Central Asia

Central Asia consists of Asia east of the Caspian Sea. The region has no exact boundaries, but is usually considered to include the former Soviet republics, as well as Afghanistan; also known as "the -stans".

Central Asia is a rugged, arid region, historically coveted for its position between Europe and East Asia with the legendary Silk Route, rather than for its resources, although petroleum, natural gas and mineral reserves have become more important in modern times. They are home to generally poor, primarily Muslim, historically nomadic, mostly Turkic-speaking peoples (the exception is Tajikistan). All but Afghanistan, (which is sometimes categorized separately for this and other reasons) are former Soviet republics that so far have retained authoritarian, secular governments.


Map of Central Asia
One-time backpacker Shangri-La, but after 30 years of bloody (and ongoing) war, famine, and nightmare politics, it holds considerably less touristic appeal today.
The world's largest landlocked nation is sparsely populated, dominated by archetypal Central Asian steppe, with deep reserves of fossil fuels, and pockets of beautiful wilderness for outdoors enthusiasts.
A truly beautiful country high in the mountains, and with the exception of the admittedly fascinating but unsafe Ferghana Valley, Central Asia's easiest and perhaps most pleasant place to visit.
Central Asia's poorest backwater truly is off the beaten path, but has some incredible landscapes and Persian culture nonetheless.
An amalgam of desert moonscapes and arid mountains, dotted with the ruins of great ancient civilizations, and ruled until recently by a post-Soviet lunatic cultivating one of the most bizarre cults of personality in history, this is off-the-beaten-path, difficult (courtesy of rotten officialdom), but potentially very rewarding travel.
With cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent, and other old Silk Road citadels, this country has way more than its fair share of culture and history. The people are warm and friendly and the country naturally is nothing short of beautiful. The government will go out of its way to complicate your trip, though.

In the context of cultural history, Iran, Mongolia, Western China (Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, western Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan), parts of Russia (Buryatia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Tuva, Altai, Khakassia) and part of Kashmir in India and Pakistan are often also included.


Al-Bukhari memorial complex, Samarkand

Other destinations

Cattle grazing next to ruins in Merv

There are two regions that were historically important and are culturally coherent but today are divided among several countries:


Gur-e Amir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Central Asia is an area that was, until recently, inaccessible for independent travellers. That has all changed, although the traveller will still often come up against a wall of Soviet-style bureaucracy. Corruption is also an issue in most Central Asian countries. Despite this, Central Asia is increasing in popularity amongst travellers who want to experience one of the world's last great frontier lands.

Historically and geographically diverse, Central Asia is an interesting region. At one time large parts of it were part of the old Persian Empire. As a bridge between Europe and Asia, the region was the home of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between the two continents in the first centuries of the common era. The following millennia saw much upheaval and conflict, from the expansion of Islam, the period of Mongol domination and the 'Great Game' between imperial Britain and imperial Russia in the 19th century.

After a traumatic break-up from the USSR, Some Central Asian countries are beginning to find their feet and offer good travelling options. There are parts of Central Asia that have hardly seen a traveller before, and there are many wild and beautiful landscapes to be explored. That is not to say the region is bereft of problems, chiefly a lack of infrastructure and stifling bureaucracy.

Understand that self-identification is an especially touchy issue in Central Asia, more so than most of Europe. Parts of China (Notably Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang) have a native population that has in many instances advocated for secession from China. Often they emphasise their Central Asian identity, something not well-understood by outsiders. For example, Mongolians and Buryats tend to emphasise their historical ties with the Turkic Muslims to the west (despite being Mongolic Buddhists of the Tibetan Rite) and are offended by being compared to the Chinese, and some even call themselves Europeans (by virtue of Russian influence).

This situation is not unique to Mongolic peoples; Tibetans are well known in the West for their disdain for China and any ties they may have to it. Many people in Tatarstan and Xinjiang, among other places, would emphasise their Turkicness over any connection to China or Russia.

The problem goes the other way as well. Many ethnic Chinese are quick to point out that the Manchu Empire included parts of Central Asia, including land no longer controlled by the Chinese.

All in all, Central Asian identity is greatly shaped by their nomadic nature. From Kyrgyz to Tibetans, a history of tribal politics have left Central Asia at once totally isolated from the outside world, and intimately connected to whoever conquered them.


Much of Central Asia speaks a language from either the Iranic, Turkic and Mongolic language groups, often influencing each other.

A working knowledge of Russian will be useful in most regions described as Central Asian, since the majority of this area was once part of the Soviet Union.

