For over two millennia, the ’stans have called out to the great explorers and merchants, who, seduced by the Silk Road, have plied the region’s trade routes and mountain passes. The republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — autonomous since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — may be young but all are deeply rooted in the ancient folklore of the steppe, where Turks traded with Persians and nomads fought with conquerors.
Head there today and you’ll find a region ripe for trekking, as well as buzzing cities chock-a-block with chaikanas (tea houses), historic squares and madrassas (Islamic colleges).
Those hankering after Tamerlane’s architectural legacy are best served by Uzbekistan, where the merciless conqueror of West, South and Central Asia built his Islamic capital in Samarkand; while trekkers and hikers should head into the towering peaks of Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan via hair-raising, serpentine roads. Kazakhstan — by far the wealthiest ’stan — offers up space-age architecture in its cities and remote adventure opportunities in its central highlands. Secretive Turkmenistan, meanwhile — which remains largely closed to the outside world — is home to the mighty Karakum (black sand) Desert and Central Asia’s largest mosque.
First-time visitors who grapple for the familiar come to realise there are no backpacker cafes, cosy mountain tea huts or easy means of transport in the ’stans. They soon swap GPS for instinct and local advice and typically find their adventure all the better for it. Accommodation, which can be hard to find, ranges from the lodgings of nomadic families to Kazakhstan’s recession-be-damned luxury hotels.
Getting a visa can be tricky too, and the infrastructure is lacking. But this region, covering roughly one-seventh of the world’s landmass, richly rewards repeat visits and is a divine place to disappear in.
Uzebekistan: The golden road to Samarkand
Home to Central Asia’s ‘big three’ (Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva), Uzbekistan is the obvious choice for the first-time visitor. Bazaars and ancient fortresses blend with stark deserts and valleys, while a network of train lines and good-value guesthouses make travel in this ’stan relatively easy.
For many, no word conjures up the romance of the Silk Road more than ‘Samarkand’. ‘The Jewel of Islam’, founded in the fifth century BC, is today a modern city where concrete, Soviet architecture coexists with fluted domes and cupolas. The Registan ensemble, at the heart of the city, ranks as Central Asia’s finest example of Islamic architecture. It’s a dazzling square comprised of three multi-hued, mosaic-tiled grand madrassas and a main plaza, which, in pre-Soviet times, served as a covered bazaar. Many visitors are so taken with the sight, they return at different times of the day to soak up the eye-catching detail in the changing light.
A five-minute drive away is the shiny, restored Shah-i-Zinda (Tomb of the Living King) necropolis, one of Uzbekistan’s most poignant sights. A place of pilgrimage, it’s here that the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas — a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed — lies, beneath a simple stone marker.
During Soviet rule — a time when locals concealed their faith for fear of persecution — this sacred funerary complex was cruelly converted into an anti-religious museum. Fortunately, independence has seen imams return to mosques and worshippers to crypts, and the necropolis is once again a city highlight. Come early and there’s a chance you’ll have the place almost to yourself.
For visitors who yearn for an ‘Arabian Nights’ atmosphere, Samarkand can disappoint with its high-rises and congested streets. However, just a couple of hours down the track lies Bukhara, and with its quaint streets and mulberry-lined squares delivers a classic Silk Road experience. Strategically located on the crossroads to Merv, Herat and Kabul, many visitors linger here to drink tea in spicy cafes, shop for carpets, and make the most of the historic B&B accommodation on offer. To the west of the country, Khiva is another essential pit-stop. A carefully preserved ‘museum city’ of baked mud walls, it houses a photogenic collection of exhibitions, arks, minarets, palaces and mosques.
Lastly, the often overlooked capital city of Tashkent, with its pretty parks and markets, makes for an interesting modern alternative to the dusty Silk Road cities and is definitely worth a couple of days’ exploration.
How to do it: Regent Holidays offers the 11-day Classic Uzbekistan Group Tour 2012 from £1,495 per person, including return flights with Uzbekistan Airways, a one-way Urgench-Tashkent flight, half-board accommodation, an English speaking guide, transfers and transport.www.regent-holidays.co.uk
English-speaking, Uzbekistan-based Advantour is well-regarded by travellers for assisting with tours, visa services, flights and hotels.www.advantour.com
Kyrgyzstan: Markets & mountains
Isolation can be a wonderful feeling, and for trekkers looking for something different, Kyrgyzstan, with its summer pastures (jailoos), serpentine rivers and double-dipper valleys, offers alpine wilderness at its very best.
