Former seabed of the Aral Sea, now one of Earth's newest deserts. Uzbekistan
A truly unique travel opportunity that could well be the experience of your lifetime!
No special skills or experience needed. We provide full training & support, a specially equipped 4wd vehicle that you will drive, all country visas & border zone permits, accommodations and daily expert guidance on the ground. This is NOT a mainstream tourism offering. Our trips are limited to small groups of people, who grasp the uniqueness of this opportunity and are ready for a very real travel/life experience.
What Our Overland Journey's are Like - in Photos:
GPS track from our last pre-Covid adventure (2019 to 2020). 2 Continents, 15 countries, 30,000km, 10 months exploring fascinating Siberia/Russia, Mongolia & Central Asia. Our commercial version of this route will visit all the best highlights in under 4 months.
We've been at this a while now. A treasured photo from one of our earliest expeditions in the North African Sahara Desert
A fascinating ancient Islamic city in Uzbekistan. See, touch & feel thousands of years of some of the richest human history on Earth.
No, not the USA's Grand Canyon. How many know that Kazakhstan has much lesser known, but not any less awe-inspiring, landscapes
Navigating the canyon floor using XpeditioNZ own tested and recorded GPS routes.
Arguably the best bread in Central Asia is the Lepeshka sold in Kyrgyzstan. Even better is the experience of buying it yourself at a bazaar that has traded daily in the same location for 3,000 years!
Children attend Mongolia's colourful Naadam Festival in Dalanzadgad, the last town before its straight out into the Gobi Desert (which is precisely where we'll be headed!). No prizes for guessing which child is my daughter!
We'll drive the famous, lonely Pamir Highway through Tajikistan, regarded as one of the world's wildest and highest roads. We'll drive mountain passes as high as 4,655 metres elevation (well above Mt Cook's peak!), while 7,500 metre peaks rise above us.
The opportunity to spend time with local villagers in the magnificent & peaceful Wakhan Valley. Located inside a military controlled zone nestled right on the Tajikistan and Afghanistan borders, the Wakhan Valley is capable of shifting your understanding of our world. Everything over the river in this image is Afghanistan. You will never be made to feel more welcome anywhere else than here.
Traditional musical instruments used by the 'Wakhi' people of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan & China. Be gradually introduced to cultures and histories you've never heard of.
Another fascinating Ancient Islamic city to enjoy strolling around and exploring - Uzbekistan
Explore sites like this former 15th Century hotel in a remote part of Kyrgyzstan, and many more remote sites of interest across Central Asia.
Spend time exploring Central Asian cities and capitals and take time to try the local cuisines. This photo from Tashkent (Uzbekistan) shows Plov being made in traditional huge cauldrons.
Explore fascinating, ancient foreign cities many have never heard of...
Self-drive isolated routes through Mongolia's Gobi-Desert, experiencing Mongolia's nomadic way of life. Safely follow in the tyre tracks of your expert guide.
Lush & luxurious Almaty feels like it belongs in an affluent part of Europe more so than Kazakhstan's desert. We insert 5 Star luxury breaks and hotels in places like this in order to fully recuperate from tough sections, such as after 4wding through the heat and dust of Mongolia's Gobi-Desert.
After a short pause in Europe/UK, an optional 3rd leg continues on a 3rd continent, as we head down to fascinating Morocco, North Africa. For those with less time, it may be possible to join for Morocco only.
All images on this page are from our own collection, captured by us on our past foreign 4wd expeditions.
Still Scrolling? Perhaps a journey like this is for you?
Why Central Asia?
Our 2019 Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia overland journey proved a surprisingly powerful life experience, even for us! Despite already being experienced world travellers, having previously undertaken 4wd expeditions through dozens of countries on different continents, something about Russia, Mongolia and all the countries of Central Asia (the ...stan's) tantalised us in ways that exceeded our expectations. Our eyes were opened all over again to the wonders of this world, the different ways people around the globe live, and the joys of 4wd-based travel!
