Things to do in Central Asia & the Silk Road

Sandwiched in-between Europe and eastern Asia, Central Asia has a long and storied history, and takes ‘off the beaten path’ to a seriously new level. Famed for the romanticised Silk Road and the enigma of ‘the Stans’, Central Asia was once a place only the stalwart traveller thought to venture. But now, the region’s relative economic stability and unjaded attitude to visitors makes for a destination so welcoming and compelling, you’ll pray it won’t be discovered any time soon.

Our travellers' favourite trips in Central Asia & the Silk Road

Armenia's incredible cultural sites

When you’re the oldest Christian nation in the world, you’re going to have some impressive sites. Here are some of Armenia’s best:

Tatev Monastery ‘Wow’ might be uttered more than a number of times when this incredible ninth-century hilltop monastery comes into view. Take the world's longest cablecar to the top and prepare to be blown away.

Geghard Monastery Cut into rock within a dramatic mountainscape, this medieval monastery is nothing short of incredible. Be sure to stop in at the nearby pagan Garni Temple as well.

Khor Virap Dating back to the 600s, this Armenian Apostolic church sits on a mountaintop with heavenly views of Mount Ararat.

Old Khndzoresk Cave Village These intriguing caves, hewn into the mountainside, were inhabited for a rumoured thousand years before the new village was built in the valley below.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral One of the oldest cathedrals in the world, this extraordinary building dates back to AD300 and oozes atmosphere.

Matenadaran The Museum of Ancient Manuscripts contains some of the finest examples of medieval manuscripts and books, and is a fascinating collection of the artistry that went into pre-press written material.


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The food of Azerbaijan

Being one of the countries along the Silk Road, Azerbaijan’s enticing cuisine has been influenced by the Far East, Turkey and Persia. Be sure to taste:

Plov Also known as osh, Plov is Azerbaijan’s national dish and similar to a pilaf. The main difference is that each ingredient is served separately, so expect your spiced rice and fried meat, stew or eggs to come out in individual dishes.

Baliq levengi Baked fish is taken to a whole new level in Azerbaijan by being stuffed with walnuts, dried plums, pomegranate seeds and onion. Drool.

Dyushbara These delicious and delicate meat-filled dumplings are served in a simple broth.

Piti Found throughout the country, this enjoyable soup is made of mutton and vegetables in a saffron broth and served in individual pottery bowls.

• Badimjan dilchaklari Often served as an appetizer or for breakfast, this dish consists of fried eggplant slices slathered in a fresh tomato sauce with garlic and fresh herbs.

Kutab These thinly rolled flatbreads are stuffed with a whole manner of ingredients, from ground lamb and greens, to fish or spinach and cheese.

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Highlights of Kazakhstan 

A certain character named Borat has done two things for Kazakhstan – put it on the map and, funny though it was, caused a few Kazakh noses to be put out of joint. So, as a counter, here are a few things that make this lovely country so special:

Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve This breathtaking area is abundant in alpine meadows, wildlife, snow-capped mountains and hiking trails. 
 
Kings of eco-tourism Community-based ecotourism helps local families and protects nature reserves while immersing travellers in the local culture. Win-win!

• Turkistan Dating back to the fourth century, this city rises from the desert and is home to the breathtaking Shrine of Kohza Akhmed Yasaui.

Holy Ascension Cathedral The second-tallest wooden building in the world is completely made of wood and has been built without using a single nail.

Petroglyphs of Tamgaly Some 5,000 rock carvings (petroglyphs), dating back to second millenium BC can be found here, along with ancient tombs, burial grounds and alters.

The Kazakhs themselves Warm, robust and hospitable to a fault, expect to be welcomed by the locals and a source of curiosity.
 

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Food in Kyrgyzstan

The food of Kyrgyzstan is hearty, delicious and made for the meat-lover. Here are some of the country’s most loved dishes:

Laghman A traditional Dungan dish, these tasty handmade noodles swim within a spicy, salty soup that contains meat, vegetables and herbs. 
 
Manty Every Asian country has its version of the dumpling and this is Kyrgyzstan’s. Just beware: the filling of lamb, onion, potato and fat can (deliciously) burst out when biting into it.

Samsa A much-loved street food snack, samsa is similar to a samosa but its casing is more bready than pastry-like. Common fillings are mutton or beef and vegetables such as peppers and onion.

Shashlyk Cubes of marinated meat (mutton, beef, liver, chicken) and fat are skewered and cooked over burning embers and are available all over the country – from restaurants to roadside vendors. 

Jai For those who need a break from the meat and carbs that Kyrgys love, Jai is perfect as it’s a colourful salad of carrot, radish, spring onion and dill.

Boorsok These triangles of dough are deep-fried and served in abundance, either plain or sprinkled with icing sugar, at every Kyrgyz celebration. Often jam and honey are served with them as a dip.
 

More Kyrgyzstan information & trips

 

Wildlife in Mongolia

Mongolia is a breathtakingly vast country of unspoiled wilderness, and Mongolian people share a special connection with local animals. Share in six of the country’s most unforgettable wildlife experiences:

Gobi by camel Cross the otherworldly Gobi Desert and tackle the astonishing Khongorin Els sand dunes in the company of a two-humped Bactrian camel. 
 
Sagasi Eagle Festival. Celebrate this ancient tradition alongside local Kazakh eagle hunters as they gather to compete for the title of fastest bird. 

Ride the Steppes Do as the herdsmen do and take the prairie highlands at a gallop, learning the ways of the horse in nomadic steppe life. 

