You have to admit; Central Asia isn’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind when planning a travel itinerary. In fact, most people struggle to locate the region on a map, complete with difficult to pronounce countries. And more often than not, you’ll be asked “where’s that?!” while telling friends and family where you’re going. But do not be put off! Although this ancient trade route was once a well-trod path linking the east and the west, it’s still relatively untouched and isn’t really a backpacker’s destination.
However, this makes it ideal to get away from the tourist crowds in season, and to experience some truly spectacular scenery, history and culture. Here we present a few of our favourite, must-see sights in this untamed land.
1 The Pamir Highway
Officially titled M41, the Pamir Highway is the second highest highway in the world. It stretches through a breath-taking landscape of the Pamir Mountains, beginning in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and winding its way through Tajikistan (told you they were difficult to pronounce!) before finishing in Afghanistan.
If you like that feeling you get of being really small in a big, wide world; then this lonely plateau is for you, with kilometre after kilometre of stunning, dramatic mountains and snowy vistas that will make you feel insignificantly tiny! It’s a photographers dream though, for those awesome landscape shots. But make sure you wrap up warm – it gets pretty cold up there!
The best time to go is during the summer months when it’s warmer and dryer, and you won’t need the thermal underwear.
2 Bukhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Anyone even thinking about taking a trip on the Silk Road should make it a top priority to see these two gorgeous cities. Follow in the steps of Marco Polo, and explore the romance of ancient camel and trade routes through Uzbekistan. Bukhara is simply one of the most charming and stunning cities you’re likely to see, with its winding back streets, friendly locals and historic architectural wonders, around 170 of them, including the famous Kalyan Minaret, which is breath-taking to visit at sunrise or sunset. Samarkand is home to the historic Registan (which means “sandy place” in Persian) and is the focal point of the city, again – a delight to behold when the sun hits it just right.
You’ll literally feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Both city centres are UNESCO world heritage sites, and you cannot afford to miss them!
3 Horses and Lake Issy Kul, Kyrgyzstan
In Kyrgyzstan, horses are revered. They’re known as “the wings of the Kyrgyz” and if you’re interested in anything equestrian you need to get yourself here. Lake Issy Kul is the second largest mountain lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca in South America fact fans) and is a wonderful base from which to explore the region on horseback.
The best time to visit is in the summer months, when you must have the experience of staying in a yurt, which the people of the steppe have been living in for centuries. These unique, portable homes are round in shape, and made from skin or felt that keep it surprisingly warm and dry.
Found all over Central Asia and China, they’re perhaps most famous in Kyrgyzstan and you cannot miss the exhilarating experience of tasting what it’s like to be really nomadic! If you’re really lucky, you might be able to catch a game of “KoK Boru,” which is a traditional Kyrgyz pastime in which two teams on horseback fight to score a goal using the carcass of a dead goat! We told you this place was unique!
4 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Possibly one of the most secretive and bizarre locations you could ever hope to visit, the capital of Turkmenistan needs to be seen to be believed. It’s built almost entirely from white marble, and you’ll feel like you’re on a weird film set or on another planet! There are all sorts of strange and wonderful monuments here, but you need to be careful with your camera, as they’re a very private people and you’ll get told off for taking pictures of the wrong thing! This is the perfect time to practice “shooting from the hip” with your camera. It’s impeccably clean, with huge, wide boulevards and avenues – and has barely a person in sight.
Surely one of the strangest places in the world, and you’ll never forget a visit here, that’s for sure! Not to be missed – but it’s not easy to get in and you’re only likely to be granted a five-day tourist visa. It’s well worth the trouble though!
The markets and bazaars
If you’re going to do the Silk Road, you’re going to need to visit what the Silk Road was famous for – its colourful markets and bazaars. Here you’re going to find just about anything you could possibly want, in all its vibrant, lively, bustling glory. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fragrant spices and herbs, clothing and textiles, dodgy used goods and useless old tat – you name it –they’ll have it.
Try the Osh and Dordoy Bazaars in Bishkek; Kyrgyzstan, the Green Bazaar in Almaty; Kazakhstan, and the famous Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent; Uzbekistan. Spend a day getting lost among the stalls and stands, taking in the exhilarating sights, sounds and smells of these ancient traditions, while picking yourself up a really cool souvenir that none of your mates will have.
Just remember to barter hard for all the best deals, which in itself is an awesome, travel experience.
One for nature lovers
Crossing the “Roof of the World” into the wild, windswept landscape of Central Asia wouldn’t be complete without coming into contact with nature. The region is famous for an abundance of exotic animals and birds, with everything from the distinctive Marco Polo sheep, to the majestic Golden Eagle, and the secretive Snow Leopard. Good luck trying to find that one! But simply get out into the countryside to explore and we’re sure you’ll come across something you’ve never seen before. Experience the wonderful flora and fauna in the glorious isolation of the Asian Steppe. It’s the perfect getaway if you’re sick of city life.
If you want something a little different from the usual travel destination, Central Asia is for you. There’s so much beautiful countryside to explore, with mountains, lakes, rivers and valleys to cleanse your soul and forget about the daily grind! The people are warm and friendly, the food is interestingly unique, and the culture will leave a lasting impression on you. So embrace your inner nomad, invest in a quality pair of hiking boots, and set out on the adventure of a lifetime on the Silk Road. All you need now is a camel!