Once the realm of Silk Road merchants and Great Game spies, the Heavenly Mountains and Black Sand deserts of the 'Stans, as the five countries of Central Asia are affectionately known, have historically been the stuff of epic overland trips taking many months and much bureaucracy.
With the region’s flight connections burgeoning and red tape shrinking, it’s finally possible for the two-week traveller to experience Central Asia.
Limited time means tough choices, though, so here’s how to know which two-week Central Asia adventure through this fascinating and unspoilt region fits you best.
Nomad life – Kyrgyzstan
Stay a day or two in capital city Bishkek for a taste of modern Kyrgyzstan: open-air bazaars near American-style cafes, and young couples strolling together under statues of Lenin and local folk hero Manas. Then, head for the mountains to get back to Kyrgyzstan’s roots. This is the land of nomads, where yurt tents dot all but the remotest of valleys and the size of one's herd is still a legitimate way to judge a person's wealth. Spend your days on foot or horseback crossing jailoo (summer pasture) mountain valleys that double as grazing ground, and by night tuck into a big pot of boiled horse cooked by your hosts at a yurt homestay. These can be organised by one of many community-based tourism offices throughout the country - the most popular base is Karakol on the east edge of the Issyk-Köl lake. Independent travelers with a tent and a map can also strike out on their own to explore the variety of trekking routes around Kyrgyzstan. If you have extra time, you can grab a few days' relaxation in one of the Soviet-era resorts on the south shore of Issyk-Köl or party with vacationing Russians and Kazakhs on the north shore.
Silk Road history – Uzbekistan
While branches of the Silk Road weaved throughout Central Asia, nowhere can compare to Uzbekistan for exploring this most famous period of the region’s history. The mausoleums of 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane’s capital Samarkand are the most popular (and well-photographed) for good reason: the imposing face of the Registan’s three medressa religious schools and the brilliantly shining mosaics of the Shah-i-Zinda tomb complex are themselves worth the trip to Uzbekistan. Don’t stop here, though. Further into the Kyzylkum desert, the smaller cities of Bukhara and Khiva are open-air museums in their own right and the ‘40 Fortresses’ lining the road beyond Khiva evoke every camel caravan fantasy you’ve ever entertained. If mounting an expedition is out of reach, you can always opt to stay in one of Bukhara’s restored caravansaray (courtyard inns) or medressa hotels for a modern boutique take on the Silk Road lifestyle - the wi-fi’s a lot better these days!
Roof of the World road trips – Tajikistan
Find a few friends, hire a car, and set off on one of the world's greatest road trips: the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan. From the town of Khorog – capital of Tajikistan's Gorno Badakhshan region in the Pamir Mountains – the Pamir Highway stretches 726km through a barren and barely populated but starkly beautiful landscape to the border with Kyrgyzstan and beyond to the city of Osh. On the way, remote Murghab makes an excellent base for trekking and visiting holy hot springs or lingering for a day at the Karakul alpine lake just a few hours from the border – inexplicably home to the world’s highest regatta. If you still have time to spare, you can return via the Wakhan Valley, where the Yamchun Fortress had already been guarding this important trade route for 1500 years by the time Marco Polo dropped in. Alternately, if the Afghan border is calm, you can cross into no-man’s-land at Ishkashim for an international weekend market that hosts traders from Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Gas craters and golden guardians – Turkmenistan
The difficulty or cost of getting a visa is one of the biggest hindrances for would-be visitors to Turkmenistan, but those that make the effort will find a country full of rarely-visited attractions. The 'Doorway to Hell' Darvaza gas crater and the capital city of Ashgabat, with its many gold-plated monuments to former ruler Turkmenbashi, get most of the attention from the tourists that do visit the country. Push a little further, beyond the Silk Road ruins of Merv and Konye-Urgench, and hike the Kopet-Dag mountains on the border with Iran, or spot migratory birds and protected ungulates in the Kaplankyr Nature Reserve that abuts Uzbekistan.
Winter delights – Kazakhstan
If you're looking at a winter visit to the region, Kazakhstan is easily the best choice for both infrastructure and activity options. In the mountains rising above cultural centre and former capital, Almaty, the Shymbulak ski resort’s 12km of pistes and the Medeu ice skating facility (once known as the best venue in the Soviet Union) are popular with both locals and visitors. If you just want punishingly cold, well, national capital Astana is closer to Siberia than to Almaty. If the -40°C temperatures on the street are too intimidating, head to the city-in-a-tent Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall with an artificial beach that boasts imported Maldivian sand. Where else can you experience a beach party in sub-Siberian winter? We wager, nowhere.
Central Asia travel pro-tips
Though improving, visas and border crossings in Central Asia still require a bit of preparation, especially if you don’t want to get stuck waiting around in the capital cities. Kyrgyzstan is the easiest, with 60 passports now able to travel visa-free for up to 60 days. Kazakhstan is just behind, with a recent pilot program handing out 15 days of visa-free travel for 20 nationalities. Most countries require a visa for travel to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with an additional permit necessary to visit the Pamir region of Tajikistan (be sure to request this at the same time you apply for your visa). Turkmenistan is still the most onerous, forcing travellers to choose between a five-day transit visa (if you’re lucky) or booking a (comparatively expensive) guided trip – this is the only way to get a tourist visa.
If you're only coming for two weeks or so, arriving by air is your best option. Turkish Airlines offers the most connections from their Istanbul hub, but budget carriers Pegasus and AtlasJet offer cheaper flights from the same city. Air Astana also now offers non-stop flights to Kazakhstan from several European cities, including London and Frankfurt.