With its medieval blue-domed cities, kinetic bazaars and remote yurtstays, Central Asia encapsulates the romance of the Silk Road like nowhere else.
Footprints of History
From Alexander the Great to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to Timur (Tamerlane), Central Asia's page-turning history litters the land at every turn. From the right angle and with one eye closed, the storied oasis caravan stops of Samarkand and Bukhara, with their exotic skylines of minarets and medressas, really do seem to be lifted directly from the age of Marco Polo. Share a round of kebabs with an Uzbek trader or wander an ancient caravanserai and historical romantics will find the past and present begin to blur into one in Central Asia.
Mountains & Yurts
East of the desert and steppe settlements rise the snow-capped Pamir and Tian Shan ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, home to traditional herding communities and some truly epic mountain scenery. Here community-based tourism projects can bring you face to face with nomadic Kyrgyz herders, meeting them in their yurts and on their terms. Ride out to remote lakes on horseback, hike from one village homestay to another, or take a 4WD out to remote archaeological sites. The scope for adventure and exploration here is almost limitless.
Travel off the Map
For decades – centuries even – much of the world has regarded Central Asia as an opaque, unknowable area, synonymous with the middle of nowhere, rather than the heartland of Asia. For a certain type of wanderer, this is all part of the attraction of a land that has been largely off-limits to travelers for the last 2000 years. Head even a little bit off the beaten track and you'll likely have the place to yourself. The region's little-visited locations, namely Turkmenistan and most of Kazakhstan, are even further removed from the modern world and offer an addictive interest all of their own.
A Warm Welcome
Whether you want to explore the architectural gems of Bukhara or take a horse trek across the high Pamirs, everywhere in Central Asia you'll be greeted with instinctive local hospitality and offered a shared meal, a helping hand or a place to stay. Beyond Uzbekistan's Silk Road cities, mass tourism has yet to make any inroads in Central Asia, lending a sense of discovery to each trip. Add to this the intrinsic fascination of a forgotten region slowly emerging as a geopolitical pivot point and you have one of Asia's most absorbing hidden corners.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Central Asia.
This ensemble of majestic, tilting medressas – a near-overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces – is the centrepiece of the city, and arguably the most awesome single sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved medressas, anything older having been destroyed by Chinggis Khan.
The beautiful portal and trademark fluted azure dome of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum marks the final resting place of Timur (Tamerlane), along with two sons and two grandsons (including Ulugbek). It's a surprisingly modest building, largely because Timur was never expecting to be buried here. The tilework and dome are particularly beautiful; be sure to return at night when the building is spotlit to grand effect.
Samarkand’s most moving and beloved site is this stunning avenue of mausoleums, which contains some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world. The name, which means ‘Tomb of the Living King’, refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around what is probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. The most stunning Timurid-era tilework dates from 14th and 15th centuries.
Remote even by Kyrgyzstan standards, magnificent Köl-Suu lake stretches over 10km through a sheer mountain gorge that reaches nearly to the Chinese border. It's hard to grasp the true scale until locally run boat trips (from $200 per person) strike out for the centre of the lake, where they seemed dwarfed by rock walls on every side. At 3500m the weather here can change rapidly so be sure to pack warm and carry extra provisions.
On the northern side of the Registan is the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa, completed in 1660, with a pleasant, gardenlike courtyard. The highlight here is the mosque, which is on the left-hand side of the courtyard and is stunningly decorated with blue and gold to symbolise Samarkand’s wealth. The mosque’s delicate ceiling, oozing gold leaf, is flat but its tapered design makes it look domed from the inside. The result is breathtaking.
The Ulugbek Medressa, on the western side of the Registan, is the square's original medressa, finished in 1420 under Ulugbek who is said to have taught mathematics here (the stars on the portal reflect Ulugbek's love of astronomy). Beneath the little corner domes were lecture halls, now housing displays on Ulugbek, and at the rear there is a large mosque with a beautiful blue painted interior and an austere teaching room to one side.
The entrance portal of the Registan's Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa, opposite the Ulugbek Medressa and finished in 1636, is decorated with roaring felines that look like tigers but are meant to be lions. The lions, the deer they are chasing and the Mongolian-faced, Zorostrian-inspired suns rising from their backs are all unusual, flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals. It took 17 years to build but hasn’t held up as well as the Ulugbek Medressa, built in just three years.
Khiva's Ichon-Qala is one of the great highlights of Uzbekistan. The perfectly preserved medieval walled town is home to dozens of mosques, medressas and mausolea, most of which are home to small museums. You need a whole day to see the sights, but try also to wander the streets during the cool of dawn or dusk when the town is at its most magical.
Some 285km east of Aktau, Beket-Ata is an important and extremely popular place of pilgrimage for those wishing to visit the underground mosque and final resting place of Sufi mystic and teacher, Beket-Ata (1750–1813). The mosque is near the bottom of a picturesque desert canyon and the journey to Beket-Ata involves traversing some spectacular steppe and desert scenery. You can get here via an expensive guided tour from Aktau, by hiring a 4WD and driver, or taking crowded pilgrim transport.
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