Central Asia remains a place where adventure isn’t just possible: it’s unavoidable. The fabled Silk Road nations that divide Europe and Asia have been central to world history for millennia, but are seldom visited by Western travelers.
I’d flown over the Stans many times, and often wondered about the remote countries thousands of feet below. Last year, I finally had the opportunity to see Central Asia from the ground. Swapping the 747 for two clapped out Ford Fiestas, friends and I drove from England through to Kazakhstan.
Traversing Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, we found thousand-year-old mosques, 7000-meter-high mountains, humming cities and achingly vast stretches of desert. Far more than just dots on the map, each country is distinct and worthy of exploration. I wish I’d gone sooner!
To save you from putting it off any further, here are my top reasons to visit Central Asia now:
Experience something totally unique in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan’s striking capital, Ashgabat, is a world of fountains, marble boulevards and gold statues. Look closer, and you’ll notice many of them depict the same man: the country’s former leader, Saparmurat Niyazov.
After gaining independence shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Niyazov (1940-2006) used the income from the country’s rich natural gas reserves to transform Ashgabat into a show city dedicated his worship. He died over 10 years ago, but the many gold statues remain.
Walking the streets of the capital, it feels as if you’ve stumbled onto the set of some dystopian movie. There’s little traffic, and fewer pedestrians. You’ll see a handful of locals dressed in vibrant traditional attire, and many heavily armed police officers guarding every monument.
Don’t worry – the rest of Central Asia isn’t like this. But if you get a kick out of the bizarre, then make sure Turkmenistan is on your list.
Relive the ancient Silk Road in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
If Ashgabat is a movie set, Bukhara is a museum. Uzbekistan’s fifth largest city contains over 140 monuments and historical buildings. Unesco listed the entire old center as a world heritage site. Boasting 5000 years of human history, Bukhara is the religious and spiritual heart of Uzbekistan, if not the whole of Central Asia.
You can spend hours losing yourself among the ancient buildings in the historic center, the most striking of which is surely Po-i-Kalyan, the Grand Mosque, whose name translates to “The Foot of the Great.”
Throughout 1300 years of history, the Po-i-Kalyan has survived assault from Genghis Khan, and for a while was known ominously as the Tower of Death: the minaret stretches 46.5 meters high, and once served as a convenient means of execution!
You can end your day at Lyab-i Hauz, an atmospheric (and, of course, ancient) pond surrounded by open air cafes and bars. An absolute gem, Bukhara is well prepared for tourists and deserves more of them. If you dig history, go at once.
Drive across mountains on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
Stretching up to 7495 meters high, the Pamir Mountain Range dwarfs anything that you can find in Europe or the United States. The highway that traverses these ranges doesn’t go quite that high, but it pushes well into the 4000s.
At that altitude, your breath comes hard, and even walking a few steps can feel like a marathon. Dropping down is a sweet relief, as the views shift from Tibet-like plains to lush valleys. Local villagers in traditional clothes will rush out to wave at you as you drive by the small communities that dot the highway.
For the early stages out of Dushanbe little more than a raging river separates you from the border with Afghanistan. You can see Afghan workmen constructing roads on the perilous cliffs above, as you enjoy fresh mountain views with every corner.
Horses, yurts and lakes in Kyrgyzstan
If you chance to drive from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, you’ll find yourself eye to eye with Mount Lenin. At 7134 meters high, it’s still only the second highest point in each country. The view is a nice diversion while you’re waiting for officials to wave you through.
Despite it being the fourth country on this route, it was Kyrgyzstan where I really felt “this is Central Asia.” A feeling probably thanks to the yurts (squat little tent houses) that stay warm in the winter and function as homes, restaurants and even (for the brave) restrooms.
In the Sary-Chelek reserve, deep in the Tien-Shan mountains, you can see basically every kind of scenery there is – from green meadows to snowy peaks reflected in the still surface of a mountain lake. Designated as a nature and biosphere reserve by Unesco, you’ll experience 270 hectares of nature at its most raw and rugged.
Picture horses galloping across rolling green hills, dotted with yurts like patches of snow, gigantic mountains framing the scene in the horizon, and you’ve basically nailed Kyrgyzstan. The cities are small and far between – this is a country for lovers of nature and the outdoors.
See the sci-fi like Bayterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan
The comedy film Borat portrayed Kazakhstan as impoverished, backwards, unsophisticated and parochial. This makes me pretty sure that the film’s maker, Sacha Baron Cohen, has never been to the capital, Astana.
Kazakhstan has immense reserves of oil, coal and other precious minerals, and has done a more deft job than most of its neighbors at developing infrastructure and turning these resources into wealth.
The Kazakhs were named after the ancient Turkic word for ‘free spirit’, and much of the population still live on the remote steppes, where they practice extraordinary feats of horsemanship. But the capital, Astana, is a resounding rebuttal to any stereotype that uninformed Westerners may have formed about the country.
Astana is a city of glass and steel. Gargantuan shopping malls tower above meticulously paved boulevards. Climb to the top of the bizarre sunflower-like Bayterek Tower for a panoramic view of this furiously growing metropolis.
Trains probably don’t run on time. You can’t easily get by with English (I tried to learn a bit of Russian). Hyper inflation means that in Uzbekistan dinner can cost you a fist sized wad of notes. The roads are rough. But it’s all worth it. The locals in Central Asia are friendly and inviting. Even the dullest streets drip with history.
Yes, many things will still be different, even weird, to some eyes. And that’s exactly why you should go!
Ready to explore the delights of Central Asia? Check out Intrepid Travel’s 17-day adventure there!