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Destination Guide to the Five 'Stans'

The five ‘Stans are located in Central Asia, and share borders with India, Russia, and China. What you’ll find in these five ‘Stans are a mix of desert, mountains and grassland landscapes. These countries were formed under Stalin’s rule but now 20 years post independence, they are emerging with identities of their own. Welcome to the lands of the five ‘Stans: Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.



1.     Kazakhstan – I have always wanted to visit the Big Almaty Lake, located in the Zailijskiy Ala Tau mountains of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a country rich in resources such as oil, gas, uranium etc. High-rise construction in the cities seems prevalent everywhere you turn. The population of 16 million for the past two decades has been run by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was responsible for the transition from the former Soviet strongman to ‘democratically elected’ premier with skill.  Many of you might have heard of Kazakhstan thanks to Borat. But there’s more to Kazakhstan than what is depicted by Borat. The southeast of the country is the tourism sweet spot. The Singing Dunes in Altyn Emel National Park, Charyn Canyon, Shymbulak, and Kaindy Lake are all situated around the former capital of Almaty. Then there’s the UNESCO site of Turkestan. The brand-new capital is further west and is known for its futuristic architecture.

The singing dunes is a mountain of sand in the Altyn Emel National Park. The park itself is a vast stretch of desert and canyons across 4,600 square kilometers. The dunes let out a whistling sound when the wind skims across the sands and it is said that the sound can be as much as 105 decibels loud. The Charyn Canyon is not as deep as the Grand Canyon but its steep sides and the color gradations make it just as impressive. Shymbulak is the ski resort and hosted the Winter Asian Games in 2011. Almaty, the former capital, is a charming city surrounded by mountains and includes the Zenkov Cathedral, the Kok Tobe cable car, and the Almaty Opera House. Lake Kaindy is a stunning landscape with water that shifts from turquoise to emerald green depending on the light. You can get here on a day trip from Almaty. Now Kazakhstan was on the Silk Road and the commercial center used to be in Turkestan. An important Sufi saint, Khodja Ahmed Yassawi, preached and was buried here. His medieval mausoleum is an important pilgrimage site and is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


2.     Kyrgyzstan – After several revolutions, this country has successfully undergone a peaceful transition in an election. Kyrgyzstan is best known for its mountains landscape and a nomadic horse-riding culture. If you visit in late spring you are bound to see the hills come alive with wild flowers and the nomads will emerge from their apartment blocks to head for their summer pastures. This place is also known for sleeping in yurts and don’t forget to try fermented mare’s milk.

Issyk Kul Lake is a salty and mineral rich lake and is known to not freeze even in the coldest of winters. It is said that more than a hundred rivers flow in but none flows out. It takes about nine hours to go around this lake. This lake is surrounded  by the Ala-Too Mountains, part of the Tian Shan range. Bishkek is the capital of the country and a city tour will show you the nomad, Soviet and modern influences. A magnificent alpine national park awaits just around half an hour away from Bishkek’s suburbs. Short hikes and picnics are a favorite here.  Song Kul lake is a pasture usually accessible only from June to September. Nomads graze their animals here as they have for years. It’s pretty flat and well known for its yurt accommodations.  One of my personal favorite experiences here is the Tash Rabat which is a historic stone caravanserai. These were actual places used by merchants and their caravans on the ancient Silk Road. This is one of the best-preserved places in all of Central Asia. Accommodations are in yurts or you can also go horse riding. One of the longstanding traditions of the Silk Route is one where the women slide down stones in the sacred mountain of Sulaiman-Too. The belief is that this will increase their chance of giving birth to healthy children and is the perfect example of prehistoric, pre-Islamic, Islamic and local beliefs  combined into one holy site that lies in the oldest city, Osh.  The Dungan Mosque and Karakol’s Orthodox Church are testaments to two important events in history.  In the 19th century, Karakol became a strategic point separating Russian Empire from China and an important Russian military settlement was established there.  It also attracted Chinese Muslims fleeing oppression in China.


3.     Tajikistan – The southern neighbor of Kyrgyzstan is Tajikistan. Tajikistan has spectacular mountains and is the smallest  country in Central Asia. The high Pamir Mountains is situated here. The largest city is Dushanbe and you can admire modern and Soviet architecture  in the surrounding streets. Don’t miss the shopping in the Oriental bazaars and of course the local food. The route that goes through the Pamir Mountains has been in use for years as part of the ancient Silk Road. This is a beautiful place for cyclists and road trippers, who can stop along the way at many of the villages, making friends along the way. Jisev Valley Hiking boasts the lack of motorized traffic plus  the internet or phone connection. The villages in Jisev consist of only a couple of houses and you can sleep in traditional Pamiri houses along the way. Iskanderkul Lake is where the legend of Alexander the Great and his horse come alive. Learn about Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia.  Murghab is the highest city in Central Asia where you can try the local food and spot local people in the traditional head wear known as the Kalpak.

 4.     Turkmenistan – This country is known as the large desert state. The resource in abundance here is the enormous gas field that keeps the population happy with cheap flights, gas, electricity and food. While internet is severely limited here, this is home to the world’s largest carpet and ferris wheel. Merv is a spectacular desert city stacked by Genghis Khan, and the sandy Kopet Dag mountains on the border with Iran. The famed Akhal-Teke horses are a must to ride on during a visit here.  Ashgabat is the capital of this country and is a beautiful city dotted with fountains and parks. This is the place to try traditional head ware. You can see lingering Soviet relics, and even swim 200 feet underground in the Kow-Ata springs under the Kopet-Dag Mountains. This is an exciting trip from the capital city.

5.     Uzbekistan – This country has to be the heart of Central Asia and is also the historic hub of the region. Samarkhand and Bukhara are not to be missed as both, including Khiva, used to be a key stop-off for traders on the Silk Road.  Here you are in for some glittering minarets, voluptuous domes and hypnotic mosaics. Tashkent is the capital where you will find 12th century mosques and classical Russian architecture alongside blocky buildings. The walled city of Khiva is a UNESCO site and populated by Uzbek families and businesses. It thrived as a Silk Road trading city and is home to ornate mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (religious schools). Timur is the man of the hour, the undoubted hero of Uzbekistan. He was a 14th century conqueror who married a descendant of Genghis Khan and whose armies killed an estimated 17 million people on their rampage across Central Asia. The mosques are adorned with the most beautiful murals and mosaics. Timur’s goal was to beautify these cities and he called on the finest of artists and architects from all over the empire. You can pick up handmade ceramics, needlework, silk cloth and miniaturist paintings for just a few dollars as Uzbekistan’s artisan skills live on. Tashkent and Bukhara have a European vibe, while the food consists of boiled vegetables, soups, and meat.


Written by Preethi Chandrasekhar, follow her on Instagram.