Post SOVIET Desolation AND seaside melancholia
Ashgabat – Balkanabat – Turkmenbashi – Bekdash – Kendirli – Aktau – Aralsk – Semey
This tour is offered on a regular monthly basis from March through May and again from September through November. Let us know your desired departure month by clicking on the learn-more button below: we will match your preferences with the next relevant scheduled group departure. If you are still unsure about your desired departure date, then simply tell us a period or a season of the year and we will provide you a range of scheduled group departures: just pick up yours!
Our scheduled group departures don't suit your plans? If you are travelling with more than 4 friends, you can set your own departure date: we will arrange a bespoke tour just for you for the same price per person advertised below. If you are travelling solo or with less than four companions, we will then organise a slightly more expensive tailored tour according to your time schedule and specific geographical preferences.
DAY 1/2 - Ashgabat
Our guide will meet you at Ashgabat International Airport and drive you to our hotel of choice (exact hotel name and address will be communicated well in advance per email).
Introductory briefing about the region, the route and the set of rules to observe while travelling in Turkmenistan.
We'll spend two days touring Ashgabat, the surreal capital of the country, a brave new world made of marble skyscrapers and totalitarian monuments.
Among the towering shapes, imposing statues and futuristic atmospheres of the city we'll also be able to find some good old Soviet charm, dusty narrow alleys, crumbling XIX-century Russian houses and lively bazaars, reminding us that even under the shadow of a postmodernist totalitarianism we still are in the good old Soviet Central Asia.
Our visit will also include a short detour to suburban village of Kipchak, home the shining Turkmenbashi Mosque, where the first president of post-Soviet Turkmenistan (the notorious Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov) rests beside his family.
Meals and overnights in Ashgabat.
DAY 3 - Nokhur
In the morning we'll leave the steel-glass-and-concrete cityscapes of Ashgabat and head towards the barren Kopet Dag mountains.
We’ll first stop at the village of Geokdepe to visit the incongruously large French-built Saparmurat Haji Mosque and then continue to Kow Ata, a natural underground thermal lake and a popular weekend escapade among the busy citizens of Ashgabat, who flock here to benefit from the therapeutic attributes of the holy waters.
After a rejuvenating bath at Kow Ata, we’ll move on to remote Nokhur, a picturesque village famous for the unique culture and peculiar language of its inhabitants.
Dinner and and overnight in Nokhur.
DAY 4 - Balkanabat
Early in the morning we'll enjoy a cultural tour around Nokhur and then continue to Serdar, a rather anonymous and yet surprisingly pleasant Turkmen backcountry town, and the starting point to visit the secluded hamlets and towns of the Hasardag Mountains.
We’ll take a detour up to Kara-Kala, a Soviet-era urban construct built along the fast-flowing Sumbar river, before eventually descending again to the plains towards Balkanabat, a quintessentially Soviet melancholic town lost in the barren badlands of western Turkmenistan.
Dinner and overnight in Balkanabat.
DAY 5/6 - Turkmenbashi
We'll depart from Balkanabat early in the morning and head to the Yangykala Canyon, a stunningly wide geological landscape that has nothing to envy to its more famous counterpart in Colorado: with bands of pink, red and yellow rock searing across the sides of steep walls, Yangykala is a breathtaking sight and one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Central Asia.
With the postcard views of the canyon still sparkling in our eyes, we'll continue our trip to the shores of the Caspian Sea, stopping at the awe-inspiring pilgrimage site of Gözli Ata along the way.
In the afternoon we'll finally reach the major seaside town of Turkmenbashi, the country's own answer to Cancun.
In Turkmenbashi we'll enjoy two lazy and melancholic days to be spent chilling out at the beach, observing local fishermen, visiting lively seafood markets and having lavish dinners and fun nights at the Pyongyang-meets-Las-Vegas Awaza resort area.
Overnights in Turkmenbashi.
DAY 7 - Bekdash
We'll leave Turkmenbashi and head north to Kazakhstan.
On our way to the border we'll drive through the dystopian badlands surrounding the Garabogazköl depression, a shallow lagoon characterised by a salinity level comparable to the one of the Dead Sea.
We'll stop for lunch at the semi-abandoned Soviet city of Bekdash, which eerily remembers a decrepit concrete settlement out of a Mad-Max movie or Fist-of-the-North-Star anime.
