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10 Reasons to Visit Central Asia

10 Reasons to Visit Central Asia

If you have read the news lately, there have been an increasing number of stories about the problem of “overtourism.” Essentially, overtourism is an issue that results when many popular holiday locations are literally swamped with large numbers of tourists that do not always behave well. This often causes conflict between the residents, tourists, and local authorities.

While this trend of overtourism seems to have a stranglehold on Europe as evidenced by this story about Venice and this one about Amsterdam along with a host of others (just check on Google), there are still many places where it is possible to escape from the hordes of other tourists and travelers. One region that is still unique and not suffering from overtourism is Central Asia.

After putting off visiting the region for several years, I finally had the opportunity to travel throughout Central Asia on a tour. This was probably one of the best trips I have ever taken, and it definitely made me rethink my initial views of what Central Asia is. Prior to visiting the region, my view was that Central Asia was something of a desolate area made up of a bunch of backwater type of places. I was incredibly wrong. In fact, the region is very vibrant and filled with character.

I plan to write more specific posts about individual places in the future, so please follow along but without further delay, here are 10 reasons to visit Central Asia!

1) Increasingly Easy Access

For many years, especially during the Soviet era, many of the countries in this region were closed off to foreigners. Even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of these countries continued to have tough visa regimes that often deterred many travelers. However, in recent years, with the exception of Turkmenistan, the countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) have made it significantly easier for visitors to obtain visas in order to build up their tourist industries.

Depending on your nationality, it is possible to enter these places visa free or apply for an online visa. I know Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are visa free while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan visas can be applied for online for US citizens (accurate as of October 2019). Only Turkmenistan continues a very strict visa regime.

2) Fascinating History

Po-i-Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara

Central Asia played a pivotal role in the development of the Silk Road, which connected the East and West. Not only were goods transferred between the two points but also ideas.

Today, the countries of Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan, occupy a prominent place in the history of the Silk Road. This can be seen by the art and architecture in the cities and towns that were on the route, such as Samarkand. As one travels throughout the region, it is possible to get a sense of the caravans that would have crossed the area centuries ago with their packs of camels and various goods.

Sher-Dor Madrasah in Samarkand

3) Unique Cultures and Traditions

An Uzbek couple in Khiva posing for a wedding shoot

Central Asia is a unique region in the world because of its many unique customs and traditions that are not typically seen elsewhere. For instance, where else in the world would it be possible to watch Kok Boru (Buzkashi), which is a game that involves players on horseback trying to toss the carcass of a headless goat into a goal to score points?

The interesting thing is that after the game is over, the goat is not thrown away but eaten, and since it has been thrown around, roughly handled, and fought over during the game, the meat becomes very tender.

4) Mix of Modernism and Tradition

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Because the Soviet Union had such a strong influence here in decades past, one will inevitably be reminded of the Soviet Union due to the large number of ubiquitous residential tower blocks and large number of Soviet-era monuments dedicated to the soldiers who fought in World War II, such as the Park of the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen in Almaty, Kazakhstan or Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan which originally had a large statue of Vladimir Lenin during the Soviet period but which now has a large statue of Manas, the Kyrgyz national hero astride a horse.

However, many of these countries have started to find their own style and identity, so it is possible to see Soviet-style Brutalist architecture with highly-unique architectural designs. In addition, many areas of these countries are starting to merge their own cultural traditions from Islam into the architecture, so it is quite interesting to see buildings incorporating minarets and other aspects of traditional Islamic architecture into modern buildings.

5) Beautiful Art and Architecture

The author in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Despite being under Soviet influence for a large part of the 20th century and having many Soviet monuments, these countries have kept a lot of their own culture. As a result, Central Asia is filled with many historic sites that date back centuries. For example, Uzbekistan has a large number of old madrasas which are schools where Islam is studied.

These buildings are often very heavily decorated with a lot of patterns on the exterior since the depiction of figures is forbidden in Islamic art. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the art of this region is the extreme symmetry of the art, especially on the domes of the ceilings (check out the gallery below!).

6) Unique cuisine

Central Asia is home to a unique cuisine that is not often found in other places. For instance, during my time in the region, I had the opportunity to try horse meat in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, I also developed a strong liking for spicy laghman, which consists of noodles, meat, and vegetables. If I have to be honest, the laghman was probably one of my favorite dishes since I often had it for meals.

7) Highly Photogenic Locations

Before I went to Central Asia, I was under the impression that the region would be rather characterless due to the rather bland and characterless uniformity of architecture of the Soviet era. I was definitely wrong. On the contrary, I found the entire region to be highly photogenic. Amateur and professional photographers will have no shortage of unique subjects to take pictures of whether they be of people or natural attractions.

8) Natural Beauty

The Fann Mountains of western Tajikistan

By far my favorite part of Central Asia is the absolute treasure trove of natural beauty that makes up the landscape of many of the countries. The Seven Lakes in the Fann Mountains of western Tajikistan, Big Almaty Lake and Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan, the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan, and the rolling fields of Kyrgyzstan are just some of the natural attractions and beauty that comprises Central Asia. For the nature lover or hiker, the landscapes of Central Asia will be truly awe-inspiring and memorable.

Rural Kyrgyzstan

9) Unique Experience

Tons of people go to Europe, Asia, and South America for holiday. However, going to Central Asia is an experience that should be done at least once in a lifetime. Not only is the food unique, but there are not many other places in the world where it is possible to sleep in a yurt in the desert or stay near a giant gas crater that has been continuously burning for almost 50 years.

Of course, it is worth mentioning that since Central Asia is still not seen as a prime tourist destination, it will also be an experience since not all of the comforts of Europe or the West will be present. However, for the curious traveler, this is a chance of a lifetime before development takes over many of the areas.

10) Still Relatively Undiscovered

The biggest reason to go to Central Asia is the fact that it is still relatively undiscovered. Unlike Europe, which is absolutely swamped with travelers and tourists, Central Asia provides a chance for the intrepid traveler to be a true explorer since there are still many natural and archeological treasures to be discovered in the region. In all honesty, there is so much to see and do that a visitor can easily spend several weeks to several months exploring the region.

Have you been to Central Asia? What did you think of it?

The Darvaza Gas Crater

The Darvaza Gas Crater