Central Asia

Magical landscapes and Silk Road cities

Sandwiched between the Middle East and China, Central Asia is a land of bloody history where warlords like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane ruled and rampaged. Made up of five former Soviet states ‒ Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan ‒ it's best known for being the central artery of the ancient silk route connecting China with Europe.


Uzbekistan is the cultural highlight, home to glittering silk road cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, with their mosaic-laden madrasas, cobalt-domed mosques and souks thronging with traders. Elsewhere, it’s about experiencing untouched landscapes and the people who've lived in them for generations. Try the snow-capped Pamir and Tian Shan mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where traditional herding communities ride horses, sleep in traditional yurts and hunt with birds of prey.

Contributors
Steven Hermans

The climate of Central Asia is one of extremes. Between the lowest point in the former Soviet Union, 132m (433ft) below sea level to peaks over 7,000m (23,000ft) high, you should expect anything and everything.

The region is also the furthest place on Earth from the ocean. The softening influence of the sea has no effect here, meaning summers are hot, winters are cold, and spring and autumn are transitions that take up only a few weeks in the year. Timing it right is of the essence.

If you are only visiting either the lowlands or the highlands, this is not a problem. If you want to do both, you will need to compromise somewhere.

The lowlands of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have agreeable springlike weather from March to May and from September to November. Be aware that the north of Kazakhstan is for all intents and purposes, Siberia. Summers are hot like elsewhere, but winter finishes one month later here and starts a month earlier.

If you intend to visit Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous areas or the Pamir Highway, summer, from mid-June until mid-September, is the best time to go. You can stretch it with a few weeks on either side if you do not intend to go hiking, but after that, snow starts falling and travel gets a lot harder.

The major feast in the region is Nowruz, the Persian New Year that is celebrated from Tirana to Kabul on 21st of March, the vernal equinox. The whole Silk Road region takes a week off to burst into song and dance, cook special dishes and engage in horse games of all manner and kind.

Kazakhstan is still cold at this time, and the tulips will only awaken in April, but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan can both be visited for a festive Nowruz tour. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Nowruz is a snowy affair.

What to eat in Central Asia

What to eat and drink on the Silk Road

Central Asia is generally absent from the world gastronomy map. Is that justified? At first sight, yes. Restaurants around the region tend to serve the same classic staples: plov (a rice dish mixed with carrots, raisins and meat), manty (dumplings), shashlyk (grilled kebabs) and laghman (an Uyghur spaghetti in a sumptuous broth).

The would-be foodie baulks. The real culinary adventurer, however, digs deeper. Bazaars are the best place to find culinary specialities: Dungan ladies selling mountains of herbs and spices that have no English name stand shoulder to shoulder with pensioners making some extra cash from the heirloom berries and tomatoes from their cottage.

Koreans selling dog meat. Nuts galore. And of course, an incredible array of dairy products made from cow, goat, horse and camel milk.

Regional specialties

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, beshbarmak is a mountain of meat on top of pasta lathered in onion sauce.

In Uzbekistan, try some kozhe on a hot day; a cold soup of fermented milk and barley. Also, you cannot miss the flat breads (lepyoshka) Uzbeks bake daily: they are everywhere, in great variety.

In Turkmenistan look out for the meat pies in all shapes and sizes, while Tajikistan has qurutob: a fresh salad mixed with yoghurt.

Meat-heavy

Central Asia has been dubbed a vegetarian’s nightmare. For a vegan, it’s even worse. The nomadic heritage of these countries means that farming vegetables only came with the Russian invasion. Without exception, every national dish that locals pride themselves on revolves around animal products: meat, milk, cheese and cream form the base of everything.

Vegetarianism is usually understood as “only eats chicken”. Restaurant salads stick to a combination of cucumber and tomato that quickly wears thin. If you are a vegetarian, ask your tour operator what provisions can be made (Uzbekistan has the best understanding of Western culture).

High-end restaurants can cater to vegetarian needs, and big cities have Indian restaurants. As a back-up, self-cater. Once summer comes, the bazaars of Central Asia are overflowing with delicious melons, pomegranates, nuts and other fruit and vegetables. Enjoying these is no punishment.

Although horse meat is commonly eaten around the world, many regard it as a taboo food. However, horse meat sausage (kazy) is a national dish in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. If that’s likely to be a problem for you, check with your host to make sure your food is horse-free before you dig in.

Despite the prevalence of Islam, the halal industry is still only in its infancy, and there is no agency to verify the claims businesses make to attract Muslim customers.

How should I budget my trip?
When traveling with a tour operator, most of your costs will be covered in advance. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are cheaper destinations than the other three countries. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan still see few tourists, meaning competition is low and prices high in these fledgling markets. In addition, rough terrain and government taxes add extra costs.

Although traveling here can be expensive, the cost of living in Central Asia is relatively low: compare it to Mexico or eastern Europe.

What currency should I bring?
USD is by far the best currency to travel with and will be readily converted to local currency everywhere you visit. The Euro is also accepted, but you will have more trouble finding exchange in some places. Stick to dollars.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have plenty of ATMs where you can withdraw cash in local currency, as well as an abundance of currency exchange offices. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have some ATMs, but they are empty more often than not. Do not rely on them, and bring all the money you think you will need with you in USD.

In addition, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have a black market for dollars where prices for your money are much higher. Your guide may be able to make a good deal on the bazaar.

