The Silk River – 5 ‘stans, Sea to Source

Code: AMU/DAR/SEP/19
26 days
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  • Group on Khargush Pass Tajikistan

Fixed Departure Date : See Dates Tab for Departures

Do you want to be part of an extraordinary trip through the heart of Central Asia?

Do you want to see the ‘other’ 5 ‘stans and take the path less trodden?

Then join us on this unique multi-country odyssey along the course of the Amu Darya River – the Oxus of ancient times.

For twenty-six thrilling days we’ll follow this vital “Silk River” waterway as it carves and weaves its way through the heartlands of the ancient Silk Road. Travelling by 4WD, this is a rare chance to immerse yourself in the diverse cultures and landscapes of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

You’ll walk among the ruins of ancient fortresses, swim in mineral lakes, explore beautiful Silk Road cities, stay with nomads in their yurts, wallow in hot springs, track incredible wildlife, shiver in the shadow of 7500 m peaks and get to know the many people we’ll meet along the way.

Our guest leader William Lawrence’s knowledge of this area is second to none – there’s nothing he doesn’t know about the history, politics, culture, flora and fauna of these fascinating countries.

An unforgettable experience in some challenging terrain, this is guaranteed to be a transformative, stimulating experience.

Unique and immersive, this culture-rich expedition is not something you will find anywhere else.

DEPARTURE/RETURN LOCATION Tashkent Islam Karimov International Airport to Manas International Airport, Bishek
DEPARTURE TIME Please ensure you arrive in good time for our scheduled departure from Tashkent
  • A 4WD + driver – properly insured, prepared and maintained for our use. There will be 3 guests per 4WD.
  • Fuel
  • Accommodation in a range of homestays and hotels.
  • All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some alcohol.
  • Local airport transfers
  • A professional guiding team including William Lawrence.
  • Fresh filtered water + a Water 2 Go water filtration bottle, in order to reduce plastic waste
  • All museum entry fees
  • Professional route planning and logistics, backed by risk assessments, emergency procedures, satellite communications (where necessary) and medical support. We don’t take risks lightly and we plan for all eventualities, believing it is better to have prepared and not require a procedure than not to plan at all. We also carry a very well stocked First Aid and Trauma medical kit and have been First Aid and Trauma trained by the excellent team at Crux Medical.
  • International Flights  – we can organise these for you as part of the package so please advise us if you need this.
  • Guide gratuity
  • Your personal clothing and any equipment you might need
  • Extra daily costs for snacks, alcohol or souvenirs
  • Your personal travel insurance including medi-evac
  • Visas and other permits as required

This is a 26-day 4WD adventure along Central Asia’s gobsmackingly scenic Amu Darya river, starting in Nukus (Uzbekistan) and ending in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. On the way we’ll pass through bits of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, all whilst following in the footsteps of historical legends such as Timur, Alexander the Great and Marco Polo.

Our guest leader is William Lawrence. You probably haven’t heard of him, but William has lived and worked full-time in Afghanistan and Central Asia since 2005. He has widely travelled across the region, and in his spare time he has hiked and climbed mountains in the Pamirs and the Fannski Gori mountain ranges. His knowledge of the Great Game and other histories of this region is hard to match, and coupled with a career in the military and more recently organising border security on behalf of the UN, we couldn’t be happier to be working with him. He’s also a keen ornithologist so can help identify any of the local avian life that we encounter!

At times it will be roastingly hot, at others you’ll need to hunker down against mountain storms, but at every turn you’ll be amazed, awed and humbled.

There will be a maximum of nine people in the group, travelling in comfort in four 4WD vehicles. Read on to find out more.

The Amu Darya – a sea to source exploration of the Silk Road
Minimum group size 6 persons. Maximum group size 9 persons.
The schedule has been left deliberately vague here for security reasons. After booking your place you will receive more detail about the exact route and dates within the overall itinerary.