Still largely unknown, undeveloped (by Western standards) and not yet a mainstream tourist destination, joining our next independently guided, self-drive 4wd journey across Central Asia could well prove ‘THE EXPERIENCE’ of your lifetime. From Mongolia's wide open steppe and the vast isolation of the Gobi Desert, to visiting bazaars in Central Asian cities that have traded daily in the same location for 3,000 years. From following ancient Silk Roads through the 7,500 metre high mountains of Tajikistan, to receiving the warmest welcomes you've ever known as we arrive in remote villages, tracing the Afghanistan border but safely inside Tajikistan military controlled border zones and under our expert guidance. We’ll navigate around the rusting hulks of ships embedded in the floor of the former Aral Sea, now one of this planet’s newest deserts. We’ll explore fascinating ancient Islamic cities in Uzbekistan and venture out into the desert in search of fortresses abandoned more than 2,000 years ago by past civilisations; still well preserved by Uzbekistan’s desert climate. You’ll experience first hand how the still nomadic peoples of Mongolia and Central Asia live, and the traditional values they live by. We’ll see how they make their yurt’s, hunt with eagles and on horseback and live with a degree of self-sufficiency largely unknown to us in the developed Western world. We’ll visit former Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan's deserts, where until relatively recent times human slaves continued to be traded at the local market.
Sadly, we'll also see how climate change is impacting this world region and putting strain on traditional nomadic ways of life. We'll learn how the natural resources needed by self-sufficient families and communities living in remote, mountainous parts of Central Asia will come under increasing pressure in the years ahead, as Central Asian glaciers that are their water source in this part of the world retreat. Whilst we'll marvel at the opportunity to pose with our 4wd's next to the rusty hulk of a ship when we drive the former seabed of the Aral Sea... you'll also learn first-hand just what a tragedy it is that the Aral Sea has become the Aralkum Desert. The local Uzbek and Kazakh communities would have been much better off had those rusty old fishing fleet shipwrecks still been trawling the now vanished Aral Sea!
This journey will be a very real life experience. For those ready for an experience like this, our journey is capable of opening your eyes in ways you might not yet fully envisage. You are likely to return home feeling enriched by the experience of your lifetime. This is not an opportunity likely to persist forever. As soon as the Covid situation sufficiently abates will be the best time there will ever be to discover Central Asia. The world really is changing... it's now or never!
It is important to appreciate that this is not a mainstream tourism undertaking. No special skills or experience is needed – that’s our job! But whilst we make it possible for nearly anyone to undertake this, it doesn't mean everyone should. This is also not a journey aimed purely at 4wd enthusiasts (though those that are will no doubt love the off-road sections - and those that initially weren't might find a new enthusiasm developing!). This is primarily intended to be a unique travel experience, where our 4wd fleet is the tool that enables us to comfortably access the most fascinating and authentic destinations, on a continent where the road infrastructure is often too poor for conventional vehicles. Unlike mainstream tourism travel tours into Central Asia that are restricted to areas a tourist coach can access, our tours are designed to access all the best and most authentic places, wherever they are. And to accomplish this in safety and comfort we require well prepared 4wd vehicles. This allows us the freedom to venture out into the sands of the Gobi Desert when it suits us. Many other fascinating destinations in Central Asia have no road access suitable for regular cars. Equally, roads in Central Asia that locals do drive in regular cars can be very poor and you’ll be thankful for the ample suspension on our 4wd vehicle fleet. Your guide has 'bush mechanic' skills and the guide vehicle is packed with mechanical tools and a range of spare parts for our 4wd fleet. As such, we are mostly capable of being self-sufficient. This is important, because we are going to cross two of Earth's continents, all by land and largely under our own resource. Admittedly the motorways of Europe pose no serious challenge, but the majority of our time will be spent traversing the Russian Far East, Mongolia and the countries of Central Asia - that will be a serious adventure and rightly something for you to boast about with friends, grandchildren etc long after the journey ends.
No prior knowledge with 4wd’s, off-road driving or adventure travel is assumed or required. For those in New Zealand and nervous about the idea of driving a 4wd in off-road situations, or just wishing to gain familiarity with the vehicle you will drive for nearly four months, you are welcome to join us for a familiarisation event in our local South Island wilderness before the vehicles are packed into containers for shipping to the Russian Far East/Siberia. We can offer this in small groups, or one on one.
Again, though we make it possible for nearly anyone to undertake this, it's not for everyone. It's not a mainstream tourism offering. This unique opportunity is best suited to those who have reached a stage in life where they're ready for a real adventure capable of being the experience of their lifetime, yet also appreciate that such a journey depends on participants with the right attitude, understanding and commitment. Things go right and wrong on trips like this and we may need to flex and adapt. The vehicles will work hard in rugged conditions regularly - we expect some mechanical issues to arise. Other unplanned things will happen and require resolution. Participants are welcome to be guests, and enjoy each destination as we experience it while your guides do all the hard work. But, from time to time everyone may need to pitch in, or at least display understanding of the nature of these special journeys.
