Your guide to Central Asia – everything you need to know to travel the Stans
Mention that you’re travelling to the Stans and you’ll most likely be met with a fleeting look of confusion. The where?
The five countries of Central Asia have been under the radar but don’t expect that for much longer. With incredible mountain scenery, Silk Road architecture, thriving Soviet-era cities, nomadic culture and some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet, Central Asia is a dream for adventurers and history buffs. Plus, it’s an incredibly affordable place to visit.
Kaindy Lake with birches in Tien Shan mountain, Almaty, Kazakhstan
As the largest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is best known for its vast grasslands and desert plains which cover most of the country. Oh, and Borat. But, there’s so much more to this dynamic country.
From east to west you’ll discover thrillingly diverse landscapes from lush mountains with pockets of hot springs, pristine lakes and untouched alpine forests to parched desert marked by chiselled canyons, striking rock formations and mysterious archaeological finds.
But let’s not forget the cities. To the north lies the Kazakh capital Astana, a sparkling metropolis of futuristic architecture that has certainly earned it’s reputation as the ‘Dubai of the Steppe’, and in the south sits Almaty, a lively city of leafy boulevards with a burgeoning foodie scene.
Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the country’s former capital Almaty is an excellent place to begin your trip through the Stans. Start by settling into a leafy café terrace for breakfast, ogle at the imposing Soviet-era architecture and mosey through the bustling markets.
Taste your way between the piles of dried fruits and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and don’t miss a chance to try the beloved national dish of Kazakhstan, beshbarmak, a simple but hearty noodle dish which is traditionally made with horse meat. Once you’ve recovered from your food coma, hit the hiking trails around Shymbulak for some spectacular views and a breath of crisp mountain air.
Russian Orthodox cathedral located in Panfilov Park in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Completed in 1907, it is the second tallest wooden building in the world.
When you tire of Almaty’s city life, head east toward two of Kazakhstan’s most impressive sights – the ochre cliffs of the Charyn Canyon and the verdant hills of Kolsai Lakes National Park – both of which can be reached in just a few hour’s drive.
For nearby destinations, the best way to get around is by a shared taxi or marshrutka – small minivans that usually leave when full rather then on a set schedule. A five-hour journey will set you back around £5. For longer distances, mingle with the locals on an old but characterful Soviet train as it lumbers across the steppe, but be prepared, Kazakh people are incredibly generous and will ply you with tasty treats so consider bringing a few of your own to offer around and perhaps an empty stomach as well.
Since relaxing their visa requirement in 2017 a number of nations are now able to travel to Kazakhstan visa free for up to 30 days, which means it’s never been a better time to visit. So, what are you waiting for!
Kyrgyzstan is quickly emerging as the superstar Stan among travellers in Central Asia. This tiny landlocked country is one of astounding natural beauty and provides a perfect playground for those seeking an offbeat adventure.
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s buzzing capital, is also making a name for itself as one of Central Asia’s best hubs. Its growing number of trendy bars, hip cafes and homey hostels might have something to do with it, not to mention the spectacular mountains awaiting right on its doorstep.
If you’re short on time, the lush valleys of Ala-Archa National Park can be reached in less than an hour from Bishkek, otherwise head east to Karakol where the jagged folds of the Tien Shan provide an unparalleled trekking mecca.
For starters, take the challenging three-day hike to turquoise Alakol Lake followed by a rejuvenating soak in the hot springs at Altyn Arashan. Or for something a little different, experience rural Kyrgyz life in the tiny village of Jyrgalan and wander between the nomads that frequent the high-altitude pastures. Of course, no trip to Kyrgyzstan would be complete without spending a night in a yurt and you’ll find plenty of options up here in the mountains.
While you’re buzzing around Karakol, be sure to sample the Dungan speciality, ashlyanfu, a cold noodle salad served in a tangy tomato broth. It’s a dish unique to this region and can be found for as little as 20 cents from any hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Karakol’s humming marketplace.
Not a big fan of hiking? Spend your days hopping between the laidback villages of Issyk-Kul’s southern shore. Wander along dusty tree-lined streets, sunbath on uncrowded beaches and dive into the shimmering expanse of Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake with a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.
It’s easy to get around in Kyrgyzstan with a combination of shared taxis and marshrutka which will take you just about anywhere you need to go, just be sure to agree on the price before jumping in.
Ready to book your ticket? Luckily Kyrgyzstan is the easiest of the Stans to visit with many nationalities able to visit visa free for up to 60 days. For those that do require a visa, there’s a straightforward eVisa application process.
With a belt of striking mountains covering most of Tajikistan, this is where one of Central Asia’s biggest bucket-list experiences awaits.
On the border where Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan collide in a dramatic wall of whitened peaks, you’ll find the start of the Pamir Highway. This epic road trip meanders past jagged peaks, pristine lakes and barren landscapes before reaching the lush tangle of the Wakhan Valley where hot springs and ancient ruins abound.
For an authentic taste of life in the mountains, stay and eat with local families in isolated mountain communities. In the harsh high-altitude wilderness, locals live off the land, which means plenty of hearty muttons stews, while the fertile soils of the Wakhan Valley provide vegetable-heavy fare and wheat for fresh breads.
