Last Updated on November 12, 2022 by Audrey Scott
Travel in Central Asia, the little known and under-visited ‘stans along the Silk Road. What is there really to see and do? And is it safe to travel there? After spending over three months traveling overland through Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) we've answered these questions countless times.
Our Central Asia Travel Ultimate Guide and Resource provides an overview to the region for those unfamiliar. Then it offers an extensive recommendations on what to do and see in each of the countries in this fascinating region, as well as practical travel details to help you plan and book your trip.
Deserts and dictators. Yurts and nomads. Silk Road cities, staggering yet underrated mountain ranges, Soviet detritus, and one of the world's greatest road trips.
This is Central Asia. The ‘Stans. Never well understood, but absolutely worth an attempt to understand.
Although a visit to Southeast Asia kicked off our around-the-world journey, the former Soviet Union – the Caucasus and Central Asia (known as the ‘Stans) — was the real impetus for our trip. Before we'd set off, Audrey had worked with these countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) remotely from a desk in Prague, Czech Republic for over four years. During that time, she'd built up an appetite to experience them firsthand.
I, too, was game. But our guidebook made the region sound somewhat menacing.
Truth was, we weren't really quite sure what to expect.
Some of you may be thinking and many of you have asked: “Central Asia? Is there really anything to see and do there? What about safety?”
Yes, and yes. Now let's go!
Note: This post was originally published on May 6, 2011 and updated on November 6, 2018.
Table of Contents
What to See and Do in Central Asia
If you're looking for something off-path in all ways literal and figurative, Central Asia makes a good travel candidate. Filled with incredible mountain landscapes, friendly people and quirky experiences of the Soviet hangover variety, Central Asia is hard to beat when it comes to raw, discover-the-world potential. To this day, it remains one of our favorite and most fulfilling travel experiences.
Because tourism is still relatively new across Central Asia (for us, this was one of its appeals), there isn't the same fully fleshed out tourism infrastructure that you’ll find throughout the rest of Asia. So you'll have to make an effort. The flip side is that you’ll find friendly locals to shepherd you to your next — and often unexpected — adventure.
Still curious and undaunted about what you’ll find in the ‘Stans of Central Asia? From west to east, here’s a country-by-country beginner’s guide to some of our favorite travel spots and experiences in the region.
Kyrgyzstan Travel Information
If you must choose one country to visit in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan might just be it. Not only is the country over 90% mountainous and studded with beautiful landscapes, but the traditional nomadic culture and people are warm and welcoming.
Kyrgyzstan also has good community-based tourism (CBT) and DMO (Destination Management Organization) networks throughout the country that make it easy to get information in English, connect and interact with locals, book local tours, stay in yurts, and take mountain treks by foot or on horseback with local guides.
Additionally, Kyrgyzstan has visa-free travel for many nationalities, making it free from many of the bureaucratic headaches in the region.
Standing at a crossroads geographically, culturally and even culinarily, Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan has a multi-ethnic diversity that influences its people, food, markets, and general feel of the town. Only a few years ago, however, Karakol was seen only as a jumping off point for trekking in the nearby Tian Shan Mountains without much to do in the town itself except to visit the Dungan Mosque, Russian Orthodox Church and a cafe or two.
Much has changed recently in Karakol and its worth planning a few days there, whether you're heading into the mountains or not. The town — via Destination Karakol — is now engaging travelers in its multi-ethnic and crossroads cultural and culinary context through a series of immersive food, walking and cultural tours.
Disclosure: We helped Destination Karakol develop these tours as part of our tourism development advisory. So, we think they are pretty cool and think you will as well.
Karakol Animal Market
We arrived in Karakol, a sleepy town on the eastern fringe of Kyrgyzstan in time for its Sunday animal market. With an early rise, we enjoyed the scene as old men in kalpaks (traditional Kyrgyz hats) bargain away for stubborn donkeys and fat-rumped sheep.
Altyn Arashan Trek
Hike around 4-5 hours from the town of Karakol to Altyn Arashan, a natural mountain hot spring. Stay for the night and you can spend as long as you'd like relaxing in pools of piping hot water. Feels sooooo good after a day of hiking. Stars up there are also amazing.
If you have more time, continue in the morning to Ala Kol Lake. Although we and our companion had to turn back because of a blizzard whiteout due to it being late in the season, other friends all had great things to say about the trek.
