The Stans...which should I visit and why?
I think many people would admit that ‘The Stans’ baffle them. The characteristics of each of these former Soviet republics, let alone their exact location, can be hard to pinpoint. So here’s a brief guide to four of the most perplexing of them – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan – highlighting their distinguishing features and top three sights.
For Silk Road enthusiasts...
The cultural star of all the Stans, Uzbekistan is packed with ancient cities that each hold their own treasure trove of architectural jewels. The Silk Route once twisted its way through the heart of the country, saturating it with both wealth and bloody conflict as various conquerors fought for much sought after territory. Be sure to visit the following three major historic cities…
The highlight of ancient Khiva is its historic centre, known as Ichon Qala. Akin to a giant, open-air museum, it’s somewhat lacking in any real-life buzz. Yet the madrasas and mosques contained within its thick mud walls are so beautifully preserved that it’s easy to imagine what life must have been like here when it was filled with the bustle of Silk Road traders.
This once all-powerful trading city saw wave after wave of conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, yet many staggeringly beautiful sights remain. Visit Registan Square, the city’s medieval market square overlooked by three of the world’s oldest madrasas; Shah-i-Zinda, a stunning avenue of exquisitely tiled mausoleums; the extraordinary architecture of Bibi-Khanym mosque; and Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, final resting place of the great Turco-Mongol conqueror, Timur.
Possibly the most atmospheric of the three, Bukhara has its fair share of well-preserved ancient sites within a historic centre that still functions as part of the city. The main highlight is the fortress, or Ark. Much of it is in ruins but it’s still an imposing sight. Unmissable too is the 47-metre-high, intricately decorated Kalyan minaret.
Our group tour Uzbekistan: Heart of Central Asia includes comprehensive tours of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand while our Arts & Culture tour The Golden Road to Samarkand, accompanied by expert lecturer Diana Driscoll, goes into even greater depth on the fabulous art, architecture and history of Uzbekistan.
For lovers of wild landscapes…
Wild and rugged, Kyrgyzstan is a land of brilliant natural beauty. Infinite panoramas of snow-capped summits, pristine alpine pastures, lakes of pure indigo and red sandstone gorges will hold you in their thrall. So if it’s unspoilt landscapes you’re after, this is the place to come. Here are three of the country’s key natural highlights…
This is the world’s second largest alpine lake, and surprisingly warm for its mountain location. Deep thermal currents maintain the waters at a mild average of 15°C meaning that it never freezes over. The beautiful blue waters are framed by the backdrop of the Tien Shan mountain range, a popular spot for hiking.
Ala-Archa National Park
An easy day trip from the capital, Bishkek, this alpine landscape is the perfect spot for an easy or more challenging hike, or simply do as the locals do and enjoy a picnic and a breath of fresh mountain air beneath the eponymous juniper bushes.
These red sandstone cliffs are a landmark in Kyrgyzstan and an arresting geological feature if seen from the right angle. The seven bluffs of the ridge are thought to resemble seven bulls from one aspect while from another viewpoint the ridge is said to look like a broken heart.
To experience many of the above highlights, join our Colours of Kyrgyzstan group tour, exploring the remarkable landscapes and nomadic lifestyle of this little-visited country.
For those who want both urban comfort and remote scenery….
By far the largest of these four countries, Kazakhstan extends from the Caspian Sea to almost meet with Mongolia, held back by the restraining hands of Russia and China. Covered for the most part by vast steppes, it’s nevertheless the wealthiest country in Central Asia thanks to its sizeable oil and natural gas reserves. Money is evident in its showy cities and futuristic urban architecture but beyond this lie its true riches: remote, windswept landscapes and rural hospitality. Stay in the swish city of Almaty and make day trips out to top wilderness beauty spots, as suggested below…
Former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty remains the country’s largest city and its cultural and commercial centre. Expect a wealthy and cosmopolitan atmosphere in the central districts where you can find chic shopping malls, classy restaurants, leafy parks and major cultural attractions such as the Central State Museum.
Escape from the city to something altogether different at Charyn canyon, a spectacular red sandstone ravine where you can take a gentle hike passing bizarre and colourful rock formations.
Altyn-Emel National Park
Also within reach of Almaty although worth a two-day trip, this beautifully barren nature reserve features unusual archaeological sites including Scythian burial mounds and ancient petroglyphs. Then there are the “singing dunes”, where the sand hums in dry, windy weather. Keep your eyes peeled for lynx, Bukhara deer, argali sheep, wild ass and brown bears.
Cover three of the Stans on our 22-day private tour, Silk Road Adventure. Travel from east to west through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, stopping at former trading points along this ancient caravan route.
For those with a taste for the unusual…
Turkmenistan has a reputation for the unusual, thanks to the narcissistic tendencies of its former dictator, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who littered the country with colossal monuments and golden statues of himself. This aside, Turkmenistan is a fascinating country of immense desertscapes, ancient Silk Road cities and welcoming people with a long nomadic history. Here are three of Turkmenistan’s most intriguing sights…
Capital of Turkmenistan, this gleaming white marble city in the middle of the desert displays all the bizarre and ludicrously expensive tastes of the country’s ruling elite. The city is defined by wide, empty boulevards, manicured public gardens devoid of people and gigantic buildings and monuments looking to break any world record possible. It has to be seen to be believed.
The colossal scale of the remnants of Merv’s city walls suggest the might and power that this city once held. It was capital to numerous empires over the course of 4,000 years and its population reached beyond 500,000 at its peak. It’s hard to believe that it could have been wiped out, but a Mongol army did just that in 1221, killing almost every inhabitant in the city. Visiting its ghostly ruins makes for a truly awe-inspiring experience.
Darvaza gas craters
A real image of hell on earth, these craters are located in the Karakum desert, the result of a search for oil fields in the 70s which went wrong. When scientists drilled over a potential oil field, the desert rock began to collapse over pockets of natural gas beneath the surface resulting in several craters. The natural gas escaping from the largest crater was set alight in an effort to prevent damage to the surrounding environment – to this day, the gas crater still burns and has become a major tourist attraction.
Join the epic rail journey The Legendary Silk Route by Rail: Almaty to Tashkent which follows the route of the ancient Silk Road, traversing three of the Stans: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.