Travel warning: Some parts of Central Asia can be unstable: check current government advice before travel. Ongoing military operations in the region mean Western tourists can be the target of terrorism. There are current concerns over terrorism in the region by Islamic militants; check with your embassy before planning your trip. Travellers may find the bureaucratic red tape frustrating, and Central Asia has some distance to go when it comes to ease of movement for independent visitors. Be sure to have all your papers and ID with you at all times as you can be stopped at any time and questioned.
The Central Asia region – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – has, for many years, been off limits to the independent traveller. But thanks to loosening bureaucracy in the new autonomous states, these beautiful, mythic lands are now ripe for exploration.
Central Asia enjoys a sunny climate with largely unspoilt blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, and vast arid deserts. The locals have managed to preserve their traditional nomadic culture in a world that is fast becoming homogenous. So many empires and kingdoms have swept through the region at different times, it’s no wonder that Central Asia is so rich in heritage.
Connected to the rest of the world by the ancient caravan trails that weaved their way through the towns and oases, Central Asia was the original site of the legendary Silk Road – the main trading route between the East and West from the second century B.C. to the sixteenth century A.D. The first item to be transported was silk, from which the route got its name, and later jewellery, glass, and iron were to make the fabled journey.
The mountains of Central Asia have been dubbed ‘The Roof of the World’, containing some of the highest and most beautiful peaks on Earth. Since the routes are so remote, with varying difficulties, you will often find themselves with the captivating landscape all to yourself. Local guides can advise and head treks; either arrange with a tour before you go or ask around in the local villages for an escort. Other popular activities include hiking, climbing, rafting, mountain biking, and kayaking. Winter sports are excellent in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Almaty (Kazakhstan).
Central Asia has a large collection of rare and endemic flora and fauna amid its varying altitudes in the mountains, steppes, and valleys. Among the rarest species of animals to be found arewild ram, aurochs, lynx, bears, and snow leopards.
The Amu-Darya is Central Asia’s greatest river, rising from the great mountains in the East and emptying into what remains of the Aral Sea. The broad, flat, fertile land of the Ferghana Valleyis in the heartland of Uzbekistan, surrounded by the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. Here the majority of settlements are found and the focus of the region’s silk production. The unfortunate Russian industrialisation has turned much the natural beauty of the area into ugly production zones for the vast cotton industry but nevertheless you will find the locals friendly and hospitable and the nearby mountains convenient for activities and treks.
Land-locked Kyrgyzstan is dominated by the great Tien Shan Mountains. The country borders China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Its raw, natural beauty emanates from its imposing landscape, awesome mountains, glaciers, and lakes. This is an isolated land that time forgot which has escaped much of the modernisation that dominates the world today. Get back to nature with the nomadic herdsmen and their ancient culture. Lying on the old Silk Road, here you can chase some of the ancient mystery and romance of the Arabian Nights in the many mosques and madrassas.
When to go
Central Asia enjoys a continental climate in the lowlands of the Ferghana Valley in the south-west with a stark, winter-like contrast in the high altitude Tien Shan Mountains.
Temperatures range from 30C in summer to a chilling -45C in winter. Invariably, if you intend to see much of this fascinating area, spring and autumn are the best times to visit as the country breaks into a harmony of colour and vitality around harvest time. You may also find transport restricted and many flights cancelled in winter and trekking in the mountains in spring can be treacherous with melting snow and increased risk of avalanche. Always check with local guides or tourist agencies for current safety advice.
Being a majority Muslim population, traditional Islamic festivals are astutely observed. Probably the biggest of these is Navrus, the spring festival of renewal which takes place on the vernal equinox, approximately mid- to late March when, for two days, traditional games, music and drama are practised. Good places to experience Navrus are Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Hissar Fort near Dushanbe (Tajikistan).
Ramadan is also observed, however not with so much gusto as other Islamic states, as the people of Central Asia remain closer to their nomadic roots. Travellers should still find food with relative ease at this time. Independence Day is celebrated in each country, dates vary from late August to late September for each country, marking the end of the oppressive Soviet regime. Each country has its own national holiday on this day and it is celebrated with great reverence as a symbol of hope.
The Nukus’ Pakhta-Bairam harvest festival is held in Karakol (Kazakhstan) in December, where you can catch a rare game of ylaq oyyny – Central Asia’s answer to polo. Players hit a goat carcass around the field and other ‘animal loving’ activities take place like wrestling and ram and cock fighting.
Women should be aware of dressing appropriately in Central Asia as skimpy clothes or shorts may attract attention from the local men and you will need to cover your head and remove shoes when entering a mosque. Avoid displaying symbols of wealth, such as jewellery, as you may become a target for crime.
Bus and train travel is somewhat behind the western standards you may be used to; services are infrequent and overcrowded. Be early and re-confirm the timetable in advance of your journey.
There are many languages being spoken in these countries of Central Asia, some of the main official ones are Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek. Russian is also widely spoken as the business language and to bridge the linguistic gap between different nationalities.