Day 1

Arrive Nukus Regional Airport, Uzbekistan
Flights from the UK (Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, Fly Dubai via Dubai and Air Astana via Astana or Almaty) arrive in Tashkent usually in the early morning, in time for 08.00 or 09.00 onward flights to Nukus. We’ll meet you in Nukus Airport and transfer you to our hotel. This will be a gentle day of sleeping, acclimatising, eating and drinking.


Day 2

Lift Off!
It’s chocks away as we hit the road and drive across the Aralkum desert to the city of Moynaq on what was once the shoreline of the Aral Sea, 200 km from Nukus. We’ll have the chance to go out onto the Aral Sea bed to see the stranded ships in the desert and see where the remains of the Amu Darya pour into the remnants of this once-mighty inland sea.


Day 3

Moynaq – Khiva
It’ll be about 220 km of driving today to the ancient Silk Road city of Khiva – one of the jewels of this many-stranded route. We’ll have the time to look around this afternoon, after checking into our lovely hotel. Plenty more time tomorrow to see everything the city has to offer..


Day 4

No rush today – you’ll have all day to relax into this wonderful place. There’s the silk museum, carpet workshops, walled palaces, minarets and all sorts of other treats to enjoy. We’ll spend a second night at our delightful hotel.


Day 5

Khiva – Bukhara
A long drive across the barren desert today, but we are skipping from one emirate’s citadel to another and the superlatives are just begining to ratchet-up. Here Bokhara Burnes of the British Imperial forces from India was cruelly dispatched by the local population, and the Great Game comes alive amongst many other layers of history belonging to this incredibly beautiful city.


Day 6

There’s so much to see in this city that you’ll have all day to soak it up. This trip is all about spending time in each place and really getting a feel from it. Bukhara wasn’t just home and last post to Burnes, but also to Imperial officers Stoddart and Connolly and to the infamous ‘bug pit’ that was their final gruesome home….find out more when you are here. Artisans and architecture abound, and you have the chance to see minarets, tilework par-excellence, palaces and mausoleums. Wow.


Day 7

Bukhara – Koyten
We leave Bukhara for a foray into Turkmenistan today. We’ll head south, change cars at the Turkmenistan border and then head east with the Amu Darya to the town of Koyten, where we’ll spend the night at a tented encampment by a mineral lake. Hopefully we’ll have time to visit a hot spring on the way to our night halt.


Day 8

From our camp, we’ll head off to spend the day roving the local hills, seeing dinosaur fossils, exploring scenic gorges and ancient pilgrimage caves. We’ll spend the night at a lodge near the town of Koyten.


Day 9

Koyten – Bukhara
We’ll follow the other, northern bank of the Amu Darya, via two mausoleums and a picnic lunch, towards the crossing back into Uzbekistan and end up for a well-earned rest in a different but equally lovely hotel in Bukhara tonight.


Day 10

Bukhara – Samarkand
It’s 300 km across another stretch of the desert to our overnight at yet another gem in the silk road crown – Samarkand. It’ll probably be late afternoon by the time we arrive so you’ll have time to settle into yet another very comfortable but characterful hotel before viewing the sunset at the Registan (square) of this famous city. A sumptuous supper will await us this evening.


Day 11

Day off in Samarkand to explore this former Silk Road city with its brilliant bazaars, mosques and museums. A feast of Timurid-era architecture, there is a lot to see here so take your time and get your camera gear organised! We’ll spend a second night at our hotel before an early start tomorrow.


Day 12

Samarkand – Dushanbe
Today our route goes through the border with Tajikistan, before crossing into this mountainous country and ending our day at the 5* Serena Hotel in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. We will be having a wonderful evening meal and you’ll have the chance to meet a local historian who knows the route and wildlife through this little-visited nation.


Day 13

A day off in Dushanbe. This city presents a very different set-up from the silk road opulence encountered in Uzbekistan. But although much younger, there is still plenty to interest you and we’ll be on hand to guide you to all local sights. Of course, if you just want to sip gin by the rooftop pool all day, then that is entirely your choice too!


Day 14

Dushanbe – conservation camp
We are off towards the first big mountains of our expedition today, as we drive south to spend the night at a hunting and conservation camp. You’ll get your first glimpses of Afghanistan too, as we take a little-known border route to our halt for the evening.


Day 15

Conservation camp – Kalai Kumbh
We’ll start our day with a chance to enjoy a short hike from our camp in the company of the conservation guides. Here lurk wild boar, brown bear, snow leopard, asiatic leopard and not only the largest species of sheep, but also one of the largest goat species in the world. Not to mention the birdlife. Keep those eyes peeled on our walk. We’ll enjoy a picnic lunch before heading to the border town of Kalai Khumb where we’ll spend the night at a very comfortable guest house overlooking our river, by now known as the Pyanj. There will be a chance to visit a very special site – a ruined hilltop Zoroastrian fortress currently being excavated, which was quite possibly the birthplace of polo….


Day 16

Kalai Kumbh – Khorog
A bumpy ride south today, following the Pyanj river as it bores, rolls, twists and boils its way through this beautiful landscape between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Khorog is the regional capital and we’ll spend the night here, restocking on fresh produce from the busy bazaar before heading south again tomorrow. This may be the only time you get to experience a rather tasty north Indian curry in Tajikistan!


Day 17

Khorog – Ishkashim
South again today! We’ll make a stop at a ruby mine on our way to Ishkashim. One of the British Monarch’s crown jewels was mined from near here, and Balash rubies are still produced hereabouts. Onward with the Pyanj on our right, the valley opens out as we get our fist view of the mighty Hindu Kush range to our south. As we round the corner and turn east into the Wakhan valley, the river flattens into this broad and historically important valley separating Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Countless explorers and playes have come this way; Wood, Moorcroft, Bailey, Vine, Younghusband, Cuzrzon, Yanov, Bekovich-Cherkassi, Byron, Arnold and more. We’ll spend the night at a local homestay before our border crossing tomorrow.


Day 18

Ishkashim – Wakhan
We start our day with yet another of those colourful passport stamps. To Afghanistan this time, and a quick vehicle changeover for our time travelling along the Wakhan. Our local guides will take us as far as we can towards the Wakhjir Glacier, far east along the Wakhan valley. We don’t know how far we’ll get as the true source of the Oxus/Amu Darya/Pyanj/Wakhan River at the ice caves is a considerable hike past the settlements of Bozai Gumbez and Sarhad. We’ll be staying with locals tonight, probably in their yurts. It’ll be cold at night but the views and – hopefully – stars in this crucible valley will be worth any hardships.


Day 19

Wakhan – Ishkashim
After getting as far as we can towards the true source of our river, we’ll return to Ishkashim in Tajikistan for hearty meal and rest. Time permitting, there are a few sites around Ishkashim worth visiting including one ancient kala or fortress, overlooking the river to the east of the town.


Day 20

Ishkashim – Hissor
The distance to travel today is relatively short, but there is loads to see and do. Possibly the finest hot springs in this region are located right next to one of the most imposing 2,000 year old fortresses, with a view over Tajikistan, Afghanistan and onto the mountain peaks of Pakistan. Stunning. We’ll take in an ancient Buddhist stupa, the museum of Sufi Mubarak and have the chance to hike to see some 10,000 year old petroglyphs by their hundreds. A comfortable and welcoming homestay provides our rest stop for tonight before we climb tomorrow.


Day 21

Hissor – yurt camp
Today we leave the main stream of the Wakhan behind us and follow the tributary Pamir River up onto the high plateau via the Karghush Pass. At 4200 m, we are gaining significant altitude now. We’ll have a picnic lunch overlooking a cobalt-blue lake at 4000 m before continuing to meet our friends at the yurt camp they’ll have built for us on the Alichur Plateau. Surrounded by mountains and looking at times like the surface of Mars, you’ll know you are no longer in Kansas, Dorothy. We’ll have the chance to meet the herders, see how they care for their yaks and get a proper insight into how they live their lives in this tough environment. It gets below -50 C (-58 F) in winter here, where wolves and snow leopards prowl in search of their prey.


Day 22

Yurt camp – Kyzylrabot
Up over the Southern Alichur range this morning back towards one of the key tributary sources of the Amu Darya – Lake Zorkul. Once called lake Victoria by the British officer who ‘found’ it, it was for a long time a strong contender for the source of the Amu Darya. It is in a beautiful location and – conditions permitting – we’ll have a chance to get to it before we head for lunch at a local hunting and conservation camp overlooking the Afghan Little Pamir range. More hot springs here before we push onn to spend the night at a homestay in the remote hamlet of Kyzylrabot. In the crux between China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, very few visitors make it our here.


Day 23

Kyzylrabot – Murghab
We’ll follow a remote valley north along the Chinese border today, having the chance to visit a ruined soviet observatory and a meteor crater on the windswept plateau. We’ll follow another of the contenders for the source of ‘our’ river – the Ak Su, which becomes the Murghab and in turn the Bartang River – a very large contributor to the flow of the Pyanj way back at the confluence in Rushan. It is spellbindingly beautiful up here and we’ll tell you all about the changes that are happening right here, right now. It’s a fascinating place!. We’ll end our day with a good meal in the hotel in Murghab, the regional administrative headquarters. On a clear day you’ll be able to see into China and across to the Mustagh Ata massif – a 7546 m conical snowcap towering above all others locally.


Day 24

Murghab – Osh
Now away from the river and its tributaries, we’ll cross the highest pass of the old Soviet Union (Ak Baital at 4655 m) and drive around the gorgeous blue lake of Karakul – at 3900 m this is higher than Lake Titicaca and sits within a huge meteor impact crater than must have shaken the world on formation. We’ll leave Tajikistan via the Kyzyl Art pass and drop down – through the border formalities – into the verdant landscape of Kyrgyzstan. Immediately you’ll see a difference with horses roaming everywhere and yurts peppered across the plains with smoke trailing from their roofs. We soon hit quality tarmac and speed our way over the last of two passes to reach Osh in early evening. Our splendid hotel will feel like the lap of luxury.


Day 25

Osh – Toktogul
We’ll have a little time to explore this 3,000 year old city and its teeming bazaars. Then we will head north into the many ranges that criss-cross Kyrgyzstan. We will skirt the edges of the world’s largest walnut forest before finding our way to our hotel for the night at Lake Toktogul, nestled among the mountains.


Day 26

Toktogul – Bishkek
Back onto the epic road north as it twists and turns through tunnels and over high passes, passing nomadic encampments in high pastures and crossing through two national parks as we approach Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. This relaxed, tree-filled city with its backdrop of the Tien Shan/Ala-Too range is a fitting place to end our trail and we’ll have a slap-up meal to celebrate the end of a fantastic expedition together.


Day 27

Bishkek – Home
We will get you to the airport in good time for your flight home today. You’ll fly away with wonderful memories of these countries and their peoples, and you’ll have followed part of Joanna’s exact route.
Tour Start Date End Date Price
Silk River - 5 'stans Sea to Source Adventure 01/09/2020 28/09/2020 £7,200.00 Taking Bookings

Where will we be staying?

On this expedition, we’ll be staying in some excellent hotels in Bukhara, Samarkand, Dushanbe and Osh and Bishkek, guest houses or basic hotels in other towns, and often in homestays with local people and their families. The homestay concept is widely accepted throughout Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – particularly the former – so these nights are often highly enjoyable glimpses into local customs and lifestyles. We also stay in yurts in a couple of locations on this trip.

What size of group will it be?

Our group sizes are always small, allowing for an intimate experience of the cultures we meet along our path. On the Amu Darya Sea to Source expedition, group size is just 9 guests. Rather than cram everyone into 3 cars, we are taking 4 vehicles, so you’ll have space to stretch your legs! We usually find groups are made of like-minded people, both male and female, from a wide age range. We like our expeditions to be have a personal touch throughout and you’ll be accompanied at all times by William and one other highly-knowledgeable local guide.

How is this different to other ‘Silk Road’ expeditions I’ve seen?

We have spent a lot of time in the last few years researching these countries and this itinerary is a product of that research. Very few have followed the river’s course, and having run this trip once already in 2018, we know just how much our guests enjoyed it.  The “Silk River” is the theme by which we will explore the region, all of which was on one strand or other of the Silk Road.

What will the weather be like?

A very difficult question to answer when traversing the fourth highest mountain range on earth and crossing some of the emptiest deserts before we get there! But, you can expect some hot days lower in the valleys and off the high plateaus – temperatures could be in 20-30C range or higher. At altitude, we have experienced every season in the course of a single day – warm sunshine followed by winds and rain, hail or snow on the passes and perhaps down to 0 degrees for a short period of time. In general, the rule of thumb is to expect warm days and cooler nights when we are out of the lowland areas. In early October, snows are possible in the Pamirs, but our drivers and cars are organised for this.

I’m a solo traveller – is this for me?

Yes. More than 85% of our expedition clients travel alone as part of our group. We don’t usually charge single supplements to solo travellers – see below.

Do you charge single supplements – I can’t see them in your information?

Generally not. We don’t believe that solo travellers should be penalised with extra charges. It goes against our ethos, so unless totally unavoidable or astronomically expensive, all costs are included in the expedition price. Please note that in many of our destinations, single rooms are simply not available due to the nature of the available tourism infrastructure.

What kit do I need to bring?

We will provide you with an information pack after signing up to this trip, and this will detail any particular equipment we think either necessary or useful.

Is there a back-up vehicle?

Yes. We will travel with  four 4WD vehicles, carrying filtered water and spares where necessary.

How much are flights?

This is a moving feast! It depends on where you are travelling from and how you want to get there. From London, the cheapest flights to/from Tashkent, Bishkek or Dushanbe might be via Moscow, Astana, Istanbul or Dubai. We use Turkish Airlines via Istanbul because they are good, cost-effective connections. Costs are usually around the £550 mark, return. Again, we’ll send you an information pack containing all the information you need when you book your place.

What will the food be like?

Varied; the ‘stans are a region known for meaty delicacies so you can expect tasty shashlik almost anywhere if this is your thing. The Pamir area is not particularly agriculturally inclined, mostly due to the precipitous nature of the topography, and often poor soils. But many of our homestay hosts pride themselves on making good meals for their guests, so we will be well looked-after. If you are a vegetarian, food can be a little dull (lots of bread, potatoes and eggs with salads) but perfectly acceptable. For meat-eaters, pilaf (plov) is the staple dish. Usually rice and meat in one dish and often very tasty. Freshly made non (bread) is available almost everywhere and can be delicious. You’ll also encounter the ubiquitous shashlik meat skewers, manti meat dumplings and all sorts of wonderful fresh fruit. We try to ensure we have some treat foods in the vehicles for picnics, so you’ll always have back-up noodles, soups and cheese/mayo/mustard with bread as well as chocolates and cereal bars. In general we think food is a core part of any cultural experience and there are a good number of local dishes to try on our route.

Will I have to share a room?

Yes, at times. There will be hotels and guest houses where we will have separate rooms and wherever possible we will arrange this, but there will also be times where we are staying at homestays or in yurts when there is no option but to share rooms. This is all part of the adventure, and a reason we love to travel here. It makes sense for light sleepers to bring earplugs, in case of snorers or the host family waking early.

Will I be affected by altitude?

Altitude can affect different people in different ways. It can also affect the same person in different ways from trip to trip. We will be spending quite a number of days above 3000 metres, and up on the Alichur and Murghab plateaus, often above 4000 metres. We also cross some high passes, with the Ak Baital being 4700m (over 15,000 ft). If you feel that you might suffer from altitude sickness, or have history of it, you should consider discussing this with your doctor prior to booking and travel. Diamox and other similar prescription drugs are available to ease symptoms, but the key way to address any onset of altitude sickness is to descend. Luckily, from anywhere particularly high, descent is possible rapidly thanks to our vehicles. Our route is also planned to gain altitude in the smallest increments possible to aid acclimatisation. Simple precautions and awareness go a long way.

Do you perform proper risk management on your expeditions?

Yes. We are members of TRIP – the Travel Risk and Incident Prevention Group – and perform detailed country risk assessments prior to departure, in line with the ISO 31000 international standard for risk assessment. We also maintain close contact with the relevant Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice for countries we plan to visit, in addition to making use of the Australian Smart Traveller assessment tool, and the US State Department’s OSAC service. Beyond this, we have a full set of risk management and disaster contingency plans for each expedition and are expedition first aid trained by Crux Medical. For final back up we also use the services of Remote Medical Support that allows us to have a UK expedition doctor on the end of a telephone line wherever we may be. And we always carry a satellite phone. We really don’t mess around when it comes to safety.

I can’t do your dates but love the sound of your expedition – can you be flexible?

Yes. We offer set group dates for many of our expeditions, but we can organise and deliver bespoke expeditions to groups and individuals to suit your itinerary and budget. More information is available on our tailor-made expeditions page.

Is it a guaranteed departure?

As with any pioneering itinerary we need to reach a minimum number of guests to make this viable. On the Silk River expedition this is 6 people from a possible 9. When you express interest in this expedition, we will send you a deposit invoice to hold your place. This is refundable according to our terms and conditions if we do not reach the minimum numbers. We recommend that you do not book your flights or other arrangements until we have communicated that the expedition is definitely departing as planned and will aim to do this in order to give you at least 3 months prior to the scheduled departure in which to make your travel arrangements.

Is it good value for money?

We are very proud of the routes we design and the way in which we travel them. We don’t cut corners and we plan meticulously. We are a small company that treats every guest as our friend and you won’t find that kind of service in many places. 85% of our customers have re-booked to travel again with us and some of them come on a trip every year. We also do annual expedition and remote medicine training and pay for 24/7 remote medical assistance cover. We employ professional military-grade risk assessments and plan for every possible negative scenario whilst hoping that none ever come to pass. We take our obligations to you and your safety very seriously and this all does cost money. We think the price offered represents great value for an experience you won’t find elsewhere.

Is this for me?

Although this is an extremely enlivening way to spend two weeks of your life, it’s also potentially dangerous. Travelling by 4WD is an inherently risky activity and to compound this, you will be travelling off-road in a very remote part of the world.

Not only could you be hurt, maimed or even killed but in the event of an accident it could take hours (a day even) for the emergency services to reach you. Thanks to the altitude in places, it will also be physically tiring.

Don’t even consider signing up for this adventure if you aren’t fully aware of the risks you are taking.

Furthermore, Central Asia can be very tough to travel and in most places the tourism industry is in its infancy. This is why we – and hopefully you – like it so much. There’ll be no wi-fi or mobile reception for most of the ride and fluffy towels, Egyptian cotton sheets and en-suite bathrooms will be a rarity. The roads are bumpy, the food isn’t exactly cordon bleu, some days will be very tiring, it’s possible you’ll feel the effects of altitude and you’ll be lucky if your stomach doesn’t have at least one minor revolt.

If you like your holidays to include foie gras, butlers and quilted loo roll then please look elsewhere.
If however, you want a proper, epic experience that you’ll remember forever, then you are in luck!