The nations of Central Asia, because of their remote locations and antiquated visa policies, are some of the least visited places in the world. But it’s not from lack of appeal, as the region has a breathtaking landscape and some incredibly interesting cultural attractions.
Five countries make up the Central Asian region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – and we’ll briefly talk about the attractions and logistics of each one. But, of course, it would be somewhat of a waste to come all the way to Central Asia to visit only the one!
Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the Central Asian nations. Its vast, seemingly unending steppes yield only for the Caspian and Aral seas in the west and the Altay Mountains in the east. The main tourist draws to the country are just that: steppes and mountains. Almaty is the country’s largest city and Astana, 1,200 kilometers to the north, is the capital city.
Most travelers to Kazakhstan will arrive via rail to the city of Almaty, which has connections to Urumqi in China and to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Otherwise there are regular flights from both Astana and Almaty to Moscow. Almost all visitors to Kazakhstan will need to acquire a visa before arriving in the country. Most tourists, however, do not require a letter of invitation when applying for a visa at their local Kazakh embassy.
Kyrgyzstan may give travelers the most difficulty with spelling in the region, but it does have a prime location sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. Its capital city of Bishkek is only a few hours by car or train from nearby Almaty in Kazakhstan. What makes the country such a special place to visit, though, are the stunning peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains and the country’s tribal, nomadic culture. Horseback riding and staying in a ger camp is a really cool way to experience both of those things.
Bishkek is a breeze to reach by car or rail from Kazakhstan, but otherwise it’s a bit difficult to travel within Kyrgyzstan due to its rugged landscape. Most travelers not arriving overland from Kazakhstan will most likely fly into Bishkek from Moscow. Just recently – July 2012 – Kyrgyzstan introduced a new visa-free travel regime that allows citizens of many states, including the United States, to visit the country for stays of up to 60 days without a visa.
Like its neighbors, the defining feature of Tajikistan is its mountainous landscape. This time it’s the Pamir Mountains, which, known as the “Roof of the World,” are some of the world’s tallest peaks. Tajikistan is one of the more remote Central Asian nations, it shares a long border with Afghanistan, and only the most ardent adventure travelers undertake the effort to visit.
Most travelers to Tajikistan will arrive via its international airport in the capital city of Dushanbe, with the weekly flight from Istanbul being the most popular route. Citizens of most countries can purchase a visa upon arrival at the airport for stays of up to 30 days.
Turkmenistan is perhaps the Central Asian nation that’s most closed off to foreign travelers. Independent travel in the country is not allowed, so Turkmenistan holidays require the utilization of a tour operator and guide. But moving past the logistical problems, visitors will find a nation full of welcoming people and cities and landscapes rarely seen by outsiders.
All tourist visas to Turkmenistan must be arranged through a registered travel agency and require the travelers hires an official guide for the duration of their stay. Most travelers will fly into the capital city of Ashgabat, but some intrepid travelers may choose to arrive on from Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea.
[Also see our travel article "Off the Beaten Path in Asia"]
Uzbekistan is without a doubt the star of Central Asian travel. Its two World Heritage cities – Bukhara and Samarkand – are awe-inspiring from both a historical/cultural perspective and simply because of how beautiful they are. Tashkent is the country’s modern capital, and, though not exactly “awe-inspiring,” is nevertheless a good jumping-off point for further exploration of the country.
Travelers to Uzbekistan require visas that must be obtained in advance at the nearest Uzbek embassy. Letters of invitation are not technically required for most first-world citizens, but purchasing one from an Uzbek travel agency for a nominal fee will accelerate the visa-approval process a great deal and is recommended. Buses arrive to Tashkent daily from Bishkek in nearby Kyrgyzstan, and trains depart to destinations as far afield as Moscow. Otherwise, travelers will most likely arrive via the international airport in Tashkent.