Would you like to travel to the heart of the Silk Road? Go off the beaten track and find some place that is new? How does visiting the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan appeal to you? Or perhaps star-gazing from a yurt in the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan?
Through a series written by Áine Byrne and Fabio Tardim, you may discover parts of Central Asia via a unique route cutting across desolate mountains, majestic lakes, and lush valleys of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Stroll with us through the deserts and ancient cities of Uzbekistan to reach the secretive Turkmenistan. Our journey reaches its end by crossing the Caspian Sea towards Baku in Azerbaijan.
Welcome to Stanland! The Mongol Empire once considered this region as its staging area. Later in the 19th century, the British and Russian empires had a difficult time in trying to spread their influence throughout these areas. More recently, it is best known as military ground for NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan.
Even some experienced travelers consider it a “terra incognita,” with its overly complicated visa rules and border crossings. For most people, the “Stans” are simply a geographical haze. For all these reasons, the area is shrouded in a fog of mystery. A fog that in some ways has preserved the rich cultural identity and diverse history of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and the many other ethnic groups across the nations of Central Asia.
Our aim is to help clear the fog and provide a few tips on how to travel through this astonishingly beautiful part of the world.
Top 10 Reasons to Visit Central Asia:
1. Get to know the heart of the Silk Road
Whether you start your journey in China or not, it is up to you. Nevertheless, you can fly relatively cheap from Seoul to Almaty, the jewel of Kazakhstan, and start your journey in the heart of the Silk Road. This ancient route has been extensively traveled for more than a millennia by merchants, explorers, and conquerors. It was the trading route that connected Beijing to Istanbul and the rest of Europe.
2. Stay in yurts of nomadic people throughout your visit
This is an incredible chance to experience a unique lifestyle that is diminishing all over the world. There are a lot of community-based tourism agencies that can arrange your stay. Prepare yourself for some serious stargazing, trekking, helicopter skiing, hiking, and more.
3. Relax in one of Karakuls’ tranquil resort spas in Kyrgyzstan
If, however, you are not an active person or think of holidays as a chance to chill out, then you can head to Issyk-Kol lake, the second-largest alpine lake in the world. Join the Russians and Kazakhs who travel all the way down to Kyrgyzstan to enjoy the warm waters of the lake and relax. Note the amazing backdrop views and a busy animal market on Sundays.
4. Travel across the spectacular Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan
Locals call it “The Roof of the World,” and it is one of the highest highways, as well as one of the least populated regions, in the world. It is the ultimate road trip with astounding high-altitude lakes and jaw-dropping mountain views. Take note that it is almost impossible to travel here in the winter and spring due to the severe weather conditions.
5. Drive down the “Tunnel of Death” near Dushanbe to Khojand in Tajikistan
Not exactly a place to do your sightseeing, but the death tunnel has its quirks. It is about 5 kilometers long, with highly toxic air and absolutely no lights. Just make sure you do not break down halfway through. Once in Khojand though, you will be delighted with one of Tajikistan’s oldest towns, founded by a chap named Alexander the Great.
6. Peek into the fields of Afghanistan from the Wakhan Corridor of Tajikistan
At the moment, it would not be very wise to cross into Afghanistan. Though it is possible, and the remote Afghan part of the Wakhan Corridor is considered safe. However, the Tajik side offers similar views, and it is a bit more developed than its neighbor.
7. Gaze at the exquisite mosques and architecture in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
This is certainly the cradle of culture in the region. Here is where you will find the top-three most beautiful cities in Central Asia: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. It has been said by many that no one will ever be disappointed by these three, and often people say that the cities are even more beautiful than they had anticipated.
8. Lose yourself in the exquisite “City of Love,” Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Unfortunately, the old city was wiped out in 1948, and in its place, a typical soviet city was built. However, in the last few decades, it has reinvented itself with a number of marble palaces and golden domes punctuated by parks and more fountains than Las Vegas. The city is often considered a cross between Pyongyang and Vegas. This is no ordinary place, that is a certainty.
9. Tour the scorching “Gates of Hell” in Turkmenistan
The Darvaza Gas Craters are artificial craters created by soviet gas explorations in the 1950s. There are three large craters, but only one was set alight during the failed exploration, and it has been burning ever since. It is an impressive site, and it has been compared to something like the Gates of Hell. You can camp nearby and enjoy the majestic blazing inferno at night.
10. Drink in the culture and bazaars of Baku, Azerbaijan
Finally, after crossing the Caspian Sea, one may as well enjoy a few relaxing days getting to know one of the most cosmopolitan places of the region. It is also easier to find a flight back to Korea from Baku. But again, if time is of no concern, then the Silk Road keeps going through Iran and Turkey…
There are many more reasons to go and places to visit in Central Asia, but we think this top 10 illustrates some of the most exciting places to visit and activities to complete. Some words of warning are worth stating, however. Central Asian nations are a bit underdeveloped in comparison to Western nations, and traveling to the region requires research and some patience.
Visa rules have changed lately, and it is not as hard as it used to be to get a visa. U.S. and U.K. citizens will usually pay a lot more for their visas, and most nationalities will have to arrange their visas before boarding the plane. Getting to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan can be both costly and tricky. These setbacks are minor though, and the staff at the embassies in Seoul are very helpful.