The Five ‘Stans…a handful of countries, but covering a vast swathe of Central Asia.

Where do you start an introduction to a region that stretches from China in the east, to the Caspian Sea in the west, when just one of the countries, Kazakhstan, is almost the same size as Europe?

Some definitions to get us going: the Five Stans consist of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and the largest, Kazakhstan. Although these five countries have much in common, they also have quite different cultures and traditions.

Their histories are endlessly fascinating: violence and conquest, mixed with the most breathtaking scientific and cultural breakthroughs, the evidence of which is with us today. Yes, Genghis Khan swept through the region with an unimaginable ruthlessness, creating an empire which has never been equalled in size. And yes, Timur (Tamburlaine) was an equally brutal warlord whose influence extended even into India thanks to his descendants.

Ashgabat Turkmenistan

Statues around the Monument of Independence in Ashgabat

But the architecture! The scientific advances! The enlightened education! All while Europe was a wallowing backwater. Much of this impressive legacy remains for the visitor to gaze at and admire in awe.

This civilisation created buildings which are still among the most stunning to be seen anywhere in the world; here was where Ulugh Beg built an observatory (you can still see the ruins) at which he mapped the stars and calculated the length of the year; here was the first paper factory which eventually allowed us in the west to write and to read.

The “stan” in the names means “land of”. So Kyrgyzstan is the land of the Kyrgyz, Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks, and so on. It follows that although these five countries have much in common, they also have quite different cultures and traditions.

Places to visit in Central Asia

The Five 'Stans are the countries at the heart of the Silk Road, along which goods travelled between China and the West. They have vast mountains, vast deserts, vast valleys, vast plains – you get the idea: everything out here is on an epic scale.

They have Soviet-style cities, true, sometimes with immense monuments to past strongmen rulers, but they also have remote villages and nomadic communities where the old traditions endure.

Uzbekistan shahizinda samarkand

Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand

Samarkand

Samarkand, one of the major stops along the ancient Silk Road, is a bustling city with, at its heart, one of the world’s unmissable sights - the Registan.

Built as madrassas, or schools, they are covered in ceramic tiles that sparkle in the sun. Dating from the 15th century and restored in the 20th, they are among the finest examples of Islamic architecture anywhere.

The Registan is just one of the highlights. The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, dating from the 11th century, is an extraordinary collection of mausoleums and shrines – more than 20 buildings of stunning beauty, packed together in a relatively small space. Legend has it that the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad is buried there.

And don’t miss the remains of the 15th century observatory on the edge of the city, built by Ulugh Beg. Here is where he mapped the stars and worked out the length of the year, among other things, with astonishing accuracy.

Aksu Zhabagly nature reserve near Shymkent and Tashkent

Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve near Shymkent

Shymkent

This busy town in the south of Kazakhstan, is one of the country’s ancient settlements. Destroyed by Genghis Khan, it recovered to become a major centre along the Silk Road, and in the 20th century developed as one of the country’s main trade and industrial hubs. It has a number of historic sights, but the main attractions are outside the city. The region is famous for its rare tulips that in spring blanket the meadows of the mountains that form a stunning backdrop to the town.

The beautiful national parks that protect the tulips and are sanctuaries for bears and snow leopards, are wonderful to explore on horseback or on a hike: The sight of wild horses roaming through the tulip fields will stay with you forever.

The nearby old oasis towns will give you an unbeatable insight into what life must have been like for the Silk Road traders, and for accommodation try a homestay to sample a genuine Kazakh welcome and the local cuisine which developed out of the traditional nomadic lifestyle.

Almaty Kazakhstan

Park of the First President of Kazakhstan in Almaty

Almaty

The biggest, Kazakh city, Almaty very pleasant and green, surrounded by mountains, with tree-lined streets and many parks – Panfilov Park in particular is well worth strolling through with colourful wooden Zenkov Cathedral and the Musical Instruments Museum.

The city is known for its cultural life. With its theatres, opera house, and museums, and outdoor cafés, restaurants and international cuisine, it has become the favoured home of Central Asia’s literati. The Arasan baths are a great place to relax. You really need to try the luxury spa experience at what is said to be one of the country’s most striking modernist buildings.

There also much to see beyond the city. The nearby mountains are great for hiking and there’s skiing and open-air ice skating on offer too. And don’t miss the spectacular Charyn Canyon - its red sedimentary rock make it a smaller version of the Grand Canyon and it’s home to a wonderful collection of flora and fauna.

Song Kul Lake

Yurt camp at Song Kul Lake

Song Kul

Want to get a taste of nomadic life in remote Kyrgyzstan? This is the place to head for, although it’s not an easy journey.

The lake is over 3,000m up in the Tian Shan Mountains, an area covered with snow for up to 200 days a year, and the water freezes in winter, thawing in April-May. The winters are harsh, but in spring the landscape bursts into life. Nowhere is greener than the slopes around this beautiful lake and dozens of nomadic shepherd families come here to set up camp with their flocks.

