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.