Central Asia itinerary: Almaty to Dushanbe overland
(Kazakhstan) Almaty – (Kyrgyzstan) Bishkek – Cholpon-Ata – Karakol – Bokonbayevo – Bishkek – Arslanbob – Osh – Tulpar Kul – Peak Lenin Base Camp – (Tajikistan) Karakul – Murgab – Bulunkul – Langar – Vrang – Yamchun – Namadgut – Anderob – Ishkashim – Khorog – Tusyon (Shokh Dara Valley) – Rushan (Vomar) – Kulob – Dushanbe
Beginning in Central Asia’s most pleasant city, Almaty, this itinerary heads southwest to the Kyrgyz’s capital, Bishkek. We would recommend a day trip to Ala-Archa Canyon on the outskirts of the city before circumnavigating Lake Issyk-Kol. Cholpon-Ata is a bit of fun in a seaside kind of way and it’s worth being in Karakol on a Sunday for the Animal Market. Also definitely stay at the CBT Yurt Camp in Bokonbayevo. It’s a full day’s drive to Kyrgyzstan’s second-city, Osh, but the walnut groves and spectacular mountains that surround Arslanbob make it a perfect place to break the journey for a couple of days.
Osh is the best place to meet other travellers and arrange 4WD transport for the onward journey along the Pamir Highway. Southern Kyrgyzstan has some incredible mountain scenery and we chose to stay at Tulpar Kul and Peak Lenin Base Camp in order to experience it but alternatives in the region include Sary Tash and Sary Mogol.
Crossing into Tajikistan, the scenery becomes more arid but no less spectacular. We spent a week driving along the Pamir Highway and through the Wakhan Valley, sleeping in Karakul (not to be confused with Karakol above), Murgab (from where we took side trips to the Madiyan and Pshart Valleys), Bulunkul (where we had the best hot shower on the trip), Langar (which is also known as Hisor) and Ishkashim (where we managed to get a cold beer and proper bed).
Khorog is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) and the largest town in the area. It’s fairly boring and unattractive but an essential stopover before tackling the long and arduous road journey to Dushanbe. We headed out of Khorog and spent some time in the Shokh Dara Valley and then drove via Rushan and Kulob (both reasonable places to break the journey) to Dushanbe, where we ended our journey through Central Asia.
Number of countries: 3
Number of UNESCO sites: 3
Best time to travel: This is a summer only trip if you want to travel along the Pamir Highway and through the Wakhan Valley as well as do some trekking. June through to September are probably the optimum months
Recommended duration: 6 weeks
Nicest places in which to slow the itinerary down: Bokonbayevo and Arslanbob
Mode of transport: A few buses but mostly marshrutkas (fixed route minivans). It is difficult to find public transport between Bishkek and Arslanbob/Osh and hiring a private car/taxi for the journey is the norm. Try asking for a marshrutka to Jalal-Abad and continuing from there if you don’t want to hire a taxi.
For the journey along the Pamir Highway and through the Wakhan Valley, it is best to hire a 4WD drive. We have written a detailed post about how to organise transport here.
The journey along the Pamir Highway and through the Wakhan Corridor ranks as one of our all-time favourite journeys.
Staying in a yurt camp at Bokonbayevo
Soviet-era architecture in Almaty and Bishkek
Eating excellent Indian food at the Delhi Darbar restaurant in Khorog
Sleeping at Peak Lenin Base Camp
Meeting other travellers – you meet some interesting people in this part of the world
The 2 day/1 night Ak-Suu Village to Altyn-Arashan trek we undertook out of Karakol in Kyrgyzstan
The Sunday Animal Market in Karakol
The obvious extension to this itinerary is to continue to Uzbekistan. In fact, this was our plan but we hit a problem with our Uzbek visas which meant we had to curtail our Central Asia travels on this occasion. From Uzbekistan is it possible to re-enter Kazakhstan and return full-circle to Almaty or, with the right paperwork, cross into Turkmenistan.
Don’t try and do too much in too short a space of time. Travelling independently in Central Asia can be exhausting and trying to see the whole region in a month will probably mean you leave, vowing never to return! Don’t treat Central Asia like one single country – break it down into bite-sized chunks.
You may also like to read more of our blog posts featuring Central Asia…
Caravanistan is a fantastic resource for travellers to Central Asia and they also have an active travel forum.
Lonely Plant’s Thorntree forum also has some useful tips.
Depending on our itinerary, often we just find our accommodation as we go, particularly in smaller places. For big cities, we tended to make a reservation a day or so in advance using Booking.com. Booking just a day ahead may limit some choices, but it keeps the itinerary flexible!
There are a lot of great guidebooks to India available but we’ve always used Lonely Planet and it’s hard to change a habit of a lifetime!
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