Thursday, March 06, 2014

Central Asian tips and photos

So I know I peddle this and that, and recently I have been peddling Central Asia, in particular Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, today I am not stopping! (LOL)
I wanted to talk about the place as a region. If you take the Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia, it considers the region to be six countries. The three above plus Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Personally I consider the region to be just the five ex-Soviet states, so not including Afghanistan which I think of as a unique situation somewhere at the crossroads of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. What I can say about these five countries is that they don't receive a lot of Western tourists, they offer a variety of things to see and do, and that they are all unique and special in their own way.
If you like history, deserts, stunning architecture, mountains, trekking, skiing, different cultures, friendly people and/or remoteness, then Central Asia has something for you. Aside from accommodation being pricey in parts of Kazakhstan (such as Astana the capital) the region is very affordable. Transport varies from mini-bus to high speed trains. The topography is incredibly varied. For the adventurous backpacker who likes to get off the beaten track, it's the perfect place on Earth to head to.

I was in the region back in 2011, May-June. I started in Kazakhstan and saw some of the east of the country, then had a short time in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. What I was disappointed in was the time I had. So little it seemed. To take in the three countries 2 months might be enough, I had five weeks. To take on all five, I'd be hoping for 3 months. What can they offer you?

Gold Samovars in Astana

For more information, tips and stories see my ebook: Short Journeys: Kazakstan

Kazakhstan offers two cities that are in many ways polar opposites. The former capital Almaty is charming and leafy, with lush gardens and parks, culture and old world charm. The new capital, Astana, is a stunning modern city with some of the world's most draw-dropping buildings, including the glass-pyramid 'Palace of Peace and Accord', and the Byoterek, a giant ice cream cone 97 metres tall. Not far from that you will find two giant gold samovars as well.
Kazakhstan goes forward on the back of its President, Nazabaev, who has seen the country emerge thanks to a resources boom after becoming independent. Much of the 9th biggest country in the world is steppe though, where nomadic people live in huts/tents called yurts. A train journey across the wide spaces reveals this stunning 'steppe'. Semey in the north was once the home of Dostoevsky, and you can visit his house there or visit a museum dedicated to Kazakhstan's most revered poet, Abay.


Family on the Kyrgyzstan countryside

For more information, tips and stories see my ebook: Short Journeys: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

Stunning mountains in the east and south and a very likable capital in Bishkek where the opera is cheap and the parks are full of table tennis tables. Bishkek is a smaller version of Almaty, with its own charm and beautiful on a summer or spring day. The parks are lovely and the museums are interesting and offer perhaps a different impression of history than one you've had before.

The hiking up in the region of Karakol and beyond is stunning, the mountains are beautiful and I found myself at a little hidden treasure in the valley of Altyn Arashan. There's also the mightly Lake Issyk-kul with a variety of activities and so much more. Further to the south-west of the country is the more Uzbek area around Osh, which when stable is said to be fascinating.


For more information, tips and stories see my ebook: Short Journeys: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

Islamic Architecture, deserts and a busy and big capital in Tashkent. This is Uzbekistan, home of the best accommodation in Central Asia - Bread and Breakfast places for $15-$20 that are comfortable with hosts who really look after you. Tashkent features wide roads, theatres, museums - including one to Timur, a mighty Uzbek warrior and rival to Genghis Khan, and Navoi Park, a huge city park that includes a small lake and beach which is very popular in the summer. All through Central Asia you can see people swimming in fountains too, the kids love the water.
Head westward and you feel like you're heading east. It becomes a desert, and the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are full of beautiful and historic Islamic buildings including mosques and medressas. Marvel at two of the Silk Road's most stunning cities, stay in the old town where you are firmly in the Middle East.

Border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan

I would have dearly loved to get to all of the Central Asian states, but Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were left out sadly owning to time. Tajikistan in perhaps the most mountainous of all the states, featuring the 5000 metre plus Pamir mountain range, passed many centuries ago now by Marco Polo. For trekkers this is THE country to get to without a doubt in Central Asia.

The astounding Ashgabat.

One country that I am desperate to visit because it is so 'out there', Turkmenistan had a charismatic and somewhat bizarre leader, Niyazov, who renamed himself Turkmenbashi - leader of the Turkmen. The capital Ashgabat is apparently full of monuments to him in somewhat Soviet style. Rich on oil, the country has very strict and somewhat expensive visa rules, with a topography similar to that of Uzbekistan - a fair bit of desert.
It sounds like another world, what I have read about Turkmenistan. And that floats my boat. Even just for a few days, I would love to see the place and say I've been. Ashgabat sounds like it is opulence gone mad full of palaces and monuments, and a lot of marble. Elsewhere there are a series of burning craters, created from gas exploration which are again out of this world.

Not only do I want to visit Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, I want to go back to the three countries I've been and explore further. Hopefully, one day, I can because it is such a brilliant part of our world. Next time you're planning a trip, and you want to think outside the box, think 'Central Asia'. It's something special.

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