Central Asia

From the oasis cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv to vast desert landscapes, Central Asia is thrillingly otherworldly. Conjuring up the romance of the Silk Road, not to mention conquerors and explorers such as Tamerlane and Marco Polo, to many of us this huge region remains a blank on the map. Lacking the mass tourism found elsewhere in Asia, a journey here offers genuine adventure.

For over two millennia, Central Asia has attracted the world’s greatest explorers, warriors and merchants, who, seduced by the Silk Road, have plied the region’s trade routes and mountain passes. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — may be young but all are deeply connected to ancient folklore of the steppe, where Turks traded with Persians and nomads fought with conquerors.

This is a region ripe for exploration, from the grand historic squares of Uzbekistan, to the space-age architecture of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and the gorgeous emerald green mountain scenery of Kyrgyzstan. The High Pamirs in Tajikistan are where the most important mountain chains of Central Asia all begin or meet— the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and the Hindu Kush — providing a stunning backdrop for adventurers.

This is also a region in flux. In cities, Soviet buildings are gradually being upgraded, and while you won’t spot statues of Lenin in Uzbekistan (they’ve been replaced by the nomadic conqueror Tamerlane) you will spot them all over Kyrgyzstan. You’ll also see the evidence of former Russian rule in the samovars (Russian kettles) and Soviet military medals for sale in the markets. The shopping is good, too. Master ikat weavers are reviving traditions, and many musicians and artists are now turning to their Islamic heritage for influence. This mix of Soviet legacy and Islam is one of the things that make this part of the world so fascinating.

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