Central Asia often gets a bad deal – seen as bleak and boring with a cuisine to match. But make the journey to this oft-overlooked part of the continent and you'll be rewarded with striking scenery, surprisingly tasty food and some of the world's friendliest people. Here, we bust the unfairest myths about Central Asia.
OK, so 70 percent of Kazakhstan might be steppe or semi-arid desert, but the rest of Central Asia is a treasure trove of peaks, lakes and forests. The Tian Shan mountains slice through the region, providing ample skiing opportunities and alpine lakes. There are also crumbling old cities set into the desert in Uzbekistan , inland beaches around Lake Karakol and vast snowy-capped Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
There’s a hint of bleakness, certainly, but in such a crowded world, that’s all part of the charm.
Central Asians are indeed hardy folk, and visitors will be offered some foodstuffs that the Western palate might find a little unusual. But the people here are extremely hospitable, and they certainly won’t force-feed you eyeballs or lamb’s tails unless you’re really keen.
Instead, the food is a delicious surprise. Squash-filled samsa (little fried pastry parcels) are served hot on the street, while shashlik (kebabs) are grilled to order and eaten on the go. Pomegranates are ubiquitous, too. Make the most of these bright red pearls juiced, scattered over aubergine salads, or spooned into eager hands by street vendors.
If you love freshly baked bread, Central Asia’s non – round loaves scattered with sesame seeds and baked in a charcoal-powered oven – are tasty too. Different styles can be found in every country, from Georgia through to Kazakhstan – but every region swears their non is the best.
You’ll get wide smiles out of almost everyone in Central Asia. The famous gruffness of the area's Russian neighbours was never adopted by the Central Asians and (because of the sunshine, perhaps?) they are some of the most welcoming people on the planet. Expect locals to go out of their way to help you – they love to share their travel tips, or their favourite walks or restaurants.
It’s true that Central Asia is a little off the tourist track. You won’t find a huge selection of world-class museums or record-breaking nightlife – but what you will find is a culture and way of life fascinating enough to make up for that.
There is superlative hiking through the Tian Shan mountains, wide open spaces in Kazakhstan's Karakum desert, world-beating road trips along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway, or extreme camping near the Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan (or "Door to Hell" as it's better known). Exploring Bishkek’s Osh Bazaar, with its warren of food stalls, is a must too.
A more offbeat pastime is catching a game of Buzkashi, or bareback horse polo (usually played with a goat’s head). Not one for the squeamish.
Most of Central Asia is, in fact, a living, breathing museum.
Bukhara in Uzbekistan is a city located on the ancient Silk Route. Although it has now undergone extreme renovation by the Russians, it is more than 2000 years old. Bukhara is the most complete example of a medieval city in the region – minarets tower over the pink-orange walls, and the Ark, or fortress’s bulbous clay walls make it feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
In the north of Uzbekistan you can find the Savitsky Collection, home to the second largest collection of avant-garde Russian art in the world tucked away in the country’s sixth largest city. The House Museum of Mukhtar Auezov in Almaty , Kazakhstan is well worth a visit for a glimpse of Central Asian life under Soviet rule.
Going off the beaten track can be pricy, but Central Asia is starting to open itself up to tourism. Even in areas where hotels are scarce, there’s always a homestay. Get off the bus or train, and you’ll usually be swamped by old ladies and their nephews offering you a stay in their spare room for just a few dollars. Take it, because staying in a homestay is the best way to get to know this region.
Travel in summer and you’ll be able to pay a few dollars to camp in a yurt at a jailoo (camp) by the alpine Song Kul lake. Or, pop into a restaurant and order anything (and we mean anything) off the menu for less than five dollars.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the airlines of the satellite states were made up from whatever stock Aeroflot left on their tarmacs. This is why airlines across Central Asia have a bad rep. Yet, airlines such as Air Astana have recently been cleared from the EU’s blacklist, and with new fleets from Uzbekistan Airlines and Aeroflot, air transport across the region is much safer than even a decade ago.
Failing that, a new breed of high-speed trains in Uzbekistan is making it easier to get from A to B. Afrosiab trains run between the main cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara, cutting journey time from 11 to just 4 hours. Best of all, train travel is easy on the wallet – once you’ve managed to navigate the notoriously complicated ticket halls.
Top image © NICOLA MESSANA PHOTOS/Shutterstock