At times the accommodation provided is a 5 Star... and at other times it's 1 Star! When we spend time in Central Asian capital cities we'll stay in super luxury 5 Star hotels. But really, you'll deserve these occasional luxury interludes to recover from the heat and dust of the places where the only accommodation option is, say, a yurt camp in the sands of the Gobi Desert, or some equally fascinating, hidden away corner of Kyrgyzstan. If we were to put together a trip offering continual access to 5 Star luxury all the way, then it wouldn't be a trip that took you anywhere near the truly authentic parts of Central Asia. In fact it would barely depart a Russian motorway. There are mainstream tourism offerings available for those not ready for a trip like this, which is most people. It won't be a night spent in a 5 star hotel that will be your most memorable from this journey, but it may well be a night you spent in a yurt in the Gobi Desert, or at a rudimentary hotel or guest house/home stay high up in Tajikistan's Pamirs etc.
Life is short! A real adventure awaits...
Seeking Expressions of Interest
Whilst it's too soon to be planning a journey currently, with the Global Covid situation posing a serious impediment, we are seeking expressions of interest from potentially interested participants. It is worth getting in touch sooner rather than later, because when it is possible to run a trip spaces will be restricted to a small group. We only have a small fleet of specially prepared 4wd's and we can only practically manage a small group/convoy. For those wishing to bring their own 4wd vehicle, we can help you to ensure it is suitably prepared pre-departure and we can arrange shipping. Alternatively, we can help you to acquire the right vehicle especially for this trip and equip it with what we know it will need to survive and perform.
Q & A
Who is the typical expected client for this journey? Anyone really, though we envisage many clients as being retired couples, sharing a single 4wd vehicle (whether their own or rented from XpeditioNZ fleet) and sharing accommodations, as a couple. For this reason our pricing will be given per couple. We've already made clear that no experience with this sort of travel, or driving a 4wd vehicle is necessary. It's our job to make this possible for you! But, you do need to understand the unique nature of the journey and the commitment required.
Am I too old for this? No, probably not. We anticipate this will be a prominent question, and it's one that has already been raised and addressed. As outlined above, we anticipate that the typical client will be a retired couple, hence we anticipate there being a fair bit of 'grey hair' across the group. Your precise age is not an issue for us. But, you will want to be in good overall health and reasonably fit. All participants must have suitable travel insurance - medical insurance to your individual requirements. We will spend some time in remote locations, so bear that in mind if this is a concern for you. Some medications commonly prescribed in NZ/Australia are deemed illegal substances in Russia and the former USSR, so we may need to discuss.
Is this journey more 5 star hotels & resorts, or nomad yurts (tents) in the desert? Is it more on-road, or off-road? The answer to this is a bit inconsistent and confusing, but such are Mongolia and Central Asia! The realistic answer is potentially 'all of the above'. The overall 'luxury' vs 'wilderness' slant of the journey can be catered to participants preferences. As a starting point, we aim to build in plenty of stops at quality or luxury hotels and other accommodations, as these stops help to recuperate from less luxurious (though fascinating!) rougher sections. But of course quality/luxury hotels are only available when in reasonably developed cities, and whilst we will visit all the major cities of Central Asia, it is our preference not to build an itinerary purely around staying close to cities. Our specialty 4wd vehicle fleet permits us to go truly off the well-beaten path in order to visit the most interesting and far flung places, and enjoy the most authentic experiences, so we should take advantage of this. It is likely that our 4wd vehicles will each have an XpeditioNZ Sub 60 roof tent on top. It will be there mainly so that you always have a comfortable 'emergency backup' bed close to hand; e.g. if we've had a bad day and have experienced a vehicle breakdown in a remote wilderness area. However, our aim will be to always arrive each night at the best paid accommodations available to the Group in each place. In Dushanbe (Tajikistan's capital) it will be 5 star - the Hilton or equivalent. In the Gobi Desert it will probably be a yurt camp. In the Wakhan Valley nestled between Tajikistan and Afghanistan it will be a guest house in a small village, or a rudimentary hotel. Bear in mind that it won't be the night you spent at the Hilton that will be your most memorable from this journey, but it could well be the night you spent in a yurt camp in the Gobi Desert. If the Group wants to experience the occassional night independently camped in a special wilderness area (e.g. amidst giant sand dunes in the Gobi or Sahara Deserts), then we can do that and our XpeditioNZ Sub 60 roof tents will make for a comfortable night's sleep above our vehicles.... anywhere!
