We ran this tour in 2016 and it was just amazing. If you think you know what China is like, think again. Xinjiang in western China seems like a totally different country to the incredibly crowded and smog laden towns and cities of eastern China. Here you will find open spaces, blue skies and eye-popping scenery from vast deserts to snow capped peaks and verdant mountain grasslands. Xinjiang's heritage as a Silk Road staging point is highlighted by the cultural mix of Uygher, Mongol and Kazakh people but with increasing numbers of Han Chinese in the cities.
Crossing into Kazakhstan is an adventure in itself. This is a vital part of the Chinese strategy to develop a "New Silk Road" with efficient overland transport into Europe and west Asia. In northern Kazakhstan, we find a strong Russian influence before we cross into Russia itself and travel the final leg of our journey on the famous Trans-Siberian railway.
The tour officially ends in Moscow, but there will be a short add-on available to St Petersburg. There are also options to take add-on tours in eastern China or Tibet before the main tour starts.
Depart Australian cities for Chengdu, a major city in southwestern China. It will be a late evening arrival, so it will be straight to the hotel to rest up and prepare for a great adventure ahead.
We'll get together for a leisurely breakfast before embarking for the day's program. Chengdu is the home of the Giant Panda breeding centre – the best way to get up close to these amazing animals.
We will also visit the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, a huge engineering project, built over 2,000 years ago with tens of thousands of workers. It saved the area from floods and made Sichuan the most productive agricultural area in the country – and it still works today.
Morning flight to Urumqi, the capital of the far northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang. Xinjiang is booming with huge agricultural areas, oil and gas fields and vast renewable energy projects. For the cotton growers on the trip, Xinjiang produces around 10 million bales of high quality cotton each year which forms the basis of a rapidly expanding domestic cotton spinning and manufacturing industry.
From the airport, we will travel past the biggest wind farm facility in China to Turpan on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The Turpan depression is the lowest point in China and the second lowest in the world, and the city was one of the major re-supply points on the old Silk Road.
Turpan is one of the most interesting agricultural areas in the world. Apart from some great modern irrigation farms, we will visit the Karez irrigation system, an ancient (3000 years old) underground system of around 5000 km of channels to use the snow melt from the Tian Shan mountains to irrigate the arid but fertile soils.
Both the ancient and modern irrigation systems are the basis of a huge area of cotton, grain and grapes.
An early start to visit the Turpan livestock market. Every Friday villagers from all around Turpan bring their livestock to be sold or traded. It’s a lively event with plenty of noise, smells and snacks to keep you entertained. Then we will visit farms on the way to the Flaming Mountains – and if time permits, we will also call in on the ancient city of Jiaohe
In the cool of the evening we join the Turpan locals as they gather in the Old Town square with family and friends to chat about the day and eat a dinner of Uyghur kebabs, bread, noodles and maybe a nice cold drink or two.
We visit Grape Valley this morning where we try some famous Turpan raisins before returning to Urumqi and a short city tour.
After lunch, our guide will take us through the Grand Bazaar and surrounding markets to take in the sights and sounds, and maybe grab a bargain. Free evening.
After breakfast, we will head west on an excellent Chinese road with a visit to a large irrigation farm growing cotton and other crops before we have lunch near Kuytun.
In the afternoon, we visit more farms then return to Urumqi to freshen up before dinner and a briefing on Xinjiang agriculture from local officials.
Today we fly to Kuqa in Western Xinjiang. Kuqa is located on the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert and was another major stop on the old Silk Road. The region has a fascinating mix of cultures – mainly Uyghur, Mongol and Kazakh, although more Han Chinese are settling here.
Kuqa also has a lot of authentic Uyghur culture. Its Old Town remains mostly intact, which makes it a fun place to walk around and enjoy Uyghur life and the ancient architecture.
After breakfast, we will head into a southern arm of the magnificent Tian Shan mountains with a stopover at the Tianshan Mysterious Grand Canyon where twisting red sandstone walls create some great visual effects.
Near Bayinbuluke we will visit Swan Lake which lies in a scenic area surrounded by the snow capped mountains. Each year, thousands of swans come to spend the summer before they migrate to the south. We will then visit a local sheep farm before arriving at our Bayinbuluke hotel.
After breakfast, we head through some breathtakingly beautiful grassland and mountain scenery towards the Ili Valley. With luck, we may witness a game of Buzkashi (or Kokpar) in which teams of horsemen wrestle for control of a headless goat with the aim of depositing it into a hole at the end of the "field."
