The four thousand miles of prime shopping territory that comprised the Silk Road: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan existed long before the invention of online shopping! Each of these five Central Asia nations has their own rich history, traditional culture and unique opportunities for real adventure travellers. Vast deserts and mysterious steppes conceal intriguing cityscapes and bustling markets. These five autonomous countries (since 1991) lack the big-time tourism infrastructure… for now – so get in quick!
Uzbekistan: Travel friendly and easily accessible
As a starting point into Central Asia, Uzbekistan is the perfect choice. Considered to be the most travel-friendly country in the region, Uzbekistan offers authentic bazaars, deep valleys, ancient fortresses and a spectacular shoreline. Uzbekistan has earnt itself the moniker ‘Golden Road to Samarkand.’
The modern city of Samarkand offers up local bazaars and Soviet architecture alongside ornate and impressive Islamic architecture. The centerpiece is the main square with its dazzling trio of madrasses bedecked in lavish mosaics. The ‘Crossroad of Cultures’ city is also UNESCO recognised.
Head to the UNESCO city of Bukhara for that elusive Arabian Nights experience, where the meandering streets and traditional squares offer a classic Silk Road atmosphere. Located on the crossroads of the Silk Route, the region features cafes and carpet shops alongside mosques and palaces. Admire the impressive Great Minaret of the Kalon, wander the site of Ismail Samanid Mausoleum and visit the summer palace of the last Emir of Bukhara at the Palace of Moon-like Stars.
The capital city of Tashkent is the antithesis to the traditional Silk Road cities. Discover the striking blue domes of the Teleshayakh Mosque, the interesting history at the Amir Timur Museum and striking Kukeldash Medressa (Islamic school). And for a change of scene, head to the shoreline on the Aral Sea in the north of Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan: Discover adventure sports and modern cities
Mention Kazakhstan and the only cultural reference you’ll probably be able to muster is Borat! But this fascinating country of contrasts offers so much more than the green mankini-clad explored in his mockumentary! It’s also one of the safest countries in Asia.
The sheer size of Kazakhstan alone makes it a vibrant hub of activity; in fact it’s the size of all of Western Europe! The remote nation is the world’s largest landlocked country and thanks to harsh and long winters, is largely unexplored by mainstream tourists. Most of the larger cities in Kazakhstan are connected via rail, which makes this potentially intimidating destination a lot more accessible, especially if you hire a local tour guide to introduce you to the fascinating culture. The traditional nomadic culture sits alongside ultra-modern cities with ease. Kazakhstan is geared up for eco-tourism and also caters well to adventure travellers. If you’re looking for an authentic back-to-nature experience, then look no further than Kazakhstan!
Adventure freaks should try heli-skiing or glacier hikes in the central Tian Shan region. Try your hand at tackling Mount Khan Tengri. Don’t miss the underground mosques, ancient markets and curious soviet buildings in the largest cities of Almaty, the former capital and Astana, the current capital city. Both cities are becoming ultra modern, to rival those elsewhere in Asia, with their nightclubs, impressive modern architecture and futuristic designs. Try the local Kazakhstani cuisine too: the nomadic herders favoured meat-based dishes and this is evident across the country. And visit the unfinished Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kyrgyzstan: Experience sublime trekking and an inland beach
Travellers make the journey to Kyrgyzstan for the sheer peace and fantastic trekking opportunities. The myriad of mountains beckons and the changing landscape is fascinating. Once the harsh winter dissipates, the landscape is replaced with summer pastures, meandering rivers and vast valleys. In fat it almost resembles an alpine wilderness.
Get back to nature by staying in a traditional yurt on the looming Tian Shan mountain range, aka the Celestial Mountains. Spend your days tackling the challenging rocky peak of Solomon’s Throne and then head to Issyk Kul to chill out. This giant lake surrounded by sand is popular with the locals as it’s the closest thing to resemble a beach in this land-locked country.
Check out the intriguing capital city of Bishkek, which has a few museums dotted about. The main draw is the superb Osh Bazaar which sells local fruit, handicrafts and textiles. Horse riding is popular across Kyrgyzstan, especially if you opt for an authentic homestay.
Tajikistan: Perfect for summertime hiking
The topography of Tajikistan is mountainous, in fact more than 90% of the landscape is comprised of soaring peaks and challenging summits. Slowly but surely, Tajikistan is opening up to tourism, keen to hike and climb virgin mountains. Except of course the Tajik people have made these mountains their home for thousands of years, in fact the Tajik’s are the oldest ethic group in Central Asia.
Start your journey in the capital city of Dushanbe and head into the mountainous regions of the Zerafshan Valley and the Pamir Mountains. The Fan Mountains within the Zerafshan Valley conceal the cultural gem of Sarazm, which is UNESCO recognised. The site dates back 5,500 years and is actually the oldest settlement within Central Asia and was only uncovered in the 1970s. The Tajik National Park has also just joined the UNESCO register.
The jewel-in-the-mountainous-crown however has to be the mighty Pamir Mountains which are the least explored mountains in the world! The most significant mountain chains all meet at the Pamirs: Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Tian Shan. The treks range from gentle to challenging as locals going about their daily life pass you on the tracks. The Pamirs are strictly off limits during winter when temperatures have reached a dizzyingly low -50C!
Turkmenistan: Explore the rare and unusual
Adventure travellers seeking a truly off-the-beaten track destination with cultural sights ranging from the rare to the bizarre will be right at home in Turkmenistan! The destination that rarely pops up in the traditional travel brochure has unusual dinosaur footprints stomping over the landscape and the ultra-rare golden Akhal-Teke horses, which are the national emblem.
The absolutely scorching Karakum Desert allows travellers to witness traditional clusters of villages that are as far removed from modern civilization as possible. The black sands of the Karakum Desert hold the secrets of the Stone Age, following important discoveries of human remains by archaeologists.
Explore the capital city of Ashgabat and stay in the ubiquitous yurt during your stay. And discover the Turkmenistan’s love of melons, of which there are over 400 unique varieties!