Central Asia has a cosmopolitan mix of ethnic groups including Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Russian. The main religion here is Islam, although practitioners tend not to be as strict as those in the Middle Eastern.
In Kyrgyzstan, social status was traditionally reflected by the costumes people wore. Woman’s dress changed throughout the different periods of her life, shekelo is the traditional veil of the bride, and later in life she will wear an elechek. This is a tall hat spooled from a stripe of white canvas or cotton, the length is defined by their social status and wealth. The elechek is then used as a sheet after death. The men wear a type of ornate waistcoat called a chyptama, their trousers are made from rawhide, as the Kyrgyz are traditionally good with fur.
You’ll find the countries of Central Asia cheap by Western standards, however, as a foreigner you will unavoidably pay more for goods and services than the locals. Expect to spend between US$20 to 40 per day on a budget, more if you wish to stay in moderate hotels and eat in decent restaurants. Tipping is contrary to Islamic principals, so you may offend by offering money for services. In some restaurants a service charge is added to the bill.
Credit cards have yet to emerge in any way in Central Asia: you will only find a few top-end restaurants and hotels accepting the major cards. Instead, rely on cash in small denominations for purchases – US Dollars are easiest to change and larger towns have exchange bureaus.
Central Asia is the perfect place to haggle for traditional Asian carpets and crafts. The bazaars and markets are bustling and lively, with plenty of opportunity to peruse some of the most beautiful wears in the region. The traditional Oriental bazaars offer the best bargains, and silk is still a local speciality, decently priced if you look around. As with anywhere, you need to be on your guard for pick-pockets and bag-slashers, and don’t expect to get any use from your credit cards – payment is accepted in cash only.
The Kyrgyzstani Som (KGS) was the first official currency to be introduced in the new Central Asian states in 1993. The shaky start to the Krygyzstani state has lingered, with an unstable economy and primitive banking structure. Be aware that throughout Central Asia, new, crisp notes are generally all that is accepted, and larger notes are hard to break.
Food and drink
The diet of Central Asia makes the most of local produce. Filling, nourishing ingredients are used to prepare food that provides the eater with energy and strength in an unforgiving landscape.
Their diet depends on their livestock, and consists mainly of meat and dairy products. Any of their domestic animals can be milked including sheep, goats, yaks, and camels. The milk is then used to make butter, yoghurt (ayran) and dried round sour curds called qurut. These are stored and eaten when fresh milk isn’t available during winter, droughts, and severe weather. Qurut is also a popular ‘trail food’, prepared in advance and taken by shepherds and soldiers on trips away from their home camp.
Koumiss is another fermented mare’s milk product. This wholesome sour drink is very popular amongst Central Asians. It is not considered alcoholic, and is given to babies as young as one year’s old. Koumiss is also used in medicinal and ritual purposes; soldiers and their horses are blessed with it before going to battle to bid them a safe return.
The most common meats in Central Asia are mutton or horsemeat, which is often boiled in a big cauldron. Only large, well-fed cattle are slaughtered, as the nomad’s lifestyle requires high-fat, high-energy food. There is a special technique to slaughtering the animals, as the meat needs to be divided according to muscle structure. It is then served in ritual order, a tradition still regarded highly, especially among the elder generation.
A staple drink throughout Central Asia is milky, spiced chai or tea, served in many teahouses or chai-khanas. A sight that will certainly become familiar is the many robed men, passing time and drinking tea during the long afternoons. It is customary to remove your shoes when sitting down in the chai-khana.
Nomadic in nature, the Kyrgyz have developed a food culture to compliment their lifestyles. The constant movement and exposure to the elements means they need nourishing and calorific food, and this is reflected in their recipes and ingredients.
Typical food includes lots of meat and flour like Besh-barmak (boiled meat with noodles and bouillon), Boorsoks (pieces of dough fried in oil), Chuchuk (fat salami made of mutton),Shorpo (a traditional Kyrgyz soup), and Chak-Chak (a sweet dish of fried dough with honey).
A common drink in Kyrgyzstan is Kumys, a nutritional drink made from fermented mare’s milk, a variety of which is found throughout Central Asia. Another Kyrgyz favourite is Maksym – made from barley, wheat, or corn.
You will need visas to visit all countries in Central Asia, available from the relevant country’s embassy or consulate. Some countries require a letter of invitation, or itinerary to gain entry. These are mandatory, so check before travelling if you want to see more than their exciting airports on you trip.
Health risks include hepatitis, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid and a slight risk of malaria in some areas. Check with your doctor before you travel for necessary vaccinations. Altitude sickness is also possible if you are trekking in some of the higher peaks so take adequate precautions and suitable clothing.
In Kyrgyzstan, be aware of water-borne diseases and make the effort to boil your water before drinking, cleaning your teeth, and making ice. Faulty irrigation practices and contaminated streams mean water can be dangerous so care should be taken.
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