A first-timer's guide to Central Asia

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Ever imagined yourself riding horseback across the Eurasian steppe or haggling for carpets in an Uzbek bazaar? Silk Road romantics with a penchant for kebabs should make a beeline to these unmissable Central Asian highlights.

Four Towers, Almaty by Irene2005

Four Towers by Irene2005. CC BY 2.0

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Few cities encapsulate the allure of the Silk Road as completely as Samarkand. Tamerlane's showcase city is a study in ambition, ranking amongst the world’s greatest collections of Islamic architecture. Mesmerising tilework, soaring blue domes and a massive sense of scale are the rule here, including at Tamerlane’s own resting place, the Gur Amir.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

With its skyline of mosques, madrasahs and minarets, Bukhara is the quintessential Central Asian trading town. The labyrinthine old town is the best place for a random wander, but don’t miss the fortress of the dastardly former Emir or the 47m-tall Kalon Minaret that so impressed Genghis Khan almost eight centuries ago.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

The third of Uzbekistan’s great caravan cities requires a long desert journey (preferably a flight or overnight train ride) but it’s worth the trip to wander the almost-perfect walled city of the slave-trading khanate. A great excursion into the surrounding desert takes in the enigmatic ruins of a dozen medieval fortresses.

Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

Overland connoisseurs generally agree that the Pamir Hwy is one of the world’s great mountain road trips. From remote mountain valleys bordering Afghanistan the paved road detours through the scenic Wakhan Valley, a major Silk Road thoroughfare, before climbing onto the treeless, high-altitude Pamir plateau. Retrace the routes of Marco Polo and 19th-century explorers by day, before overnighting in remote Kyrgyz yurt camps.

Tian Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan

A chunk of Switzerland magically transplanted into Central Asia, the Tian Shan are the de facto base camp for Central Asia’s impressive trekking scene. Agencies in Karakol can kit you out for multi-day trips up lush, forested valleys to your very own turquoise mountain lakes and Alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers.

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Central Asia’s most interesting city (and Kazakhstan’s former capital), Almaty is a leafy and cosmopolitan blend of Russian and Kazakh influences. Attend Orthodox mass at the Zenkov Cathedral, shop the bustling Zilyony Bazaar and pay a visit to the ‘Golden Man’, a priceless suit of Scythian armour created for the afterlife.

Merv, Turkmenistan

The ‘Queen of the World’ once ranked as one of the world’s largest cities. Today it’s a series of overlapping ruins, fading across the centuries, with the UNESCO-protected 12th-century Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar as the star attraction. Fans of inner Asian history will love it. The bonus? A peak at the oddball hermit republic of Turkmenistan.

Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan

High in the Tian Shan Mountains near the border with China lies this lovely caravanserai, so perfect that you can almost hear the caravans unloading their bales of silk as they bed down their camels for the night. If you are headed to China, visit as part of the epic overland trip over the Torugart Pass to Kashgar.

Lake Song-Köl, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is all about yurts, horses and summer pastures, which makes it the perfect place to realize your latent Genghis Khan fantasies (minus the murder and pillaging, of course). Local community-based tourism providers (see www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg) can arrange excellent guided horse trips to the beautiful lake, overnighting en route in authentic herders’ yurts.

Yasaui Mausoleum, Turkistan, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s most impressive architectural legacy does double duty as a major centre for Central Asian Sufism. Follow your fellow pilgrims around the blue-domed mausoleum before diving hands-first in a celebratory feast of roast sheep or plov (pilau rice).

Make it happen

For flight connections to Central Asia, airBaltic, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines fly to the major air hubs of Tashkent and Almaty. Visas for Central Asia can be tricky. Invitations are required for Turkmenistan but not for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, depending on your nationality and where you apply for the visa. Our best tips for ‘Stan travel: bring cash US dollar bills and a strong tolerance for mutton.