Update: If you're interested in exploring other lesser known trails, take a look at this list of treks near Karakol. These trails were marked in 2017 and are included in the trekking map you can find at the Destination Karakol office.
If you're interested in outdoor activities and staying close to the mountains check out Jyrgalan village about 60 km from Karakol. Located in Jyrgalan valley the village offers the ideal jumping off point for trekking, horse back riding and mountain biking as you don't need to arrange transport to the trailhead; you can start straight from the village. And the village atmosphere and laid back nature is part of Jyrgalan's charm.
In addition, Jyrgalan has quite an interesting and inspirational transformational story — from dying former Soviet coal mining village to eco-tourism hub focused on adventure travel activities. This means that when you book a trekking tour, horseback riding trip, rent a mountain bike or stay at a family guesthouse your tourism money is staying in the community.
Recommended treks in Jyrgalan Valley: We've done the 3-day Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek and can highly recommend that trail. We've also heard good things about the 4-day Kesenkiya Loop. Here is a full list of day and multi-day treks in Jyrgalan Valley.
South Shore of Lake Issyk Kul and Manjyly
Various subranges of the Tian Shan mountains surround both the southern and northern shores of Issyk Kul, the world's second largest mountain lake. The point? You never have a bad view when you’re at Issyk Kul.
Spend a night at Manzhyly yurt camp on the south shore of the lake. Do some hiking, talk with a friendly shepherd, eat a wonderful home-cooked Kyrgyz meal and sleep as soundly you ever have in the dark womb of a Kyrgyz mountain yurt.
If you really want to go into traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture you can also now take part in Salbuurun (traditional Kyrgyz hunting with a golden eagle and taigan hunting dog), yurt building, and shyrdak making (traditional Kyrgyz felt carpet) workshops and tours with CBT Bokonbaevo.
Song Kul Lake
Combine great mountain scenery and a glimpse into rural Kyrgyz life with a three-day horse trek from Kochkor to Song Kul Lake. Sleep in yurts along the trail and on the edge of the lake. In the spring to summer months, you'll run into shepherds tending their animals in the hills.
We went in October and were blessed with a view of the first snows on the lake and the animal drive as shepherds took their animals to their villages in lower altitudes for the winter. Even if you have no experience on a horse (like us), you'll be able to manage. After all, we did. Just don't expect to walk normally the next day.
More reading: A Ramadan Experience at Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan was considered a midpoint along one of the main Silk Road East-West arteries and it has been a crossroads trading center for millennia. In fact, the city is estimated at over 3,000 years old and Jayma Bazaar, still the city's biggest market, has been operating in that same place for over 2,000 years. Trade and migration over the centuries helped evolve Osh into the culturally diverse urban center you see today, one that is home to more than 80 ethnicities.
Many travelers come through Osh on their way to/from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or China as the city is in close proximity to these border crossings. That was how we first visited Osh over ten years ago as we were en route to the Pamir Highway and Tajikistan.
More recently, however, we've had the opportunity to spend more time in Osh and its laid back, hospitable, and multi-cultural feel has made it one of our favorite cities in Kyrgyzstan. It's worth spending a few days walking its streets and engaging with friendly locals. Not to mention, its food scene is considered one of the best in the country.
Because it's a big city and spread out, Osh can be hard to get your head around and really understand well. Fortunately, in the last few years a series of walking and food-related tours have been created to help travelers connect better with the city's unique history, culture and cuisine. Disclosure: We worked with the founder, Atabek, as part of our tourism development consulting in Osh. So, we think they are pretty cool and think you will as well.
Pamir-Alay Mountains (Southern Kyrgyzstan)
It's hard not to be blown away by the beauty of the Pamir-Alay Mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan — no matter whether you are on a road trip along the Pamir Highway or if you are immersing yourself into the mountains with a bit of trekking.
We'd recommend stopping off for a few days in the Alay Region, perhaps using Sary Mogul as a base, and go on one of the newly marked day or multi-day treks in the area. Many of these treks have views of snow-covered Peak Lenin at 7,134 meters / 23,406 feet, which is truly stunning. And, you often have the opportunity to meet shepherds and their families living in yurts along the trail. Special.
Our favorite treks in the Alay Mountain area include the multi-day Heights of Alay Trek (four or six days) or the Koshkol Lakes day trek. You can find a full list of treks and information on guided treks and tours.
Uzbekistan Travel Information
Uzbekistan offers some of the best-developed tourism infrastructure in the region thanks to its Silk Road cities. A range of guest houses, train connections, and tour companies connect the region and make it easy to get around independently.
