If you had asked me few years ago about Central Asia, my mind would have fumbled for country names; images of how a Central Asian city might look, thoughts about their local cuisine or even customs and clothing. But today, Central Asia is slowly coming into its own, and generating a rising awareness amongst travelers. Commonly referred to as the “Stans”, the countries that make up this region are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
1. The Right Timing
The first thought that pops up today when someone asks me about Central Asia is an image of the Silk Route that includes caravans and camels. I think of the nomads walking along this route looking for trade in not just the lucrative Asian silk but also in many other things including spices, horses, art pieces and stones such as jade, lapis lazuli etc. The Silk Route countries, especially the five “stans” might still be shrouded in mystery for many travelers and that’s part of the appeal. There is just enough tourism infrastructure in the region, yet not so much that you can’t find authenticity pretty much anywhere you decide to explore.
Make no mistake, this part of the world will soon be swarming with travelers and backpackers all wanting in on the action but currently this is the best time to visit Central Asia as you can still have many sites and locations to yourself. Charming yurt stays and horse riding are authentic experiences that can help you immerse yourself in the local culture and customs. Countries like Kyrgyzstan have eased visa restrictions and created homestay and adventure programs, making it quite easy to experience all that the region has to offer.
I didn’t think this region would offer much adventure as I could only think of slow-moving caravans and camels and silk. But there are tons of opportunities to bring out the adventurer in you, especially with trekking at 3,500m in Kyrgyzstan, horse-trekking, camping, helicopter rides, and of course the magnificent road trips that are possible through the mountains.
3. History & Culture
For history and culture buffs, there is no place like the “Stans” begging to be explored. Each of the five countries that make up the “Stans” has its own unique culture and customs but of course there are also many similarities between them. Islam is the religion throughout this region and what’s unique is that people are still nomadic where horses are the means of getting around in the countryside. People seem to also have a strong connection to their community and family. What’s stunning about this region is the rich Incredible Islamic architecture in places like Uzbekistan, notably in places like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Uzbekistan may well be home to some of the Islamic world’s best display of architecture featuring grand gates, intricate Arabic patterns and carvings and tons and tons of shimmering tiles. If you look at the history of the Uzbeks they are known for being good traders and very much tied to the land. Hence instead of being nomadic, like the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, the Uzbeks built strong monuments that could withstand Soviet attacks and other natural calamities. Thanks to the government’s efforts at preservation, you will see many madrassas, minarets and mosques throughout this country.
4. Authentic Travel
While tourism is still trickling into this region, take advantage of the authenticity that will greet you at every corner as you travel around the five “stans”. In Central Asia, yurts are very common. These are circular structures, which are movable and perfect for nomadic people. The yurts are made from wooden beams, latticework, sheep’s wool, felt and canvas and keep people cool in the summer while protecting them from the winters. If you’re in this region don’t miss a stay in a yurt.
5. The People
What I love about any type of travel is meeting the local people of that region. So I wondered who exactly are the people that make up the five “stans?” Now these countries share borders with China, Iran, Russia and Mongolia so you might see Asians, Persians, Arabic or Europeans even. Some may have light skin and green eyes but regardless the people in this region are extremely welcoming. Perhaps they are not used to foreigners as tourists aren’t so common here and hence they are even more interested and friendly. It’s helpful to learn some Russian phrases to practice along the way on your new friends.