Highlights in this popular ’stan include sleeping in felt yurts in view of Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains); huffing and puffing up the steps of rocky peak Solomon’s Throne, in Osh; downing vodka shots in the peculiar capital, Bishkek; and exploring the world’s largest walnut forest in Arslanbob. In 2003 — bucking the regional trend for painful visa application processes — Kyrgyzstan made it possible to get a visa on arrival. This is encouraging more visitors, as is the excellent Community Based Tourism (CBT) network, which offers travellers help with, among other things, trekking maps and booking homestays.
For a taste of beach life, Central Asian style, sun-worshippers, and tourists from Russia and Kazakhstan, head to Issyk Kul, a giant lake filled with slightly saline water — the closest thing in the region to a beach. In the shadow of the Kungey (sunny) Alatau mountain range to the north and the Terskey (shady) Alatau range to the south, holidaymakers at the Cholpon Ata resort sunbathe and play cards in the sand. There are also some good museums nearby, and a bicycle route around the lake that’s currently being redeveloped by the government.
The town of Karakol, a couple of hours away by marshrutka (bus) from Cholpon Ata, offers more of a quintessential Kyrgyz experience, with its cheap and cheerful homestays, lively animal market and nearby trekking opportunities. To the south west of the town, Jeti-Oguz, a canyon with superlative red sandstone cliffs, is popular with travellers who overnight in yurts and ride horses through emerald green fields. This is a good place to meet friendly eagle-toting locals who, for a small fee, will let you slip on a leather glove and pose with their magnificent birds.
Bishkek, nine hours by road from Karakol, is slightly scruffy and down-at-heel. While it’s green enough to be pleasant, for a capital city it’s distinctly lacking in major sights. Best of all is shopping at the eccentric and rambling Osh Bazaar, where you can devour enormous melons and piles of spongy peaches. There are a couple of good dining and drinking options, and two worthwhile museums — the sober State Historical Museum and the dusty State Museum of Fine Arts — but not much reason to hang around for long.
How to do it: Intrepid Travel offers a 16-day Mountain Kingdoms of Kyrgyztan tour, from £835 per person, including accommodation, meals and activities. www.intrepidtravel.com
CBT can book a room with a local family (usually B&B with shared bathroom facilities) from around £8 a night, lunch and dinner extra.www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg
Tajikstan: B&B on the roof of the world
Due to its inaccessibility, not to mention a long and brutal civil war in the 1990s, Tajikistan has been largely ignored by travellers until very recently. Now that the country is relatively stable and safe, a primitive tourism structure is being put into place and a small number of intrepid visitors are starting to arrive.
The Tajik people — the oldest ethnic group in the region — are wedded to the mountains, and most travellers quickly set out of the capital Dushanbe to explore the peaks of the Zerafshan Valley in the north west, or the Pamirs Mountains to the east.
While the Fan Mountains in the Zerafshan compel travellers to strap on their boots, the region isn’t just about hiking. Culture buffs will find much to admire at the 5,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sarazm (the oldest settlement in Central Asia) and little-visited Penjikent, with its Zoroastrian temple remains and cafes serving heaps of plov — the national one-pot dish of rice, veg and meat.
For most travellers, the Fans are a mere aperitif to the Pamirs — the least-visited mountain range in the world and the jewel in Tajikistan’s crown. The most important mountain chains of Central Asia all begin or meet here — the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and the Hindu Kush — providing a stunning backdrop for adventurers. Highlights include gentle treks through apricot trees in the Geisev Valley, meeting Afghan traders in their plumed turbans at the Saturday market in Ishkashim, and discovering petroglyphs in the Wakhan Valley. Don’t miss striking out on the Pamir Highway — a superbly remote, high-altitude road trip that crosses over 13,000ft-plus passes between Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan and Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
Proper planning is crucial, as travel in the Pamirs is only possible between June and October due to extremely harsh winters. Case in point: in 1995, the mercury dropped to a bone-chilling -54C. High altitude also means obeying the golden rule of ‘climbing high and sleeping low’ and covering up, both out of respect for local culture and to avoid sunburn.
Home stays throughout Tajikistan generally offer a bed — usually a colourful mattress on the floor — a shared bathroom of sorts and breakfast, with extra charged for lunch and dinner. Some very poor villagers will be prepared to go without food themselves in order to host a guest, so tread carefully. Accept hospitality, but offer money in return — if the elders refuse, try giving it to one of the younger members of the family. With travellers still rare here, a foreign guest is usually treated not as just another tourist but with real hospitality. There are countless places in Tajikistan that you’ll find no record of in guidebooks, and villages so tiny no map marks them — for the adventurous traveller, this is the real attraction. Get out there and make the most of it while it lasts.
