Is Central Asia on your travel bucket list? If not it should be. I’m talking about “the ‘Stans” and I’d like to tell you about the top 10 things to do in Central Asia based on my experience travelling there for three months.
This region of the world is full of splendid historic and natural attractions that have opened up to independent travellers in recent years. The mix of cultures, from colonial Russians to semi-nomadic herdspeople, is fascinating and travelling in Central Asia is the most richly rewarding travel I have ever done.
1. Visit Uzbekistan’s ancient cities
At the crossroads of the silk roads running between China, India, Persia and the west for thousands of years, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are quite simply a glimpse into a time that has become the stuff of myth and poetry.
Samarkand has been the climax of every Silk Road odyssey since the time of Alexander the Great and the dazzling monuments of the city still afford thrills to travellers. The excitement of standing where Alexander feasted, Genghis Khan destroyed and Tamberlaine rebuilt and reigned is palpable. The monuments preserved here are mind blowing and don’t miss the birthplace of Timur in Shakri Sabz, a few miles from Samarkand.
Bukhara is a different experience again because it preserves a whole city rather than just islands of monuments in a modern city like Samarkand. From the royal citadel with its magnificently bulging ramparts to the majolica-tiled medressahs and the quiet streets of the old town, Bukhara is a Central Asian experience not to be missed.
The mighty fortress of Khiva is a long drive across the Oxus river (now called the Amu Darya) to a city preserved museum-like in the Kyzylkum desert. Its incredible ramparts, golden beauty and turquoise tiled domes are stunning.
2. Wander through even more ancient ruins
The remnants of pre-Islamic Central Asia are just as fascinating and there are a few you must not miss.
On the outskirts of Samarkand is Afrosiab, which Alexander the Great called Marakanda when he visited in 330 BC. He celebrated his victory over the Sogdians by feasting like an oriental potentate and murdering his right-hand general in a rage. Afrosiab is now an atmospheric, windswept area of strangely lumpy grass where shepherds graze their flocks. A museum contains the remains of artefacts found on this site from 2,000 BC bronze-age burial bracelets to frescoes from a seventh century palace.
Just across the border from Samarkand, in Tajikistan, lie the ruins of ancient Penjikent. This city founded by the Sogdians in the 5th century sits in the Zarafshan valley and was on the ancient Silk Road. The ruins are extensive and it is amazing to recognise houses and rooms from so long ago.
Also in Tajikistan, in the legendary Wakhan Valley, is an incredible ruined fortress perched in a dominant position above the village of Yamchun. It has stood guard here since the 12th century and you can clamber about among the ruins. Go for a swim in the hot pools of the nearby Bibi Fatima Hot Springs. Other ancient sites in the Wakhan Valley include Zoroastrian fire platforms, ancient petroglyphs (rock painting) and a ruined buddhist stupa.
The other ancient site that was a highlight for me in Tajikistan was the geoglyph site at Shurali near Murgab in the GBAO province. Geoglyphs are figures marked out with stones on the ground and there are massive human shapes here where there was probably once a burying ground. It is quite difficult to find (even for a local guide) but worthwhile.
Kyrgyzstan does not have much in the way of ancient monuments but don’t miss the Tower of Burana, just outside Bishkek. This monument is the remains of the Sogdian city of Balasagun, founded at the end of the 9th century. From the top you can see low ridges where once were city walls. There is also a field of balbals – Turkic totem-like stone markers or petroglyphs that were carved sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries.
3. Stay in a yurt with nomadic herdspeople
My experience staying in a yurt with the semi-nomadic herdspeople of Kyrgyzstan constitutes my top travel experience, in the world, ever. I went on a horse trekking trip from the tiny town of Kochkor, saddling up with a local guide and heading for the jailoo – the summertime mountain pastures of the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz people. The yurt is a tent-like structure with a conical roof is still used by Kyrgyzstan’s semi-nomadic herding families as they care for their herds in the summer. Forget about touristy yurt stays elsewhere, this was the real thing. Spending time with this family was incredible.
4. Trek in unspoilt wilderness
From the old Russian colonial town of Karakol, or near Kochkor, or beside Lake Song Kul, the trekking opportunities in Kyrgystan are legion. You will always have a backdrop of snowy mountains, perfect alpine valleys and wildflowers. And no other trekkers to be seen. If you are more intrepid, try climbing in the Alai Valley – the magnificent Pamir Alai mountain range runs along the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and contains some amazing trekking peaks.