You can join them, accept their wonderful hospitality, and have the experience of a lifetime thanks to community-based tourism: Sleep in a yurt, eat and drink as the locals do, soak up the amazing beauty of the landscape, hike or ride to explore it.

It’s remote and difficult to get to, and cold even in summer. But the warmth of the welcome you’ll get will be worth it.

Arslanbob Kyrgyzstan

Arslanbob mountain range

Arslanbob

Arslanbob is a village, a valley, a mountain range and even a large walnut forest, all in Kyrgyzstan.

The village is tucked away on the edge of a fairytale forest, and it is perfect if you want to spend some time away from cities and the heat of the summer, and hike in glorious surroundings.

Waterfalls and sacred lakes make this a place pilgrims are drawn to, and any visitor will find it irresistible. The walnut forest is vast and ancient. According to legend Alexander the Great took walnuts from here which led to them spreading through Europe and the rest of the world.

That may or may not be true. What is certain is that time spent here, perhaps in a delightful homestay getting to know the locals, will be unforgettable.

Darvaza Derweze gas crater called also The Door to Hell in Turkmenistan

The Darwaza Crater in Turkmenistan

The Karakum Desert

The black sands of the Karakum spread over a vast swathe of Turkmenistan – about 70 per cent of the country. Rainfall is scarce and there are few people, but the desert is home to wildlife - lizards, snakes and turtles, foxes and gazelles.

The area was ravaged by Mongol conquests and major cities were destroyed, but there are monuments still standing to give you an idea of what was lost, and in the desert is the eerie Yangikala Canyon which was carved out 5 million years ago by the retreating sea which once covered the whole area.

And then there’s possibly the desert’s weirdest sight of all – the Darwaza Crater, popularly known as the Door to Hell. It’s large, about 70m in diameter and 20m deep, and it is on fire, constantly. It has captured the public imagination and you’ll understand why when you camp nearby and see it glowing ominously in the dark.

Alem Cultural and Entertainment Centre is a cultural center in Ashgabat Turkmenistan

Alem Cultural and Entertainment Centre in Ashgabat

Ashgabat

The capital of Turkmenistan is weird and unsettling, but fascinating at the same time. It’s huge, richly decorated – and largely empty of people.

Think marble-clad tower blocks looming over wide, but empty, streets and extravagant monuments and gilded statues honouring various heroes of the country. It’s all bizarre, but still worth seeing.

But as befits a city that was founded in the 19th century, there is an old town, and some real life with the Russian bazaar where you can bargain for fruit with the locals.

There are also a number of museums, including the Turkmen Carpet Museum, Fine Arts, and the National Museum of History. There are also mosques and churches worth seeing, the highlights being Turkmenbashy Ruhy mosque and Ertugrul Gazi mosque.

Cycling the Pamir Highway

Cyclists on the Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway

Now this is probably not for the faint-hearted. Properly known as the M41, the highway connects Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan via the towering Pamir Mountains. It’s the second highest highway in the world, and it’s an epic road trip – if you dare!

The highway attracts pedal and motorcyclists, and drivers, looking for a unique adventure. For much of its length the road is mostly a rough track, but there are also ruins of ancient forts that once guarded the Silk Road trading routes.

The area is unstable, prone to landslides, earthquakes and rock falls – and it goes very close to the Afghan border. The ride is extreme and it’s challenging, but you see the most spectacular mountains, raging rivers and breathtakingly beautiful lakes.

Po i Kalan or Poi Kalan Bukhara Uzbekistan

Poi Kalan in Bukhara

Bukhara and Khiva

Don’t count on seeing either of these two striking cities in a day. The history that’s waiting for you in both the ancient centres will blow you away.

Bukhara was one of the major trading posts on the Silk Road and although it has been rebuilt and restored there are many unmissable key sites, too many to list here. It’s easier simply to quote UNESCO’s view: “…the centre is unquestionably of outstanding significance as an exceptional example of a largely medieval Muslim city.”

A big bonus is that it’s easy to get to – it’s on a high-speed train line from Samarkand and Tashkent.

Khiva can be overlooked because of its distance from Bukhara, but that would be such a mistake. It too has an abundance of cultural and historical sites to visit – the old town itself has more than 50 monuments. The city is more than a thousand years old, and its inner walled town was the first site in Uzbekistan to be placed on the UNESCO world heritage list.

Visiting The Five 'Stans: The Best Places To Visit In Central Asia

Steven Hermans

Steven is the creator and editor of Caravanistan, an online travel guide to the Silk Road that was described by the Lonely Planet as a "peerless online travel guide to the region". He has been travelling the region since 2010, and has dedicated himself to improving tourism on the Silk Road, both for travellers and locals.

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