We'll then continue to the border proper and, after completing the usual post-Soviet formalities, we'll head straight to Kendirli, a fancy new resort built from scratch on Kazakh Caspian Riviera.
In Kendirli we'll join the local crowd taking a plunge in the surprisingly clean waters of the namesake bay and - with a little bit of luck - we might also be able to spot the rare and elusive Caspian Seals, an endemic earless seal found exclusively in the brackish waters of the Caspian Sea.
Dinner and overnight in Kendirli.
DAY 8 - Ustyurt Plateau
In the morning we will set onto a 4x4 adventure across the barren badlands of Ustyurt Plateau.
We'll tour the western part of the plateau: otherworldly natural sights (such as the bizarre chalky rock formation at Boszhira) and post-Soviet urban melancholia (such as the rather dull city of Zhanaozen).
We'll then reach the underground mosque-cum-mausoleum of Beket-Ata, where we'll enjoy a traditional Kazakh lunch and observe the mystic rituals of pious pilgrims.
In the afternoon we'll head to Aktau, one of the most isolated cities in the former USSR, where we'll enjoy a well deserved fresh beer in one of the many bars overlooking the Caspian Sea.
Dinner and overnight in Aktau.
DAY 9 - Fort Shevchenko
We'll spend the day touring the many wonders scattered along the Caspian shoreline.
First we'll stop at the Koshkar-Ata necropolis, a holy muslim graveyard with impressive monumental tombs and pretty little mausoleums dating back to pre-Soviet times.
We'll then continue our journey heading to Aqshuqyr, a pleasant seaside village, where we'll have the chance to plunge in the fresh waters of the Caspian Sea.
After a traditional seafood lunch near the beach we'll drive north towards Fort Shevchenko, a Tsarist and later Soviet military-base town built on the western tip of desertic peninsula stretching out into the Caspian Sea.
For desolation lovers and melancholic souls we'll also pay a visit to the remote port town of Bautino and the nearby abandoned village of Kanga, before eventually heading back to Aktau to catch our Soviet night train to Aralsk.
Dinner and overnight on the train.
DAY 10 - Soviet Train
We'll spend the whole day on the train, which usually takes around 24 hours to reach Aralsk from Aktau.
A ride on a Soviet-era train in Central Asia is an adventure of its own: we'll travel in the company of local merchants, commuters, farmers and holiday-goers and at the end of the trip you'll feel like you've known each other for ages.
Each carriage is like a big family moving on rusty tracks: we'll share food, stories, vodka and laughs, while the barren landscapes of Western and Central Kazakhstan will roll past out of the window.
Late in the afternoon we'll finally reach Aralsk, a once major fishing town on the shores of the Aral Sea.
Overnight in Aralsk.
DAY 11 - Aralsk
The sad case of the Aral Sea is well-known even outside the borders of the former Soviet Union, but few are aware that there has been a little success story in this massive ecological catastrophe: the port city of Aralsk, which has been separated from the retreating waters of the Aral Sea since the 80s, lies now again on its shore and fish has returned in the market stalls of the town.
We'll spend the day exploring the town and its surroundings, meeting and chatting with the inhabitants, visiting markets, villages and surreal ship graveyards, tasting local specialities or even fishing our own dinner out of the resurrected waters of the Aral Sea.
Dinner and overnight in Aralsk.
DAY 12 - Baikonur
We'll continue our rocket-wasteland-resort tour heading east to the world-famous Russian-controlled city of Baikonur: Soviet engineering, sci-fi atmospheres and the mighty sight of the Buran spaceship.
We'll spend the entire day to Baikonur, visiting the local museum, the launching site, Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Buran Spacecraft and the memorial houses of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Sergei Korolev, major figure of practical cosmonautics and rocket engineering.
Please note: this tour is not meant to coincide with any specific launch date; in case you wish to assist to the actual launch of a manned space rocket, then you ought to book our dedicated Baikonur-only tour.
In the afternoon we'll transfer to Kyzylorda, a rather anonymous transportation hub, which we’ll simply use as overnight stopover.
Dinner and overnight in Kyzylorda.
DAY 13 - Zhezqazghan
We'll leave Kyzylorda in the morning and head north across the steppes toward the impossible-to-pronounce city of Zhezqazghan, a typical Soviet urban construct built in the very heart of the Kazakh upland along the shores of the Kengirskoe Water Reserve.