Get in

As mentioned above, the definition of "Central Asia" can be controversial. One reason why the one used on this page is useful, however, is visas.

All Central Asian countries except for Kyrgyzstan require visas for visitors from a lot of countries, and the difficulty of getting them may range from a minor hassle to virtually impossible if not on a tour or with a guide. Before issuing a visa, some countries will require a letter of invitation, often best obtained via a specialist travel agency. Some hotels will issue letters of invitation for confirmed reservations. Some nationalities may be excluded from the requirement to have one at all. Start working on your visas well in advance, as it may take weeks for the gears of bureaucracy to grind through your application, and make sure you comply with any local police/bureaucracy registration requirements after you've arrived.

By plane

Manas International airport serves the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek

The hub for the region is Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which has the most flights to destinations outside Central Asia. Unfortunately the airport also has a reputation for being unpleasant, and it is best to avoid flights which arrive here late at night.

There are also increasingly good options for flights to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You can fly here directly from London, Frankfurt, Beijing, Seoul, Moscow, Riga and various others.

Most Afghans and Pakistanis travel by air to Islamabad or Lahore and go by road to their final destinations.

To arrive in other Central Asia cities will generally require a transfer in one of these hubs. The cheapest flights from Europe in 2014 could be found to Osh starting at €400 for return flights.


From Russia

Trains going to Central Asia leave from Moscow Kazansky station. Trains go to Tashkent (56 hours/US$80), Almaty (78 hours/US$120), Bishkek (75 hours/US$70), Samarkand (85 hours/US$100), and others.

From China

There is a line from Urumqi, China to Almaty, but the bus is quicker. An interesting option is the challenging crossing from Kashgar, China to Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass. This was a major link on the old Silk Road.

From Iran

The border is closed to foreigners, but there are buses running between Mashhad and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

From Pakistan

Travelling to different areas of Pakistan is quite easy by train, bus or taxi. The route from there into Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass is not currently safe. The Karakoram Highway North into China is challenging but possible. It gets you to Kashgar; from there routes to Central Asia are either difficult (West to Bishkek) or long (swing North to Urumqi and then Almaty).

By boat

There is an irregular service between Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.

Get around

Getting between Central Asian countries is tricky. Until recently, it was practically impossible to get into Turkmenistan. Get as many visas as you can before you leave. If not, make sure you're "stationed" in one and have time to deal with the bureaucracy at each embassy before you go.


Taldyk mountain pass in Kyrgyzstan, on the Silk Road

The whole region is filled with steppes and mountains, beautiful scenery that has served as the backdrop for a half-dozen empires. Most tourists to the region arrive in one of the capitals and immediately book a tour of the mountains or countryside (especially in Kyrgyzstan).



Central Asia is a relatively cheap destination for western standards, but more expensive than e.g. Southeast Asia. A decent meal costs around USD5, a beer about USD1. A comfortable double room is about USD30-USD60. Expect to pay higher prices in the big cities.


Making of plov/pilaf, a dish common all around Central Asia and Caucasus

The cuisine of the region has been influenced by the Russian cuisine as well as the Middle Eastern cuisine.

The further south you are, the more flavourful the cuisine is. Afghanistan and Tajikistan have far different cuisine than the Mongolic or Turkic cuisines, which are mostly hearty, spice-free, meaty fare.

All Central Asian countries are heavily carnivorous. There are local vegetarians in all Central Asian countries (even Afghanistan) but they are in the minority. This means while you can go without meat and survive, you will attract odd looks.


With the notable exception of ultra-conservative regions like Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, alcohol is not uncommon to drink in Central Asia. However, tea still remains the region's favorite beverage. In some countries, green tea is customarily consumed all throughout the day.

The nightlife scene is almost nonexistent in Central Asia. While the region is not the world's number one destination for clubbing, the Russophone party culture ensures a good time in places like Bishkek, Almaty, and Tashkent.

Stay safe

Safety in Central Asia is a complex issue. While Afghanistan is notable for a high risk of kidnappings, terrorism, and Taliban resurgence, most other Central Asian countries risk riots after years of autocratic or near-autocratic government. Tibet and Xinjiang were engulfed by riots in 2008 and 2009, respectively, while Kyrgyzstan suffered through a violent revolution in 2010. In more stable areas, corruption and authority misconduct are more of a threat.

This is not to say that the entire region is a death trap. Most of the time, parts of the region are actually quite peaceful. But even then you may have some issues. Most likely for the tourist is having one's pocket picked. See each individual country for a more complete summary.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, March 25, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.