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9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling the Silk Road in Central Asia

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this region, the Silk Road is a journey that takes you across the ‘five stans’ of Central Asia: from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. The trip normally takes two to three weeks, depending on if you add Istanbul, Turkey, or Xian, China, to the route. (Those are the two cities where the route officially started and ended.)

I had the chance to travel with Acanela Expeditions for 16 days along the Silk Road, starting in Turkmenistan (two nights), and continuing on to Uzbekistan (six nights), Tajikistan (three nights), Kyrgyzstan (three nights), and Kazakhstan (two nights). You can find a link to my Silk Road itinerary at the end of this post — I hope you’ll have the chance to experience this one day!


1) The Silk Road and Central Asia have an optimal travel season.

The best time to visit is now. (I would just recommend that avoid the winter, unless you want to go backcountry skiing.)

For my first visit to the Silk Road, I chose to go in May, and my next visit will be in September (it’s so great that I feel the need to visit twice). As I’ve spoken with more and more travelers, I’ve realized that there is never a good time to do anything — we are all busy with jobs, family, and hobbies pulling us from place to place.  But I think you should decide to go and make time for it.

If you are looking at the best time to visit Uzbekistan and the other Silk Road countries, here is my advice: The best season to visit all five ‘stan’ countries is in the spring (May to June) or fall (September to October) — when it’s still cool in Uzbekistan (the summers can be hot there), yet the snow has melted from the mountain passes in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (making border crossings much easier).

The best time of year to visit Uzbekistan is honestly all year round (with peak season occurring from May to October), except for wintertime.  The best time to visit Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is a little different, as these countries are mountainous (so unless you want to go back-country skiing, you’ll want to visit at a time when you can explore the mountains snow free).


2) You can safely travel the Silk Road.

Forget the stories that the news and the media tell you: Central Asia is a very safe place to visit.

Before I traveled to Central Asia, I had a lot of people tell me that it wasn’t safe. (Do note that these were mostly people who had never traveled far from their home before.) Here is what I found: people tend to look at a map and assume that, because these countries are close to “the Middle East,” it it is not safe to visit them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan do border Central Asia — but it’s also true that those countries are very far away, and border control is really good.


3) Uzbekistan is home to a melting pot of culture.

Chances are that you’ve heard the names Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand before — and chances are that you have heard them in conjunction with your history class on the Silk Road.  Well, those millenia-old cities still exist today, and they’re some of the top places to visit in Uzbekistan.

Modern-day Uzbekistan is located about halfway along the Silk Road from Xian to Istanbul, and it’s home to many UNESCO World Heritage sites that were major merchant trading stops— as well as places such as Registan Square, Burana Tower, Fergana Valley, and beautiful mountain ranges (Tian Shan and Shan mountains), making it an incredibly diverse and unique place to visit.

Iran and Uzbekistan actually have very similar architectures, cultures, and histories, so if you have the chance to visit, you definitely should!

Finally, one of the top things to do in Uzbekistan is to meet with all the local artisans who are modern-day Silk Road merchants.


4) Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have the most beautiful mountains in the world (known as the Pamir Highway).

Whether you are just visiting Uzbekistan, or visiting multiple countries along the Silk Road Route, make sure to try and fit Tajikistan into your itinerary. If you are coming to Tajikistan from Uzbekistan, chances are that the first local you talk with about Uzbekistan will laugh and tell you that that country took all the history and culture and left the mountains to Tajikistan. Well, they didn’t know what they were missing out on — the mountains of Tajikistan are beautiful.

Have you ever heard of the Pamir? Well, if you haven’t, go look it up! It’s one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in the entire world. If you have a little extra time, make sure to explore it — or plan a trip back to explore it in depth!


5) The food along the Silk Road is delicious, so leave your snacks at home!

One unknown secret about Uzbekistan is that the food is actually really, really good.  This came as a surprise to me, as I was expecting to eat a lot of meat and potatoes along my trip.  Either Acanela Expeditions just did an incredible job, or the food in Central Asia is truly incredible – because every meal we had was diverse, delicious, and absolutely tasty.

Some dishes you must try include plov, homemade bread, Lagman noodes… I could go on, but I’ll just let you head to the Silk Road and see for yourself!

6) Study up and read as much as you can before you visit.

The Silk Road is a place rich in history, and thus a two- or three-week visit is not enough time to retain all the information that your guides will share with you. I found it extremely helpful to have read several books about the ancient and modern-day culture along the Silk Road. (Personally, I recommend Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World,” Kate Harris’s “Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road,” and Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford’s “Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & The Caucasus.”)

From the Persians to the Arabs to the Russians there are layers and layers of history that we don’t often learn about in our textbooks, so be prepared to learn some mind-blowing history (that still exists in the culture today).


7) Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are very different — don’t miss them.

As I mentioned, I traveled along the Silk Road with Acanela Expeditions, who are licensed to receive visas for Turkmenistan (a place that you cannot visit without a guide and an invitation letter from a licensed tour company). Both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have interesting aspects to them, such as only allowing white cars in their city limits, or only allowing shared taxis, etc...

8) Pack light! You’ll want to buy everything.

Many people don’t realize that trade along the Silk Route is still alive and vibrant today. Uzbekistan is home to some of the best cotton and silk products in the world (and actually now produces more silk than both China and India). Besides the fabulous textiles, you will find beautiful Central Asian ceramics, wood carvings, furs, and sweet treats. We actually had a woman on our trip who didn’t have any luggage but instead bought beautiful silks, textiles, and woven goods along the way.  For her, it was a pilgrimage — whether you view it the same way or not, remember that you’re traveling along the Silk Road and that you have to bring home a souvenir!

9) Be prepared for an adventure! This is not a boring history trip.

I was surprised at how much diversity existed along the Silk Road: from beautiful tiled mosques to flower fields, bohemian restaurants, and gorgeous mountain passes. The Silk Road is not just for history buffs — in fact, I would say that it’s more for people who are looking to experience one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Trust me, it is absolutely gorgeous.