Words and photos by Áine Byrne and Fabio Tardim
Whether you call it Central Asia, Tartary, Turkestan, or Transoxiana, the “Stans” are the lands that fill that gap between the Tian Shan Mountains and the Caspian Sea. These places have always been the backbone of the Silk Road, a place of transfer and a meeting point between Asia and Europe. Here you will find ancient cities and lands that for centuries have attracted traders, travelers, and invaders in equal numbers.
First, meet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries in the north of Central Asia, where sweeping steppes and valleys, striking mountains, and friendly locals will welcome you with open arms and bundles of bread. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the first two countries on our Silk Road journey. The two countries are culturally connected and are also the most “Russified” of the Stans. It is also here that one of the greatest dichotomies of the Silk Road reveals itself: that of “settler-versus-nomad.” Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are renowned for their nomadic ways and horse-bound traditions, as opposed to the settled trading cultures of Tajiks and Uzbeks.
So, let us find out more about these two fascinating places.
Republic of Kazakhstan
First stop is Kazakhstan, a precious, underrated jewel waiting to be discovered. One cannot miss it on the map (after all it is the 9th largest country in the world), yet many people ignore Kazakhstan. Why is this? Maybe poor national marketing combined with the fact that until a few years ago, visas used to be hard to obtain, not to mention “the good old” bad Soviet reputation. If you like a bit of adventure and the great outdoors, you should consider Kazakhstan. Traveling here has just become much easier as visas-on-arrival are now available for many nationalities.
History in Brief
“Kazakh” means “free and independent nomad.” Inhabited by herders and nomadic tribes since the Stone Age, and though surrounded by China and Russia, it was Turkic culture that held its grip by introducing Islam into Kazakhstan. Kazakh culture took shape in the 15th century, and the Kazakh language followed a century later. In the 17th century, conflict with western Mongolian tribes resulted in a great victory for the Kazakhs.
In the 19th century, the colossal Russian Empire expanded and took over Kazakhstan. At that time, about 1.5 million Germans, Jews, Russians, and Slavs migrated into the country. Conflict resulted in 300,000 Kazakh disappearances. Soviet colonization crushed Kazakh culture – artists, historians, poets, writers, and others being completely repressed. However, Kazakhstan as an entity and country is a Soviet invention. In 1991, the country reluctantly gained its freedom from Russia, but is now thriving economically, mainly because of its vast reserves of oil.
If you decide to visit Kazakhstan, you can go boldly into the wild steppe or visit the southeastern part of the country – or both if you have the time. The southeast region was the most important during the days of the Silk Road, and it also contrasts greatly with the rest of the country. While most of Kazakhstan is flat, arid steppes, the southeast is home to high mountains, forests, and lakes.
• Kyz Kuu (Chase the Girl) – A kissing game, played on horseback in traditional dress during their New Year (March 21st). The female gets a head start on a faster horse, then the male pursues on a slow horse and shows off jazzy horseback-riding tricks.
• Ile Altau National Park – Pass through woodlands and open alpine meadows to find glaciers and lakes, including the Big Almaty. The park is also home to snow leopards, Tian Shan bears, bearded vultures, Eurasian three-toed woodpeckers, and many other creatures.
• Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty – A colorful and exotic Russian Orthodox cathedral constructed purely of wood and no nails. This cathedral is located in Panfilov Park, which is host to some cool Soviet statues.
• Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui, Turkestan – An impressive 14th century mausoleum built to honor one of the most important Sufi saints of Islam.
• The Petroglyphs of Tamgaly – 5,000 ancient stone carvings in a UNESCO-protected canyon northwest of Almaty. Tours from Almaty are expensive, but you can rent a car, catch a taxi, or use local guides to show you the way.
• Museum of Victims of Political Repressions, Shymkent – few museums have been devoted to this topic, but the atrocities that the Kazakh people suffered at the hands of the Russians in the 19th century are displayed.