Lake Khovsgol Nur Spend an afternoon playing catch and release by the ‘blue pearl of Mongolia’, a pristine lake home to the incredible 45 kg taiman fish. 

Gurvan Saikhan National Park Below the looming ‘Three Beauties’ mountain range, watch on as gazelles and vultures, finches and snow leopards co-exist in this haven for endangered species.  

Tsaatan Reindeer Herders Pay a visit to the tribal Tsaatan people of Northern Mongolia and experience firsthand the unique culture of reindeer herding. 
 

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Natural wonders of Turkmenistan 

This ancient country, once a popular Silk Road destination, is brimming with natural wonders. Here are a few of Turkmenistan’s most impressive places:

Darvaza Gas Crater Dubbed ‘the door to hell’, this mesmerising crater was set alight by Soviet geologists when craters formed after tapping into a cavern filled with natural gas. 

Dinosaur Footprints The pristine Kugitang Nature Reserve is home to over 400 prints of dinosaurs, thought to be around 150 millions years old. 

Bakharden Underground Lake With water temperatures hovering at 37C, this lovely underground lake, known as Kov Ata to locals, is a great place for a dip. A large population of bats also makes its home here.

Karlyuk Caves Also in Kugitang Nature Reserve, located on the slope of Kugitangtau Ridge, these incredible caves are rich in galleries, halls, labyrinths, passages, stalagmites and stalactites.

Lake Sarakamysh As the largest lake in Turkmenistan, Sarakamysh is a haven for a host of water birds, such as pelicans and cormorants.
 
Karakum Desert Also known as Garagum and meaning ‘Back Sand’ in the Turkmen language, this immense desert covers over 70 per cent of the country.
 

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Historic Silk Road Cities 

The cities of Uzbekistan were once welcome stops along the historic Silk Road, which brought wealth, an array of cultures, a compelling history and beautiful architecture. Here are the country’s most historic Silk Road cities: 

Samarkand Founded around 700 BC and located near the middle of the Silk Road, Samarkand has a fascinating history and is a wonderland of ancient mosaicked buildings.  
 
Bukhara Bukhara’s beauty and history continues to live due to the conservation of its historic buildings and sites. With hundreds of ancient buildings and an Old Town that is truly timeless, there’s no better place to get a taste of the Central Asia of old.

Tashkent Uzbekistan’s capital is an eclectic place that is a heady mix of its Asian, European, Islamic and Soviet influences. While you may have to dig a bit deeper to discover its Silk Road past, it does shine through in its bazaars, museums and historic buildings. 

Khiva Once a notorious Silk Road town feared by many, Khiva could be described as an open-air museum due to the large number of remarkable sites contained within its 18th-centry walls, all of which have been extensively restored.

Shakhrisabz One of Central Asia’s most ancient cities, this seemingly small town slowly reveals a wealth of World Heritage-listed ruins and sites that were built by the conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane) in the 12th and 13th centuries.
 

 

 

Regal residences in Russia

From tsars to tyrants, writers to revolutionaries, Russia’s history features an impressive cast of historical players – both famous and infamous – whose one-time residences can still be visited today.

Lenin’s House & Museum Mausoleum Although rather nondescript from the outside, this building-cum-museum was where Lenin stayed as a student, penned his first Marxist-inspired works and began a new chapter in Russia’s history.

Dostoyevsky House Museum Located in St Petersburg, this small apartment – the writer’s final residence before his death in 1881 – has been faithfully reconstructed to depict how he saw out his last years.

Tolstoy House By the time of his death in 1911, Tolstoy’s legacy was already well established as one of the country’s literary greats. When his time came, the Moscow council wasted no time in converting his estate into a museum – one that now houses approximately 5,000 of the writer’s belongings.

Stalin’s Bunker Museum OK, so Stalin didn’t exactly ‘reside’ here. In fact, it’s generally believed that he never even visited his top-secret bunker in Samara. But, at 35 meters down, his underground bunker does provide a fascinating insight into Stalin’s preferred decor – as well as his well-documented paranoia.

Rasputin Yussopov Palace Technically Rasputin didn’t live here either – but it was where he finished living. History’s most maligned monk met his rather eventful end in the opulent interior of this former palace, which now features an exhibition dedicated to his legend.

Alexander Palace Catherine the Great had this sprawling estate built for her favourite grandson, Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovic. Though the palace eventually became the final holding-pen of the Russian monarchy, during its imperial heyday it received visits from Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekov.
 

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Articles about travel in Central Asia

A photo journey through Central Asia

The Silk Road originally extended over 6,000 km through ancient China, India, Persia, Europe and Arabia, linking the mighty civilisations of the East and the West. It’s an intrepid traveller’s dream to see the trading town of Kashgar in full swing, venture through the mountainous heartlands of Kyrgyzstan and explore exotic Tashkent. Kira Gerber has captured her memories of this historic route in these inspiring travel photos… Read more

5 foods you really need to try in Russia

The first Russian foods to come to mind are probably caviar and borscht, but in my homeland there are many more regional delicacies to discover.

When you travel to Russia here are five local foods that you won’t want to miss giving a try… Read more

The do's and don'ts of travel in Kyrgystan

Kyrgystan: Central Asia, west of China and south of Kazakhstan. Dominated by the Tian Shan (Heavenly Cloud) mountainous range with verdant green gorges, tall peaks and high altitude lakes.

But before you saturate yourself in the Silk Road scenery of yore, here are some valuable travel tips… Read more

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