It hasn’t been long since the fantastic sights of Central Asia were hidden behind a barricade of expensive and convoluted visa-application procedures, compounded by a general perception that these were difficult and even dangerous countries in which to travel. In recent years, however, the local authorities have sought to open up to tourists, visas have been simplified – or even abolished – and word is spreading of the rewards of travelling to this relatively unexplored region.
In this article, we’ll be looking at the top sights of each ’stan – that’s Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – and working out which of these fascinating ex-Soviet republics would suit your travel style best.
If there’s such a thing as a popular perception of Central Asia, it’s probably Uzbekistan – and more specifically, the Registan in the Silk Road city of Samarkand. Described in the 19th century by Lord Curzon as “the noblest public square in the world”, the beautiful ensemble of madrassahs in Samarkand – bedecked with intricate tilework, blue domes gleaming in the sunlight – takes the undisputed number one position in any list of Uzbekistan’s top sights.
Samarkand is an ancient city – it was already perhaps half a millennium old when it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Its golden age came in the 14th century, when it became the capital of the empire-builder Tamerlane, who awarded himself the immodest title Conqueror of the World. Tamerlane and his successors transformed the city, building the Registan and many other stunning landmarks, including the Bibi Khanum Mosque, the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, and Tamerlane’s own mausoleum, the elegant Gur Amir.
Elsewhere in the country – particularly Bukhara and Khiva – you’ll find further examples of gorgeous Islamic buildings, largely restored to their former glories by the Soviets and well-maintained by the current government. With this wealth of world-beating mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums, Uzbekistan is a strong choice for Central Asian leader in architecture and history.
The first of the ’stans to embrace tourism, Kyrgyzstan is a largely mountainous republic known for its welcoming people. The Kyrgyz have a strong nomadic tradition, and visitors to the country are advised to familiarize themselves with this remarkable culture by spending a night or two in a yurt camp. These iconic circular tents are surprisingly spacious, as well as being both sturdy and warm – essentials when high up in the Tian Shan or Pamir mountains.
Staying in a yurt camp, you’ll have the opportunity to experience a number of nomadic traditions: this will certainly include horse-riding, but may also extend to traditional music performances or witnessing a game of kokburu – essentially polo played with a goat carcass. In the evening, you can try delicious Kyrgyz dishes such as manty (mutton dumplings) or besh barmak (noodles and mutton in sauce) – all washed down with koumiss, a fizzy drink made from fermented mare’s milk. When in Rome…
Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic culture is an undoubted highlight of a trip to Central Asia, and makes for a unique and hugely memorable experience. If you’re looking for somewhere to immerse yourself in a whole new way of life, Kyrgyzstan is definitely the country for you.
Tajikistan’s transition from Soviet republic to independence was marred by a civil war, which rendered the country unsafe for much of the 1990s. Perhaps as a result, tourism remains in its infancy here – though much progress has been made in recent years, and Tajikistan is now regarded as an emerging destination. The country certainly has much to offer: visitors can explore the ruins of Penjikent, an ancient city destroyed by Arab invaders in the 8th century, or marvel at the magnificent Kok Gumbaz Madrassah in the town of Istaravshan.
But where Tajikistan truly dominates is in its trekking opportunities: being home to two mountain ranges – the Pamirs and the Fann – there are trails here for all abilities, amid stunning and unspoilt scenery. Those wanting a reasonably short (but still spectacular) hike should consider the Seven Lakes region in the gorgeous Fann Mountains, while trekkers in search of multi-day adventures need look no further than the starkly beautiful Pamirs.
Still largely undiscovered by tourists, yet stunningly scenic, Tajikistan’s mountain ranges offer by far the best trekking to be found in Central Asia. If you’re itching to get your hiking boots on, you’ll find few better destinations.
The dark horse of the ’stans – literally. Turkmenistan is famed for its horses, particularly the hardy Akhal-Tepe breed that has adapted to the country’s harsh desert conditions. These remarkable creatures take pride of place on Turkmenistan’s coat of arms; there’s a glitzy golden statue of a horse in the capital city, Ashgabat; and the country celebrates National Horse Day every April. The president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, considers himself a master jockey and regularly competes in races. Quelle surprise, he usually wins, and if he doesn’t, it’s not unknown for him to make it illegal to watch footage of his defeat.
So far, so eccentric, but Turkmenistan doesn’t stop there. Its post-Soviet history has seen it follow an isolationist path, led by megalomaniacal dictators who have embarked on extravagant building projects which have converted Ashgabat into a gleaming city of white marble and gold, punctuated by elaborate sculptures and statues of historic Turkmen heroes. Meanwhile, outside the capital, the country is mostly covered by the Karakum Desert – in the middle of which sits the Darvaza Crater, a continually burning gas field which has been dubbed the Gateway to Hell.
If an enormous white city and the world’s biggest fire pit aren’t enough to entice you, other options to add to the mix include Kugitang Nature Reserve (where you’ll find the world’s longest trail of dinosaur footprints) and the Kow Ata Cave (which is 200m underground and is home to both an enormous bat colony and a sulphurous lake regarded as a great place for swimming). With all this and more, Turkmenistan is without question the most offbeat destination in Central Asia – and perhaps the world.
Kazakhstan may be the ninth-largest country in the world, but it keeps something of a low profile – it’s perhaps best known as the alleged home country of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. That’s a shame, as it has a great deal to offer the visitor, especially one who wishes to gain a taste of the all-round flavour of Central Asia.
Those interested in the magnificent Islamic architecture and culture popularized by Uzbekistan should pay a visit to the gorgeous Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum in the town of Turkestan, while the futuristic architecture of the capital city of Nur-Sultan is a worthy companion to that of Turkmenistan’s Ashgabat. Ethnically, Kazakhs are closely related to Kyrgyz and they share a nomadic tradition, so it’s possible here to experience this fascinating culture; and for those who wish to get their hiking boots on, Kazakhstan is home to mountain scenery just as inspiring as that in Tajikistan – try routes around the Turquoise Lake in the Tien Shan mountains.
But don’t go thinking Kazakhstan has nothing of its own to offer: the former capital of Almaty is a great place to experience the region’s Russian legacy, as well as being temptingly close to the largest ski resort in Central Asia. Further afield, the Charyn Canyon is an impressive, if smaller-scale, take on the Grand Canyon; and if you venture far into Kazakhstan’s remote west, it’s possible to visit Baikonur Cosmodrome – the launch site of Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight.
Encapsulating the best of Central Asia in one tidy if vast package, Kazakhstan is a great choice for travellers looking for a diverse introduction to this fascinating region.
So… have you decided which ‘stan is for you?
Top image: Ancient town of Itchan Kala. Khiva, Uzbekistan © Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock