Central Asia Highlights
Bunny knows Central Asia fairly well. She has spent considerable time in the region and visited most of the places of interest, with some notable exceptions.
Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan still remains on Bunny’s bucket list as well as Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Otherwise, she has pretty much covered the whole region.
It’s now been a few years since Bunny’s last visit to Central Asia but things don’t change quickly there. So, Bunny decided to compile a list of her favourite places and experiences in the region for anyone interested in visiting for the first time.
Read below for Bunny’s highlights of Central Asia.
Central Asia: An Introduction
Central Asia is a captivating place. Most people cannot distinguish between the stans and Bunny doesn’t blame them. The region is rarely in the news, visited by relatively few people and generally not very much in vogue.
On the other hand, these are all the qualities that make it so interesting. You want to travel to see and experience something different, right?
Although Central Asian countries are often perceived as interchangeable - and let’s face it, they do share a lot in common - they all have their own distinctive characters. There is the strong lingering influence of the Soviet past and shared religious background but independence has brought about diverging paths for the five republics.
While Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have benefitted from their enormous gas and oil reserves, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain extremely poor. Uzbekistan’s riches lie mainly in its fast-growing population. And all five countries have to juggle life in a neighbourhood that is not always the most stable or predictable.
Overview of the Central Asian Countries
Here is Bunny’s short overview of each country to get you started with the basics of the region.
Kazakhstan is the modern face of Central Asia. With its oil and gas wealth and strong Russian influence, it has emerged as the most forward-looking of the stans.
The former capital of Almaty is particularly cosmopolitan, with a number of restaurants, coffee houses and nightclubs to cater to every taste. As a bonus, there is some superb hiking just outside the city.
If you venture further north to the capital Nur-Sultan (until recently called Astana), you will experience some extraordinary architecture as well.
Kyrgyzstan is the wild child of the region. It has gone through a couple of revolutions in the recent past and remains the only (somewhat) democracy in Central Asia.
Although bitterly poor, Kyrgyzstan has been blessed with the most gorgeous natural scenery in the region. It is often called the Switzerland of Central Asia (just without the banks, Bunny says). Hiking, horse-riding and swimming in the clear lakes of the magnificent mountain ranges are sublime.
Kyrgyzstan is also the frontrunner of community-based tourism in the region.
Tajikistan is a beautiful, remote and mountainous part of Central Asia. It is also the poorest, although that doesn’t stop them from engaging in megalomaniacal construction projects.
Despite modernisation efforts, the capital Dushanbe remains delightfully provincial.
Tajikistan shares more than 1350 kilometres of land border with Afghanistan. Although the challenge of drug trafficking persists, the country has remained stable, and staunchly authoritarian, since the civil war in the 1990s.
Tajikistan has retained most of the old-fashioned Central Asian charm and visiting it is real adventure travel, Bunny says.
Turkmenistan is a traveller’s treasure trove for all things weird. The personality cult built around the president is the first thing you will notice here.
It is not always easy to obtain a visa to Turkmenistan but if you do have a chance to travel around, you will experience a country of extremes, from the white marble capital of Ashgabat to derelict little villages on the edge of the desert.
The good news from the traveller’s perspective is that tightly controlled Turkmenistan is an extremely safe country to explore.
Uzbekistan boasts the best examples of Islamic architecture in Central Asia. The Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are the likeliest places to bump into big tourist groups in all of Central Asia. But fear not, you will not have a crowded tourist experience even in the most popular places.
Uzbekistan’s visa restrictions have eased in recent years and you no longer need a rucksack full of local money to buy a decent dinner there. In other words, now is the time to visit.
The Best of Central Asia
These are the things Bunny loved (and hated) the most about her time in Central Asia.
Hiking in Central Asia
Central Asian landscapes - high mountains, vast deserts and grassy steppes - are ideal for hiking and horse-riding expeditions. There is even some serious mountaineering on offer: Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges have a number of peaks rising over seven kilometres. This is beautiful, pristine and rugged landscape at its best.
Bunny is more of a day hiker than mountain climber so she settled with more gentle hiking in the region. Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent all have great hiking at their doorsteps. Medeu just outside Almaty is also perfect for hiking, both in summer and winter. The turquoise Big Almaty Lake, a little further from the town, was one of Bunny’s favourite destinations in Kazakhstan.
Some of Bunny’s other memorable outdoor expeditions included camping in the Kara Kala Nature Reserve in Turkmenistan (and showering in the nearby waterfall), horse-riding in the Chuy Valley (also home to the famous Bukhara Tower) in Kyrgyzstan and various day hiking trips from Tashkent.
For something different, there is also the bizarre Health Path in Turkmenistan. It is a concrete stairway that runs alongside the treeless Kopet Dag mountains just outside Ashgabat. It was built to improve the health of the citizens and the country’s government officials are regularly taken there for sombre outings.