• Korgalzhyn and Nauryzumsky Nature Reserves, Astana – Not on our Silk Road route, but worth mentioning are the undisturbed lakes, semi-deserts, and steppes located near Astana. Antelopes, babok marmots, pelicans, pink flamingoes, and wolves roam freely – a must see for adventurers.
“Almaty is the best place in Kazakhstan. I live here because it has the best universities in the country, it has plenty of job opportunities for me, plus beautiful nature all year round.”
— Dana, Student from Astana, Kazakhstan
Do not underestimate the sheer and epic beauty of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is at the crossroads of Eurasia and a political stomping ground for Russian-Middle Eastern affairs. Kazakhstan’s vastness, nature, and wildlife will simply take your breath away.
Vowel-defying Kyrgyzstan can be defined by its natural, unspoiled attractions. Mountainous landscapes, glorious glaciers, spa valleys, rolling jailoos (summer pastureland), yurt- staying, plus visa-free travel are all some of the wonderful features about this country. It is certainly one rugged place covered almost entirely by the Tian Shan Mountains. Let’s step further up into the high altitudes of the Silk Road and visit Bishkek, the never-freezing Lake Issy-kul, Karakol, Jalal Abad, and Osh.
History in Brief
Native Kyrgyz people were originally Turkic settlers from the Tian Shan Mountains. They developed their skills as pastoral farmers, shepherds, and nomads. When the Russian Empire expanded further than Kazakhstan, like its neighbor, Kyrgyz identity, farming, and its nomadic culture was swallowed by the Soviets. Modern farming and sophisticated industrial production systems were also put in place.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Kyrgyzstan joined the United Nations and became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States while attempting to reignite its economy. North and South Kyrgyzstan are reportedly divided, ethnically and economically. The north of the country is regarded as more developed with the bulk of the Kyrgyz population based there, whereas the south is considered underprivileged with several Uzbek and Tajik enclaves, and various ethnic groups. It is often said to be affected by radical Islamic turbulence. Be not deterred in visiting the south, however. Kyrgyzstan is a progressive and very welcoming place for tourists and explorers.
Kyrgyzstan is a paradise for trekkers and hikers alike. It is often dubbed “the Switzerland of Central Asia” for its snow-capped peaks, alpine valleys, and lakes. Wherever you go in the country, you can be sure to have a jaw-dropping background of beautiful mountains on the horizon.
•Ulak Tartysh – A popular team game similar to polo and rugby where two teams of horse-riders wrestle for possession of a headless carcass of a goat.
•Oodarysh – Two horseback contestants wrestle and attempt to be the first to knock the other from his horse.
•Burkut and Falconry – Hunting with eagles is an ancient trademark of Kyrgyz nomads. Famed for hunting with golden eagles (burkut), northern gashawks (qarshyghasy), and peregrine falcons (munushkor).
•Ala-Archa National Park – A quick escape for those needing time out from Bishkek. Filled with breathtaking views and geological formations, there are dozens of nature trails throughout the gorge for hikers and trekkers.
• Lake Issy-kul, Karakul – For rest and relaxation in a beautiful alpine region with turquoise-blue water. Driving around the northern and southern shores is a must.
• Karakol – The gateway to explore both Lake Issyk-Kul and the surrounding mountains and valleys.
“Bishkek is an interesting place, I love the blend of Mama Russia and Asia.”
— Sokratis (Greek), Communications Student, Bishkek
“In Kyrgyzstan, the people make the place. I love the mix of Central Asian and Caucasian people, the rich food and culture. Oh, the food is just yummy! Bishkek city is alive.”
— Christina (Romanian), Humanitarian Aid HR Manager, Bishkek
Traveling the country has its perks and challenges; however, Kyrgyzstan is definitely the easiest “Stan” to travel through. Local people are well used to tourists and do their best to help them. While English is not widely spoken, a lot of young people are fluent or have some sort of proficiency.