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 back in 2006, 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? Is it safe?”
Yes, and yes. Now let's go!
Skip ahead to what interests you most:
Beautiful, Offbeat: Central Asia Travel Overview
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.
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.
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; 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
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. During the time of our visit, Tashkent was the city with the best internet connectivity; its selection of wifi cafes made it an ideal place to catch up on our work.
Classic Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand
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.
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.
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.
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 a terrific community-based tourism (CBT) network throughout the country that makes it easy to connect and interact with locals, stay in yurts, and take mountain treks on horseback.
Additionally, Kyrgyzstan has visa-free travel for many nationalities, making it free from many of the bureaucratic headaches in the region.
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.
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.
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, other friends all had great things to say about the trek.
Update: If you're interested in exploring a new trekking route near Karakol, take a look into the Jyrgalan Trek.
More reading: Kyrgyzstan: Best Tourist Sights and Landscapes
Lake Issyk Kul and Manzhyly
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.
Hook up with CBT to spend a night at Manzhyly on the southern shore of the lake. Do some hiking, talk with a friendly shepherd, eat a wonderful homecooked Kyrgyz meal and sleep as soundly you ever have in the dark womb of a Kyrgyz mountain yurt.
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.
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 the 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 have to get a GBAO permit at the same time you apply for your visa. It's now supposedly available online as an e-visa these days.
More reading: Pamir Mountains: A Beginner's Guide
Tajik Air Over the Pamir Mountains
Easily the most frightening and stunning flight we’ve ever been on. In an unpressurized plane where person and bag has been weighed before takeoff, we flew through (not over, through) the on the way from Khorog in the Pamir Mountains to Tajikistan's capital city of Dushanbe.
Once you get to Dushanbe, we recommend spending time in the fresh markets – people are incredibly friendly and curious.
More reading and video: Badakhshani Express: Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air
Practical Advice for Planning a Trip to Central Asia
Planning a Central Asian itinerary
If you don’t have a few months to spend in the region, let your theme of choice (e.g, Silk Road, desert, mountains) guide you. Then, find a country (or two) 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 in this article.
If you are hesitant to travel independently with all of the logistical arrangements or 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 over ten tours with G Adventures and can recommend them.
When to go
This region is great from springtime to fall, but best to be avoided in the wintertime unless you favor frigid and gray. 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., Pamirs, Wakhan Valley, Tian Shan) can become numbingly cold as early as October.
We never felt unsafe in the three months we traveled through Central Asia and we were on every form of public and private transport available. Our guidebook made us fearful of police harassment and bribery, but we never once encountered this in three months. 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 copy first.
Language in Central Asia
Each country in this region has their own language (e.g., Turkmen, Kyrgyz, etc.) that use either the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet. However, Russian is the lingua franca. Many young people are learning English, but don’t expect a lot of English speakers anywhere. Our suggestion is to learn your numbers and the 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.
Visas and bureaucracy
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., Turkmenistan visa in Yerevan, Armenia, Uzbekistan visa in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kazakh and Kyrgyz visas in Uzbekistan, Tajik visa in Kyrgyzstan).
Fortunately, the visa application process has become simplified for most countries. Kyrgyzstan now has a visa-free regime for 60 nationalities (and an e-visa process for the rest), as does Kazakhstan for 45 nationalities. Tajikistan now has visa-upon-arrival at Dushanbe Airport as well as an e-visa + GBAO permit process, both of which allow 45 days in-country.
Turkmenistan's visa regime is still as rigid as ever, but the visa requirements for Uzbekistan are supposed to be easing. Letters of Invitations (LOI) are not required for many nationalities now, although we hear that having one speeds up the visa approval process at an embassy. There are rumors that Uzbekistan e-visas will be possible from July 2018.
If you are setting off from your home country we would advise you to take care of them all ahead of time, if possible. You can also use a visa service to help reduce the bureaucratic headaches and hand-wringing.
For all the nitty gritty details read: Sex and the Central Asian Visa
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. Uzbekistan also features guest houses for all budgets in the Silk Road cities. Tashkent hotels can get expensive. 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 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 all are booked.
For the best and worst of logistics across Central Asia, read: The Golden Camel Awards: Logistics
Transportation in Central Asia is surprisingly good and accessible – 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.
You don't come to Central Asia for the food. Expect to find a lot of mutton, which is best eaten piping hot before the fat can congeal on the roof of your mouth. Vegetarianism is not widely understood. For more details on what to expect from food across Central Asia, read: Golden Camel Awards: Food and Markets and Central Asian Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Inedible
Women Traveling in Central Asia
What's it like traveling as a woman through Central Asia? These 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.
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 parts 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. We met several solo female travelers in Central Asia and they felt the same.
Recommended Reading and Resources for Central Asia
- Indy Guide: A website that helps connect travelers to local guides, tour providers and drivers in Mongolia and Central Asia. Plus, it offers a way to connect with other travelers going through the region. Visa and other practical advice, too.
- Central Asia Lonely Planet Guide: Although the section on security and harassment in this guidebook did freak us out a bit before our trip, we did find 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.