Is the route pre-determined, or can I have input? The possible routes will be drawn from our catalogue of personally researched, driven and recorded GPS tracks. Whilst there is a core route that achieves the progress we need to make, the precise final route can be flexed to suit preferences of participants. For example, as the journey progresses it may be possible to let participants choose between adding an off-road section to a natural/scenic/historical point of interest, or spending that same time as extra time in a city.
When we complete our journey across Central Asia, there may be further choice of route across Europe.
What vehicle will I drive if I rent from XpeditioNZ fleet? We will use mainly late model Generation 4 Mitsubishi Pajero's. These vehicles will be adapted with raised & uprated suspension, underbody protection plates, reinforced tyres (extra plys all around), upgrades to the fuel filtration system to accommodate lower quality and potentially contaminated fuel, a second full-sized fuel tank fitted to double our touring range during remote sections and other electronic systems aimed at alerting drivers to potential electrical or mechanical issues before any serious breakdown occurs. It is our experience that Pajero's make excellent on & off road touring 4wd's. These are very well built & robust vehicles, with high quality components and reliable electronics systems. But they're also very easy and 'car-like' for anyone to drive, as well as comfortable and safe (multiple front and side air bags in the event of a crash). The Pajero's have almost rally car like handling on dirt and gravel backroads (which we'll see a lot of in Mongolia & Kyrgyzstan), are excellent in desert sand (Gobi Desert and Morocco), and are fully capable of serious low-range 4wd work as and when needed (we'll explore remote valleys in Kyrgyzstan that can only be accessed with capable 4wd's). We don't go looking for 4wd challenges as such, this being primarily a travel experience first and foremost. But if/when confronted with difficult conditions, we're equipped to deal with it rather than be left stranded. Thunderstorms roll across the Mongolian wilderness, suddenly turning what was an easy to drive dirt track into a slick mud bog. This will only slow our convoy, not halt it. The guide vehicle carries a full suite of vehicle recovery equipment, mechanical tools and spare parts for the fleet.
Personal security, location risk: Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia are mostly extremely safe. Some of the most fascinating sections of our journey are inside military controlled border zones. You will become quite accustomed to the presence of armed soldiers as we pass through military checkpoints within border zones, or cross remote military controlled international borders. We won't take you anywhere that the soldiers themselves are likely to pose a threat to the group. Bribes and corruption are something we may have to deal with, but even in cities that's always a risk, given Police corruption is fairly normal in Central Asia.
Some may be anxious to learn we'll be following many miles along remote sections of the Afghanistan border, but you need not be overly concerned. Local people are wonderfully friendly and accommodating in this part of the world. On the one hand you might anxiously look across the narrow river border separating us from Afghanistan, whilst on our side of the river in Tajikistan you're equally conscious you're being made to feel incredibly welcome in the most beautiful and peaceful villages you've ever visited. It's experiences like these that you may find most educational, thought-provoking and transformative. Drug smugglers regularly cross the porous border with Afghanistan, but maintain a low profile to avoid detection; we won't be bothered by them. Between now and when the first dates are offered, we are remaining close to the situation on the ground with the Taliban having taken control of Afghanistan, and possible tensions escalating between Taliban and Tajikistan military forces affecting some border areas. Those are not borders we will be crossing, but we remain alert to all nearby security implications in the region and we will only take you into areas that we can do so safely at the time.
Some valleys in remote parts of Tajikistan that never receive tourists and are only accessible by 4wd, still have landmines. Some left over from Tajikistan's civil war, or laid by Russian or Uzbek forces. Our core route avoids those valleys, though we intend to undertake our own explorations of these valleys in future and may offer new routes in future for adventurous souls. We only take the group on routes we've previously personally driven and recorded GPS tracks.
This piece in the Q&A is not meant to alarm you, but is here for disclosure. It is safe, peaceful and beautiful out there. The hospitality of the local Wakhi people is incredible. Be careful who you choose to guide you through this part of the world! You're in safe hands with XpeditioNZ.
Want to explore little known 2,000+ year old fortresses, abandoned in Uzbekistan's deserts? This is one of several fortresses abandoned by a past human civilisation that we visit on our core route.
Check out the final article from our long running 'Central Asia' article series written for Adrenaline Publishing & NZ4WD Magazine. The article series ran for about 12 months and was written mostly from Central Asia.
The article will also help you to understand what you will see and experience in Mongolia and each of the ...stan countries - they're all very different and will keep on tantalising you as the journey continues!
Best read in presentation mode (the outwards facing 4 arrows button), or download to read. Any questions, or to register your interest, get in touch.