Stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Siberian steppe, Central Asia is a vast and mysterious region, once very much at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.
Made up of the five ‘Stans’ (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), this is a land of blue-domed cities, soaring peaks and surreal desert plains. Famously warm and welcoming, the people here have a genuine enthusiasm for hospitality. Getting to know the locals is one of the best things about travel in Central Asia.
The man-made structures of the region are fascinating to discover. Medieval sand-hued fortresses rise up from the desert, intricate mosaicked mosques and minarets adorn atmospheric cities, while in other parts ultra-bold modernist and Soviet architecture is the order of the day.
Silk Road romantics will be enthralled in Samarkand and Bukhara – the evocative caravan stops of yesteryear. While those looking for off-the-beaten-path travel will be delighted by the lack of other souls holidaying here – there’s just so much space! Get a little lost in a medieval bazaar, sit down for tea in a nomad’s yurt or stargaze to your heart’s content from a distant desert oasis.
Top holidays in Central Asia
Culture and history
Hospitality in Central Asia is bighearted and genuine and the locals are likely to welcome you into their homes to share tea or a meal. All five of the Stans are Muslim countries, some more liberal than others. Visitors should show their respect by dressing modestly and covering arms and legs, especially while touring religious sites.
Outside of the cities you’ll find a traditional society of small farming settlements and nomadic yurt-dwelling shepherds. Unsurprisingly, a staple food here is lamb or mutton, often flavoured with Persian spice or served as roasted kebabs, or Shashlik. Iran, Russia and China have all had their influence on the cuisine and you’ll be tucking into flat breads, pilaf, savoury dumplings and sweet halva to your heart’s content.
Down through the ages Central Asia has been dominated by the tumult of political forces vying for territory. During the 1st century AD the Silk Road traders plodded through its vast steppes and mountain ranges. Along with silks and spice, their coming brought wealth, sparking the growth of towns and cities in distant desert outposts.
Come the 7th century the Arab Empires made their presence felt, conquering much of the region. The Islamic faith was to be hugely influential and to this day it is Central Asia’s main religion. Several centuries on the hordes of Genghis Khan swept through, seizing control in the 13th century.
Come the 19th century, Central Asia’s attention was drawn north to its mighty neighbour, Russia. The Soviet Union became a growing influence and eventually incorporated all five of the Stans. With the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all gained their independence.
Things to do
The Tian Shan Mountains, meaning ‘Celestial Mountain’, are a hiker’s paradise, complete with lush forested valleys, pristine lakes and wild flower meadows. High up in these mountains you’ll find Tash Rabat, a 15th century stone caravanserai. Caravans of Silk Road traders passed through here, unloading their silks and spices to bed down for the night at a heady 3200 metres.
Uzbekistan is the cultural powerhouse of Central Asia with its fascinating history and grand architecture. The city of Samarkand was an important stop on the Silk Road, and the history here is palpable. Marvel at the meticulous mosaics of the 15th century Bibi-Khanym Mosque, meander through multi-coloured bazaars and gaze at the faces of Mongol conquerors in Timur.
Atmospheric Bukhara is another must-see, along with the flashy capital Tashkent. Travel to desert-ringed Khiva to gaze upon its ancient sand-coloured fortress and palaces or head north to see the bizarre stranded boats of the fast-disappearing Arul Sea.
Tajikistan is the smallest of the Stans, though it’s certainly not vertically challenged. The breathtaking Tamirs, otherwise known as the ‘Roof of the World’, are some of the highest mountains on the planet, reaching to a vertiginous 7500 metres.
The adventurous can follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo here, hitting the road on Tajikistan’s remote Pamir Highway. Stretching from the high plains of the Pamir plateau, the route follows the old Silk Road through the Wakhan Valley and then on into distant valleys bordering Afghanistan – most definitely a road trip to remember.
The wealthiest of the Stans, Kazakhstan borders Russia and is the ninth largest country in the world. This giant of Central Asia is mostly made up of open steppe, with nothing to spot for mile upon scrubby mile. When you do arrive at civilisation however, you’ll certainly be impressed. From the show-stopping futuristic architecture of the capital Astana, to sophisticated Almaty with its candy-hued Russian Orthodox Church – Kazakhstan’s cities are dressed to impress.
Out in the countryside you’ll find the warmest of welcomes from the locals. You’ll also be greeted by spectacular views as you hike the rugged Tian Shan Mountains or gaze upon the icy Alpine blue of Big Almaty Lake.
Perhaps the most obscure, and certainly the most unexplored, of the Stans, Turkmenistan borders Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea. Similar in size to Spain, the landscape here is one of the driest on the planet, with the starkly beautiful Karakum Desert (meaning black sand) dominating the land.
The ancient city of Merv was once an important stop on the Silk Road and is a fascinating place to explore with a knowledgeable guide. The capital city Ashgabat will enthral and bemuse in equal measures with its bold Soviet-style architecture and multitude of golden statues in honour of former dictator Niyazov who ruled until 2006.
Places in Central Asia
Endless plains and diverting badlands conjure Kazakhstan’s romantic, remote feel – that’s until you see the dazzling combo of modern cities and ancient kingdoms…
A hidden enclave of heady alpine beauty, where nomads cross the land on horseback, and ancient cities mark the course of the Silk Route through the country…
Full of eastern promise, Uzbekistan is a delight for travellers seeking age-old monuments, mosques and mausoleums