Central Asia is not the first place you’d think of when you’re thinking of an overseas holiday. But the five Central Asian countries – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – have an emerging tourism industry for intrepid travellers from across the globe. Since they gained independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, these five Central Asian nations have been developing their national identities, and each offer something unique and valuable to those who visit. What is there to see and do in each of the Stans? We cover a little about each one below!
Arguably the least developed of the five ‘Stans, Tajikistan has a lot to offer – if you’re adventurous enough to go and see. This incredibly mountainous country is great for those who are looking to hike, trek and climb. As the home of early humans as well as an integral part of the original Silk Road, Tajikistan is rich in history too. However, the main attraction for Tajikistan is the Pamir Highway, the second highest highway in the world (after Tibet).
If rolling mountains and endless green plains dotted with canvas yurts is your idea of paradise, Kyrgyzstan should be on your list. Home to a largely nomadic and semi-nomadic people, Kyrgyzstan has a lot to offer those who love the outdoors. In the south, there are plenty of 7000m peaks, perfect for climbing. Along the way, enjoy views of melting glaciers and sparkling turquoise lakes. This is a horse-lovers paradise too, and some suggest the best way to see this country is on horse-back!
Uzbekistan is perfect for those interested in the Silk Road. It is home to three of the key trade cities along the route – Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Khiva is a sand-coloured city with pops of colourful mosaics as far as the eye can see. The beginning of the Christian era was when it was established. Bukhara is a major medieval centre for Islamic culture and theology. Visit well-preserved mosques, bazaars and caravanserais, dating all the way back to the 9th century. Uzbekistan is a culture and history lovers paradise!
Turkmenistan is the least-visited of the five Stans, mostly thanks to the difficulty that comes with getting a visa. There really is nowhere else like Turkmenistan, especially the capital Ashgabat. Thanks to a healthy oil & gas industry, a lot of money has been poured into improving Ashgabat with interesting results – this nearly all-marble city is described by lonely planet as “a mix between Pyongyang and Las Vegas”. Darvasa’s gas crater, in the middle of the Karakum Desert, is what Turkmenistan is possibly most famous for. It is alternatively known as “the gateway to Hell”.
As the largest landlocked nation, Kazakhstan has an incredibly varied landscape – from the coast of the Caspian Sea in the East to the Altai Mountains in the West. Compared with the other Stans, Kazakhstan is probably the most developed and wealthy, thanks to a healthy oil & gas industry. The two main tourist cities are Astana, the fast-growing capital and Almaty, considered the cultural hub. Outside of the cities, there are opportunities for outdoor activities, like hiking and skiing, with plenty of natural beauty to explore.