Central Asia is a rugged, arid region, historically coveted for its position between Europe and East Asia with the legendary Silk Route, rather than for its resources, although petroleum, natural gas, and mineral reserves have become more important in modern times. Central Asia contains a wealth of historic sites and natural wonders without the large throngs of tourists found in Europe or other parts of Asia.
The region has no exact boundaries, but is usually considered to include all of the landlocked "-stans", listed below. All but Afghanistan, (which is sometimes categorized as part of South Asia) are former Soviet republics, most of which have so far have retained authoritarian, secular governments. They are home to generally poor, primarily Muslim peoples, mostly speaking various Turkic languages. Several of the peoples were historically nomadic, although some states are attempting to recover the nomadic traditions that were suppressed or lost during Soviet times.
For cultural/historic reasons, sometimes the term "Central Eurasia" is used to include the six countries listed here as well as Mongolia, western China (Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai), Iran, Pakistan, and the provinces of Russia that border Kazakhstan.
One-time backpacker Shangri-La, but bloody wars, famine, and nightmare politics since the late 1970s have left it with considerably less appeal for travellers.
The world's largest landlocked nation is sparsely populated, dominated by archetypal Central Asian steppe, with deep reserves of fossil fuels, and pockets of beautiful wilderness for outdoors enthusiasts.
A truly beautiful country high in the mountains, and with the exception of the admittedly fascinating but periodically unsafe Ferghana Valley, Central Asia's easiest and perhaps most pleasant place to visit.
Central Asia's poorest state is truly off the beaten path, but makes for an awesome adventure destination with incredible landscapes and Persian culture.
An amalgam of desert moonscapes and arid mountains, dotted with the ruins of great ancient civilizations, and ruled until 2006 by a post-Soviet lunatic cultivating one of the most bizarre cults of personality in history, this is off-the-beaten-path, difficult (courtesy of rotten officialdom), but potentially very rewarding travel.
With cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent, and other old Silk Road citadels, this country has way more than its fair share of culture and history. The people are warm and friendly and the country naturally is nothing short of beautiful.
Much of Central Asia was once ruled by the Persian Empire and some definitions of the region would include Persia, now called Iran. Various other regions — Mongolia, Western China (Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia), and parts of Russia (Buryatia, Chuvashia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Tuva, Altai, Khakassia) — have cultures that are largely Central Asian, and are included in the region by authorities such as UNESCO.
- 1 Almaty — Kazakhstan's former capital is an infinitely more preferable destination than ad hoc Astana.
- 2 Ashgabat — Turkmenistan's capital, with weird dictator monuments galore and natural gas wealth ostentation.
- 3 Astana — Kazakhstan's dreary, cold northern capital.
- 4 Bishkek — the leafy and drowsy capital of Kyrgyzstan.
- 5 Bukhara — a 2,500-year-old Silk Road city in Uzbekistan and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 6 Dushanbe — the sleepiest Central Asian capital by leagues in Tajikistan.
- 7 Kabul — Afghanistan's capital and hub for, well, anyone who has to go to Afghanistan.
- 8 Samarkand — another of Uzbekistan's world-famous 2,500-year-old Silk Road cities, and also another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 9 Tashkent — Uzbekistan's capital, whose ages-old history lies below Soviet-era construction, and by far the region's biggest city, at some 3 million.
- 1 Aral Sea — a post-apocalyptic ecological disaster area of a dead sea, filled with the empty husks of overturned rusting boats and seashells that once moved with life in this now dead region.
- 2 Band-e Amir — the breath-taking sight of five torquoise-blue lakes, connected by waterfalls, surrounded by barren wasteland in Afghanistan.
- 3 Chimbulak — Central Asia's most accessible ski resort (no helicopters needed), outside Almaty.
- 4 Darvaza — simultaneously Central Asia's strangest and most jaw-dropping attraction, the Gates of Hell is a vast flaming crater hundreds of miles from civilization in the middle of the inhospitable Karakarum Desert.
