Asia – the name of this particular continent likely brings to mind the images of the Far East – lush greenery, temples and perhaps sushi. While this is certainly one picture of Asia, the continent extends far from the Pacific Ocean and encompasses a vast array of landscapes, languages and cultures.
Among the less traveled, but perhaps most intriguing areas of Asia are the countries located in the center of the continent. Central Asia includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.
These countries offer serious travelers amazing experiences unlike any they will find in any other region on Earth for many reasons:
- Central Asia has only been opened to travelers recently thanks to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. While all countries of Central Asia are now independent, many retain the Soviet-style government.
- The huge stretches of steppe and open plains of Central Asia are considered one of the world’s last great frontiers and more tourists travel to this region to experience the truly wide open spaces every year.
- Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked nation but has a sparse population. What it lacks in population, it more than makes up for in amazing natural appeal.
- Much of Central Asia is covered in steppe, cold and dry grassland, that stretches on for miles in any direction – allowing for amazing views into the distance.
- The most stunning natural site in the entire region is possibly Issyk Kul. This alpine lake is truly stunning and the peaceful nature of its surroundings is especially notable – especially on the least populated, South Shore.
- There are some areas inside Central Asia that have rarely had tourists or travelers from outside the region. Expect some curiosity and interesting accommodations as you explore deeper into this region.
- Due to the long history of domination by Russian Imperialism and then the Soviet Union, many of the nations in Central Asia are still struggling to build strong, independent governments. One of the most obvious symptoms of this struggle is the lack of infrastructure throughout the regions.
- There are a variety of languages spoken throughout Central Asia. While Russian would be useful as it is well-known throughout the countries, the native and more common languages include Turkic languages, Mongolic languages, and Iranic languages as well. English is not a commonly spoken language in this region.
- The Ferghana Valley extends into Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and is strikingly beautiful with rivers, farmlands, and nearby mountains. This lovely, rich land is also prone to violence, however, and should be approached with caution.
- The mountains of Kyrgyzstan are lovely year-round and make an excellent destination for those looking to avoid the congested Ferghana Valley and experience peaceful, natural surroundings.
- Ancient ruins of Persian societies are easy to find in Tajikistan. Look for the remains of ancient cities nestled between far-reaching landscapes.
- The Silk Road, a major path for traveling over the last millennia left intriguing reminders in Uzbekistan. Look for old citadels in cities like Samarkand, Khiva, and Tashkent.
- The people of Uzbekistan are, perhaps, the most receptive of travelers with warm, generous personalities. While the people are friendly, the government of the country does make things a bit more complicated with paperwork.
- The largest, most populated city in Central Asia is Tashkent. The capital of Uzbekistan has a population of just over 3 million inhabitants and many modern trappings as well.
- The Aral Sea is fascinating, if depressing, to visit. This dead sea is the site of an ecological disaster and is littered with rusting boats and empty seashells.
- Those willing to travel into Afghanistan can see the Band-e Amir. These five lakes are stunningly blue and bright and connected by waterfalls. To reach the lakes, however, you must be willing to travel through the wilderness of the countryside.
- Central Asia offers skiing resorts and towns in several places. Among the most popular and accessible of these towns are Almaty and Chimbulak.
• The food in Central Asia becomes more flavorful as you travel south. Expect meals to be very heavy on meat dishes and light on vegetables – it is challenging, although not impossible, to eat a vegetarian diet in this region.
- The drinks of choice in Central Asia include the vodka introduced to the region by the Soviets as well as the ancient choice of kumis, or fermented mare’s milk. (This is especially popular with tourists). Tea is common during mealtimes as well.
- Nightlife is not what you’d find in larger cities, but there are clubs and fun to be had in larger cities like Bishkek, Almaty, and Tashkent.
- While large-scale violence has happened in recent memory in virtually all of the Central Asian countries, most tourists are far more likely to have their things pick-pocketed than facing kidnapping, riots or bloodshed. Regardless, it is an area to approach with awareness of current events.
- Most Central Asian countries require a “letter of invitation” for tourists traveling to the region. These letters may be submitted on your behalf by a specialist travel agency or perhaps a hotel. Some tourists aren’t required to have a letter depending primarily on nationality.
- All Central Asia counties, excluding Kyrgyzstan, require a visa from travelers. Visas may be simple to get through arranged tours and specialized travel agencies or next to impossible – it all depends on the country and the mood of the government. Arrange as many visas as possible before leaving for a trip and plan time to deal with the embassies in each nation prior to leaving.
- The best airport to fly into the region is located in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Many flights also land in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but this airport can be a bit seedy and even dangerous after dark.
- Trains provide a popular way into the countries of Central Asia. Trains regularly arrive in Almaty, Bishkek, and Tashkent from Moscow and cities in China. Travel by boat and car is irregular and not highly recommended.
- Samarkand in Uzbekistan is one of the most famous of the Silk Road cities and is a testament to the Islamic style of building and architecture with domes and stunning tile work.