Exploring the Exotic Wonders of Central Asia

Landmarks & Icons

A Walk Through Samarkand Alley in Shah i Zinda, Uzbekistan

Central Asia offers some of the most exotic and genuinely foreign adventures you can have on the planet.

When people plan their travels to Asia, they rarely look at the middle of the map. That section west of China, south of Russia, north of India, and east of Europe is either ignored or actively avoided. Perhaps people equate the nations of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan with the Soviet era or mistakenly assume that the troubles which plague their neighbours to the southwest, like Afghanistan, plague them as well. Whichever the case, people in North America are extremely disconnected to Central Asia and that ought to change.

In fact, so many people know nothing about this region of Asia that there have even been cultural phenomena exploiting the West’s ignorance of Central Asia. The popular mockumentary, Borat, relies heavily on the fact that North Americans know nothing about Kazakhstan, allowing performer Sacha Baron Cohen to pass off Polish, Yiddish, and gibberish as its language, and film in Romania, pretending it was rural Kazakhstan.

This is a shame, as Central Asia offers some of the most exotic and genuinely foreign adventures you can have on the planet. If you’re an adventurous traveller who isn’t daunted by countries not familiar with tourism, consider heading to Central Asia to experience a whole other world. The nations of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are continuing to open up to the rest of the world and relax visa restrictions, meaning that it’s only so long before the tourist crowds arrive to claim these nations as the next big thing in international travel. Beat the pack and be among the first to explore this epicentre of adventure.

The Elusive Land of the Turkmen

Turkmenistan is undoubtedly the oddest of the accessible nations in Central Asia. Like other nations in the region, Turkmenistan spent most of modern times in the shadow of Russia, first as a part of the Russian Empire and then later under the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the government became an autocratic regime and cult of personality centred on President Saparmurat Niyazov. After Niyazov died in 2006, the country’s exclusiveness relaxed and foreign travellers started arriving for the first time.

Today, the country is hardly a democracy, but it is not dangerous nor is it entirely closed to the world like it was in the past. It is a nation of 5 million with a strong Islamic culture and an isolated political atmosphere. Turkmenistan offers an adventure unlike anywhere else on the planet. It’s a country that combines fascinating history with an eccentric culture and climate that truly deserves to be described as “off the beaten track.”

Most trips to Turkmenistan focus on the capital of Ashgabat and the ancient capitals of Merv and Nisa. Located just across the border from Iran, Ashgabat used to be a mass of concrete, resembling most other Soviet capitals. President Niyazov transformed it into a glittering shrine to his own greatness and the country’s growing economy. For example, it has more marble buildings than any other city in the world and continues to add opulent monuments, fueled by the country’s resource economy. It also boasts the largest flagpole in the world as well as the public square with the most water fountains featured.

Presidential Palace in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Presidential Palace in Ashgabat
Statues of Historic Leaders at Independence Monument in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Statues of historic leaders at Independence Monument in Ashgabat

In Ashgabat, head to the Tolkuchka Bazaar to experience what Turkmenistan was like prior to Russian annexation. This dusty market in the outskirts of the city offers a throwback to the past and is the largest market you’ll find in the country. You can haggle for local wares like rugs and spices, or simply stroll the market to get a taste for the iconic atmosphere. You can even buy a camel if you’re willing to splurge (although how you intend on bringing the camel home is another question).

Also in Ashgabat, you can visit the National Museum to learn about the country’s history and visit the Geok-Tepe Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world which can fit 15,000 people inside. About an hour outside of Ashgabat, you can also experience the Kow Ata Underground Lake, where you can swim in an underground thermal spa that sits around 36 degrees Celsius. The cave is a popular destination for domestic vacationers and constantly rings out with the sound of bats as it also houses the largest colony of bats in Central Asia.

Aside from Ashgabat, the ancient capitals of Merv and Nisa are the most popular spots in Turkmenistan. Merv was a major centre on the Silk Road that brought goods like spices and silks from China to Europe. It has also been suggested that Merv was the largest city on the planet during the 12th Century. Today, Merv is a massive archaeological centre and UNESCO World Heritage site. Visit the Tomb of the Sultan Ahmed Sanjar to get a sense of the opulence of this former capital. Halfway between Merv and Ashgabat lies Nisa, the other ancient capital that defines the nation. Nisa served as a centre of the ancient Parthian Empire. You can visit a 2nd Century B.C. fortress during your exploration of the excavation sites.

Tomb of Ahmed Sanjar, Merv, Turkmenistan
Tomb of Ahmed Sanjar in Merv

The Centre of the Timurid Dynasty

Like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan spent most of the modern era under the sway of Russia and the Soviet Union. Similarly, when the Soviet Union fell, Uzbekistan replaced communism with authoritarianism, a political system is has not yet relinquished. While visiting a country with an authoritarian regime should rightly give Globetrotters pause, the Uzbek nation and its 32 million people remain endlessly fascinating and worth visiting. As well, the travel infrastructure in Uzbekistan is surprisingly good, although it mainly accommodates domestic tourists instead of foreign visitors.

View of 375-metre-high Tashkent Television Tower in Uzbekistan
Tashkent Television Tower

The capital of Tashkent is your likely first stop on a trip to Uzbekistan. An earthquake destroyed this city in 1966, after which it was rebuilt in the Soviet style. Today, Tashkent is a mixture of Soviet architecture and modern buildings reflecting its Islamic heritage. You can stop by Tashkent Tower to get a view of the city from the observation deck, or get introduced to the country’s fascination with the medieval conqueror, Timur Khan, at the Amir Timur Museum, which showcases relics of the conqueror’s dynasty.

