Ah, bucket lists. Some people love ’em, others hate them. Some of us use them to organize our travel goals. Others think it’s a depressing way to think about life. As you already know, I’m a proponent of bucket lists. I’ve always had one, I set 30 Before 30 goals and 40 Before 40 goals. I even have a specific post that’s just my Travel Bucket List.
Interestingly, my bucket list doesn’t change very often. I rarely add new destinations or experiences. Sometimes, a place catches my attention and I can’t help but add it to my ‘someday’ list. Central Asia is that kind of destination.
In this post, I’ll detail exactly where Central Asia is located and why you want to visit. I chatted with fellow travelers who’ve been to the region to get their thoughts on what makes each country so compelling. If you want to know more about why Central Asia should be on your bucket list – read on.
(Bonus: if you want to follow along on my trip to Central Asia, I share how you can do that at the end of the post!)
What is “Central Asia?”
Maybe you’ve never heard of the region most travelers call “Central Asia.” After all, Asia is huge. Much of it is dominated by massive countries like Russia, China, and India. Isn’t it enough to use those countries as a point of reference?
But in travel, specificity is important. It’s not enough to say “turn left at those trees, then carry on a little bit til you get there;” instead, it’s important to give details like which tree, and how far. Similarly simply referring to countries west of China or north of India or south of Russia is not very specific. Instead, calling a subset of these countries “Central Asia” helps us understand exactly where in the world we’re talking about.
The five countries in Central Asia are:
You may have only heard of these countries – or never heard of them at all – but they each offer a compelling reason to visit. And as a whole, they make Central Asia a must-visit region.
Why Visit Central Asia
Central Asia is a prime destination for fans of history, those interested in culture and foreign food, and travelers who love the great outdoors. Given that I haven’t been to any of these countries yet, I decided to ask some of my fellow travel bloggers to share their thoughts on what makes each country special.
I’m about to set off on a two-week trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, so I’ll soon be able to report back in my own words. For now though, I’ll leave it with those who’ve been there already.
Note: All photos in this post are the copyright of the respective blogger whose words they accompany.
Why Visit Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, and perhaps the most well-known. I personally know about it for several reasons. I had a classmate in London from Kazakhstan, and I follow Russian rocket launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in western Kazakhstan.
Blogger Radhika from Nomllers gives a great recap of what makes me so excited to visit Kazakhstan:
Kazakhstan literally means ‘the land of wanderers.’ It’s a place which is truly about offbeat traveling and exploring. Kazakhstan has many hidden lakes near Almaty City as well as canyons which are regarded as sisters of the Grand Canyon. You can learn a lot about Silk Road, climb on top of the singing dunes, and see Mars-like structures on our planet Earth in Aktau mountains. Kazakhstan is rich with beauty and stunning landscapes that you can enjoy while staying in a yurt with nomads.
As I started doing more research for my trip to Kazakhstan, I ended up on Megan‘s blog several times. She shared with me why she loves this country:
From the wild and barren steppe to the dramatic and untouched mountains around Almaty, there are more than enough reasons to add Kazakhstan to you Central Asia itinerary. Kazakhstan was historically a nomadic land that has now been built up in a modern, oil-wealthy kind of manner. But somehow, the country has managed to keep its soul and culture alive.
The capital is now Nur-Sultan, but the heart of the country remains in the former capital of Almaty, situated down in Kazakhstan’s southeastern corner. Almaty is like an onion; there are several layers that represent the city… From its nomadic roots to traces of Soviet history to the cosmopolitan feel of its present, you can find it all in Kazakhstan’s cultural capital.
The nature that surrounds Almaty is definitely on another level, as well. You will find mountains, canyons, deserts, lakes, and much more surrounding Almaty.
My trip to Kazakstan starts in Almaty and includes some of the country’s famous natural wonders like the Kolsai Lakes (above) and Charyn Canyon. I can’t wait to share my own photos and stories soon.
