DISCOVER ASIA’S FORGOTTEN LAND
CENTRAL Asia is one of the region’s most absorbing hidden corners as this once forgotten region is fast emerging as a geopolitical pivot point.
From Alexander the Great to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to Timur (Tamerlane), Central Asia’s page-turning history litters the land at every turn.
Viewed from the right angle, the storeyed oasis caravan stops of Samarkand and Bukhara, with their exotic skylines of minarets and medressas, seem to be lifted directly from the heyday of Marco Polo. Share a round of kebabs with an Uzbek trader or wander an ancient caravanserai, and historical romantics will find the past and present begin to blur into one.
MOUNTAINS AND YURTS
East of the desert and steppe settlements rise the snowcapped Pamir and Tian Shan ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, home to traditional herding communities and some truly epic mountain scenery.
Here community-based tourism projects can bring you face to face with nomadic Kyrgyz herders. Ride out to remote lakes on horseback, hike from one village homestay to another, or take a 4WD out to remote archeological sites. The scope for adventure and exploration here is limitless.
TRAVEL OFF THE MAP
For decades – centuries even – much of the world has regarded Central Asia as little more than a blank on the map, synonymous with the middle of nowhere, rather than the heartland of Asia.
For certain travellers, this is all part of the attraction of a land that has been largely off-limits to travellers for the past 2000 years. Head even a little bit off the beaten track and you will likely have the place to yourself.
Authentic cultural interactions can be found across Central Asia. The region’s littlevisited oddities, namely Turkmenistan and most of Kazakhstan, are even further removed from the modern world and offer an addictive interest all of their own.
REGION’S TOP FIVE
No name is so evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. It has the mythical resonance of Atlantis, fixed in the Western popular imagination by poets and playwrights of bygone eras, few of whom visited the city.
On the ground the sublime, larger-than-life monuments of Timur, the technicolour bazaar and the city’s rich history work some kind of magic.
Surrounding these islands of majesty, modern Samarkand sprawls across hectares of Soviet-built buildings, parks and broad avenues used by buzzing Daewoo taxis.
2. BUKHARA Central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and the old centre has not changed too much in two centuries.
It is one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan. Most of the centre is an architectural preserve, full of medressas, minarets, a huge royal fortress and the remnants of a once-vast market complex.
The city’s accommodation
options are by far the best and most atmospheric in the country.
Kazakhstan’s new capital has risen fast from the northern steppe and is already a 21stcentury showpiece. It is scheduled to go on rising and spreading into a city of more than one million people by 2030.
Its skyline grows more fantastical by the year as landmark buildings, many of them by leading international architects, sprout in a variety of Asian, Western, Soviet and wacky futuristic styles.
Khiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th-century hearts.
Nowadays it is a welcoming Silk Road town that’s well set up for tourism, and a mere 35km southwest of the major transport hub of Urgench.
The historic heart of Khiva has been well preserved. To walk through the walls and catch that first glimpse of the fabled Ichon-Qala (inner walled city) in all its monotoned, mud-walled glory is like stepping into another era.
5. WAKHAN VALLEY
The Wakhan offers up a seemingly endless parade of scenic superlatives.
Vivid green villages counterpoint towering valley walls, which open regularly for glimpses of the dazzling white Hindu Kush (“killer of Hindus”) mountains marking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
A sprinkling of castle ruins and ibex-horn shrine-walls, even a Buddhist mini zigguratstupa, add zest.
And while you’re here you might be tempted to nip into Afghanistan. Transport is pitifully infrequent so hire a 4WD in Khorog or Murgab.
SILK ROAD: (clockwise from main) The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre in Kazakhstan; Kalon Minaret, Bukhara; Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums in Samarkand; and a Tajik grandmother with her two grandchildren in the Wakhan Valley. Pictures: Lonely...