While Tashkent offers an interesting portrait of modern Uzbekistan, you’ll want to head to the ancient cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand to see the best this country has to offer. Bukhara is the holiest city in Central Asia and contains thousands of architectural monuments in the middle of the Kyzylkum Desert. Most popular of these monuments is the Ark Citadel, an enormous stone fortress from the 5th Century. As well, head to the Kalon Minaret to see a 47-metre-high tower that was supposedly a favourite of Genghis Khan.

Like Bukhara, Khiva essentially acts as an open-air museum, showing off a mudbrick centre that was a key caravan town during the Middle Ages. The town was built in the 6th century and is currently UNESCO protected. While the city is mainly an ancient historical site, many modern Uzbeks still live here and care for the stunning mosaics that make the city famous in the region. You’ll be stunned at how remarkably preserved Khiva is.

The crown jewel of Uzbekistan is Samarkand, an iconic settlement that used to be described much like the fantastical (and non-existent) cities of Atlantis and Shangri-La. Samarkand was the capital of the Timurid Dynasty and retains many of that Islamic empire’s landmarks. While Samarkand does have modern sites that you can visit, you’ll want to head to the old city to view the Timurid landmarks. Registan Square used to serve as the heart of the city, while the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis is home to deceased rulers. If you want to see ancient ruins in the process of excavation, head to Afrasiyab, where archaeologists are hard at work uncovering this ancient city. Outside of these centres, you can visit the fortresses of Karakalpakstan and the tragic Aral Sea, which used to be the fourth largest lake in the world but has since dried up to a miniscule portion of its original size.

Registan Square, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan Square in Samarkand

Central Asia’s Biggest and Most Popular Nation

Kazakhstan is the best-known of the Central Asian nations, although mostly for the wrong reasons. While Sacha Baron Cohen infamously popularized the nation with his character, Borat Sagdiyev, the real Kazakhstan is much more interesting and cultivated than movie fans were tricked into believing. In terms of size, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country on the planet and has almost 18 million citizens, making it the second-most populous country in the region. As Central Asia’s best-known country, Kazakhstan offers the widest variety of accommodations and the best excursion options in the region.

The former capital of Almaty is as close to a European city as you’ll find in the Asian Steppes. As Kazakhstan’s largest city and its cultural capital, Almaty boasts a combination of Russian architecture and mountainous landscape. It’s where you’ll find the nation’s traditional centres as well as new structures, thanks to the oil boom of the past 20 years. While Kazakhstan is mostly Islamic, Almaty is home to many Russian Orthodox Christians as well and you can visit their religious centre at the Zenkov Russian Orthodox Cathedral. If you visit in the winter and want to enjoy winter sports, head to Shymbulak Ski Resort, which is only 30 minutes outside the city.

Aerial view of Almaty city, Kazakhstan
Aerial view of city of Almaty

If Almaty is traditional, Astana is ultra-modern. It became the nation’s capital in 1997 and is a planned city, bearing similarities to Brazil’s Brasilia and other modernist capitals. Astana is full of space-age buildings and dazzling architecture. For example, Bayterek Tower stands 97 metres tall and sports a golden egg on the top of its spire. The city lacks the character and charm of Almaty, but it’s worth visiting for the sheer audacity of its construction.

As Kazakhstan is massive, there are many sites spread across the country that deserve attention. The Tian Shan Mountains in the country’s east spreads all the way into China and boasts a stunning combination of desert and mountain peaks. If you visit, be sure to see the Singing Barkhan, a 3.2-kilometre-long sand dune that sounds like it’s singing when the wind rustles the sand. Also in the Tian Shan range is Lake Kaindy, a stunning mountain lake created by an earthquake in 1911. Its most distinguishing characteristics are the spruce trees that rise directly out of the water.

Lake Kaindy in Tian Shan Mountain, Kazakhstan
Lake Kaindy in Tian Shan mountains

Tips for Travelling to Central Asia

While the cultural wonders of Central Asia will appeal to any adventurous Globetrotter, there are some best practices to consider when planning your trip. While Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan continue to open up to western travellers, these nations do not boast democracies as you’d find in the western world or Eastern Europe. This being the case, avoid discussing politics with people you meet and don’t photograph government buildings. You don’t want to run into any trouble.

As well, these countries have traditionally nomadic and Islamic cultures. As such, large families and tight-knit communities are the norm. If you’re a solo traveller heading to Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, you’ll likely turn some heads and be bombarded with questions, especially if you’re a woman. However, even though Central Asians have a culture that’s genuinely foreign to westerners, they are incredibly friendly. Most people don’t speak English, but you’ll still find plenty of locals willing to help you navigate your way around their nation and solve small problems when they arise. If you speak any Russian, you’ll fare better than most travellers.

The other good news about Central Asia is that although they have restrictive governments, crime is low. You’ll still have to be mindful about pickpockets in large markets and other petty crime occurring as it does everywhere in the world, but safety is not an issue except for along the borders with Afghanistan.

Female Tourist in ancient city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Tourist in ancient city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan

There are few true frontiers left to travellers in our modern world of globalization and air travel. However, a visit to Central Asia offers a genuine chance for adventure and new horizons for even the most seasoned backpackers. If you’re emboldened by eating new cuisines, hearing new languages, and traversing landscapes you’d never even seen pictures of, Central Asia should be your next destination.