TOP SIGHTS IN CENTAL ASIA
Discover these highlights of Central Asia Travel!
Why Now is the Best Time to visit Central Asia*
It is now easier than ever for Central Asia travel. With the relaxation of VISA requirements for many countries in the region, increased transport connections, tackling of corruption and people looking for alternatives to the well-trodden paths, Central Asia is the perfect destination for travelers with a sense of adventure.
Don’t believe me? Lonely Planet has just voted Central Asia as their top region for 2020!
Central Asia has so much to offer every type of traveler and is rich in culture, history, cuisine and natural landscapes. From the architecture of the ancient Silk Road to mountains and deserts, you are sure to find something to amaze in this vastly underrated part of the world.
* COVID-19 notwithstanding. Travel to Central Asia is not possible at this time (June 2020). This article will be updated as borders open again.
What Countries Make up Central Asia?
Capital: Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana)
Population: 18 million
Languages: Kazakh, Russian
Time Zone: GMT +5, GMT +6
Currency: Tenge (KZT) ₸
$1 = ₸404.75 (XE.com June 2020)
Population: 6.4 million
Languages: Kyrgyz, Russian
Time Zone: GMT +6
Currency: Som (KGS) C
$1 = C74.91 (XE.com June 2020)
Population: 9.2 million
Languages: Tajik, Russian
Time Zone: GMT +5
Currency: Somoni (TJS) SM
$1 = SM10.30 ( XE.com June 2020)
Population: 5.6 million
Languages: Turkmen Russian
Time Zone: GMT +5
Currency: Manat (TMM) T
$1 = T3.5 (XE.com June 2020)
Population: 32 million
Languages: Uzbek, Karakalpak, Russian
Time Zone: GMT +5
Currency: S’om (UZS)
$1 = 10,165 (XE.com June 2020)
Kazakhstan is the largest of the Central Asian countries and the ninth largest in the world. Due to the size of the country the landscape includes huge swathes of desert, steppe and mountains which makes it an excellent playground for adventurous travellers. The ultra modern city of Nur-Sultan (Astana) is the business hub and offers opportunities for shopping and fine dining, but the former capital Almaty is truly the beating heart of Kazakhstan. Here you can indulge in a range of outdoor activities from skiing, snowboarding, hiking, canyoning and more. Almaty is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with many fine restaurants, cafe’s and bars. See my full Kazakhstan Travel Guide for more.
Wild Kyrgyzstan is Kazakhstan’s tiny and much poorer neighbour to the south, but although it lacks the vast oil wealth of it’s neighbour to the north, the country is rich in culture and boasts some of the most fantastic scenery in the world, such as Lake Issyk Kol. Wander the world famous Osh Bazaar which is full of the sights, smells and sounds of the Silk Road or take a trip trekking on horseback through the Fergana Valley or mountain passes of the High Pamir Mountains. The capital, Bishkek, makes a good base from which to explore this wild and enchanting land.
The Republic of Tajikistan is the wildest of all the countries in Central Asia and traditionally has been one of the more difficult to visit. Things are changing fast though and the government is keen to promote the country to adventure seekers and outdoors enthusiasts. Tajikistan is a dream for hikers and mountain climbers with peaks rising to over 5,000 metres. Due to its proximity to next-door Afghanistan and a recent high-profile terrorist attack on cyclists, a degree of caution is required when travelling in some areas.
The Republic of Turkmenistan is the most intruiging of all the “Stans” due to its secretive past (and present) as a “hermit “state similar to North Korea. Turkmenistan is truly a strange country and the marbled capital Ashgabat has been described as like Las Vegas on steriods, which is not far wrong on an aesthetic level at least. If you can get hold of the notoriously difficult Turkmen VISA (see below for VISA infomration for Central Asia) then the country is well worth exploring for its historic sights such as Konye Urgench. The highlight of any trip to Turkmenistan has to be the infamous “Door to Hell“, or Darvaza Gas Crater in the middle of the Karakum Desert.
The Republic of Uzbekistan offers some of the finest history and architecture in all of Central Asia. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva and of course Samarkand are home to some of the most magnificent medieval architecture in the world. The capital, Tashkent, is a pleasant city with leafy suburbs filled with colourful, wooden Izby houses that remind of the country’s ties to Russia. For those seaking a little more adventure, a trip to Termiz in the far south of the country will be rewarded with some ancient Buddhist ruins, not to mention being as close as it’s possible to get to Afghanistan across the Amu Darya (Oxus) River.
VISA Information for Central Asia Travel
With the exception of Turkmenistan, it’s now easier than ever to travel Central Asia.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan all offer VISA free entry for citizens of the UK, EU, USA, Australia and Canada and the list is ever expanding.
For Tajikistan, you can now obtain an E-VISA online.
Turkmenistan remains the sticking point and this VISA is possibly the hardest in the world to obtain, but that shoudn’t put you off planning a trip to this unique country.
Update June 2020
Unfortunately Kazakhstan has suspended its VISA free policy until 1st November 2020. More information.
Kazakhstan has suspended VISA free entry to the country until 1st November 2020. For more information see the official Kazakh Consular Affairs and VISA Services website.
VISA free for up to 90 days: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia & Ukraine.
VISA free for up to 30 days: All EU countrys, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Philipines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uzbekistan, Vatican City & Vietnam.
VISA free for up to 14 days: Hong Kong.
Citizens of 117 countries not included above can apply for an E-VISA on the official website.