In Turkmenistan, only the blue-ish $100 bills printed post-2013 are accepted. Make sure they are in good-as-new, crisp condition. Smaller denominations should also be in crisp condition, but there are no new bills to worry about, any bill is fine.

What visas are required?
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan offer visa-free stays of 30 days and 60 days respectively for visitors from developed economies. Tajikistan has introduced an easy e-visa system that also allows for a 45-day stay. An additional permit is needed to visit the Pamir region, but this can easily be requested together with the e-visa.

To visit Uzbekistan, you will need a visa. In addition, to get the visa from the embassy, a letter of invitation from a tour operator is necessary for most countries. In Turkmenistan, all tourist visits must be accompanied by a local guide. The visa procedure is opaque, and sometimes potential visitors get rejected without ever finding out the reason. Most tourist visas are granted, though.

Note that visa information is correct at time of writing and may change without notice. Confirm with your tour operator when you book.

How do border crossings work?
In general, border formalities are simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, thorough checks at the Uzbek and Turkmen borders mean you can easily spend an hour or more here. Between Shymkent and Tashkent, the border crossing is especially busy.

Take special care before entering or leaving Uzbekistan. As its neighbour Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin, Uzbekistan has draconian drug laws. Many common painkillers, sleeping drugs and anxiety blockers are illegal in Uzbekistan. Codeine is a common component of many painkillers but is highly illegal in Uzbekistan. Benzodiazepines and sleeping drugs you may own are probably also illegal. Make sure you do not have any of these substances in any medication, and bring the correct boxes, usage manuals and prescriptions for all your medication. Books can be tricky too. Don’t bring religious literature of any kind, or books about Uzbek politics or history. A travel guide is fine, though.

Your camera photos may be checked both in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Snaps of government buildings, men with beards (old men are fine), anything concerning the military and naked girls are all big no-nos.

Any religious or cultural sensibilities and taboos?
Although Central Asia is predominantly Sunni Muslim, there are large numbers of Christians living everywhere. In the cities, mini-skirts and beer taverns dominate, while in rural areas (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan especially), people dress more conservatively: wear long sleeves to not attract stares.

Although some people might not drink alcohol and privately follow Ramadan nowadays, the holy month has no effect on daily life. Restaurants are open and alcohol is served everywhere.

Nevertheless, women should bring a scarf to cover their head when visiting mosques. A long skirt can be useful in the hot desert climate.

Islam is, in a way, new to the region. After more than 70 years of state-sanctioned atheism under the Soviets, religion needed to be re-learnt. The anecdote of the Saudi clerics who came to open a new mosque in Kazakhstan and were welcomed at the airport with shots of vodka is just one comic example of the lack of knowledge about Islam in the region.

Although the ultra-strict Saudi brand of Islam is spreading in Central Asia with the influx of Saudi money, it is heavily frowned upon by the vast majority of locals. Central Asia’s religion today is still mostly a mix of Sufism, a less legalistic and freer version of Islam, and Tengrism, the natural religion of the past.

Are vaccinations required?
Typhoid, DTP (Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio) and MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella), Hepatitis A and B are standard travel vaccinations and you should double-check you are up to date. Vaccinations for rabies are expensive and the chance of obtaining the virus is very small if you do not stay in the countryside for an extended time, so you should weigh up the risks for yourself.

If you intend to go hiking and camping, get vaccinated for tick-borne encephalitis, a deadly disease transferred by ticks living in forested areas.

How do I stay well and healthy?
Altitude sickness can strike anyone in high areas such as Song Kul or the Pamir. Although medication exists to cope with the symptoms, the best remedy is to descend as soon as you feel the effects (dizziness, nausea, headaches) coming on.

The most common illness for travellers in Central Asia, however, is diarrhoea or constipation. Make sure to always wash your hands before eating, avoid tap water, ease yourself into the dietary habits of the region by mixing fruits and homemade meals with restaurant food, and pack some basic medicine like Motilium and Imodium for when the proverbial hits the fan.

Is Central Asia safe?
Yes. Violent crime and thievery is low. Bishkek and Osh are the only places where more caution is required as pickpockets operate in the bazaars and (fake) police target tourists for shakedowns. Bishkek’s nightlife also attracts shady characters.

The rest of Central Asia can be considered perfectly safe for visitors who keep normal and common-sense precautions in mind. Behave as you would anywhere else in the world: Don’t wander down any dark alleys alone, keep your valuables out of sight and don’t flaunt cash.

One very real danger to watch out for is traffic and road safety. If you travel with a tour operator, vehicles will be in good shape and come with a responsible driver. If you need to get in a local taxi, make sure you get on board with an older, experienced driver. Young men often drive irresponsibly fast.

Terrorism is top of mind for many due to the excessive media attention, but, as clear-headed travellers are well aware, the attention it receives is not even remotely in proportion to the actual danger. As far as we know, no tourist has ever been killed by a terrorist in Central Asia.

Nonetheless, political instability is a reality in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has the most open society, and protests, roadblocks and revolutions have caused disturbances in the past. Other Stans keep a tight lid on any type of public dissent, but they are prone to unpredictable lockdowns at the first whiff of trouble. A good example was the sudden death of the president of Uzbekistan in 2016, when borders closed without warning for several days.

There is very little you can do about this, besides being aware it is a remote possibility, and paying attention to your guide’s instructions should anything out of the ordinary happen.

How to get to Samarkand

Unique heritage

No place on the long and winding Silk Road captures the imagination quite like Uzbekistan's Samarkand, the beautifully-preserved 14th-century city and centre of the mighty Timurid Empire.

The dazzle of ceramic tiles lining the monuments is a sight to behold, inviting you to delve into the city’s long and turbulent history. How could Timur, an emperor renowned for his cruelty, be responsible for something as lovely as Samarkand? His conquests clearly paid off: by dragging skilled artisans from around Eurasia to his capital, he created an arresting architectural statement that has stood the test of time.

Samarkand represents the core idea of the Silk Road: a place where east met west, mingling to create something new, and heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Highlights

The Registan mosque and madrasahs, decorated with ceramic tiles and presided over by an obviously un-Islamic lion, are at the heart of Samarkand. From here, you can branch out to the enormous Bibi Khanum mosque, or instead visit the striking Gur Emir mausoleum of Timur himself.

Overlooking the city sits another monument to the dead: the Shah-i-Zinda grave complex is the most atmospheric of all the technicolor masterpieces of Uzbekistan.

Among the various other mosques of Samarkand, the observatory of Timur’s scientist grandson Ulugbeg holds a special place. Visit to catch a spark of his imagination, that would push medieval astronomy to new heights.

Keeping it in the family

Timur’s grand-son was called Babur. After being chased out of his homeland by the Uzbeks, he conquered Afghanistan and founded the Mughal dynasty. His descendants would build the Taj Mahal (based on the Gur Emir mausoleum) and rule over large swathes of the Indian subcontinent until the 19th century.

At a glance

  • Samarkand isn’t a historical relic -- the modern city is home to over half a million people, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks.

  • The city was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.

  • Shahrisabz, an hour south of Samarkand, was the birthplace of Timur. The remaining walls of his monumental White Palace flank a statue of the ruler at his proudest.

  • Paper was invented in China, but perfected in Samarkand. The bark of Samarkand’s mulberry trees proved to be the perfect raw material. Visit the Paper Museum to find out about the process and take home some Samarkand paper.

How to get to Samarkand

Centrally located in the heart of Uzbekistan, Samarkand is easy to reach by train or private transfer. Tashkent is the nation’s airport hub. From Tashkent’s city center, Samarkand is just one and a half hour away by comfortable high-speed train.

From Samarkand, onward travel to Bukhara and Khiva by train is just as easy: it takes two hours by fast train to get to Bukhara, while Khiva can be reached by overnight train (12 hours). By car, count on four hours to both Bukhara and Tashkent. Shahrisabz can only be reached by car, around 90 minutes one-way.

Due to tensions with Tajikistan, the border with nearby Penjikent is still closed, meaning a detour or flight for people en route to Dushanbe and the Pamir Highway.

Samarkand’s center is easily walkable. For destinations outside of the city center, you can flag down a taxi; they are ubiquitous. A destination within city limits should not cost more than $1.

How to get to Shymkent

Tulips and sufis

If Almaty is the queen of Kazakhstan, Shymkent is the eager lady-in-waiting. Situated on a junction connecting Tashkent with the rest of Kazakhstan, Shymkent is a vibrant traders town.

But the surroundings are the star attraction. Where Almaty has apples, Shymkent has tulips: in spring, millions of wild tulips blanket the meadows of the mountain range straddling the border with Uzbekistan. Two national parks are dedicated to protecting the rare tulips that originate here, also serving as sanctuary for bears and snow leopards, along with their prey. The area is also a top-class birding spot.

Central Asia’s take on Islam has never been particularly orthodox, and Kazakhstan’s Sufi heritage is on full display at Turkistan. Join the faithful and the cultish, as they circle the mausoleum and tour the desert’s holy shrines.

Highlights

Aksu-Zhabagly, in the mountains south of Shymkent, has excellent guides and a pioneering homestay programme that will see you overwhelmed with well-intentioned Kazakh cooking. The amazing fauna and flora is, however, the real reason to visit and you should try to time your trip to coincide with the blossoming of tulips. It is nothing short of a dream to see wild horses roam across the rainbow fields during April and May.

North of Shymkent, the monumental mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi towers out above Turkistan, providing a clear link to the architecture in nearby Uzbekistan. Numerous other Sufi mausoleums dot the desert. After prayer time, you can visit the ruins of former oasis towns at Otrar and Sauran.

Golden smiles

In a country that is still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union when entire life savings were wiped out, no rural folk put any faith in the country’s banks. Instead, they put their money where their mouth is -- literally. Expect to see a lot of golden smiles.

At a glance

  • In nearby Taraz, the decisive Battle of Talas was fought in 751AD between Chinese and Arab forces. The Arabs won, and stopped the westward expansion of China henceforth. In the aftermath, they even stole the secret of papermaking.
  • The Shymkent region has been a trade hub for thousands of years. Its bazaars are still some of the liveliest, colourful and most overflowing markets of the Silk Road.

Getting to Shymkent

Shymkent is located at a crossroads between trade routes verging north-south as well as east-west. Including time spent at the border crossing, Tashkent is three hours from Shymkent by car.

Turkestan and Zhabagly are both less than two hours drive from Shymkent on perfect tarmac. Shymkent is connected to Almaty and Astana by several flights a day--the trip takes around 1.5 hours. Train lovers will relish the overnight trains, taking around 12 hours for the journey.