Why Visit Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is the other country I’m visiting on my first trip to Central Asia. I’ll admit, I didn’t know much about this country before I started planning this trip. However, Aga from Worldering Around gives a good overview of what makes Kyrgyzstan a compelling destination:
Kyrgyzstan is unique travel destination in Central Asia and a paradise for outdoor lovers. This mountainous country was high on my list when I was traveling in Central Asia and it did not disappoint.
Kyrgyzstan offers endless hiking opportunities in the remote areas. You might not see another person, but you’ll encounter a lot of wildlife and admire the shimmering snow-covered mountains. This is the place to try a variety of horse trekking trails, perfect for experienced riders, as well as beginners.
Look out for turquoise lakes, white peaks, lush meadows. Add to this the extraordinary hospitality of local people, nomadic traditions, fresh tasty food and affordable prices and you will get the country. This makes Kyrgyzstan perfect for adventurous travelers looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences.
There are few places in the world where you can experience the remnants of nomadic heritage amidst a stunningly beautiful backdrop. Kyrgyzstan is one of them. I spent over 6 weeks in Kyrgyzstan and fell in love with the incredible landscapes and immensely kind people.
Dotted with mountains, lakes, and sweeping pastures, Kyrgyzstan is an adventure traveler’s dream. While there, I hiked near Lenin Peak, off-roaded near the Chinese border, and rode a horse from yurt to yurt through the pastures near Issyk-Kul lake. Kyrgyzstan was one of those really special places that left a lasting impression on me.
You can bet I’ll also be reporting about how much of a ‘lasting impression’ Kyrgyzstan makes on me soon!
Why Visit Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is actually the first country in Central Asia that lured me to visit. I fell in love with the gorgeous mosaics and buildings I started seeing on social media as fellow travelers and bloggers started to visit the country. While I’m unfortunately not visiting on this trip, I’m definitely going to make it someday.
Norman is one of the first bloggers I knew who visited Uzbekistan, and his photos sold me on visiting. But hearing him describe it makes me even more convinced I need to travel to Uzbekistan someday:
Uzbekistan is one of the most beautiful countries on this planet. Period. It truly feels like the Arabian Nights – only better! Now I know the name of the country evokes dire associations. To many, it sounds a bit like terrorism and dictatorship. But those who can overcome these prejudices will be rewarded with one of the most friendly and open people I ever encountered.
The food is amazing, nature is nothing short of stunning, and of course, there are those dazzling UNESCO World Heritage sites that spell picture-perfect with every blue tile on their onion-domed turrets! If Uzbekistan is not worthy of a bucket list, then I’m not sure what is.
Norman details other things to do in Uzbekistan on his blog. Similarly, blogger Kami from Kami & the Rest of the World highlights one of my favorite things about Uzbekistan – even though I’ve never been there!
Of all the countries in Central Asia Uzbekistan is the one with the most beautiful architecture. Old cities like Samarkand, Buchara, and Khiva were once part of the Silk Road. Now, they attract tourists from all over the world. When you travel to Uzbekistan, you will see that most of the monuments look like from a fairy tale, too beautiful to be true!
But there is more to see in Uzbekistan, starting with Tashkent and its awesome Soviet vibe. I will always remember Uzbekistan for friendly and hospitable people and delicious food, including vegetarian options. Uzbekistan can be also a perfect alternative for those who dream of visiting Iran. The architecture, the atmosphere, and the food are very similar.
Okay, I’m still sold: Uzbekistan is next on my list for Central Asia. Who wants to join me?
Why Visit Tajikistan
The smallest country in Central Asia, Tajikistan could be easily overlooked in favor of the bigger, bolder, or more touristed countries in the region. But for those who’ve been, it’s a highlight and well worth the journey. Nicki from Adventures of Lil Nicki is a fellow Alaskan, fellow class of 2005 grad from Chugiak High School, and my fellow traveler in this Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan trip. She’s also a big fan of traveling in Tajikistan, and here’s why:
If you have a thing for rugged landscapes, wild adventure, unique culture, exciting treks and epic road trips then you may want to turn your attention to Central Asia’s monobrowed cousins in the southeast of the region… No really: the unibrow is regarded as a beauty symbol in the small mountainous, landlocked nation.