For additional stories, experiences, and information, check out all of our articles about travel in Uzbekistan.
Classic Silk Road Cities: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva
Get your fill of Silk Road snapshots and history along Uzbekistan's Silk Road route: Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Shakhrisabz. Although Samarkand is the most architecture-loaded, each of the cities is worth a look.
Our favorite is Bukhara, perhaps because it feels like living history. People still live in many of its old buildings, and merchants still bargain in the same market areas, much as they might have a thousand years ago. Additionally, it’s hard to find a friendlier and more colorful fresh market than the one on the outskirts of town.
Nukus and Moynaq
Nukus doesn't have any Silk Road glam, but it is home to the eclectic Savitsky Museum, which somehow escaped Soviet censorship. It's also home to Mizdakhan, an extraordinary cemetery featuring mini-mosques and marble- and stone-engravings of the dead.
Once a fishing town on the Aral Sea, Moynaq is today's bone-dry testament to man's stunning ability to prosecute war on nature. Rusted boats lay across land that was once shoreline, but is now desert. In full disclosure, we did not visit here but after talking with other travelers we regret this decision.
Turkmenistan Travel Information
From a red tape and visa perspective, Turkmenistan is the trickiest of all Central Asian countries to navigate. But don’t cross it off your list immediately, for it will likely surprise you and reward you for your perseverance.
For additional stories, experiences, and information, check out all of our articles about traveling in Turkmenistan.
If you have some flexibility in your schedule and you find yourself in Azerbaijan looking for a way out, we highly recommend taking the overnight ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Talk about a stunning and peaceful way to transition to a new region. Just stay away from the woman attendant on board who looks like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
More reading: Reflections Crossing the Caspian Sea.
Las Vegas meets Pyong Yang in Turkmenistan’s quirky capital city of white marble, fountains and 20-mile “health walks.” While the rotating gold statue of Turkmenbashi is no longer on display, there are still plenty of reminders of Turkmenistan's bizarre, self-consumed former leader (let us know if Turkmenbashi vodka is still on the market – good stuff).
Ashgabat's Tolkuchka market on Sundays is the largest open air market in Central Asia. It's definitely worth getting yourself out of bed to get there early. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find an active disco scene complete with Russian mafia, gorgeous women and enough drama to pack a Brazilian soap opera.
More reading: Ashgabat, The City of Love: A Scavenger Hunt
Gonur Depe, Merve and Konye-Urgench
Kick up 1000s of years of relatively undiscovered history as you walk just about any of Turkmenistan's archaelogical sites. Check out the mostly unexcavated site of Gonur Depe where you're literally sifting through 4,000 years of history. Yes, 4000 years! Then, stop by the cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench for a taste of Turkmenistan's station on the Silk Road.
More reading: Kicking Up 4,000 Years of History in Turkmenistan
Darvaza Gas Crater
Standing at the edge of a collapsed, blazing natural gas crater in the Karakum desert is one part hellishly hot, another part downright cool, particularly when you appreciate it from a tent, full moon overhead. Along the way there, pop by the oasis village of Jerbent for a peek at desert life that feels Thunderdome-ish and otherworldly.
More reading: Natural and Not-so-Natural History Sites in Turkmenistan
Kazakhstan Travel Information
Even though we enjoyed two “we’re going to die here” experiences in a relatively short time — crossing the land border from Uzbekistan and getting lost in the Tian Shan mountains – we still recommend you visit Kazakhstan. Among other things, you'll find that the film Borat is more than a little shy of reality.
For additional stories and experiences, check out our catalog of articles from our travels in Kazakhstan.
Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia
The Tian Shan mountains just outside Almaty provide some great hiking opportunities. Take a city bus into the base of the mountains and follow the trails up or walk atop a giant water pipe to Big Almaty Lake and enjoy the mountains and its surreal blue water.
After the lake, continue further up the mountain path for more surreal, this time of a Soviet variety, at Kosmostancia. Don’t be deterred by the rusted vehicles and abandoned look of the place. Astronomers still live and work in those hills and they usually have a few rooms to rent out. Try to squeeze in a stargazing session with the mad Russian astronomer (if he's still there) and his big telescope. If you continue over the mountain pass, be sure to carry a real trekking map. We didn't and very nearly disappeared, for real.
Tajikistan Travel Information
Unlike their neighbors, Tajiks are of Persian rather than Turkic origin. For this reason, Tajikistan features cultural, physical and culinary differences from the rest of Central Asia.