Rather than figuring out the bus system, taxis are an easy and affordable alternative inside towns and cities. You can hail passing cars, talk to loitering men or use ride-hailing apps like Uber or InDriver. Cost should be around $1.

How to get to Almaty

Kazakhstan's most vibrant city and beyond

Kazakhstan’s biggest, most vibrant and most pleasant city is the former capital Almaty. With its parks, avenues and cafe terraces spilling out on the street, it’s little surprise that Almaty has always been a favoured home for Central Asia’s literati.

But there’s more than city life here. Hugged by the snow-capped Ili-Alatau mountains on its doorstep, escaping the crowds for a hike or a day of skiing is dead easy. One moment you are looking down a tremendous crack in the earth at Charyn Canyon, the next you’re on a steppe safari tracing wild donkeys and shifting sand dunes.

Highlights

Take a stroll through Panfilov Park for the colourful wooden Zenkov cathedral and the Musical Instruments museum. Stop by the Green Bazaar to see some of the city’s tremendous diversity reflected in the faces of shoppers, and taste everything from Korean salads to camel milk balls dipped in honey.

In winter, you can go ice skating on the natural ice of Medeo, or take a cable car up to the ski resort of Shymbulak. In summer, the area becomes a hiker’s paradise, with the Big Almaty Lake a blue jewel in the city’s crown.

Outside of town, Charyn Canyon invites comparisons to the Grand Canyon and Altyn Emel National Park is the best place in Central Asia to see rare animals like ibex or wild donkeys against the backdrop of sand dunes and colourful mountains.

Back in Almaty, the Arasan baths are the perfect place to relax after a whirlwind tour of the region.

A lake is born

In 1911, an earthquake triggered a large landslide outside Almaty, creating a natural dam. In time, a large spruce forest near the dam was submerged and a new lake, called Kaindy, was born.

The sunken trees survived and still appear as large masts from lost ghost ships. Underwater, the needles of the spruce remain on the trees, even 100 years later. Because of the clear mountain water, you can see far into the depths of the lake.

At a glance

  • “Almatau” means mountain of apples. Wild apple trees abound, and the region is widely believed to be the humble apple's ancestral home.

  • Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997, when the government moved to newly built Astana. The city’s architecture is a living echo of Kazakhstan’s Soviet past.

  • Medeo is the highest skating rink in the world. Due to its height, the natural ice is super-speedy, and has led to many world records.

  • Almaty is working to curb its traffic problems and nurture a greener image. The city has enlisted famed Copenhagen urbanist Jan Gehl to draw up a master plan for the city’s future.

How to get to Almaty

Almaty is Kazakhstan’s main air hub and well-connected to the rest of the world. Flights to other parts of the country and nearby Bishkek take between 45 minutes and two hours. If you prefer to travel by train, there are overnight connections to Astana and Shymkent in 12 hours, while it is a four-five hour drive across the steppe to get to Bishkek.

Most tour operators use 4WD to get to the sights in the surrounding region such as Charyn Canyon, Altyn Emel, and Kolsai Lakes.

Inside Almaty, almost any car doubles as a gypsy cab. Just stand at the side of the road and stick out your arm to hail a car and discuss a price. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and InDriver are another option, while taxi companies charge a little bit more; still, prices should not exceed $2-3 for the longest rides.

How to get to Song Kul

Nomads, yurts and horses in Kyrgyzstan

Central Asia’s archetypal semi-nomadic culture is alive and well in Kyrgyzstan, and nowhere is this more evident than at Lake Song Kul.

At 3,016m (9,900ft) above sea level, the lake’s surroundings are blanketed in deep snow for most of the year. But when spring finally arrives, the mountain flanks around the lake burst into life. Nowhere is the grass greener than on the banks of quiet Song Kul, and dozens of shepherd families with their flocks set up camp for the summer.

Community-based tourism schemes make it easy to become part of their routine: sleep in a yurt, enjoy homemade cooking, and watch the clouds roll by in this inspiring bit of landscape theatre.

Highlights

Song Kul is a place where time can assume its natural, languid pace. The lake’s silence and transcendent calm is an immediate antidote to stress and tension. Soak up the vast blue skies, revel in the silence and marvel at Kyrgyzstan’s stark natural beauty.

Once acclimatised to the altitude, you can explore the area on horseback with easy day hikes, visiting a different yurt settlement every day.

Kyrgyzstan has a rich culture but, unlike in neighbouring Uzbekistan, the nomadic shepherds have left few physical landmarks -- you’ll find no shimmering Samarkand equivalents here. Instead, Kyrgyz history is woven into the tapestry of daily life.

To get under the skin of the Kyrgyz, it is necessary to accept their hospitality: drink enormous amounts of milky tea, play with the kids, and round up the sheep for the evening. Before long, your adopted lifestyle will be hard to leave.

The kumis challenge

Kumis, the national drink of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, is basically fermented milk and similar to kefir. The main difference is that kumis is made from horse milk. The health benefits are many (according to proponents) but the taste is an acquired one. This nuance is lost on proud locals offering huge bowls for you to try. Fresh kumis is the best for beginners. Washing down a cup of kumis with a shot of vodka is accepted practice.

Kumis is slightly alcoholic due to fermentation. Leo Tolstoy was a fan, and at one point wrote of running away from his troubles in kumis.

