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24 Days: Bishkek - Naryn -  Tourgut Pass
Kashgar - Yarkand
 - Khotan - Yutian - Keriya
Taklamakan Desert - Mazartagh Fort
Karadong Fort - Kuqa - Korla - Turfan - Urumqi

Start date:
 12th October 2010


"The Desert of Death", "The Desert Into which He who Enters Will Not Return", "The Abandoned Place"
. The Taklamakan Desert does not attract by reputation; it is an infamous expanse whose name seems to have as many translations as the number of ancient cities over whom its sands have long since formed a shroud. One of the largest 'shifting' deserts in the world, it once formed the greatest obstacle to be found along the Silk Road and fearful Caravaneers of old would skirt its edges, to the north or to the south, as they transported their wares from oasis to oasis and on to Khotan, Kashgar or Chang-an. Even then it was not unusual for entire Caravans to disappear into the dust storms that would oft-times blow up and from which mysterious music was said to lure travellers away to their deaths. Despite its reputation however the rarely-visited interior of the desert and particularly the area covered by our expedition is considered to be one of the most mesmerizingly beautiful sights in the East and surreal with an unearthly intensity beyond the city-dweller's imagination. As well as towering sand dunes and lost cities there are found occasionally the remains of ancient forests and post-fluvial riverbeds hiding amidst the hauntingly attractive desert vistas. 

Many centuries ago, before an earlier bout of climate change stymied the life-giving glacial melt that thundered down from the Kunlun Mountains, ancient Buddhist Kingdoms thrived far beyond what has now become the desert's edge.  It was in search of their remains that, in the early years of our last century, the quintessential Silk Road archaeologist and desert explorer Sir Aurel Stein ventured deep into the Taklamakan - and, despite its name, came out to tell his amazing tale. On this pioneering, and to some extent exploratory, expedition The Oriental Caravan will retrace some of the journey undertaken by Stein and visit some of the remote sites from which his discoveries brought so much excitement to the archaeological world. Our trek in particular will allow us to explore the important Tibetan fort at Mazartagh where Stein's discovery of 'woodslips' gave invaluable insight into the administrative system that underpinned the then dominant Tibetan Empire.

As well as visiting the most important cities and sites around its perimeter this trip should prove to be an unforgettable experience as we cross the Taklamakan from South to North, part of the way by jeep but also involving a 7 day trek. Accompanied by our experienced, local Uighur guides, with camels for porterage and supported by Silk Road veteran and Chief Caravaneer Phil Colley we will be following in the footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein. Each day our Caravan will make its way slowly through the dunes, resting at night beneath the desert stars,  warmed by a campfire, washed no doubt by plaintive song in a magical emptiness far, far from the madding crowd.


in the footsteps of sir aurel stein...



"On reaching Mazartagh I found a small ruined fort set on the bold cliffs where this curious red sandstone ridge ends just above the river. From its precipitous height it looked like a true robber's stronghold. Though it had been burned out  long ago its refuse heaps kept us busy for 12 hours or so per diem... it was another Miran with all the unspeakable dirt which  these old Tibetans seem to have cultivated wherever they held posts. Buried in thick layers of straw and unsavoury refuse, Tibetan tablets and papers, old Chinese and Khotanese records..."

Sir Aurel Stein, 19th April 1908


detailed trip dossier available for this trip - click here

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Day 1 - Bishkek Arrive Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. (Hotel)
Day 2 - Bishkek Morning city sightseeing. Afternoon free. (Hotel)
Day 3 - Naryn Scenic drive to Naryn, the last town before the Kyrgyz / Chinese border. (Hotel/guesthouse)
Day 4 - Kashgar Cross into China over the Tourgut Pass and drive to Kashgar. (Hotel)
Day 5 - Kashgar Full day to explore Kashgar including the Abakh Hoja mausoleum and the Id Kah mosque. (Hotel)
Day 6 - Yarkand Visit Kashgar's Sunday bazaar. Drive to Yarkand (190km). (Hotel)
Day 7 - Khotan Morning drive to Khotan (278km). Afternoon explore Khotan. (Hotel)
Day 8 - Yutian Continue to the small oasis of Yutian (180km). Visit Uighur village. (Simple Hotel)
Day 9 - Keriya By jeep head north into the desert, following the Keriya River (approx 100km). (Camp)
Day 10 - Tongguzbasti Continue north to the remote village of Tongguzbasti, home to the 'lost tribe of the Taklamakan' (approx. 120km). (Camp)
Day 11 - 16 Desert Using pack camels and lead by our Uighur guides we trek through the surreally beautiful landscape of the Taklamakan Desert. En route we will visit the important archaeological site at Karadong Fort. (Camp)
Day 17 Mazartagh We reach Mt. Mazartagh on the banks of the Khotan River. Visit Mazartagh Fort. (Camp)
Day 18 - Kuqa Drive along the Khotan River to Kuqa. (Hotel)
Day 19 - Korla Morning visit to Kizil Buddhist grottoes. Continue to Korla. (Hotel)
Day 20 - Turfan Drive to Turfan. Afternoon sightseeing including Jiaohe ancient city. (Hotel)
Day 21 - Urumqi Morning sightseeing including Bezeklik and the Flaming mountains. Drive to Urumqi. (Hotel)
Day 22 - Urumqi Free day in Urumqi. Recommended visit to the Xinjiang Museum to see the Celtic mummies of the Taklamakan - see also Tarim Mummies. (Hotel)
Day 23 - Bishkek Fly to Bishkek. (Hotel)
Day 24 - ends Trip ends...

For an outline map of the desert part of the trip click here


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Start date (land only)
Starts Bishkek

Ends Bishkek


Tour Price
(land only)

12th October 2010 4th November 2010 Spaces available GBP2985.00
Accommodation We stay in tourist class (3 - 4 star) hotels throughout. In the desert we will camp in two-person tents.. A single supplement is available at a cost of GBP256.
Food and drink All meals are included whilst in China. Breakfast only in Bishkek. 
Mode of travel In Kyrgyzstan and for the non-desert sections in Xinjiang we will use private coach or minibus. For the desert sections we will travel by jeep or Landcruiser.
Trekking conditions For the section between Tongguzbasti and Mazartagh we will walk. Approximately 6-7 hours per day, 15-20km. The walking is not overly demanding but there are sand dunes to climb; due to compactment by the wind, however, the sand underfoot is generally quite firm. There is the possibility, at extra cost, to travel by camel. Participants will need to be physically fit and mentally capable of coping with the desert environment. An adventurous spirit and the ability to cope with possible adverse conditions are essential!
Staff  Escorted by Chief Caravaneer, Phil Colley. Supported by local guides and drivers in Kyrgyzstan and national and local guides and drivers in Xinjiang. For the desert section we will use camels for porterage with camel drivers to assist. A cook will accompany us in the desert as far as Mazartagh.
Group size Minimum 6 - Maximum 12
Flights & Insurance For information on insurance and flights please contact The Oriental Caravan. 












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             Revised and last updated: November 20th 2013. Links