For additional stories, experiences, and information on traveling in Tajikistan, check out all of our articles about traveling in Tajikistan.
Pamir Highway Road Trip
Most of our time in Tajikistan was spent in the Pamir Mountains on the border with Afghanistan. We began our journey across the Pamir Highway in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, which we highly recommend for a view of Peak Lenin (7135 meters or 23406 feet) on the way to the border.
Make your way from the high desert outpost of Murghab through a series of mountainous roads with views of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan to Langar at the start of the lush Wakhan Valley. The local Pamiri people are renowned for being some of the friendliest people on earth; they will literally try to give you the shirt off their back if you need it. Try to fit in a visit to Bibi Fatima hot springs (supposedly good for fertility) and the nearby ruined fortress. You’ll be peeking into Afghanistan across the river the whole way.
To visit the Pamir Mountains, you must apply for a GBAO permit at the same time you apply for your visa. It's now available online as an e-visa these days which simplifies the process greatly.
More reading: Pamir Mountains: A Beginner's Guide
Tajik Air Over the Pamir Mountains
Among the most frightening and stunning flight we’ve ever experienced. In an unpressurized plane where person and bag has been weighed before takeoff, we flew through (not over, through) the Pamir Mountains on the way from Khorog, Tajikistan to the country's capital city of Dushanbe.
Once you arrive in Dushanbe, we recommend spending time in the city's fresh markets where people are incredibly friendly and curious.
More reading and video: Badakhshani Express: Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air
Central Asia Travel Itinerary
If you don’t have a few months to spend in the region, let your theme of choice (e.g, Silk Road cities, desert, mountain adventures and trekking) guide you. Or, combine a few together like a bit of history in Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan paired with some trekking our nomadic culture in Kyrgyzstan.
Then, find a country (or two or three) that suits your needs. You can cross over from country to country by flight or land transport. For more ideas on where and what to do and see in Central Asia, read: Golden Camel Awards: Sights, People and Scenery. You can also see the (mostly) overland route we took from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan on the Google Map below.
If you are hesitant to travel independently because of the logistical arrangements required, or you prefer to travel with a small group and local guide, check out the new G Adventures Central Asia tour that covers many of the same sites mentioned above. We've taken more than a dozen tours with G Adventures. We can recommend their style of tours, and we also commend how they invest in the local communities and work with local partners where they operate.
Map of our Route Through Central Asia
We began our journey in Central Asia by taking a boat across the Caspian Sea into Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan and crossed into China from Kyrgyzstan over the Torugart Pass just over three months later. You can see the route we took in our three-month journey across Central Asia in the Google MyMap below.
Since then, we've traveled extensively in Kyrgyzstan on a tourism development project. Despite the relatively significant amount of time and depth of our travel in this region, a long list of places we'd like to visit “next time” in Central Asia remains.
When to Travel to Central Asia
This region is great from springtime to fall, albeit it is a bit hot in the cities and lower elevation areas in the summer. In general, you'll probably want to avoid traveling in Central Asia in the winter unless you are targeting a specific outdoor activity, favor extreme winter adventure in the mountains or generally enjoy cold temperatures and gray skies.
We traveled through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in July/August. Although it was the hottest time of year (100+ F), the dry desert heat didn't bother us. Mountain areas in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (e.g., Pamir Mountains, Wakhan Valley, Tian Shan) can become numbingly cold as early as October. If you travel in the mountains during this time (and even as early as late August or September), be prepared to dress warmly at night, and in removable layers during the day.
Is Central Asia Safe to Visit?
Yes, it is currently safe to travel in Central Asia. We never felt unsafe during the three months we traveled through Central Asia independently. Note that we were on every form of public and private transport available. And, we traveled on a budget.
At the time, our guidebook made us fearful of police harassment and bribery, but we never once encountered this. We were asked for our papers once, from a policeman in the Tashkent metro, whereupon we pretended not to speak Russian. He apologized and went on his way. If you must provide your passport, begin with a paper or laminated copy first (read this for more passport safety tips). Regardless, safety precautions and current event awareness is important while traveling in Central Asia, especially as you select which destinations you'll visit.
Languages Spoken in Central Asia
Each country in the Central Asia region has their own language (e.g., Turkmen, Kyrgyz, etc.). Most of them use the Cyrillic alphabet, but some are changing over to the Latin alphabet. However, Russian is the lingua franca throughout the region. Many young people are learning English, but don’t expect a lot of English speakers anywhere.
