Once past Istanbul, the world changes scale – Nicolas Bouvier
Defining Central Asia is difficult. The term has a distinctive smell about it, but using that smell to draw clear boundaries is impossible. Broadly, though, it means the land east of the Caspian but south of European Russia, the wild steppe lands around the Oxus River, Afghanistan, the Pamirs, the Karakoram, Western China, and Tibet.
It is a place where continents, mountain ranges and ideologies collide. A place that, for millennia, has attracted travelers who hate labels, and imperial sculptors who have forced their own dreams of empire upon it.
So where does that leave the first-time traveler?
Most popular destinations: the Plov Trail
Asia, so good for the heart, so bad for the nerves – Nicolas Bouvier
Along the well-worn Plov Trail, these are some of the most scenic and interesting places in the 5 Stans of post-Soviet Central Asia that are easy to access.
Keep in mind, these are just the most popular places, not necessarily the best places for you. Follow your own interests. Write your own guidebook.
Tajikistan: the Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway is probably Central Asia’s most universally loved destination. The combination of the awe-inspiring landscapes, the hospitable people and the sheer remoteness and altitude of the whole region makes the edge of Central Asia the center of many tourist tales. Not to mention that you can wave at Afghans going about their daily business across the border.
There is one downside: it is the least developed bit of Central Asia. This means long travel times and expensive transport, bumpy roads, yawning cliffs, simple guesthouses and nasty stomach bugs that confine some travelers to the toilet/bucket for days. You should be ready for that, or choose …
It is easy to access the outdoors to start skiing, snowshoeing, trekking, horse riding, rafting or otherwise making your way through the stunning mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
If you prefer a more cultural holiday, you can find it here as well: stay in yurts and make fermented horse milk, round up sheep and shepherd them to the mountain pasture or pick nuts in the world’s biggest walnut forest.
Uzbekistan: medieval cities
Uzbekistan’s medieval cities are the most divisive traditional highlight in Central Asia. While older travelers revel in Uzbekistan’s arts & crafts, history and architecture, backpackers tend to find the main attractions, Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand, too touristy and Disney-fied.
Turkmenistan: Ashgabat and Darwaza
There is much more to see: history (especially Persian, Mongol and Soviet), Sufi shrines, desert landscapes and everyday shepherd’s lives. However, because it is so difficult to get into Turkmenistan, 95% of visitors sticks to the 2 most famous sights.
Kazakhstan: Almaty and Shymkent regions
Kazakhstan is a huge country; the southern Almaty and Shymkent regions are the most popular bits, both for logistical reasons (close to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China) and touristy reasons (they have a wide variety of sights).
Almaty is the cultural capital of Central Asia and its most pleasant city, and the area around has several national parks harbouring wildlife, lakes, canyons, deserts and ancient petroglyphs. The Shymkent region connects to Uzbekistan. In the desert, find Sufi shrines and forgotten Silk Road cities. In the mountains, bears roam in fields filled with wild tulips.
Off the beaten track
The smell of socialism is unmistakable – Tiziano Terzani
Keep in mind that it’s quite easy to go off the beaten track along the Plov Trail. In Uzbekistan, you can visit Termez or randomly call at a cotton village, in Kyrgyzstan plenty of trekking routes are devoid of foreigners and in the Pamirs, 95% of travelers stays on the main highway and Wakhan Valley route.
Kazakhstan is a huge country, mostly filled with glorious, empty steppe, but also with wonderful landscapes like the Mangystau area in the west of the country, where you can find Devil’s Balls, underground mosques and weirdly sculptured rock formations.
There’s the Dubai-of-the-steppe capital of Nur-Sultan, the nuclear bomb testing ground near Semey and the Baikonur Spaceport in the middle of nowhere. Then there are 20+ provincial cities in far-flung corners with sizeable populations and a lot of Russian imperial and Soviet history for the fanatic.
Wakhan corridor & Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor is generally considered safe, but it takes time and preparation (and usually quite a bit of money as well) to get there.
The rest of Afghanistan is really dangerous. The majority of travelers would not want to risk their lives here.
The Tien Shan and Pamir mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the most famous for outdoor activities, but there are other beautiful options.
Winter travel in Central Asia is not on the radar for most people. That’s sad, because it is a unique experience.
Many of Central Asia’s main sights become transformed in winter. For instance, Song Kul in summer is overflowing with tourists. In winter, it becomes the edge of the world completely blanketed in snow. You meet a few lonely residents along the way in a village cut off from the rest of the world. You stay in the only yurt around, taking in the breathtaking stillness of it all.
Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities are deserted (and not sweltering hot for once). The Pamir Highway becomes a real adventure.
The world is a caravanserai, with one entry and one exit – Omar Khayyam
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