Need to know

Due to its location high in the mountains, Song Kol is a cold place, even at the height of summer. Kyrgyz don’t bat an eyelid sleeping in below-zero temperatures, but the rest of us do, so gear up before you head out.

At a glance

  • The 33 Parrots Road is named after the many switchbacks on this challenging 4WD track. Luckily, there are easier ways up to the lake as well.
  • Marmots are everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Song Kol is a favourite playground for these adorable, fat creatures. Don’t eat them though, as marmots can carry nasty diseases.

  • Issyk-Kul is Song Kul’s big sister. Visit to find Russian gingerbread-style houses at Karakol, open-air hot springs at Altyn Arashan and rustic beach experiences at Soviet spas dotted around the lake.

How to get to Song Kul

Located in the heart of mountainous Kyrgyzstan, there is no easy way to reach Song Kul, and you need a 4WD. Kochkor, east of the lake, is the gateway town to Song Kul. It can be reached in four hours from Bishkek or Karakol. From Kochkor, it is another two hours to the banks of Song Kul.

Song Kul can also be accessed from Suusamyr in the west and Kazarman in the south. Once again, a 4WD is necessary to make it from here. Alternatively, a horseback ride or hike are slower options to arrive at the lake.

How to get to Arslanbob

Hospitality, waterfalls and walnut forests

The fairytale walnut forest of Arslanbob in southern Kyrgyzstan is a year-round destination for visitors. When the Ferghana Valley below swelters in the heat of summer, travellers can find refuge here in the shade of a magnificent woodland that stretches deep into the mountains.

Waterfalls clatter while holy stones and sacred lakes draw pilgrims. At the edge of the woods, the Uzbek residents of this Kyrgyz village welcome visitors. Arslanbob’s homestay network delights, with Uzbek village hospitality so difficult to sample in Uzbekistan itself because of restrictive laws. This village's picturesque setting is a must-see for any visitor to southern Kyrgyzstan.

Highlights

The best way to see Arslanbob is on foot. Stroll through the village at dusk, as the cows come home jeered on by the youngest kid in the family. Stroll through the shade-dappled walnut forest, picking some of the low-hanging fruit to nibble on during a picnic at the waterfall. A never-ending stroll, as each bend in the road results in another invitation for tea, bread and jam or occasionally, vodka and salted fish.

Unlike their Kyrgyz counterparts, Uzbeks are farmers. Expect to be force-fed walnuts, apricots, watermelons and a host of other homemade delicacies by your host, besides the inevitable mountain of yellow carrot plov.

For those who want a more action-packed adventure, the mountains are calling. Just behind the hill pastures of the village, snow-dusted peaks sit above crystal-clear lakes. A four-day pilgrimage circuit takes in some of the scenic highlights of the alpine world above the rural idyll of the valley.

Tengrism roots

Arslanbob has a host of holy sites: these include prominent rocks, mountain peaks, water sources, lakes and ancient trees. Although now Islamic, these places are relics from Tengrism, an ancient Turkic religion that predated Islam in Central Asia. The religion made it as far as eastern Europe, and western superstitions like touching wood and tying a ribbon around a tree are left-overs from Tengrism.

At a glance

  • Arslanbob’s wild walnut forest is the biggest in the world. It is widely assumed that the walnut came from Arslanbob to Europe via the conquests of Alexander the Great.
  • Kyrgyzstan has implemented a visa-free regime, giving tourists from most nations 60 days visa-free entry. That’s just enough time to get used to a nomadic diet of meat and horse milk.

How to get to Arslanbob

Tucked away in the mountains, Arslanbob is located off the main Osh-Bishkek highway. Four hours from Osh and 10 hours from Bishkek by car, it makes for a good stopover en route for fast-paced travellers. Those taking more time will want to add another stop between Arslanbob and Bishkek, either at the Chychkan gorge near Toktogul, one of the villages in the Suusamyr valley, or at the Sary-Chelek Lake.

Arslanbob is around 10 hours by car from Song Kul. If you want to take that route, decide if you prefer a stop along the way. Within Arslanbob, there is no need for extra transport outside of a donkey cart.

How to get to the Karakum Desert

Ancient ruins and the door to hell

The black sands of the Karakum Desert were once the domain of roving bands of Turkmen slave raiders that terrorised the Caspian basin. Thankfully, the slave raids are consigned to the history books, but the swashbuckling romance lives on. Watching the sun set over the endless dunes while lizards scurry for cover, camels munching on barbed Sahara shrub: that’s adventure.

And there’s much more than just slavery in those history books. These days, Central Asia can feel like a bit of a backwater, but 800 years ago Turkmenistan dominated the Silk Road at the centre of the trading world.

Few visitors make it into the country, which makes exploring the ruins of ancient empires an extraordinary experience. Near the Caspian coastline, the ancient Tethys Sea carved mesmerising shapes and colours into the Karakum. Right in the heart of it, the Darwaza crater smoulders like a volcanic door to hell.

Highlights

Before the Mongol conquests that would exterminate an incredible 35 million people and destroy many of the ancient centres of the Silk Road, Konye-Urgench and Merv were two of the largest and most important Persian cities.

But the Mongol destruction was merciless, leaving just remains of the former cities. Today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, you can visit the monuments which were either too beautiful or too strong for the Mongols to destroy.

For an entirely different view of the desert, head east to the Yangikala Canyon. Rainbow-coloured rock formations shaped like dinosaur claws make for an unforgettable spectacle when the moon rises and shades lengthen. Right at the heart of the desert lies the Darwaza crater, known as the Door to Hell, spitting out fireballs like an angry dragon.

Guided visits

Turkmenistan is an authoritarian regime with strict controls on foreigners. Any tourist needs to be accompanied by an official state guide. Locals are quite relaxed about the all-seeing state eye, though, and are curious and welcoming to foreign visitors.

At a glance

  • Konye-Urgench was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221. Despite the devastation, the city revived. Ibn Battuta, the ‘Moroccan Marco Polo,’ visited soon after and described it as “the largest and most beautiful city of the Turks.” Not for long, as in 1388, the ever-benevolent Emperor Timur massacred the population again and had barley planted over the city to finish it off.
  • During the 12th century, Merv was briefly the largest city in the world. The oasis town employed several hundred divers and thousands of engineers to keep its complicated system of desert canals operational.

  • The Darwaza crater was born as a 70s drilling experiment. After the drill, the geologists noticed a strange gas, and, in true Soviet style, decided to throw a match in. It has been burning ever since.

How to get to the Karakum Desert

A visit to Turkmenistan combines well with a trip to Uzbekistan. Konye-Urgench, Darwaza, Ashgabat and Merv can all be visited in a simple overland loop between Uzbekistan’s two cultural cities Khiva and Bukhara.

Ashgabat is Turkmenistan’s air hub. It is connected to the region’s major cities and has daily flights to Mary (Merv), Dashoguz (Konye-Urgench), Turkmenabat (at the border with Bukhara) and Turkmenbashi (Yangikala Canyon), all taking around one hour each.

When overlanding, Darwaza is four hours by car from Ashgabat and five hours from Konye-Urgench. Yangikala Canyon is a four-hour drive from Turkmenbashi. Merv is six hours from Ashgabat and eight hours from Bukhara (including time spent at the border crossing).

How to get to Ashgabat

The marble capital

Described as the city “where Las Vegas meets Pyongyang”, nothing can prepare you for the desert mirage that is Ashgabat. Rows of marble-clad tower blocks descend down brand new (and empty) highways, flanked with gilded lantern posts.

Immense monuments to Turkmen pride dot the city. The strange political system that keeps everyone in check makes you question everything you see and hear. Most importantly, you even start to question yourself.

Verdant parks blossom in the middle of the desert. Fountains clatter joyously in the midday sun. But out on the street, people are nowhere to be found. Where is everyone? Magnificent and terrifying at the same time, Ashgabat is an unforgettable place.

Highlights

Judge them as you will, but the monuments to Turkmen grandeur should be the first port of call for any visitor to Ashgabat. Highlights include various monuments to independence, the Alem entertainment centre and the golden statues of Turkmenbashi and his mad book Ruhnama.

Taking the cable car up to the crest of the Kopet Dag mountains gives spectacular views over “The White City”.

Ashgabat’s museums are not uninteresting, but still horribly overpriced. An alternative is to seek out the real life of Ashgabat. You might be surprised to learn that there is a buzzing heart to the city, located in the leafy old town, hidden away behind the new developments. The Russian bazaar is a great place to chat and bargain for Turkmen melons and cotton towels.

Just outside of the city stands the somewhat blasphemous Kipchak mosque. Former president Turkmenbashi had the walls inscribed with the slogan “Ruhnama is a Holy Book – Qur’an is Allah’s book”. For those who prefer to see how the mighty have fallen, the nearby archaeological site of ancient Nisa shows a glimpse of the future.

Pack smart

Ashgabat is located in a desert. Summer temperatures can easily exceed 40C (100s F). Dress light and drink plenty of water.

At a glance

  • Ashgabat holds several Guinness Book World Records, including “highest density of white marble-clad buildings”, “largest indoor ferris wheel” and “greatest number of fountain pools in a public place.”
  • Turkmenistan’s first leader Turkmenbashi built golden statues of himself and renamed the months of the year after his relatives. The new leader, Arkadag, is a dentist. He loves cleanliness and the colour white. You’ll see.

How to get to Ashgabat

Despite Ashgabat’s extravagant airport, there are not so many flights connecting it to the rest of the world: the main entry points are Moscow, Istanbul, Dubai and Almaty.

Ashgabat is a city of extreme sprawl. You will need a taxi or private driver/transfers to get around. Like elsewhere in the region, relying on gypsy cabs is easiest: just stick out your hand by the side of the road and wait for someone to stop; it rarely takes more than a minute. Prices are higher, though, expect to pay $2-4 for a ride.

If you intend to continue into Iran, count on six hours (including border procedures) to arrive in Iran’s holiest city, Mashad.

How to get to The Pamir Highway

One of the world's best roadtrips

Known locally as “the roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains dominate with their superlatives. From the largest glacier outside of the polar region to 7,000-plus metre (23,000ft) peaks, the landscape here is designed to awe.

The Pamir Highway, the second-highest highway in the world, is one of the great adventure rides on our planet. A jeep ride across the Pamirs will have you traverse lunar landscapes as well as valleys that are oases of green.

Across the river lies Afghanistan. In this inhospitable landscape, the Pamiri people have carved out an existence. Discovering their unique culture is an unforgettable memory for any Silk Road traveller adventurous enough to accept the challenge.