- 5 Issyk Kul — an absolutely gorgeous alpine lake, and perhaps Central Asia's most iconic natural wonder.
- 6 Merv — the most famous of Turkmenistan's many ruined medieval Silk Road cities.
- 7 Nisa — ruined Parthian fortresses comprising a UNESCO World Heritage site within easy striking distance of Ashgabat.
- 8 Zeravshan Valley — a rugged and beautiful section of Tajikistan in the trekking and climbing-friendly Fan Mountains.
There are two regions that were historically important and are culturally coherent but today are divided among several countries:
- Ferghana Valley - the main Silk Road route from China into Central Asia
- 9 Bactria - on the main trade route from Central Asia to Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent
Central Asia is an area that was, until the late 20th century, inaccessible for independent travelers. That has all changed, although the traveler will still often come up against a wall of Soviet-style bureaucracy. Corruption is also an issue in most Central Asian countries, although most governments have made attempts to reduce red tape in an attempt to grow their tourism industries. Despite this, Central Asia is increasing in popularity amongst travelers who want to experience one of the world's last great frontier lands, and the strong Islamic tradition of hospitality means that you will likely be treated as a revered guest by the locals, particularly in rural areas.
Historically and geographically diverse, Central Asia is an interesting region. The earliest recorded people (for whom we have names) were nomadic Indo-Iranian peoples called the Saka/Scythians, who roamed across the Central Asian steppes as far west as Romania and as far south as India. At one time large parts of it were part of the old Persian Empire and were taken by Alexander the Great when he conquered that empire. Later, parts of it were ruled by Alexander's successors or by newer versions of the Persian Empire. By the sixth century BCE, a new group of Indo-Iranian people, the Sogdians, began founding cities and forts at strategic points along the Silk Roads, including the magnificent cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, as well as other cities which didn't last the test of time, like Merv and Old Panjakent.
As a bridge between Europe and Asia, the region was the home of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between the two continents from a few centuries BCE until it was mainly replaced by sea routes after 1500 CE. The area has seen much upheaval and conflict, from the expansion of Buddhism (which spread through Central Asia on its way to China) and Islam to the destructive Mongol invasion. By the end of the 19th century, most of the region had been conquered by the Russian Empire, with only Afghanistan remaining independent as a buffer state between the British Empire in India and the Russian Empire. This period of intense geopolitical competition between the British and Russian Empires in the region is often referred to as the Great Game.
Following the Russian revolutions that brought down the Russian Empire in 1917, the parts of Central Asia that had been conquered by the Russian Empire became part of its successor state the Soviet Union. Afghanistan remained independent but went through a turbulent history, resisting a Soviet invasion throughout the 1980s, then was taken over by the radical Islamist Taliban, then invaded by a US-led coalition. Many Soviet citizens (including Ukrainians and Koreans) settled in Central Asia's Soviet republics, with Baikonur as centre of the Soviet and Russian space program, and Semipalatinsk as a nuclear test site. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet republics in Central Asia gained their independence, but have maintained close political and economic ties with Russia since their independence, with Russian remaining the most common second language, and significant ethnic Russian minorities. However, China is rapidly expanding its influence through large infrastructure projects in the region as part of its Belt and Road initiative. Although the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have a Muslim majority, due to the fact that religion was heavily suppressed by the communist Soviet government, they tend to be more secular and relaxed in their religious observances than Muslims in the Middle East, though the Islamic tradition of hospitality is still very much alive.
Population increase and modernization have taken its toll on the environment. Central Asia is dependent on a few water sources, some of which, especially the Aral Sea, are near depletion.
Some Central Asian countries are beginning to find their feet and offer good traveling options. There are parts of Central Asia that have hardly seen a traveler before, and there are many wild and beautiful landscapes to be explored. That is not to say the region is bereft of problems, chiefly a lack of infrastructure and stifling bureaucracy.