After four trips to Tajikistan I keep coming back for more. Each time I leave with 10 more items on my bucket list. Two great starters for any first timer in Tajikistan is a journey down the coveted Pamir Highway and trekking in the unbelievably gorgeous Fann Mountains.
The Pamir Highway is among the highest paved highways in the world. The road takes you through moonscape high desert plateaus, past Kyrgyz family yurts flanked by clear blue lakes and icy peaks down to the Wakhan Valley adjacent to a remote stretch of Afghanistan with culture and language all its own. The Fann Mountains offer up trekking options to suit causal walkers all the way up to the hardcore mountaineer, of course set against stunning mountain sceneries.
In case you’re not sold yet, just check out some more of Nicki’s pictures from the country:
Patricia from Ze Wandering Frogs also raves about the Pamir Highway:
Driving along the Pamir Highway and the Wakhan Corridor was the highlights of our Tajikistan travels. With places like the Karakul Lake at 12,990 feet, high passes like the Ak-Baital Pass at 15,272 feet, and small villages where traditions are still active, the experience was incredible. Even more so as we traveled in October, and the summits and tall peaks were all covered in snow.
A few special moments included the petroglyphs around Langar and hiking to the Engels Peak Meadows from that same village, spending the night in a yurt after a dinner of plov (rice pilaf), staying overnight at Bulunkul Lakes where we saw families gathering sheep and goats, and being invited by an elderly woman as we walked past her home, and watching Afghanistan from the Yamchun Fortress in the Wakhan Corridor.
For such a small country, Tajikistan packs a real punch and stands its own holding wonders for travelers who make the trek there.
Why Visit Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan sits in the southwestern part of Central Asia, sharing borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the region – and Iran and Afghanistan to the south. While this might make you nervous, there’s no need to be. Roobens from Been Around the Globe has visited Turkmenistan and offers travel tips about Turkmenistan to help you plan your own trip. If you need convincing why you should visit:
Turkmenistan is probably the hardest country to go to in Central Asia, because getting a visa is complicated. Therefore it’s one of the most secluded countries in the world, but at the same time it’s so beautiful!
What really struck me is the beauty of the landscapes. In Ashgabat, the capital, you’ll see beautiful white marble buildings and modern skyscrapers. In Turkmenistan, you also have the impressive Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert, the wonderful ruins of Merv, Turkmenbashi along the Caspian sea and of course what remains of the silk road on the way from Ashgabat to Mary.
Formerly part of the USSR Turkmenistan gained independence in the 90s. With the world’s 4th largest gas reserves it’s up there on the wealth scale yet this hasn’t quite trickled down to all its citizens.
The capital city of Ashgabat with its gleaming new buildings is possibly the strangest city I’ve ever visited. The city is adorned with gold tipped statues yet was eerily empty – even the air-conditioned bus shelters were empty – with few vehicles to be seen. For a country that is largely desert, it had a huge number of fountains and beautiful lush grass!
The smooth tarmac of the city soon gives way to roads that are dusty and bumpy. But they are worth taking out to the desert to view the constantly burning Darvaza gas crater – also known as the ‘Door to Hell’.
The story goes that nearly 50 years ago, whilst drilling for gas the rigging collapsed and to get rid of the noxious gas emanating from the ground workers set fire to it, assuming it would burn out in a few days. It’s still burning as hot and furiously as ever. The noise is incredible and you’ll find no ‘Hot – do not touch’ signs or a perimeter fence here. You can walk right up to its crumbling edge! It really is a sight to behold and worth the journey.
There you have it: expert travelers have shared their own reasons to visit each of the five countries in Central Asia. Did any ring true for you? Will you be planning a trip?
As for me, I’m actually currently in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as part of a trip sponsored by USAID. I’m sharing photos and stories on my Instagram for the next few weeks; afterward, I’ll be publishing blog posts to dig into my experience at a deeper-than-Instagram level plus share all of the advice and info I can to help you plan your own trip.
Do you have questions about. visiting Central Asia? Let me know in the comments!
This post was made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are my sole responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.