If ancient history, Silk Road caravanserai, detailed mosaics, and impressive mosques are what you are looking for, a plan to travel to Central Asia should be high on your list. Wonder about these Central Asia countries? Search no more: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakstan. And given the remoteness of most of these places, at least in the mountainous areas, you will unlikely meet a long of other travelers. So should you look for the road less traveled for your 2021 trip planning, Central Asia should be high on your list!
With unique attractions like the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, the mosques of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, the burning crater of Turkmenistan, the vast expanse of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, and the Sharyn Canyon in Kazakhstan, your travel in Central Asia will be full of stunning landscape and ancient history.
This short introduction aims to give a quick overview of what to expect in these countries. We traveled independently for three months across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and could fill pages and pages of stories (more to come!). But for now, check out our Central Asia blog post for tips and highlights!
Travel to Central Asia
Familiarly called “The Stans,” all the names of these Central Asia countries end with “stan,” a Persian word that means “land.” The region featured centuries of pre-Islamic and Islamic history, mostly influenced by Iranian as the suffix shows. Recent decades saw the impact of the Communist era still visible today in these former Soviet Republics. An interesting mix, to say the least.
Silk Road Travel
The countries of Central Asia were indeed essential stops along the Silk Road, as nomadic people, merchants, and goods transitted from East Asia to Europe. Under the Turkic people’s expansion around the 8th to 12th centuries, many Turkic ethnic tribes moved in. Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Turkmen brought their nomadic culture and traditions to form the countries of the same names.
Many cities like Samarkand and Bukhara are famous Silk Road cities, but other cities like Merv and Khujand were also important trade posts. Today, Khujand is still a bustling city, but ancient Merv is mostly featuring impressive ruins.
Central Asia on a Map
The history of the Stans is so intricated that even the geographical borders reflect that situation. If you look at the map, you can see that part of Kyrgyzstan is caught between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while a section of Uzbekistan also stretches in Kyrgyzstan. Even more fascinating are the small enclaves of land within Kyrgyzstan that actually belong to Tajikistan for some, like Vorukh, and to Uzbekistan for others, like the Sokh District (So’x District) and Shakhimardan.
Interesting Facts about Central Asia
- Why the “stan”? Stan means “land of” in Persian.
- All five countries used to be part of the former Soviet Union (USSR), and as such, Soviet language and culture are still part of these countries’ history.
- Russian is therefore widely spoken across the Stans, way more than English. A few words of Russian will go a long way.
- The Roman alphabet is used in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and recently Kazakhstan, but otherwise, the Cyrillic script applies in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
- Know your “som.” Beware that the names of the national currencies across three countries sound almost similar. Tajikistan has its somoni, Uzbekistani soʻm, and Kyrgyzstani som. However, these are not the same currency, and they don’t have the same exchange rate. Thankfully, Kazakhstan named its currency something else entirely: tenge. In Turkmenistan, the national currency is the manat, but note that the official rate to the US$ is about three times less than the black market due to the high control by the government.
- Plov is by excellence the Central Asia meal. Every Stan has its own plov, but each version turns around the same ingredients: rice, meat, and carrots cooked in animal fat. Chicken and beef sometimes compose the meal, but most street versions include mutton. So be prepared to be served plov almost daily, as not only each country claims its plov is better than its neighbor, but also each city has its own claim of fame. Plov’s cooking method is similar to “pilaf” and “pilau. Of course, there is more than plov to Uzbek cuisine, Tajik food, or Kyrgyz meals, but plov will be constant throughout your trip.”
Pick Your Central Asian Countries
We listed the top attractions for these countries in Central Asia to help you decide which destination to visit.
- Top Things to do in Tajikistan: Drive along the Pamir highway, explore the capital Dushanbe, visit Khujand for a feel of the Silk Road era.
- How Long to Stay in Tajikistan: 5 to 10 days in the Pamir, about one week around Dushanbe
- Tajikistan Visa: An easy process through an official website
- What We Loved: The stunning mountains of the Pamir range, the traditional village life in the Wakhan Corridor
- Best for: Lovers of the great outdoors
- Must-see in Uzbekistan: Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara, and the Aral Sea
- How Long to Stay in Tajikistan: 2 to 3 weeks
- Uzbekistan Visa: 30-day visa-free for most Western citizens
- What We Loved: The Aral Sea was such a surprise, as there is much to learn about history beyond the dramatic situation of the sea itself.
- Best for: Urban dwellers looking to walk back the Silk Road memory lane
- Top attractions: Darvaza Gates of Hell Turkmenistan, Merv, Nisa, Ashgabat
- Five days minimum!
- Visa to Turkmenistan: one of the hardest visa to get! Independent travelers can apply for a 5-day transit visa, or go on a regular tour for a more extended regular tourist visa.
- What We Loved: Camping by the Darvaza Gas Crater was an incredible experience!
- Best for: Travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience
- Best Things to See in Kyrgyzstan: Lake Issyk-Kul, Osh, Sary-Chelek
- How long to stay in Kyrgyzstan: 2 to 3 weeks
- Visa to Kyrgyzstan: 30-day visa-free for most Western citizens
- What We Loved: Walking by the walnut forest in Arslanbob and staying in a yurt camp by the Lenin Peak
- Best for: The great outdoors
- Top Attractions in Kazakhstan: Big Almaty Lake, Sharyn Canyon, Wild Horses
- How long to stay in Kazakhstan: 2 to 3 weeks
- Kazakhstan Visa: 30-day visa-free for most Western citizens
- Best for: For those looking for a taste of Central Asia while enjoying most of the amenities from the Western countries.
Best Time to Visit Central Asia
The summer months from July to August are the most popular when the temperatures are warm. However, traveling in the shoulder seasons from April to June or September to October will have the same incredible views but fewer people.
Note that the temperatures can be rather high and potentially too hot in Turkmenistan in summer. On the other end, the later months of October and November can bring snow in the higher mountains and passes of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan.
Central Asia Travel Tips
- Bring a Visa card to withdraw money as Mastercard ATMs are very few.
- Get a local SIM card as soon as you arrive. Uzbekistan, for example, offers a 30-day tourist card that is easily accessible.
- The main religion across the Stans, Islam is mostly moderate in the region. However, conservative clothing and respectful behavior in religious buildings is a must.
- Check the latest visa requirements as most Stans have relaxed the process. Turkmenistan is still a difficult country to enter.
- Given the mountainous areas in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, planning on when you travel will impact what you can and cannot do.
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