Central Asia is a diverse place, with the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen traditionally being nomadic, and the Uzbeks and Tajiks traditionally being sedentary. Turkic peoples make up the bulk of the population in the northern part of the region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and parts of Uzbekistan), while Indo-Iranian peoples make up the bulk of the southern populations (Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and parts of Uzbekistan). The westernmost (historically Turkic) parts of China were historically more tied with the peoples in Central Asia, but now are seeing an increase in ethnic Han Chinese populations.
Understand that self-identification is an especially touchy issue in Central Asia, more so than most of Europe. Parts of China (Notably Tibet and Xinjiang) have a native population that has in many instances advocated for secession from China. Often they emphasize their Central Asian identity, something not well-understood by outsiders. For example, Mongolians and Buryats tend to emphasize their historical ties with the Turkic Muslims to the west (despite being Mongolic Buddhists of the Tibetan Rite) and are offended by being compared to the Chinese, and some even call themselves Europeans (by virtue of Russian influence). Language may not even be a useful distinction between peoples, as plenty of Tajik-speaking people in Samarkand will consider themselves Uzbek while their Uzbek-speaking next-door neighbor might call themself a Tajik.
This situation is not unique to Mongolic peoples; Tibetans are well known in the West for their disdain for China and any ties they may have to it. Many people in Tatarstan and Xinjiang, among other places, would emphasize their Turkicness over any connection to China or Russia.
The problem goes the other way as well. Many Chinese are quick to point out that the Qing Dynasty (and the earlier Tang and Han Dynasties) controlled parts of Central Asia, including some land no longer controlled by the Chinese.
From Kyrgyz to Tibetans, a history of tribal politics have left Central Asia at once totally isolated from the outside world, and intimately connected to whoever conquered them.
Much of Central Asia speaks a language from either the Iranic, Turkic and Mongolic language groups, often influencing each other.
- Turkic languages are Uzbek in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kazakh in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmen in Turkmenistan. A significant population speaks Karakalpak in western Uzbekistan. Kazakh is spoken as a majority language in the westernmost province of Mongolia.
- Iranic languages belong to the Indo-European language family. Persian (Farsi) is spoken in Iran, with Dari and Pashto being the dominant languages of Afghanistan. Tajik is spoken in Tajikistan. (Farsi, Dari, and Tajik are - depending on the source - either dialects of the same language or very closely related separate languages à la Croatian and Serbian.) Other Iranic languages are spoken by minority groups in the Pamir regions of Tajikistan and Afghanistan (and very small populations in far-western China).
- Mongolic languages are scattered across the region, from Mongolia and Inner Mongolia (in China), to Buryatia and Kalmykia (in Russia).
With the exception of Afghanistan, Russian is widely spoken in the countries of Central Asia due to their history as part of the Soviet Union
As mentioned above, the definition of "Central Asia" can be controversial. One reason why the one used on this page is useful, however, is visas.
All Central Asian countries except for Kyrgyzstan require visas for visitors from a lot of countries, and the difficulty of getting them may range from a minor hassle to virtually impossible if not on a tour or with a guide. Before issuing a visa, some countries will require a letter of invitation, often best obtained via a specialist travel agency. Some hotels will issue letters of invitation for confirmed reservations. Some nationalities may be excluded from the requirement to have one at all. Start working on your visas well in advance, as it may take weeks for the gears of bureaucracy to grind through your application, and make sure you comply with any local police/bureaucracy registration requirements after you've arrived.
The hub for the region is Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which has the most flights to destinations outside Central Asia. Unfortunately the airport also has a reputation for being unpleasant, and it is best to avoid flights which arrive here late at night.
To arrive in other Central Asia cities will generally require a transfer in one of these hubs. The cheapest flights from Europe in 2014 could be found to Osh starting at €400 for return flights.
Turkish Airlines offers (relatively) routine flights to each of the Central Asian capitals from Istanbul.
Travel between Central Asian cities by plane often requires making a connection in a third country's airport. In practice, this usually means connecting in Istanbul, Dubai, or sometimes Urumqi. Due to its colonial heritage, many Russian cities connect with Central Asian cities.