Starting in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh, hire a 4WD with a driver and make a beeline for the impressive Peak Lenin basecamp before crossing into Tajikistan and pushing into the Pamir Mountains and onward to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. If this jaw-dropping road trip isn’t already at the top of your bucket-list, it should be.
After a memorable few days in the Pamirs, recuperate in one of Dushanbe’s sociable hostels – they’re some of the best in Central Asia – and fuel up on the smorgasbord of international eats on offer.
Still haven’t cured that thirst for adventure? Make the Fann Mountains your final stop in Tajikistan where you’ll discover mirror-like lakes, sweeping valleys and enough craggy peaks to tire even the most diehard explorer. Once again, a 4WD taxi is the way to go.
Thankfully, visas for Tajikistan are relatively easy to come by. Simply fill out the e-Visa application form online and you’ll have your confirmation within 48 hours. For the Pamir Highway you’ll also need a GBAO permit to enter the region which is as easy as checking a box on your visa application.
Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Back in the rolling desert, Uzbekistan offers up something a little different than the other countries in Central Asia – the awe-inspiring cities of the fabled Silk Road. When you’ve had your fill of muddy boots and mountain air, it’s time to take things down a notch in Uzbekistan.
With history stretching back millennia, these are cities that have been fought over with bloodlust, conquered and some even razed to the ground by Genghis Khan. But today they rise from the desert, rebuilt and restored, as majestic enclaves amidst the country’s modern day cities.
After a brief stop in capital city Tashkent, jump on a modern high-speed train to Samarkand, one of Central Asia’s oldest outposts and the most splendid of the ancient Silk Road settlements. Spend your days marvelling at the exquisite mosaics and gawking beneath enormous madrassas – Samarkand is a city like no other.
Edging further into the desert, lose hours wandering through Bukhara’s lively covered bazaars and leafy courtyards before taking a taxi further afield to the enchanting walled city of Khiva. A walk through its rambling alleys punctured by brightly coloured minarets is like stepping back in time.
Dazzling architecture aside, don’t miss a taste of the region’s speciality dish, shivit oshi, a tidy mound bright green noodles topped with a tasty vegetable or meat stew. Don’t let the radioactive colour freak you out though, the pasta is infused with dill and is simply delicious! Another must-try in Uzbekistan is Plov, a fried rice staple that you’ll encounter throughout Central Asia but word on the street is that Uzbekistan does it best – Tashkent even has an entire complex dedicated to creating the perfect plate.
Visas for Uzbekistan are a little trickier than some of the other Stans and often involve organising a Letter of Invitation and a visit to the embassy. But if everything goes according to plan, a streamlined e-Visa application process is planned for late 2018 for a number of nationalities.
Darvaza Gas Crater Turkmenistan
For curious travellers, Central Asia is an enthralling place to explore, but of all the Stans, it is Turkmenistan that remains truly cloaked in mystery.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, President Niyazov rose to power and governed the newly independent state of Turkmenistan with an iron fist. Since his passing in 2006 this firm grasp has tentatively begun to slacken, though conditions of entry remain strict. Today, a Letter of Invitation and visit to the embassy are essential to secure your Turkmen visa and you can apply for either a transit visa that allows independent travel for up to seven days, or join an organised guided tour for longer visits. Due to difficulties in acquiring a visa for Turkmenistan, this was the one Stan we unfortunately didn’t make it to.
Despite the political climate, Turkmenistan remains a fascinating place to explore where you’ll uncover a place of otherworldly natural beauty, bizarre relics of Niyazov’s reign and unparalleled hospitality from those eager to share the traditions and culture of the least visited Stan.
Start your trip in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s curious capital and peculiar self-proclaimed shrine to Niyazov. Peruse the city’s many quirky monuments and tributes to the former President, stroll the leafy parks and fill your belly with the mouth-watering local favourite, shashlyk. Though you’ll find these perfectly spiced flame-grilled kebabs just about everywhere in Central Asia, rumour has it that in Turkmenistan they’re just that much better than the rest.
After the strange delights of Ashgabat, you’ll find a number of equally alluring sights between the golden folds of the Karakum Desert. Most extraordinary are the Darvaza gas craters, a congregation of pits known locally as the ‘Gates of Hell’ that remain constantly ablaze. In the 1970s, they were set alight when a drilling mission went horribly wrong and they’ve been smouldering ever since. For a real thrill, camp overnight beside the craters when the inferno glows impressively against the night sky. Or hop between the windswept remnants of Turkmenistan’s Silk Road cities such as Merv and Konye-Urgench which were considered thriving outposts along the trade route.
Conveniently, trains run in almost all directions out of Ashgabat, making long-distance travel a breeze. For shorter trips, speedy marshrutka and shared taxis can take you wherever you need to go.
Freya and Chris are the writer and photographer duo behind the travel blog, The Sandy Feet. They’re always searching for the next adventure, whether it’s hiking the mountains of Central Asia, getting lost in a historic town in Eastern Europe or lounging on a secluded beach in Tahiti. You can follow their day-to-day adventures on Instagram or Facebook.
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