Highlights

Ever since the advent of the Soviet Union, the Wakhan Valley has been divided between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Besides the breathtaking scenery and the glances into nearby Afghanistan, the Wakhan Valley offers a surprising window into the history of this part of the world. A Buddhist stupa, mountain fortresses, Bronze Age petroglyphs and Islamic shrines testify to life and culture flourishing in the shadow of the uncaring mountains.

Around Murghab, locals’ faces take on a distinctly Turkic look. On this dry, barren plateau, Kyrgyz semi-nomads herd their flocks, living in summer yurts. Camel treks, hiking or wildlife viewing excursions are available to explore the stark beauty of the area.

Finally, meeting the locals should be a highlight of any jaunt across the Pamirs. A network of homestays allows you to see the inside of a Pamiri home or Kyrgyz yurt, taste local dishes and be a part of family life.

Come prepared

The Pamir region is the poorest part of Tajikistan, which in turn is the poorest country in the former Soviet Union. Prices are higher than usual due to its remote, landlocked location, and food comes at a premium in the area. Altitude sickness, stomach bugs and car sickness due to poor roads are other issues to keep in mind. An open, adventurous mind is a plus in the Pamirs!

At a glance

  • Unlike the rest of Tajikistan, Pamiri people follow the Ismaili religion, a branch of Shia Islam. They recognise the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader.
  • Sarez Lake formed in 1911 after a great earthquake, when the Murghab River was dammed by a landslide. Scientists believe that the land below the lake is in danger of a catastrophic flood if the dam were to collapse during a future earthquake.

  • The Pamir Highway starts in Dushanbe and snakes around the edge of the country to Khorog and Murghab to end in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Several days are necessary to take in all the area’s highlights.

How to get to the Pamir Highway

Although the Pamir Highway has become a big destination for adventure cyclists braving 4,000m (13,100ft) passes, most visitors prefer to tackle the 1,300km (800mile) road trip between Osh and Dushanbe by 4WD jeeps.

Public transport comes in the shape of packed jeeps plying the route non-stop. For those who would like to enjoy the scenery and a bit of leg room, going with an organised tour is the only option.

In case of time constraints, a daily flight between Khorog and Dushanbe cuts the journey in half. The flight itself is spectacular; the 20-seater aeroplane never reaches high enough to fly above the mountains, which means the peaks’ magnetic attraction will have you staring out the window left and right the whole time.

How to get to Bukhara and Khiva

Uzbekistan's medieval cities

Bukhara, sited on the remains of a Buddhist monastery, was to become one of Islam’s most important places during the Middle Ages. At over 2,000 years old, it is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an urban fabric that seems to have changed little over the centuries.

Hearing the call to prayer glide over the azure domes of the Po-i Kalyan is the stuff of Orientalist fantasies. The hundreds of minarets, mosques and madrassas of Bukhara are not simply brick masterpieces -- they are masonry magic.

Khiva’s townscape is perhaps more impressive still. Its mud-brick fortress walls enclose a perfectly preserved picture of the past of the glorious empire of Khorezm. Its fortunes shrunk to a small slave-trading Khanate as its life-blood, the Amu Darya river, shifted its course.

Highlights

Visitors will need several days to see all of the monuments in central Bukhara. Sites of particular interest include the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of 10th-century Muslim architecture, and a large number of 17th-century madrasas. Show stoppers are the mind-blowing perfection of the Kalyan minaret and the ceramic detail on the twinned mosques embracing her.

A visit to a traditional hammam (a steam bath similar to Turkish baths), followed by an afternoon of sipping green tea under the shade of a large plane tree, is the perfect way to relax after the architectural overload.

Khiva’s Itchan Khala is smaller than Bukhara, and can be visited comfortably in a day. Side trips from Khiva include the sad remains of the Aral Sea and the ruins of former oasis towns along the Amu Darya.

The Dome of Islam

Bukhara was once called the “Dome of Islam” due to its importance for Islamic scholarship. Nowadays most of the madrassas are closed or converted to museums, as the government is fearful of religion’s power in opposing its politics.

At a glance

  • Some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages were born near here. The works of Avicenna (medicine), Al-Khwarizmi (algebra) and Al-Biruni (all-round genius) synthesised Western and Eastern knowledge and prepared the ground for the European Renaissance 500 years later.
  • Bukhara’s Ark holds the infamous Bug Pit (thankfully no longer vermin-infested), where the Emir held his unfortunate prisoners. Two famous ‘residents’ included the British East India Company’s Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, who were beheaded on charges of spying in 1842.

How to get to Bukhara and Khiva

Bukhara is connected by high-speed train to Samarkand (two hours) and Tashkent (four hours). Getting from Bukhara to Khiva still involves a long six-hour drive through the desert. Most tour operators avoid this by offering a night train from Samarkand (12 hours) or flights from and to Tashkent (45 minutes).

Bukhara and Khiva both have compact, car-free old towns that are a delight to walk.

If there is one place that epitomises all the contrasts of the Silk Road region, it is the far west of China, these days known as Xinjiang. While the chequered history of the region is known thanks to explorers like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, many of its incredible landscapes are still a well-kept secret.

It remains a place of superlatives. Xinjiang boasts China’s largest desert, mosque and a freshwater lake, and the highest road in the world. Turpan, the place with the hottest temperature ever recorded in China, is not far from Yining, which holds the record for the biggest snowfall recorded in one day.

