashkent was all but lost after a severe earthquake in the 60s. Under Soviet rule, the city 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. The diversity garnered through the architecture is just the tip of the iceberg, wait until you taste the food.
One such dish, Plov (aka Pilaf), is a rice dish with roots firmly in Persia. Considered to be one of the oldest Uzbek dishes, you'll find hundreds of variations across the region. Served as a sharing dish, get your group together for a tasting sesh of Tashkent's version.
Days 24-25: Beijing
Congratulations, you've just followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo and crossed 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. Hop on a rickshaw and hit the markets to gorge on the eight cuisines of China or sample the more peculiar snack offerings you certainly won't find fried scorpions back home.
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. Take an excursion out to the Great Wall. There are many sections worth a visit so ask yourself what you'd prefer; from cable cars and toboggans (Mutianyu), ancient battle sites (Gubeikou), the steepest incline (Jiankou), the most picturesque section (Jinshanling or Huangyaguan), lit up at night (Simatai), or where the wall meets the sea (Shanhai Pass).
Note: Upon your arrival in Beijing, please meet your Honcho outside the first ticket-checking point, not on the platform.
Extend your experience: After wandering the ancient Silk Road, get reacquainted with modern life in China's magnificent cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong.