Central Asia & Mongolia: A Christmas Cracker

Central Asia and Mongolia: A Christmas Cracker is a breathtaking combination of four of the ‘Stans’ in Central Asia and magnificent Mongolia. Our exclusive 25-day Christmas and New Year Special is simply spectacular, as we celebrate a white Christmas in the mountainous Cossack town of Karakol and New Year’s Eve with a nomadic family in Mongolia.

For more than 2000 years Central Asia has been the focus of ancient east-west trade routes and this region provides one of our most cutting-edge adventures that encompasses the extraordinary countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. These are the domains which hosted great scholars and the fearsome conquerors of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, and were a 19th and 20th century geopolitical chess board on which the ‘Great Game’ was played out between Britain and Russia. They are the lands of great steppes, magical deserts, fertile valleys and some of the highest mountains in the world. The scenery is breathtaking and remarkably varied, with green/blue glacial lakes, saw-toothed mountains, red rock formations and sparkling rivers. To make the journey at this time of year is a sensational experience as we travel through a pristine winter wonderland. Among the highlights are a sleigh-ride through a snowy forest in the mighty Tian Shan mountains, followed by a traditional Christmas with a local family, and an unforgettable New Year’s Eve celebration in Mongolia. Central Asia and Mongolia in winter is glorious and a white Christmas is guaranteed.

Tour Fitness Level: Active

Highlights

Uzbekistan

  • Experience the traditional Chorsu Bazaar in the ‘earthquake city’ of Tashkent
  • Travel on the ‘Afrosiab’ bullet train across the Kyzyl Kum Desert on the legendary Silk Road route to Bukhara
  • Enjoy a three-night stay in Bukhara – the greatest Medieval city in Central Asia
  • Visit the great Ark Fortress of Bukhara
  • Explore Bukhara’s vibrant trading domes
  • Soak up the atmosphere of the fabled 2,500 year old ensemble of Registan Square in the heart of Samarkand
  • Admire the exquisite architecture of the Bibi Chanum mosque
  • See the Tomb of the Commander – Tamerlane’s mausoleum
  • Visit the wonderful necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda

Tajikistan

  • Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the oriental bazaar at Dushanbe
  • Drive through the captivating mountains of the Fann and Pamir range to Dushanbe
  • Enjoy three nights in the ‘Persian’ city of the east – Dushanbe
  • Marvel at the stone age Hissar fortress

Kazakhstan

  • Visit Almaty’s ‘St Basil’s’ – the stunning Zenkov Cathedral – made entirely of wood with no iron nails
  • Enjoy an excursion to Kok Tube Hill for panoramic views of Almaty and the Tian Shan mountains

Kyrgyzstan

  • Celebrate a magical white Christmas Day with a troika ride through a snowy forest in the Tian Shan mountains
  • Enjoy a traditional Christmas celebration at the home of a Kyrgyz family
  • Spend three nights in the snowy remote Cossack town of Karakol
  • Experience the true nomadic lifestyle and traditional Kyrgyz cuisine at Chon Kemin
  • Enjoy a fantastic show of horsemanship including the traditional game ‘Buzkashi’
  • Drive out to the extraordinary red sandstone rock formations at Jeti Oguz Gorge
  • Enjoy a superb BBQ lunch in the beautiful Valley of the Flowers

Mongolia

  • Watch an exciting horse race with Mongolian riders in the snowy Gobi Desert
  • Visit a nomadic family in their traditional ger
  • Enjoy a one-night stay in the magnificent landscape of Terelj National Park
  • Take an exhilarating dog-sleigh ride by Siberian huskies along a frozen river
  • Celebrate New Year’s Eve with Mongolian nomads in the Gobi

Inclusions

  • All flights between Australia and Uzbekistan/Mongolia and Australia (inc. domestic from your preferred capital city)
  • All ticketable air taxes (NB. may be subject to change)
  • All visas and courier fees
  • All internal flights
  • All accommodation (twin-share)
  • All transfers and ground transportation
  • All meals as specified
  • Travel Directors tour leader throughout
  • Expert local guides throughout
  • All entrance fees for specified sightseeing
  • All tips and gratuities

Please note that whilst every effort will be made to adhere to the above pricing, currency fluctuations beyond our control can affect final costs. A booking form is to be completed by all passengers, and a non-refundable deposit of AUD $2,000 per person paid at the time of booking. All escorted tours are based on a minimum group size of 10 people travelling.

Itinerary

09/12/2022 Australia – Singapore

Depart from your chosen Australian airport on the flight to Singapore.

10/12/2022 Singapore – Seoul – Tashkent

Depart Singapore Singapore Airlines SQ 600, 08.05

Arrive Seoul 15.30

Depart Seoul Asiana Airlines OZ 573, 17.05

Arrive Tashkent 20.35

On arrival in Tashkent we transfer to our hotel.

Lotte Hotel

Tashkent

11/12/2022  Tashkent (BLD)

After a relaxed breakfast this morning, we head out to explore Tashkent’s famous Chorsu Bazaar. This vibrant oriental bazaar plays a significant role in the daily lives of the locals. This is where people come to do all their shopping from foodstuffs, to clothing, while meeting and enjoying the company of friends. As we soak up the atmosphere of the bazaar, we have the opportunity to buy inexpensive warm jackets, and other cold weather clothing for the journey ahead.

12/12/2022 Tashkent (BLD)

Today we explore Tashkent, renowned for its fountains, parks and tree-lined streets. In 2007, Tashkent was named the cultural capital of the Islamic world as the city is home to numerous historic mosques and Islamic locations of interest. Tashkent also houses the earliest written Koran which has been in the city since 1924.

13/12/2022 Tashkent – Bukhara (BLD)

This morning we transfer to the station and board the Afrosiab to Bukhara.

Depart Tashkent Train 770, 08.30

Arrive Bukhara 12.19

On arrival in Bukhara we visit the Fayzulla Khodjaev house in the old section of the city. The house belonged to Fayzulla Khojaev’s father, Ubaydullokhoja, a rich merchant who traded in karakul pelt in Russia, Germany and other countries. Fayzulla Khodjaev’s house is a wonderful example of 19th century residential architecture.

Shariston Hotel

Bukhara

14/12/2022  Bukhara (BLD)

A thousand years ago Bukhara was a city with a thriving slave trade, and is a treasure chest of ancient monuments. After breakfast we set out to explore the city, visiting the Ark Fortress, the crumbling city wall and the superb Samanid Mausoleum, which dates back to the 9th century. We walk through the narrow streets of the old city to the splendid covered bazaar, where we enjoy meeting the colourful locals.

15/12/2022 Bukhara (BLD)

Surrounded by the vast expanse of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, Bukhara still retains the atmosphere of an ancient Silk Road city. Today we further explore this amazing settlement, strolling through its warren of narrow medieval streets to discover historic sites such as the 16th century trading domes, the beautifully decorated Bolo Hauz and Kalyon mosques, and the Labi Hauz pond, where old men in traditional dress while away the afternoon drinking tea and playing chess.

16/12/2022 Bukhara – Samarkand (BLD)

After breakfast we transfer to the railway station and board the high-speed train, the Afrosiab, which gets us to Samarkand in two hours and ten minutes.

Depart Bukhara Train 11, 05.37

Arrive Samarkand 08.04

Perhaps no name is more evocative of the Silk Road than Samarkand. This fabled city has fired the imagination of writers and poets from all over the world. On our arrival we explore the old town which is full of Uzbeks, Georgians, Tajiks and Russians, as well as many other central Asian nationalities.

Grand Samarkand Hotel

Samarkand

17/12/2022 Samarkand (BLD)

This city of fables and legends is perhaps the most exotic on the Silk Road. Known as the ‘Rome of the Orient’, Samarkand was already a flourishing city when Rome and Babylon were founded. The great Tamerlane was determined to make the city the most beautiful and magnificent in the world and today the city is an enduring reminder of his legacy. Today’s highlights include breathtaking Registan Square, where the finest collection of buildings in Asia dominates the most public place in Samarkand. Intricate tile-work and fluted cobalt tile domes provide a spectacular vista. In a morning of sightseeing we also visit Tamerlane’s mausoleum, the observatory of Ulugbek and the Shahi-Zinda Necropolis.

18/12/2022 Samarkand – Iskander Kul Lake – Dushanbe (BLD)

After breakfast we drive to the Uzbek/Tajik border and changing our bus for 4WD cars, we turn south through spectacular landscapes that are quintessentially Tajik. We edge higher into the Fann Mountains before turning off towards Iskander Kul Lake which is located beneath rugged mountain peaks punctuated by glaciers, and perched amongst some of the most beautiful vistas in the world. After lunch at the lake we enter the Anzob tunnel, an extraordinary 5.5km tube through the mountains which leads us towards the Vazob Rver and onto Dushanbe.

Serena Hotel

Dushanbe

19/12/2022 Dushanbe (BLD)

Tajikistan, like Turkmenistan, can be considered one of the last unexplored frontiers in the world. Totally unspoilt by tourism, this delightful country is home to a warm and open-hearted populace. Dushanbe nestles in the Gissar valley in the shadows of the mighty Pamir Mountain Range and it is simply the most surprising and beautiful city in Central Asia. Today we explore the tree-lined avenues, fountains, parks and neoclassical facades that make Dushanbe such a hidden gem.

20/12/2022 Dushanbe – Hissar – Dushanbe (BLD)

Today we head out to the fortress town of Hissar which lies on a wide mountain-fringed plain. Due to its strategic location and commanding views along the valley, the fortress was attacked numerous times in its long history, by such notables as Alexander the Great, Ghenghis Khan and Tamerlane. In more recent times it was a stronghold of the Islamic guerrilla fighters known as Basmachi. The Basmachi fought a guerrilla war against Soviet rule in central Asia from 1917 until 1924, when the Red Army eventually besieged the fortress. After our visit here we return to Dushanbe.

21/12/2022 Dushanbe – Almaty (BLD)

After breakfast we transfer to Dushanbe airport for our flight to Almaty.

Depart Dushanbe Air Astana KC 131, 14.00

Arrive Almaty 16.00

On Arrival in Almaty we transfer to our hotel.

Rixos Hotel

Almaty

22/12/2022 Almaty (BLD)

Situated in the shadows of the Tian Shan Mountains, Almaty is the cultural and commercial hub of Kazakhstan. Literally meaning ‘rich with apples’ the former capital is known as the ‘Garden City’ for its large areas of fragrant gardens and the majestic firs and spruce of the Tian Shan Mountains that surround it. Today we explore this beautiful city before moving high up to the outskirts to see the magnificent panorama of Almaty before us.

23/12/2022 Almaty – Karakol (BLD)

This morning we leave Almaty and soon begin to see the high peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. Crossing the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border at Kegan Pass we exchange our bus for 4WD vehicles at the border for the two hour journey to Cossack outpost of Karakol.

Hotel Tagaytay

Karakol

24/12/2022 Karakol – Jeti Oguz – Karakol (BLD)

Today we travel to nearby Jeti Oguz. Here inside the canyon there are extraordinary formations of red sandstone cliffs known as the ‘seven bulls’. We continue into the Valley of Flowers before reaching the magnificent Oguz valley glacier, and in this pristine environment we enjoy a BBQ lunch before heading back to Karakol.

25/12/2022 Karakol (BLD)

Happy Christmas!

After breakfast we start to explore the town of Karakol. Formerly known as Przewalski, after one of the most intrepid explorers of the 19th century, Karakol today is a pretty town filled with quaint cottages shaded by rows of huge poplar trees. We visit the fascinating memorial of Nikolai Przewalski, which charts his various expeditions, including the one to the steppes of central Asia in which he discovered a wild horse that was subsequently named after him – Przewalski’s horse. An animal rehabilitation centre in Karakol currently has two of these very rare horses and we visit the centre before walking through Karakol itself. In the late afternoon we enjoy Christmas Day with a fun-loving Kyrgyz family.

26/12/2022 Karakol – Chon Kemin (BLD)

This morning we depart Karakol and soon begin to skirt the north shore of Issyk Kul Lake. The second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea, Issyk Kul is virtually a basin within the Tian Shan Mountains. A combination of vast depth, salinity and underground thermal activity ensures the lake never freezes. Issyk Kul is also the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca. We then follow the Chuy River until we reach the turnoff that will take us around the back of the mountains into the serene valley of Chon Kemin.

Ashu Guesthouse

Chon Kemin Valley

27/12/2022 Chon Kemin Valley (BLD)

The Chon Kemin valley is flanked by snow-capped mountains on both sides. The entire valley was formerly a collective farm and much of the Soviet rural atmosphere remains as we are transported back in time. This morning we explore this beautiful valley. During our walk we meet friendly and inquisitive locals and are also treated to a fantastic exhibition of horsemanship by the skilful Kyrgyz horsemen.

28/12/2022 Chon Kemin – Bishkek (BLD)

After breakfast we leave Chon Kemin for the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Formerly known as Frenze, Bishkek is a Czarist planned city; laid on a grid with wide boulevards flanked by irrigation canals and large trees.

Hyatt Hotel

Bishkek

29/12/2022 Bishkek – Ulaan Bataar (BD)

This morning we commence a walking tour of the city visiting Ala Too Square, the State History Museum, and Oak and Victory Parks. Early afternoon we transfer to the airport for our flight to Mongolia.

Depart Bishkek MR 422, 15.00

Arrive Ulaan Bataar 20.40

On arrival in Ulaan Baatar we transfer to our hotel.

Shangri La Hotel

Ulaan Baatar

30/12/2022

Ulaan Baatar – Terelj (BLD)

The Mongolian capital, Ulaan Baatar, is a city lost in time, combining the ancient and the modern. Cows roam the streets and many locals still dress in traditional garb. The city is surrounded by four mountain peaks which are considered holy: Mongolia is a deeply religious country steeped in Buddhism. The focal point of Ulaan Baatar – next to our hotel – is Sukhe Bator Square, which we explore this morning before visiting the excellent National History Museum. Later we set out for Terelj National Park stopping en route at the imposing 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan on horseback which is built of polished stainless steel and offers amazing 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside. Arriving at Terelj we enjoy a spot of dog-sledding before checking in to Red Rock Resort.

Red Rock Resort

Terelj

31/12/2022 Terelj – Ulaan Baatar (BLD)

After breakfast we return to Ulaan Baatar and visit the largest and most important Buddhist centre in Mongolia, the famous Gandan Monastery. We then head out into the Mongolian countryside just outside the city as we prepare to have New Year’s Eve with Mongolian nomads. Mongolia is the world’s largest landlocked country and has a sublime unspoilt beauty that reveals itself in endless expanses of steppe, and sky. Its ancient nomadic culture connects the people with the land. These people make a living by herding animals and moving their portable dwelling or “ger” from place to place in search of water and pasture for their animals. The nomads are friendly, open-hearted, generous and welcoming people – and of course, there is the striking silence of nature. Although Mongolia has its own lunar new year, Tsagaan Sar, they celebrate international new year with gusto. Tonight we join their festivities in the countryside in an evening that will create indelible memories. As we step into 2023, we return to Ulaan Baatar.

Shangri La Hotel

Ulaan Baatar

01/01/2023 Ulaan Baatar (BLD)

Happy New Year. Welcome to 2023!

We enjoy a late breakfast this morning, before driving up into the Zaitsan hills for a panoramic view of the city in the valley below. In the afternoon we visit the State Department Store renowned for its leather goods, cashmere and traditional Mongolian souvenirs. Later we head out for a farewell gala dinner at the end of our momentous tour!

Shangri La Hotel

Ulaan Baatar

02/01/2023 Ulaan Baatar Seoul – Singapore (B)

Early this morning we transfer to the airport for our homeward flight.

Depart Ulaan Baatar Mongolian Airlines OM 301, 07.45

Arrive Seoul 12.05

Depart Seoul Singapore Airlines SQ 601, 16.35

Arrive Singapore 22.20

On arrival in Singapore connect with the flight to your chosen capital city.

03/01/2023 Arrive Australia

We arrive back in Australia today.

FAQs

This will be a colder trip. What kind of clothes will I need for the journey?

The most important clothing items for this trip are:

  1. A down jacket or ski jacket
  2. Thermal underwear
  3. Boots with good tread (preferably hiking boots)
  4. Scarf and gloves
  5. A good hat

Do I need to buy a lot of expensive clothing?