Then there are the cities. As in Tibet, government policy seems to be to sanitise Xinjiang of its minorities and indigenous cultures, but Kashgar still smells of the trade, crafts and food from the diverse people living in the city. Turpan and Dunhuang offer another backdoor into China, with ruins, tombs and painted caves as well as flaming mountains and heavenly lakes.

The Silk Road finally climaxes at Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors of the first emperor of China.

Highlights

The Russian invasion of Central Asia, combined with the horrors of Stalinism, pushed millions of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uyghurs across the border into China in search of a safe haven. While their homelands became Russified, in China they could continue practising their traditional way of life. Meeting these minorities, each with their distinct and colourful heritage intact is a highlight of any visit to Xinjiang.

Turpan and Dunhuang are both oasis towns on the Northern Road around the Taklamakan, boasting intricate canal systems, Buddhist caves and the ruins of forgotten kingdoms. In addition there are the Flaming Mountains near Turpan and Dunhuang’s Crescent Lake and Singing Sand Dune to get you out of the city and into nature.

Xi’an is most famous for its terracotta warriors, but remember it was the imperial capital for more than a millennium. Besides its city walls, pagodas, temples and drum towers, the city is chock-full of excellent museums and historical sights.

At a glance

  • The archaeological expeditions of Aurel Stein in the early part of the 20th century radically transformed our understanding of the Silk Road. The thousands of manuscripts, textiles and artefacts he found finally gave an insight to the immense breadth of the Silk Road as a conduit for goods and knowledge.
  • Xinjiang’s particular climate is not only good for archaeologists. In the north of the province, Dinosaur Valley is a haven for finding fossils, while nearby, the Qitai Ghost City and the Petrified Forest Park showcase fantastical formations carved out of rock and organic matter.

  • If your muscles ache from travelling, you can take to the sands in Turpan. A traditional Uyghur therapy sees patients dig into the hot desert sand to treat anything from a sore back to arthritis.

How to get to Xinjiang and Kashgar

Even with perfect transport links available, Kashgar, the western tourist hub, is still a remote city. It takes a full day to travel to Osh and Turpan. Air links with Urumqi and Bishkek are available though, taking roughly an hour. Once in Urumqi, high-speed trains conveniently link Xinjiang to Turpan, Dunhuang and Xi’an.

A logical route takes one from Osh in Kyrgyzstan over Kashgar to Urumqi and Turpan, onwards to Dunhuang and Xi’an, the classic end point of the Silk Road.

What to buy on a Silk Road trip

The world’s best souvenirs

One of the many joys of exploring Central Asia is discovering the ancient craft traditions of the Silk Road, home to some of the best artisans anywhere on earth.

For those who appreciate history and art there are few greater joys than watching a 7th-generation potter shaping a lump of clay into an elegant pot, his hands guided by the experience of centuries. The wild, joyous traditional Uzbek dress makes for unique souvenirs. The full outfit might be a little OTT for back home but the silk ikats (dyed textiles) are great for distinctive scarves and throws.

Seeing craftsmen perform their work out in the street; traders discussing, shouting, disagreeing on the bazaar: this is what the Silk Road is and always has been about, and in the Ferghana Valley you can step right in and become a part of it.

Top shopping highlights

The Ferghana Valley is the heart of silk and ceramic production in Central Asia and the city of Margilan is Uzbekistan’s silk weaving centre, where you’ll find the best prices for textiles and silks. Visit the factory for a look into the process of raising silkworms and weaving silk fabrics, then head to the bazaar for amazing deals. Just down the road lies Rishton, where quiet workshops are concentrated on producing delicately hand-painted Uzbek ceramics.

Needlework is everywhere, although arguably Samarkand has the most skilled artisans. Products range from whimsically decorated skull caps to suzani carpets that take months to complete. Carpets are omnipresent throughout the region, and every country thinks they make the best ones: Turks, Iranians, Azeris, Turkmens, Afghans and Uzbeks all have longstanding carpet traditions. The most original are Kyrgyz shyrdak carpets, felted using homegrown wool.

Metal is still worked by hand in much of Central Asia. Every city has a street alive with the boisterous noise of smiths cranking out chimneys, gates, knives, pliers and other household items. Elaborate handmade jewellery is the speciality of Turkmens, whose brides wear neck-breaking amounts of it on their wedding day. Wood carving, on the other hand, is a Tajik speciality. Hand-carved doors and pillars grace mosques and teahouses around the region, and endearing wooden cradles are built to welcome new babies.

Get a custom itinerary

Specialist advice from the Central Asia experts

  Start here
Instant, expert advice
Instant, expert advice
Tailor-made itineraries
Tailor-made itineraries
No commitment to book
No commitment to book

Things to do in Central Asia

Our recommended experiences and activities

Why Horizon Guides?

Expert travel guide

Expert travel guides

Our guides are written by the leading experts in their destinations. We never take payment for positive coverage so you can count on us for reliable and impartial travel advice.

Authentic experiences

Authentic experiences

We curate exceptional trips in underrated places, organised by the very best tour operators who live and breathe their destinations and are passionate about authentic, responsible tourism.

Give back to mother nature

Give back to mother nature

We'll plant 50 trees for every trip booked via the Horizon Guides site in partnership with the International Tree Foundation, who carry out sustainable community forestry projects in Africa.