There is a line from Urumqi, China to Almaty, but the bus is quicker. An interesting option is the challenging crossing from Kashgar, China to Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass. This was a major link on the old Silk Road.
Travelling to different areas of Pakistan is quite easy by train, bus or taxi. The route from there into Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass is not safe. The Karakoram Highway North into China is challenging but possible. It gets you to Kashgar; from there routes to Central Asia are either difficult (West to Bishkek) or long (swing North to Urumqi and then Almaty).
- See also: Ferries in the Caspian Sea
There is an irregular service between Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, although this is most often cargo shipping that can take the occasional traveler but won't provide for them while they're aboard. Situations are common where legal/bureaucratic issues can keep a ship just out of port for days if not weeks while customs/bribes are cleared, which can seriously delay any onward plans and can run the risk of the traveler running out of their provisions.
Getting between Central Asian countries is tricky. Borders can close seemingly on a whim and travel to certain regions of countries can be restricted if there is even a hint of unrest in the region. Perhaps the surest method of traveling between borders would be to fly from one capital city to another and then take ground transportation once in the new country.
It used to be practically impossible to get into Turkmenistan, and you can still only get a visa if you're part of an officially-recognized tour (unless you meet some few exceptions like being a diplomat or the lucky lucky journalist). With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the fall of 2021, entry requirements into Afghanistan are unknown so you're probably not going to be able to just waltz across the Amu Darya river between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan/Tajikistan. Get as many visas as you can before you leave. If not, make sure you're "stationed" in one and have time to deal with the bureaucracy at each embassy before you go.
Intracountry travel really depends on which country you're in. In Turkmenistan there are restrictions on independent travel outside of the capital, so you must be on a tour to visit other parts of the country. In Tajikistan, massive mountain ranges and generally-poor road quality mean that drives between cities take many more hours than they would as the crow flies. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have rail networks and highways connecting major cities, which can facilitate transportation between those cities. Kyrgyzstan has highways but also mountains, so falls between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in terms of travel ease. Almost 40 years of war have made travel in Afghanistan extremely dangerous.
The whole region is filled with steppes and mountains, beautiful scenery that has served as the backdrop for a half-dozen empires. Most tourists to the region arrive in one of the capitals and immediately book a tour of the mountains or countryside (especially in Kyrgyzstan).
The Western Tien-Shan mountain range in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is listed as a world heritage site.
Some natural sites that are popular with tourists include:
- Issyk-kul Lake - Kyrgyzstan
- The Pamir Highway (M41) - Tajikistan
- Fann Mountains - Tajikistan
- The Aralkum (formerly the Aral Sea) - Uzbekistan
- Altyn Emel National Park - Kazakhstan
- Europe to South Asia over land
- Istanbul to New Delhi over land
- On the trail of Marco Polo
- Moscow to Urumqi
- Silk Road
- Sven Hedin's voyages
The Trans-Siberian Railway passes a bit north of this area. In addition there are some other named Russian-built railways from the late 19th and early 20th century, all meeting near Tashkent:
- The Trans-Aral railway goes from Orenburg in Russia (at the border between Europe and Asia) southeast across Kazakhstan; in the southern end the Turkestan-Siberia railway branches off to the east before the railway crosses into Uzbekistan and ends in its capital Tashkent.
- The Trans-Caspian railway begins in Turkmenbashi at the eastern shore of the Caspian sea, goes through the length of Turkmenistan, passing the capital Ashgabad, Mary, and Turkmenabad. Then the railway continues into Uzbekistan passing Bukhara and Samarkand before arriving in Tashkent.
- The Turkestan-Siberia railway: goes from Arys in Kazakhstan north of Tashkent to Shymkent and across southern and eastern Kazakhstan to Almaty and on to Barnaul and Novosibirsk in Siberia.
With its vast nature and harsh seasonal differences, Central Asia is a challenging destination for outdoor life. It may be surprising, but there are ski resorts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Each of the countries offer incredibly stunning natural vistas, and the remoteness of it all can be an attraction in and of itself.
