There’s a vast swathe of land that nestles between India, Russia and China where ancient merchants once undertook extraordinary journeys along what became known as ‘The Silk Road’. These ancient lands formed of mountains, desert and vast, open steppe are studded with ancient cities where vibrant blue domes and towering minarets. Join us as we take a brief tour of the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, otherwise known as ‘The Stans’…
Sitting at the point where the Silk Road crosses from the Middle East into Central Asia, Turkmenistan is perhaps, the most enigmatic of the ‘Stans’. It is still full of the same ancient traditions and spectacular landscapes that mark the region as something special. The ancient cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench are a memorable visit with historical monuments and mosaic patterns, but the biggest highlight is Ashgabat – known as the City of White Marble – which holds the world record for having the most marble-clad buildings. 543 buildings are lined with white marble, which covers a total area of 4.5 million square meters.
The Karakum Desert covers approximately 70% of Turkmenistan’s land area at 135,000 square miles! The name Karakum is derived from two Turkic words, ‘Kara Kum’ which means ‘black sand, and despite a canal running across the desert, it remains to be one of the driest places on earth. The 850-mile Karkaum Canal was first constructed in 1954 and is one of the largest desert irrigation projects in the world.
Uzbekistan is home to a mesmerising collection of ancient cities and timeless architecture. You’ll find the legendary cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, holding some of the world’s most exquisite Islamic buildings, with fabulous mosques, medressas and mausoleums scattered in the most beautiful mosaic tiles.
Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world that are doubly landlocked countries, with the nearest coast being two countries away! It is also home to the World’s largest Open-Pit Gold Mine, which is 2.17 miles long, and produces up to 2 million ounces of gold every year. If that’s not enough, Uzbekistan is also home to five UNESCO Heritage sites, so there’s plenty to see
For hundreds of years, the Silk Road wound its way across Tajikistan, passing over towering mountains, through lush valleys and beside beautiful hued lakes. Over 90% of the country’s terrain is mountainous, with over 50% of that being over 3000m above sea level. The tallest mountain in Tajikistan is called Ismoil Somoni Peak and is a staggering 7,495m tall (which is taller than Mount Kilimanjaro and mount Fuji!).
Tajikistan is also home to the second biggest man-made dam in the world – the Nurek Dam, which is only 5m smaller than the largest man-made dam in the world, Jinping-I dam in China. To put this into perspective, both mentioned dams are over 75m higher than the Hoover Dam in the USA – which 7 million people visit every year, compared to only 215,600 that visit Tajikistan every year, and see the dam.
Tucked in the heart of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a destination defined by its outstanding, unspoilt landscapes and age-old nomadic traditions. 80% of the country is mountainous and includes the magnificent Tian Shan Mountains – formed over 50 million years ago. The highest point in Kyrgystan is 7,439m,(which isn’t as high as Ismoil Somoni Peak in Tajikistan) but Krygystan does have it’s trump card with the largest high-altitude lake, called Issyk-Kul. The lake is 113 miles long, 37 miles wide and is 668 meters deep at its deepest point. Its capital city Bishkek is said to be one of the greenest cities in the world as all streets are lined with bushes, trees and grass.
There are 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Krygystan, as well as a 3,000-year-old city called Osh – which became one of the key trading points on the Silk Road. For any Britons looking to visit, you do not need a visa, if your visit is less than 90 days long.
The world’s ninth largest country, Kazakhstan encompasses a huge array of landscapes from the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains. Kazakhstan is dotted with traditional settlements and translates as ‘land of the wanderers’. A stroll through the leafy streets of Almaty, the largest city, will seem almost familiar to European eyes, whilst away from the city you’ll find true adventure – out on the steppe or in the spectacular Tian Shan Mountains.
For stunning mountain views, head for Big Almaty Lake that sits amongst the snowy peaks some 2,500 metres above sea level. There are 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kazakhstan, and the ultra-modern capital of Astana is a popular favourite for tourists to visit, where you can ascend the Baiterek Tower for panoramic views of the city, visit the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation or the Nur-Astana Mosque.
Discover Central Asia on our ‘Journey Through Central Asia’ tour