Ever imagined yourself riding horseback across
the Eurasian steppe or haggling for carpets in an Uzbek bazaar? Silk Road
romantics with a penchant for kebabs should make a beeline to these unmissable
Central Asian highlights.
encapsulate the allure of the Silk Road as completely as Samarkand in
Uzbekistan. Asian conqueror Tamerlane’s
showcase city is a study in ambition, ranking among the world’s greatest
collections of Islamic architecture. Mesmerising tile work, soaring blue domes
and a massive sense of scale are the rule here, including at Tamerlane’s own
resting place, the Gur
With its skyline of
mosques, madrasahs (places of
learning) and minarets, Bukhara is the quintessential Central Asian trading
town. The labyrinthine old town is a great place for a wander, but do not miss
fortress, home of the last Emirs of Bukhara, or the 47m-tall Kalon
Minaret that so impressed Genghis Khan almost eight centuries ago.
The third of
Uzbekistan’s great caravan cities requires a long desert journey (preferably a
flight or overnight train ride), but it is worth the trip to wander the
almost-perfect walled city of the slave-trading khanate. An excursion into the
surrounding desert takes in the enigmatic ruins of a dozen medieval fortresses.
connoisseurs generally agree that the extremely remote high-altitude Pamir
Highway is one of the world’s great road trips. From remote mountain
valleys bordering Afghanistan, the paved road detours through the scenic Wakhan
Valley, a major Silk Road thoroughfare, before climbing onto the treeless,
high-altitude Pamir plateau. Retrace the routes of Marco Polo and 19th-century
explorers by day, before staying overnight in remote Kyrgyz yurt camps.
Tian Shan Mountains,
A chunk of
Switzerland magically transplanted into Central Asia, the Tian
Shan are the de facto base camp for Central Asia’s impressive trekking
scene. Agencies in the town of Karakol
can kit you out for multi-day trips through lush, forested valleys to your very
own turquoise mountain lakes and Alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers.
Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
High in the Tian
Shan Mountains near the border with China lies the well-preserved 15th-century
stone caravanserai of Tash Rabat, so perfect that you can almost hear the
caravans unloading their bales of silk as they bed down their camels for the
night. If you are headed to China, visit as part of an epic overland trip over
the Torugart Pass to Kashgar.
Kyrgyzstan is all
about yurts, horses and summer pastures, which makes it the perfect place to
realise your latent Genghis Khan fantasies (minus the murder and pillaging, of
course). Local community-based tourism
providers can arrange excellent guided horse trips to the beautiful lake,
overnighting en route in authentic herders’ yurts.
Central Asia’s most
interesting city (and Kazakhstan’s former capital), Almaty is a leafy and
cosmopolitan blend of Russian and Kazakh influences. Attend Orthodox mass at
the Zenkov Cathedral,
shop the bustling Zelyony
Bazaar and pay a visit to the “Golden
Man”, a priceless suit of Scythian armour created for the afterlife.
Yasaui Mausoleum, Kazakhstan
impressive architectural legacy does double duty as a major centre for
Central Asian Sufism. Follow your fellow pilgrims around the blue-domed
mausoleum before diving hands-first in a celebratory feast of roast sheep or plov (pilau rice).
The “Queen of the
World” once ranked as one of the world’s largest cities. Today it is a series
of overlapping ruins, fading across the centuries, with the Unesco-protected
of Sultan Sanjar as the star attraction. Fans of inner Asian history will
For flight connections to Central Asia, airBaltic, Lufthansa and Turkish
Airlines fly to the major air hubs of Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Almaty in
Kazakhstan. Visas for Central Asia can be tricky: invitations are required for
Turkmenistan but not for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan,
depending on your nationality and where you apply for the visa. No matter where
you travel, bring cash US dollar bills and a strong tolerance for mutton.
The article 'A first-time guide to Central Asia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.