Our suggestion is to learn the your numbers in Russian and Cyrillic alphabet (it really isn't that hard) so you can read street and bus signs. Carry a dictionary or download a translation app on your smartphone in case you get stuck.
Central Asia Visas
The visa process is one of the biggest barriers to travel in Central Asia. Bureaucracy and cost can sap both your savings and patience. We arranged our visas independently as we traveled — (i.e., a Turkmenistan visa in Yerevan, Armenia, an Uzbek visa in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kazakh and Kyrgyz visas in Uzbekistan, a Tajik visa in Kyrgyzstan).
Fortunately, the visa application process has become simplified for most Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan now offers a visa-free regime for 60 nationalities (and an e-visa process for the rest). Kazakhstan is visa-free for 45 nationalities. Tajikistan now has visa-upon-arrival at Dushanbe Airport as well as an e-visa and GBAO permit process, both of which allow 45 days of travel in the country. From February 2019, Uzbekistan is visa-free for travelers from 45 countries (unfortunately, the United States is not one of them…yet) and has a simplified e-visa program for other travelers.
Turkmenistan's visa regime is still as rigid as ever and usually require sponsorship and a Letter of Invitation from an authorized tour to get a tourist visa.
If you are setting off from your home country we advise you to arrange all of your visas ahead of time, if possible.
For all the nitty gritty details of our said headaches, read: Sex and the Central Asian Visa.
Central Asia Accommodation
Hotels and guest houses in Central Asia run the gamut from pleasant to appalling. In Kyrgyzstan, we used the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) program to book family homestays throughout the country. Many of these homestays are now also available for direct booking on Booking.com and there is a wide range now of accommodation in the towns and cities for all budgets and styles.
In the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, the only place with proper hotels is Khorog. You'll likely have to stay with families in the other Pamir Mountain areas (one of life's greatest experiences). Accommodation in Kazakhstan, especially Almaty, can be shockingly expensive, and you may find yourself sleeping in a brothel if everything else is booked.
For the best and worst of logistics across Central Asia, read: The Golden Camel Awards: Logistics
Central Asia Transportation
Public transportation in Central Asia is surprisingly good, accessible and inexpensive – buses, mashrutkas (minivans), trains and shared taxis run throughout the region, with the exception of along the Pamir Highway/GBAO. In general, shared taxis are a bit more expensive than buses or mashrutkas, but they are often the fastest way to get you to your destination.
Hitchhiking is also common in some areas, and may be required along the Pamir Highway for those on a tight budget.
Central Asian Food
Most don't set off to travel Central Asia for the food. However, the selection, variety and quality of traveler food options in the region has increased over the last few years.
For more details on what to expect from food across Central Asia, read our Central Asia Food and Markets Guide and our deeper dive on Central Asian Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Inedible.
Vegetarianism is not widely understood so it's useful to have a vegetarian useful phrases translation card with you to avoid misunderstandings.
Traveling as a Woman in Central Asia
What is it like traveling as a woman through Central Asia? The Central Asian countries are Muslim, but of a more moderate, open and secular variety than you might find in parts of the Middle East. This, combined with Soviet and Russian influence, can make Central Asia feel like the land of paradox. This paradox can positively impact a woman's travel experience in Central Asia.
How? You will find village women in colorful headscarves, but you'll also find city women wearing mini-skirts so mini that you might be wondering if someone ran out of fabric. Audrey always kept her legs and shoulders covered and wore a head scarf in a few areas of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, partly to fit in and partly to help with the fierce heat and sunshine.
Local women absolutely loved this and Audrey and her headscarf became an attraction and a point of tea, conversation and connection. In places like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, headscarves are more an exception than a rule. We met several solo female travelers in Central Asia and their experiences echoed similar themes.
Central Asia Guidebooks and Reading
- Central Asia Lonely Planet Guide: Although the section on security and harassment in this guidebook freaked us out a bit before our trip, we found the city maps, historical background, and general information about logistics useful.
- The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia: Great historical context on the geo-political Great Game played by the Russian and British Empires to control routes and access to trade and goods in India and the East.
- Central Asia Phrasebook: If you don't have some Russian language skills under your belt, it might be useful to have a phrasebook like this to navigate public transport, accommodation, food and more.
Any questions about traveling in Central Asia? Leave a comment below and we'll do our best to help.