Zhezqazghan is famous for two mutually contrasting attractions, to both of which we will, of course, devote our time: the gloomy remains of the vast Kengir Gulag (the very site of a daring and shortly successful uprising back in 1954) and the wide and peaceful city alleys lined with trees planted by Soviet, Russian, American and European cosmonauts.
Dinner and overnight in Zhezqazghan.
DAY 14 - Karaganda
We'll depart from Zhezqazghan early in the morning to undertake our longest road-trip up to the quintessentially Soviet town of Karaganda, famous for its curious German heritage.
In the 1940s up to 70% of the city's inhabitants were, indeed, ethnic Germans, most of whom were Soviet Volga Germans collectively deported to Kazakhstan on Stalin's order when Hitler invaded Soviet-annexed eastern Poland and the Soviet Union proper in 1941.
Besides the routine stops for food, toilet and photography, we'll break the 8-to-10-hour drive at the desolate Soviet urban settlement of Dolinka, home to the gloomy remains of the Karlag, one of the largest labor camps (gulag) functioning during the darkest days of Stalinism.
Dinner and overnight in Karaganda.
DAY 15 - Balkhash
Morning Soviet sightseeing around Karaganda and de-rigueur visit to its industrial satellite town of Temirtau, notorious for the Soviet-era steel-manufacturing behemoth massively polluting the city air.
After lunch we’ll then transfer to the sleepy lakeside town of Balkhash.
Dinner and overnight in Balkhash.
DAY 16 - Soviet Train
We’ll spend the day touring the melancholic resorts and the industrial nightmares dotting the shores of Lake Balkhash, the 15th largest freshwater body in the world.
The cherry on the cake for the day will undoubtedly be the semi-abandoned Soviet military town of Priozersk, a true Valhalla for urbexers, Cold-War geeks and architectural buffs alike.
In the late afternoon we'll then board yet another Soviet night train, which will take us north across the endless Kazakh flatness to the notorious city of Semipalatinsk, aka Semey, aka the Nuclear Polygon.
Dinner and overnight on the train.
DAY 17/18 - Semipalatinsk and the Nuclear Polygon
We'll arrive in Semipalatinsk late in the morning and spend the rest of the day visiting the usual fair share of Soviet and pre-Soviet (Tsarist) era buildings.
On our final tour day we will have then an explosive ending: a visit to Semipalatinsk Test Site, code-named Semipalatinsk-21 or more prosaically the Polygon.
From 1949 until 1989 the Soviets conducted here 456 nuclear tests, thus presenting this area with the dubious honour of having received by far the highest number of atomic explosions than any other place on Earth.
Most tests weren’t carried out for military purposed but were, instead, part of the so called Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, a Soviet program to investigate peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) analogous to the United States program Operation Plowshare.
In 1989 Semipalatinsk saw the birth of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, the first major anti-nuclear movement in the former Soviet Union and worldwide; it was led by author Olzhas Suleimenov and attracted thousands of people to its protests and campaigns, which eventually led to the closure of the nuclear test site in 1991.
From 1996 to 2012, a secret joint operation of Kazakh, Russian, and U.S. nuclear scientists and engineers secured the waste plutonium in the tunnels of the mountains and since then, the Polygon has become the best-researched atomic testing site in the world, and the only one open to the public.
We'll spend the day touring both the test site and the nearby towns of Kurchatov - where we'll pay a visit to the local Atomic Museum - and Chagan, which was actually a large military-base-cum-dormitory for the personnel of the Polygon.
In the late afternoon we'll eventually head back to Semipalatinsk for our last Kazakh night.
Dinners and overnights in Semipalatinsk.
DAY 19 - Flight back home or Astana extension
After enjoying a last lavish Kazakh-style breakfast together we'll take care of your transfer to either Semey Regional Airport for your flight back home or your connection towards Nur Sultan, where you will enjoy a guided tour through its brave-new-world architectonic shapes; you can also choose to use our services to discover other areas of Kazakhstan, such as the Altai Mountains and/or Almaty the former capital of the country; contact us to learn more about our bespoke itineraries in the region.
End of the tour.
3 to 6 participants: 3850 € per person
The price includes: double/twin room accommodation (breakfast included; single supplement: 25 euro/night), private transport in the region, first-class train tickets, entrance fees to the attractions listed in the itinerary, guiding and translation service.
The price does not include: international flights, meals, drinks and tips, visas if required, entrance fees to attractions not listed in the itinerary, insurance.