Most tourists come to Central Asia to see the Silk Road cities and ruins. The most well-known cities are mainly concentrated in Uzbekistan, and consist of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. There is a smattering of archeological sites across the region, including Afrasyab near Samarkand, Panjakent across the border in Tajikistan, Merv and Gok Depe in Turkmenistan, and Turkistan in Kazakhstan.
Central Asia offers plenty of sites that can pique the interests of travelers who prefer more "niche" destinations. The easternmost region of Tajikistan, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast' (GBAO), contains the Pamir Highway, a high-altitude and extremely remote drive between Dushanbe and Osh, Kyrgyzstan, that is one of the world's finest destinations for the road trip lover. The city of Baikonur in central Kazakhstan is where Russian spacecraft are launched, and occasionally tours are offered and if you're lucky you can even watch a launch. And then, of course, there's Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, two of the most difficult countries to travel to in the world (one for politics and one for safety).
Central Asia is a relatively cheap destination for western standards, but more expensive than e.g. Southeast Asia. A decent meal costs around US$5, a beer about US$1. A comfortable double room is about US$30-60. Expect to pay higher prices in the big cities. The region is famous for its carpets.
Turkmenistan is probably the most expensive Central Asian state for purchases and travel, with Afghanistan and Tajikistan being the cheapest in the region.
The further south you are, the more flavourful the cuisine is. Afghanistan and Tajikistan have far different cuisine than the Mongolic or Turkic cuisines, which are mostly hearty, spice-free, meaty fare.
All Central Asian countries are heavily carnivorous. There are local vegetarians in all Central Asian countries (even Afghanistan) but they are in the minority. This means while you can go without meat and survive, you will attract odd looks.
Except Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, alcohol is not uncommon to drink in Central Asia. However, tea still remains the region's favorite beverage. In some countries, green tea is customarily consumed all throughout the day.
The nightlife scene is almost nonexistent in Central Asia. While the region is not the world's number one destination for clubbing, the Russophone party culture ensures a good time in places like Bishkek, Almaty, and Tashkent.
Central Asia is the home of kumys, a drink made of fermented mare's milk. While you won't get drunk off it (there is alcohol in it, just very small amounts), it's something every traveler should try at least once.
Safety in Central Asia is a complex issue. While Afghanistan is notable for a high risk of kidnappings, terrorism, and the Taliban resurgence, most other Central Asian countries are safe for the average traveler. Some regions (particularly Karakalpakstan and the Pamirs) where large ethnic minorities are grouped can occasionally see outbreaks of violence. Occasionally, demonstrations and protests against governments/specific policies can become violent, although usually state-sponsored crackdowns on the protests by the armed forces/military are the actual cause of harm.
Central Asia is a grab-bag for LGBTQ+ travelers. Same-sex activity is legal in three states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), but it is illegal in the other three (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan). LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan can face the death penalty under Taliban-imposed laws. Even in states where it is legal, it may not be culturally accepted to be open with one's sexuality.
Female travelers may face extra challenges in Central Asia that they might not face in their home countries. Females traveling alone in public are often harassed with offers of marriage (or proposals to "set you up with someone"), but occasionally worse forms of harassment can occur. Some female travelers opt to wear a fake wedding ring while traveling in Central Asia (especially for those who plan on spending some time in the region). Female travelers in Afghanistan face even more restrictions from the Taliban government.
The weather in Central Asia is a land of extremes. Summertime on the steppes can reach 45° or even 50°C while the winters can be brutally cold. In Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan, altitude sickness can be a major threat to one's trip. Across the region, pollution can pose health risks, especially during the winter when the smog from coal furnaces becomes unbearable in the cities. When packing, know what weather is usually expected in the region to which you're traveling, and pack accordingly.
It is recommended that you pack N95 masks when traveling in Central Asia (especially in colder months), as smog buildup is extremely common in cities and the masks can help mitigate the inhalation of particulate matter.