Michael Pullman, marketing manager, wildfrontierstravel.com: For starters, the ’Stans include Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. While you can explore the them alone, bear in mind English is not widely spoken (a little Russian goes a long way) and public transport options are limited. You’ll be able to see much more in a short space of time by booking with a recognised tour operator, who can assist with multi-centre options and visas. For Kyrgyzstan, visas can be arranged upon arrival, but visas for Uzbekistan need to be arranged a month in advance.
The ’Stans are considered safe, with no FCO restrictions on travel, although there are warnings about potential flashpoints on some of the borders. For first-time visitors, it depends if you’re more interested in natural beauty, or the history and culture of the Silk Road. For nature, head to Kyrgyzstan, a land of towering mountains, flowing rivers, crystal-clear lakes and clean air. This is typical nomad country, and you’ll spend much of your time staying in yurts in a rustic back-to-nature experience.
For culture, Uzbekistan offers unrivalled Islamic architecture in its Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.
A tour combining these two countries offers a great overview of the area but, for something different, visit Turkmenistan (apply for a visa a month ahead), home to one of the world’s more unusual tourist attractions, the Darvaza Gas Crater (aka the ‘Door to Hell’), the result of a Soviet engineering accident that’s been ablaze since 1971. Turkmenistan is also home to the Silk Road city of Merv — infamously and ruthlessly sacked by Genghis Khan — and the bizarre capital city of Ashgabat with its many spectacular marble-clad buildings.
Contrary to popular opinion, the food is pretty good, with influences from the Caucasus, China, the Middle East and India very much evident. Be ready for the odd neat vodka, too, a welcome hangover from the Soviet era.
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)