5. Ultimate road trip: travelling the Pamir Highway
You haven’t done a road trip until you’ve travelled the Pamir Highway, The entry to the Pamirs is through the Wakhan Valley, where you are only a stone’s throw from Afghanistan. The Wakhan is green and dotted with places of cultural interest, making it even more of a contrast when you climb up to the Pamir Highway itself. Hundreds of miles of high altitude landscape greet you, at or around 4000 metres. Camping beside the lake of Bulunkul, visiting the village of Alichur and across the high plains of Tajikistan where herds of yaks and goats graze. You will see small groups of yurts becasue there are many Kyrgyz people in this part of Tajikistan, the men dressed in their attractive embroidered felt hats. The outpost of Murgab is a wild east ghost town where at 3,600m the light is blinding from the whitewashed buildings and dusty streets. The final destination is ancient Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
6. Explore newly-vibrant capitals
Dushanbe, Tashkent and Bishkek may not be on the usual list of city break destinations but they have a lot to offer travellers, not least because they are emerging from the past in vibrant ways while retaining a strong connection with history and culture. In fact, these cities developed by the Soviets are well laid out, low rise and leafy.
In Tashkent you should shop in the Chorsu bazaar, get cheap tickets to the ballet at the Alexander Theatre, check out the gorgeously-decorated metro stations, wander through Independence Square, and don’t miss the fantastic Tashkent Train Museum with its Soviet steam behemoths.
Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan also has plenty to see and do, as well as some useful embassies. It is a great place to start and or finish your Central Asian travels. See the lovely wooden Russian Orthodox church, the changing of the guard in the main square, and watch the chess players in the green central parks.
Dushanbe is an important stop for getting a visa to travel to the Pamir Highway GBAO region so luckily the Tajik capital has pleasant, tree-lined avenues and a few cafes for people watching.
7. Meet wonderful people and support communities
Central Asia is a place where children run to greet you and stare curiously at your clothes and equipment. Where families picnicking insist that you join them and feed you vodka and jam. Where yurt-dwellers invite you in for tea and where fellow taxi passengers invite you into their homes to stay. After a few months travelling we started to call it the “Central Asia Hospitality Ambush”.
A lot of my experiences meeting people in Central Asia were completely random but an easy way to do it in Kyrgyzstan is to utilise the excellent Community Based Tourism scheme. This is doing great work with local communities, allowing independent travellers to access homestays and guiding services. Apart from that, my advice is to just be open to meeting people, learn a few words of Russian and prepare yourself to drink vodka.
8. See jewel-like lakes
I loved the mountain landscapes of Central Asia – over 90 per cent of Kyrgyzstan is higher than 1,000 metres after all – but it is the incredible, jewel-like lakes in their mountainous settings that stick in my mind even more. The huge lake (and town) of Karakol is a great base for trekking in Kyrgyzstan. The exquisite Lake Isfahan (on the way to Dushanbe) and Yashikul (on the Pamir Highway) in Tajikistan are unforgettable.
9. Shop in exotic bazaars
The best dried apricots you’ve ever tasted, piles of blackberries and somewhere to get your horse reshod… the bazaars of Central Asia are both historic and the thriving heart of communities. Osh is only one of Asia’s oldest bazaars, where people have been trading since the 5th century BC. If that’s not mind boggling enough, the range of products on sale certainly is. The bazaar of Samarkand is brilliant, with its backdrop of ancient monuments and friendly costermongers. At Karakol in the farthest reaches of Kyrgyzstan don’t miss the Sunday animal market, whether or not you want to buy a boot full of piglets.
10. Nukus and the Aral Sea
This is a Central Asia must-see that is really hard work to get to, involving a long bus ride from Khiva (which already seems like a long way from anywhere). Nukus is a back-of-beyond dump of a town but it has two very interesting reasons to visit. First is the art museum, which is a surprising repository for an amazing collection of realist art that was brought here to keep it safe from the disapproving Soviets in the 1930s.
To search for the Aral Sea you have to travel even further than Nukus, to Moynaq – once a thriving fishing village on the shores of the Aral Sea, now an inhospitable town in the middle of a desert. The rusted hulls of the fishing fleet lie marooned in the silt because the Aral Sea, which used to be one of the world’s largest lakes, has been reduced to 10 per cent of its former size. This ecological disaster has been caused by years of bad agricultural practice and it has to be seen to be believed.
Top 10 things to do in Central Asia
It took me three months of travelling independently to experience all of these top things to do in Central Asia but you could easily condense that into a much shorter time with the benefit of advice from previous travellers such as myself. Take a look at some of my other posts on travel and things to do in Central Asia.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you travelled in Central Asia? What are your top 10 things to do in Central Asia?
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