How to do it: Wild Frontiers offers a 17-day High Pamir Explorer tour, covering Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, from £2,795 per person including accommodation, meals, transport and guide. www.wildfrontiers.co.uk
The Zerafshan Tourism Development Association (ZTDA) organises several trips in Tajikistan, starting from around £160. www.ztda-tourism.tj
One of Asia’s least-known countries — at least until Borat, the movie, erupted onto cinema screens in 2006 — Kazakhstan is growing in importance. Larger than western Europe, the Eurasian nation is so huge it could easily fit all the other former Central Asian Soviet states within its borders. Its size, plus its harsh winters, puts many travellers off, but this is a destination with a fascinating history of nomadic culture, curious underground mosques, eco-tourism programmes and ultra-modern cities.
For the adventurous, heli-skiing is an option in the central Tian Shan, where a battered, former Aeroflot helicopter will drop you off atop a snowy face. There are also glacier hikes to the foot of Mount Khan Tengri and plenty of exciting day trips out of Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, Almaty. For the less adventurous, both Almaty and Astana — the capital since 1997 — have dance-’til-dawn nightclubs, bling-bling architecture and futuristic concert halls that are slowly replacing dull, concrete Soviet buildings.
Most people know more about the surface of the moon than they do about mysterious Turkmenistan. However, even this rarely-visited ’stan has some choice sights, including rare, golden Akhal-Teke horses and clusters of bizarre dinosaur footprints across the country. A 4WD journey through the Karakum Desert — Central Asia’s hottest — is an ideal way to explore the yurt villages of nomadic people and the curious Darvaza Gas Craters.
Fans of the weird and wonderful will marvel at the ‘Walk of Health’, a staircase built into the side of the Kopet Dag Mountains; the ‘Palace of Orphans’, a gaudy, ultra modern, marble building for orphaned children; and the Turkmen Carpet Museum, which features the world’s biggest hand-woven carpet.
Here, as with much of Central Asia, hospitality is the stuff of legend. Bear in mind that if you arrive with a tourist visa you’ll be obliged to take a guide beyond the city limits of the capital, Ashgabat.
ESSENTIALS Central Asia
British Airways flies three times a week between Heathrow and Almaty (Kazakhstan) and three times a week between Heathrow and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Air Astana flies twice a week between Heathrow and Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan with onwards connections to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Turkmenistan Airlines flies between Heathrow to Ashgabat twice a week.
www.ba.com www.airastana.com www.turkmenairlines.com
Average flight time: Varies from around 6h to just over 7h depending on destination.
Vast distances and mountains separate Central Asia’s countries, making flights useful. Book via local travel agents (aviakassa) and take your passport along.
Buses between major towns exist in all Central Asian countries (less so in Tajikistan), as do private minibuses.
Private car hire (with a driver) is the most comfortable, and expensive way, to get around but allows you the best chance to explore the mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The train network in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which includes some fast commuter trains, is a good way to travel.
All countries offer cheap taxis — usually unofficial. Agree price beforehand and write directions in Russian Cyrillic, as few cab drivers speak English.
When to go
Generally, May to October. Winter is harsh and summer hot on the plains. Given Central Asia’s vast size, check the temperature for destinations you plan to visit.
Need to know
Visas: Often the biggest headache and expense pre-trip. Rules for all Central Asian countries change frequently. Check embassies for up-to-date information. Note: the Pamirs in Tajikistan require an additional permit, applied for at the time of visa. www.kazembassy.org.uk www.kyrgyz-embassy.org.uk www.tajembassy.org.uk www.turkmenembassy.org.uk www.uzbekembassy.org
Currency: Kazakh tenge (T).
£1 = 240.
Kyrgyz som (KGS). £1 = 76.
Tajik somoni (TJS). £1 = 7.70.
Turkmen manat (TMT).
£1 = 4.85.
Uzbek sum (UZS). £1 = 3,000.Health: Vaccinations may be needed; ask your GP before departure. Altitude sickness may also be a problem.
International dial codes:
Kazakhstan: 00 7.
Kyrgyzstan: 00 996.
Tajikistan: 00 992.
Turkmenistan: 00 993.
Uzbekistan: 00 998.
Time difference: GMT +5
(except for some parts of Kazakhstan, where it’s +6).
Steppe. RRP: £10. Twice-yearly online and print magazine focusing on the arts, culture, history, landscape and people of Central Asia. www.steppemagazine.com
Odyssey Books & Guides (specialise in Central Asia). RRP: £14.95.
Insight Guide’s Silk Road. RRP: £16.99.
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)