Ancient Silk Road Cities
Central Asia lies in the heart of the ancient Silk Road, a network of terrestrial trade routes connecting the East and the West. A number of magnificent Silk Road cities can be found here: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan, Merv in Turkmenistan and Khujand in Tajikistan are some of the best preserved.
Samarkand used to be one of the greatest cities in Central Asia. It was called “Rome of the East” and it still retains the most glorious monuments of ancient architecture in the region. Samarkand has the majestic Registan square, which is surrounded by madrassas on three sides, and a number of other minarets, madrasas and mausoleums splattered around the city. Bunny’s favourite spot is Shah-i-Zinda, a stunning blue and turquoise avenue of mausoleums. Simply breathtaking.
However, Samarkand is Uzbekistan’s second largest, buzzing city, so Bunny actually prefers the smaller Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Khiva. Their fascinating architecture is concentrated in a smaller area, creating more of an atmosphere of bygone years.
Merv in Turkmenistan is not as well-preserved as the other Silk Road cities. Today, it is merely the dusty, windswept remnants of its ancient glory. It is difficult to imagine that these ruins were once home to so many people that the son of Genghis Khan managed to kill an estimated 700,000 inhabitants when he raided the then city in the 13th century.
If you are into weird, baffling architecture, Central Asia has plenty to offer.
Gold-plated statues of current and past leaders are the norm in the region. The countries also constantly compete to build the tallest flagpole (Tajikistan is currently leading with 165 meters), the biggest tea house (Tajikistan again), the weirdest airport (Turkmenistan’s flying falcon takes the prize), the best mythological tree of life (Kazakhstan’s Bayterek Tower), the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel (Turkmenistan) or the highest TV Tower with a revolving restaurant (Turkmenistan, again).
Turkmenistan is leading on the weirdness scale, perhaps because they seem to have had the most pocket money (thanks to gas reserves) and the kookiest presidents. The outlandish capital Ashgabat seems completely out of place, with its lavish white marble buildings, wide (empty) boulevards and bright neon lights. It strikes you as the love child of Las Vegas and Pyongyang.
Astana, recently renamed Nur-Sultan after the country’s first president, is aspiring, but not quite reaching the Ashgabat level of weirdness. And poor Dushanbe tries to stay in the race but is falling behind its wealthier neighbours.
Where to Stay
The best place to stay in Ashgabat is the Oguzkent Hotel. This opulent marble palace has luxurious rooms, a lovely spa and all the trappings of a quality hotel. Despite having been operated by Sofitel for some years, it remains a decidedly Turkmen hotel today.
Architecture is not the only weird thing in Central Asia. In fact, there are plenty of things that will make your jaw drop.
One of the weirdest, and coolest, sights in Central Asia is the burning gas crater in the middle of the barren Karakum Desert near Darwaza, Turkmenistan. As a result of a Soviet drilling rig accident, this 69 metres wide crater has been burning in the desert for almost 50 years. The place is also known as the Gates to Hell and you should definitely linger there until dark. The site at night is particularly spooky, Bunny says.
If you’re visiting Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan in the winter (temperatures frequently drop below -20 degrees Celsius) and you suddenly get the urge to experience a tropical beach club with palm trees and a sandy beach, no worries, Khan Satyr entertainment complex has you covered. You can find your pool and palm trees inside this giant tent-shaped structure in the middle of the desert.
And Khan Satyr is not the only beach life you can experience in landlocked Central Asia. You can travel to the shores of the Caspian Sea (which is technically a lake - just to confuse you and the littoral states fighting over its legal status) and bathe with a view of nearby oil refineries but it is beach life Central Asian style.
Turkmenistan’s beach resort town of Awaza on the Caspian Sea is yet another example of peculiar, modern, luxurious architecture - most of the buildings are 5-star hotels - in the region. The inspiration for this beach town was Dubai, with mixed results. Awaza is often completely empty, particularly outside the short but popular summer season. And the food is atrocious.
The Aral Sea, lying between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is another odd, and sad, sight in Central Asia. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has all but disappeared as a result of a massive (and mad) Soviet irrigation project. What remains today, is a depressing, stark reminder of man-made environmental devastation and stupidity, Bunny says. But if you travel to the Aral Sea, you should definitely visit the excellent Savitsky Museum in Nukus to restore your faith in humanity while admiring its collection of Soviet avant-garde art.
Or for something completely different, visit the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It is the world’s largest space center and the place where the first manned space flight with Yuri Gagarin was launched in 1961.
Traditions and family values reign supreme in Central Asia. The people are very friendly and there is amazing hospitality towards visitors.
Central Asian nations know how to put on a spectacle. Navruz (Nowruz), also known as Persian New Year, is one of the biggest festivities in the region, celebrated in March. Independence Days and religious celebrations are also good opportunities to observe the local festivities.
Turkmens are the unrivalled masters of national celebrations in the region. They have dozens of reasons to pull everyone out of work and school to line the streets, wave the national flag and celebrate (inevitably) the country’s president attending whichever occasion it happens to be: the day of the horse, melons, water, wheat harvest, oil and gas sector workers, health, folk singers or neutrality.
If you ever have a chance to observe one of the national celebrations in Turkmenistan, you’re in for a treat. The festivities are very impressive, colourful, and somewhat scary in all of their choreographed absurdness. In short, a sight to remember, Bunny says.
If you are looking for culinary treats, Bunny has some bad news for you, especially if you are vegetarian: Central Asian food is where the region really falls down.
If you like to eat a lot of meat, particularly mutton, and prefer your food somewhat tasteless, absent of any seasoning, and uninspired, you will love it here. Mutton, horse meat, bread and tea are the staples. On summer evenings, you cannot escape the ubiquitous smell of shashlik (skewered meat) everywhere.
On a more positive note, quantity of food will never be a problem. Central Asian hospitality is legendary and the serving table will buckle from the weight of all the food on offer. Vodka will never run out either. Just bring your own snacks if you’re vegetarian or a picky eater.
Central Asian Bazaars
Markets are very much in the Central Asian psyche. Modern shopping centres have appeared in the bigger cities but the local population still prefers their big, chaotic and colourful bazaars best. You can find anything in the bazaars from fresh produce to camels to cheap Chinese junk.
The markets are not necessarily very pretty, and definitely not relaxing (if you ask Bunny) but they are very atmospheric and visiting one is a must on any trip to Central Asia. All the haggling, meeting people over tea and wandering around aimlessly is an essential part of day-to-day living in Central Asia.
In recent years, many of the Central Asian countries have tried to clean up traditional open-air bazaars (as a potential security threat), turning them into more regulated shopping areas instead. Go visit a bazaar while they still exist, Bunny says.
All Central Asian nations remain authoritarian, some of them more than others. Kyrgyzstan is taking steps in learning the basics of democracy, while Turkmenistan is not far behind North Korea (absent the nukes).
Turkmenistan has a near-omnipotent president who can rap and play the piano, drive race cars, write books, throw knives and engage in a little dentistry every now and then while single-handedly making every important, and many not-so-important decisions in the country. The only thing he couldn’t stage manage thus far was the viral spread of YouTube videos of his spectacular fall off a racehorse in front of foreign dignitaries a few years ago (while celebrating the Day of the Horse, as it happens). Check it out for yourself.
Western visitors are often struck with the absurd reality that comes with these regimes. While things in Central Asia might appear amusing, and sometimes appalling, it is best to keep your criticism at bay while visiting. You can always moan to your heart’s content after your visit, Bunny says.
For a satirical, if overboard, taste of this aspect of Central Asia, check out the BBC mini-series, Ambassadors, about the fictional Central Asian country of Tazbekistan.
Central Asia is not the easiest region to visit. Visas can be hard to obtain and the regulations change frequently. Independent travel is generally not encouraged by any of the countries’ regimes.
In addition, there are limited flight connections between the Central Asian countries. This makes tackling the whole region in one trip very challenging. Turkish Airlines (Bunny hates them with a passion) has the largest and most frequent network of flights to and from the region.
Central Asia is a reasonably safe region to explore. Just remember that a policeman is not necessarily your friend here. If you venture outside the most popular sights, you are likely to be the only tourist in town. Independent travel is much easier if you speak Russian, Bunny says.
Furthermore, local currencies can be cumbersome. Changing money is a big hassle in most countries and official exchange rates can be awful. Credit cards are not widely accepted but all the bigger towns do have ATMs.
Also bear in mind that your social media apps, YouTube or your favourite websites might not be accessible here. Local governments are notorious for their tight censorship of the internet and social media. These controls can also come and go without any notice. Before your trip, install a reliable virtual private network app to give yourself a chance to get around any such restrictions. But still be careful what you post while in the country. In particular, avoid any negative comments that could attract the attention of local officials.
Weather-wise, early spring and late autumn are the best times to visit. There are big regional variations in weather patterns but spring and autumn usually enjoy sunny skies and warm temperatures across Central Asia.
If you want to experience something uniquely weird, travel to Turkmenistan. For some of the best unspoilt hiking in the world, choose Kyrgyzstan. For ancient Silk Road cities in all their glory, explore Uzbekistan. For some remote old-fashioned Central Asian charm, pick Tajikistan. If you want to travel to the future and see what other Central Asian countries might look like in the future (if they’re lucky), tour Kazakhstan.
Wherever you go, you are likely to meet very friendly people, be greeted with amazing hospitality and experience very interesting sights. A trip to Central Asia should be on everyone’s bucket list!