We might also come across a wedding or bridal party photo shoot – people travel from Urumqi and beyond to take advantage of the spectacular backdrops available.
In the Ili Valley, we visit farms growing maize and wheat before continuing onto Nalati and its famous grasslands.
Today we will visit local nomadic herders and a Merino sheep farm around Nalati before driving down the fertile and scenic Ili valley to Yining (also called Ili).
Along the way we will visit the largest (sorghum) liquor making factory in Xinjiang as well as productive grain and fruit farms. In the markets and bazaars of Yining, you can get a sense of the more than 20 major ethnic groups which inhabit this region of western China.
For dinner we can sample the fresh lamb kebabs straight from the local open grills.
From Yining, we follow the Ili valley for a couple of hours, skirt the Kazakhstan border, and call in to the famous Fruit Valley. This is a mountain pass that serves as an important gateway between Ili and the outside world. From the bottom of the valley to the mountain slopes on either side, visitors can simultaneously enjoy the scenery of all four seasons.
This area is known not only for its natural beauty, but also for the abundance of wild fruit trees, especially apple trees. Apples from the Fruit Valley are one of the Ili region's most famous exports. From here, it is a short drive – along a road featuring some modern engineering marvels – to Sayram lake.
At 2000 metres above sea level, Sayram lake is the largest alpine lake in Xinjiang, with an area of 450 square km and a depth of 85 metres. Due to the high altitude and cold climate, the average temperature of the lake is just 5°C. The placid water stretches far into the distance, and gives the impression of connecting seamlessly with the blue sky. It is surrounded by wildflowers and vast grasslands, which provide ideal grazing land for the local Uygher, Kazak and Mongolian herdsmen. The pastures are dotted with the yurts of the herdsmen, and sheep and goats amble around at a leisurely pace.
We will have time to explore the lake surrounds before an evening around the campfire with the local people. Overnight in a traditional yurt (tent).
After breakfast, we will backtrack a little to Khorgas for our border crossing into Kazakhstan. Khorgas is known as the biggest dry port in the world and is a key plank in the Chinese strategy to open efficient road and rail trading links to Central Asia and Europe. Khorgas was also an important staging post on the old Silk Road and has a similar role in this ‘new’ Silk Road.
We will know immediately we are in Kazakhstan by the bumpiness of the road and the reduced speed of travel. The journey may be slow but the end result is well worth it as we arrive in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and spectacularly located against the mountains.
Our local guide will show us around Almaty and stay with us throughout Kazakhstan. Kazakh and Russian are spoken almost interchangably through the country.
We have a brief guided tour of this modern, European style city before we venture into the mountains for some spectacular scenery and lunch at the Shymbulak Ski Resort.
Then we enjoy some free time in Almaty to do our own exploration of the city.
We will take a morning flight to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan and meet with an old friend of Greenmount Travel, Madina Brimzhanova. Madina is an agronomist/consultant who has visited Australia several times.
We tour this rapidly growing, well planned city. Most of the spectacular architecture, parks and public buildings can be visited in a walking tour from our central hotel.
After breakfast, we will fly to Kostenay in northern Kazakhstan. This is a very impressive broadacre cropping region and only about 150 km from the Russian border. We will meet with farmers and researchers at the Kostanay Mechanisation Institute which promotes new technology to local farmers.
This afternoon we visit a local farm and meet with some enthusiastic locals. And get ready to answer plenty of questions about your own farming operation or business – these farmers are hungry for information.
We'll spend some time socialising with the locals in the evening.
Today will visit some massive grain farms in northern Kazakhstan and talk to the farmers about the area’s wonderful natural advantages which produces some big crops. But we’ll also learn about the logistical and bureaucratic problems which make the farmer’s lives very difficult.
We cross the border into Russia and continue on to Chelyabinsk.
This morning we continue on to Yekaterinburg with farm visits along the way.
This morning, we board our first class sleeper carriage on the Trans Siberian Railway for a relaxing and scenic journey to Moscow.
We arrive in Moscow mid-morning and transfer to our hotel before a short city tour in the afternoon.
A free day in Moscow for some more sightseeing, recharge the batteries or some last minute shopping. Then a farewell dinner in the evening.
Flights back to Australia, or continue the adventure with add-on travel to St Petersburg or to other parts of Europe.