No, it can be done quite cheaply. We recommend that thermal underwear and boots be bought in Australia. The rest of the items on the list can be bought in Tashkent at a fraction of the cost of purchasing them in Australia. On arrival in Uzbekistan, we go immediately to the Chorsu Bazaar where all these items can be bought cheaply. For example, a Canada Goose jacket can be bought for around USD $80. Here in Australia, the same jacket may cost upwards of $400!

Just how cold will it be and where is the coldest place likely to be?

In recent years the temperatures have been varying a great deal. On average it is expected that Mongolia will be coldest at around -15C during the day. It is a dry cold and therefore is nowhere near as cold as one might expect. However, as the Russians say, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’. Generally, at this time of year there is no wind and clear blue skies throughout. Our pre-departure information booklets will provide more information on weather.

Why is the tour Fitness Level rated as ‘Active’

The tour involves a reasonable amount of walking, some of it in wilderness areas, climbing steps and stairs. In order to get the most from this tour it is important to have a good level of fitness.

Are visas required for this tour?

Visas are required for Tajikistan and Mongolia. We handle all the paperwork for the visas, and the cost is included in the tour price. However, we require your passport three months before departure in order to process the visas.

Is there a dress code for these countries?

Although these are primarily Muslim countries, they are generally surprisingly liberal.  Tajikistan is the most conservative. Generally speaking there is no specific dress code for women.

What is the standard of hygiene like in Central Asia and Mongolia and is the water safe to drink?

The standard of hygiene in this area is of course not as high as in Australia. However, all meals are included in this journey and we have hand-picked all of our eating establishments. Nonetheless, we highly recommend washing your hands with antiseptic hand gel at regular intervals and particularly before meals. We err on the side of caution on all of our tours and advise travellers to drink only bottled water which we provide throughout the trip.

Do I need vaccinations for this journey?

You must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to travel and you must carry the printed International Vaccination Certificate with you, and also a digital copy if possible. The Australian Government smarttraveller website and the World Health Organisation website have further information for travel during COVD-19. Tetanus should certainly be up to date, and we recommend you seek advice from your doctor.

Is Central Asia and Mongolia safe?

Central Asia is very safe in much the same way the Soviet Union was before its collapse. Central Asians are wonderfully hospitable and in countries such as Tajikistan and Mongolia the kindness that is shown to visitors can often be a humbling experience.

What is the standard of the hotels?

We choose our hotels for their central locations, which we believe is very important. They are generally 3-4 star quality (or better), comfortable and clean. The rest of the accommodation on the tour varies from stunning to very pleasant.

If I travel alone, do I have to pay the single supplement?

If you wish to have sole use of a hotel room on the tour, you will need to pay the single supplement. If you are travelling alone but willing to share a room, we will endeavour to match you up with another solo traveller of the same gender. We cannot guarantee that a share-match can be provided, and in the event that this cannot be arranged at the time of final payment, you will need to pay the single supplement.

A lot of companies have many expensive optional extras on their tours. Do you?

We don’t believe in a lot of expensive ‘optional tours’. Our itineraries are designed to make the best possible use of time and to include all the must-see sights, plus additional surprises. Therefore, practically everything is included in the tour cost.

What currency do I need to take?

US dollars is by far the best currency to take as they can easily be changed into the local currency in every country en route. Some countries on some occasions will accept US$ directly. The notes should be post-2006, clean and unmarked.

How much spending money do I need for the entire trip?

Because almost everything is included, we would suggest an amount of US $900 per person as being ample for the whole journey.

Are credit cards acceptable?

Credit cards are widely accepted throughout the journey and ATMs are available along the entire route. However, we don’t recommend relying on these as your main source of funds. It is advisable to take some cash.

Are there internet and WiFi facilities en route?

All of the hotels we use have internet and Wi-Fi facilities.

Do mobile telephones work?

Telstra and Optus mobiles work throughout the entire journey. You will need to ensure you have global roaming. Contact your service provider for further details.

How much should we tip the guides and porters?

There is no need to tip guides or porters as all tips and gratuities are included in the tour cost.