Five astounding and enigmatic countries – five distinct travel experiences – all of them unforgettable. Read on to discover the Stans and what they all have to offer.
Central Asia may be swiftly rising in popularity among curious travellers, thanks in no small part to Joanna Lumley tackling a mesmerizing traverse for her Silk Road Adventure documentary. If the five countries collectively known as The Stans – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – weren’t on your travel-radar before seeing the show, we certainly hope they are now. They should be on everyone’s radar. Joanna showed the world the extraordinary treasures to be found here, in this still-enigmatic corner of our world: from the stunning architecture of the subway in uber-modern Tashkent to the magnificent treasures of ancient Samarkand. Lumley was awe-struck by the sophisticated elegance of the capitals and spellbound by the ethereal beauty of the Stans’ deserts, mountains and lake regions.
The Stans boast illustrious histories that are worth knowing, a cache of ancient treasures that are worth exploring and natural splendours that are worth seeing. Some of the world’s most untamed and captivating wilderness, intertwined with some of the most fascinating ancient cultures the world has ever know: these are The Legends of the Silk Road.
A sprawling desert state cradled by Turkmenistan in the south and Kazakhstan in the north, Uzbekistan is the cultural and historic heart of Central Asia, home to its most iconic mosaic-tiled mosques. The mere mention of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand leaves history buffs yearning for a visit with this Stan boasting the tallest minarets and the oldest mosques, the most intact walled cities, holiest sites and most awe-inspiring ancient architectural highlights of all. No wonder, then, that Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s biggest draw. Need a further incentive for a visit? Uzbekistan will start offering visa-free stays of up to 30 days for Australian citizens as of the 1st February, 2019.
Explore more through our Insider’s Guide to Uzbekistan
Revered for its gargantuan size, spellbinding mountains and untamed wilderness, Kazakhstan is one of Central Asia’s brightest stars. Almaty, the largest city in the country, is a surprisingly trendy spot to explore for a few days, with a fantastic array of mosques, museums and palaces and exceptional culinary delights. This southern hub of activity is not actually the capital of the country but given its strategic location at the doorstep of the country’s most celebrated natural highlights – the snow-capped peaks and turquoise lakes of the Trans-Ily Alatau Mountains, the UNESCO-listed Altyn-Emel National Park and its shifting sand dunes and the magnificent Tien Shan Mountains – it is by far the best springboard for sensational Kazakhstan tours. A country of contrasts and astonishing nature, Kazakhstan offers everything for which Central Asia is so beloved – shopping in ancient bazaars, fabulous hiking, world-class bird-watching, horse-riding, 4WD adventures and home-stays in authentic villages. The one that really has it all!
Find out more on our guide on What to See and Do from Almaty
Dubbed the Switzerland of Asia, Kyrgyzstan is the unrivalled queen bee of Central Asia – simply the most beautiful belle of them all. If verdant valleys dotted with yurts and wild horses aren’t enough to make your heart flutter, then Kyrgyzstan will surely bewitch you with her endless array of shimmering lakes, multi-hued canyons, bustling bazaars, luscious wilderness and semi-nomadic horse-riding locals. Head here in spring and you’ll discover a country that’s simply bursting with colourful blooms and fresh produce bazaars that’ll make your head spin. The Stans of postcards? That’s Kyrgyzstan in a nutshell.
Check out the amazing adventures you can have in Kyrgyzstan
This mountainous landlocked splendour is the smallest of all the Stans and is often the most overlooked – thanks primarily to its less-than-stellar roads and somewhat poorer disposition. Tajikistan lacks the kind of prime resources that make Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan relatively prosperous and relies heavily on Russia and diaspora remittances to survive. You’ll miraculously find a good Illy espresso in the capital, Dushanbe, as well as an ‘Irish Pub’ that offers mouth-watering fish and chips, although when it comes to culinary prowess, shish-kebabs of fire-roasted lamb and greasy fried rice is all you can expect in Tajikistan. Yet if you have adventure in your soul and a desire to be overwhelmed by nature in your heart, then you’ll have Tajikistan set in your sights for one prime reason: the resplendent Pamir Mountains. The mecca of thrill-seeking adventurers since the days Marco Polo traversed its glorious valleys, the Pamir Highway attracts 4WD, motorbikers and cycling enthusiasts who dream of jaw-dropping visual feasts encompassing 7000m peaks, luscious valleys and the remarkable Wakhan Corridor, along the border with Afghanistan. A 1,200km road-trip often dubbed ‘one of the world’s most inspiring journeys’ – if you need a reason to pin Tajikistan on your map, let the Pamir Highway be the star that inspires you.
Discover all the wonders of a Pamir Highway Adventure
At face value, Turkmenistan appears to be the most recalcitrant country in the region – the one that is least interested in tourism. That’s because, in many ways, it is. For this precise reason, however, Turkmenistan is the one that elicits the most fascination among discerning explorers: the one Stan that doesn’t want to be seen is the one that everyone wants to see. It helps that Turkmenistan is enticing in so many ways – home to the most outlandish capital in the world (the marble city of Ashgabat), a flaming desert crater aptly named the ‘Door to Hell’, one of the largest open-air markets in all of Central Asia (Altyn Asyr), resplendent yet obscure Silk Road treasures and, if that’s not enough, some of the friendliest and most curious people you’ll meet in the region. Bagging a tourist visa for Turkmenistan used to be the stuff of nightmares yet the situation is getting progressively easier, most especially if you book a guided and private tailor-made tour as an official letter of invitation is included in the package deal. A week exploring Turkmenistan is undoubtedly one of the most unforgettable Stans experiences anyone could ever dream – a real ‘off the beaten path’ adventure in the most off-the-beaten-path region of all.
Read more on our Guide to Turkmenistan
Our private guided tours through Central Asia can be tailored to your needs and desires and an easily include multiple stops in several countries. The region is very well connected by road, rail and air, making multi-country itineraries the most popular options. See our Multi-Country Itineraries page to know more and contacts us for personalised advice.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”