VISA free indefinitely: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Korea, Tajikistan & Vietnam.
VISA free for up to 90 days: Mongolia, Serbia & Ukraine.
VISA free for up to 60 days: All EU countrys, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Qatar, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uzbekistan & Vatican City.
VISA free for up to 30 days: Malaysia & Turkey.
VISA on arrival for up to 30 days: Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Cyprus, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Oman, Philipines, Romania, San Marino, South Africa, Thailand & Venezuela.
Citizens of countries not included above can apply for an E-VISA on the official website.
VISA free indefinitely: Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova & Russia.
VISA free for up to 90 days: Armenia, Azerbaijan & Ukraine.
Passport holders from a list of 121 countries can obtain an E-VISA online. The cost is $50 and is valid for 45 days. You can apply on the official government website.
Buckle in folks, as unless you hold a diplomatic passport from one of a handful of countries, then you are going to need to apply for a Turkmenistan VISA. There are 2 types which you can apply for:
A transit VISA is valid for 5 days and you must enter and exit Turkmenistan at different points. If you are thinking about crossing the Caspian Sea by boat don’t even consider this option as the VISA can easily expire before you even reach Turkmenistan (delays at sea are common).
You must apply at your nearest Turkmen embassy. You can download the forms on the official Turkmen website. Rejections are common and no reasons is given, but plenty of people HAVE succesfully managed to obtain a transit VISA.
To obtain a tourist VISA for Turkmenistan you must first get a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which can only be issued by tour companies. Unless you are transiting and have been approved for a transit VISA, you must book a tour for a visit to Turkmenistan. Tour companies such as Indy Guide and Young Pioneer Tours can assist with the process.
Once you have your LOI you can apply at your local Turkmen embassy.
VISA free for up to 90 days: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia & Ukraine.
VISA free for up to 30 days: All EU countrys, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Bosnia & Hervegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates 7 Vatican City.
Citizens of 77 countries not included above can apply for an E-VISA on the official website. Cost is $20 and is valid for 30 days.
Travel Within Central Asia
It’s easy to travel around the various countries in Central Asia by public transport.
Buses, marshrutkas and taxis can take you to the borders where you can cross on foot and take connecting public transport on the other side.
Kazakhstan has a modern rail network with air conditioned sleeper trains. Uzbekistan is improving its network and there are trains connecting all major cities.
In the wilder republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan buses connect the major towns and cities. Taxi’s are cheap in Central Asia, but be sure to agree a price first and indicate that that is all you will pay.
The Silk Road & Central Asia Travel
Central Asia is inextricably linked with the Silk Road as it is the major crossing point between China and Europe.
From Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane to consuls, traders and camels, you will be following millennia old footsteps through this enchanting land.
Read my guide on how to travel from England to China along the old Silk Routes by clicking the button below:
Money and Costs in Central Asia
With the exception of Turkmenistan (are you seeing a theme here?), Central Asia is inexpensive by world standards. Travel, accomodation and food are all much cheaper than in Europe or the USA.
A budget of $40 per day is fine if you will be staying in hostels, travelling by slow trains/bus and eating at modest establishments.
A budget of $60 would allow for a cheap but comfortable hotel room, travlling by fast train (in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and eating at more upmarket places.
Money Saving Tips
Central Asia has plenty of hostels in the larger cities and prices start at around $12. In the smaller towns it’s possible to get a hotel room for the same price as a hostel, though it may be very basic. See Trip.com for some great deals on accomodation.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan the old slow trains can cost up to 60% less than a ticket on the new fast trains and are perfectly comfortable for an overnight journey outside of the summer (no air con).
Long distance buses make a good alternative to the trains and ply many of the same routes.
I’ve traveled Central Asia many times over the past 4 years and the only scam I ever fall foul of (repeatedly) is where taxi drivers demand double, triple, or in some cases 10x what was agreed. This seems to be worse the farther off the beaten track you are (such as Aktau & Aral in Kazakhstan and Termiz in Uzbekistan). It’s certainly less of a problem in the larger cities. You can read more in my guide to safety in Kazakhstan.
Try and avoid exchanging currencies at the borders unless you can check the rate online and make sure you count everything as those dear old babushkas aren’t as innocent as they look.
When is the Best Time to Travel in Central Asia?
The skiing season runs from November until late March, but Shymbulak is a great destination all year round. Outside of winter the area is perfect for outdoor activities from hiking and picnics to horse riding.
Remember that the temperature will be a lot colder than in the city, even in summer.
Health, Safety & Insurance for Central Asia Travel
Central Asia is a wild region with huge distances between cities. Although the roads are steadily improving and the old soviet era trains are being replaced with new rolling stock, the infrastructure remains behind that of most western countries.
Central Asia is overall a very safe place, but the deserts and mountains can pose a hazard for unprepared tourists. Ensure you have comprehensive cover before departing and if you will be heading into the mountains to ski or hike be sure that these activities are covered.
If hiking in spring and summer there is a danger from ticks carrying encephalitis and other diseases. These can be found across the region and particularly in the Almaty area.
Our partners at World Nomads specialise in insurance for adventurous destinations and you can get a free no-obligation quote on their website or by filling in the form across the page.
It’s easy to travel Central Asia independently, but if you want to take the hassle out of it and join a group of like minded souls, then Young Pionner Tours offer a great selection of Silk Road adventures. What’s more, quote code TRIPYPT20 when booking a tour and receive a free exclusive t-shirt!