Central Asia: Silk Road Revisited
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013
rom the 14th century reign of conqueror Timur through the Russian expansion in the 1800s, Central Asia has long been known as a shifting region of nomadic tribes and inhospitable landscapes. For thousands of years, soldiers and merchants have made their way from the pastoral steppe to the ruling Silk Road capitals. Outside these centers of trade and culture, the choice of vast deserts to the west or mountains to the east made journeying to Central Asia potentially treacherous for centuries. But these days, the Uzbek deserts and Tajik Pamirs are a source of adrenaline rather than fear, and its visitors are travelers seeking adventure, instead of merchants and soldiers.
Throughout the centuries, conquerors have stormed through the region, leaving a shape-shifting landscape for us to explore. Whereas Genghis Khan’s horde left only destruction in its wake, Timur’s rule left a legacy of epic monuments that still stand across Central Asia today. Blue-tiled mosques and madrassas adorn cities like Samarkand and Shakrisabz, where Timur based his rule.
Colonial influences from Russia and the Soviet Union also left their mark on Central Asia later on in history. Russian is the commonly spoken language and the entire area shares a myriad of traditions. Borders between Central Asian states cut off whole cities and populations from their cultural relatives; even Islam, introduced by Persian conquerors, clashes with the Stalin-era atheistic policies leftover from the USSR.
Despite this shared history with Russia, however, some regional traditions still thrive. With the national garb, traditional foods, and semi-nomadic lifestyle, Central Asia is a world apart from the rest of the former Soviet bloc. Regionally, many of the Central Asian countries share cultural similarities, but each nation still clings to its own identity and the traditions that set it apart from its neighbors. Whether a Kyrgyz man wearing a traditional qalpak hat or a group of Tajiks and Uzbeks arguing over which country really invented plov, national pride runs deep.
Throughout all of Central Asia, though, travelers are always welcomed with hospitality. With recent improvements in infrastructure and relaxed visa regulations, Central Asia is now welcoming visitors more than ever.
Highlights of Kyrgyzstan from Mountains to UNESCO Sites
Duration: 10 days
or travelers short on time, Kyrgyzstan is the easiest Central Asian country to visit. This mountainous country offers beach resorts on alpine lakes, nomadic horsemen in yurts, accessible trekking, and historical Silk Road sites. A trip to Kyrgyzstan can be a great introduction to Central Asia, with a little bit of everything that makes the region so intriguing. For simple planning, use Community Based Tourism to organize homestays and hiking throughout the region.
Start in the capital, Bishkek, and take a city bus to the Ala Archa National Park just south of town. From the alpine cabin there, day hikes lead up the canyon to waterfalls or glaciers and onward to Soviet mountaineering cabins still used by climbing parties today.
Then head east towards the popular summer resorts of Issyk-Kol to sit on a beach, and admire the snowy peaks across the lake or meet locals in the town of Cholpon-Ata. If nature beckons, continue to the mountains beyond Karakol by horse, foot, or four-wheel-drive. You can spend weeks exploring hot springs and high pastures peppered with nomadic yurts.
Continue from Issyk-Kol to the city of Osh in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Towering above the center of the city, Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain (Kyrgyzstan’s only UNESCO World Heritage site) has magnificent views of the city. Just beyond the foot of the mountain, one of the most interesting bazaars in all of Central Asia offers a look into the trading traditions that have kept the area flourishing since the 8th century. Osh was once the source of ethnic tension between cultural Uzbeks and Kyrgyz during the brief period of fighting in 2010. The situation at present is calm and welcoming, but keep yourself informed on the political situation in the weeks before your arrival.
Ancient Architecture in Modern Central Asia
Duration: 2-4 weeks
f you prefer the enduring architecture left by the many empires that have ruled Central Asia, focus on the capitals of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Start your trip in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital and Central Asia’s largest city at over two million residents. Tashkent is only a small remnant of pre-Soviet times; much grander architecture and historical prominence is a short train ride away in the city of Samarkand.
This oasis town was the seat of power of the conqueror Timurlane, whose empire spreads throughout modern-day Central Asia and Turkey. The Registon complex, made up of three ornate madrassas overlooking what was once Samarkand’s busiest bazaar, is rivaled for beauty by the Gur-I-Amir mausoleum where Timur was put to rest less than a mile away.
While Samarkand is a modern city, further afield Bukhara and Khiva are museum-like cities where life goes on in time-warped neighborhoods. Local families live steps away from the picturesque mosques and minarets that dot the skylines and make these cities such potent tourist draws.
While the cities of Uzbekistan evoke a timeless feel, the ruined castles of the Elliq Qala between Khiva and Nukus show little traces of modernity. Find a private ride between these two cities to give yourself time to stop at each ruin and explore. Although the name ‘Elliq Qala’ means “50 Castles,” only the three most accessible sit within walking distance of the main highway between Khiva and Nukus.
Uzbekistan may have the best ancient cities that continue to thrive today, just to the south in Turkmenistan lie two other impressive UNESCO historic sites: the ruins of the former city of Konye-Urgench and the remains of once-great Merv. To visit the sparse remains of Konye-Urgench, destroyed by both Genghis Khan and Timur, cross the Turkmen border just south of Uzbekistan’s Nukus.
The other historic jewel of Turkmenistan, the 12th century metropolis of Merv, is actually made up of several cities built and abandoned over thousands of years. To get to Merv from Uzbekistan take a ride south from Bukhara to cross the Turkmen border near Turkmenabat.
Master of the Mountains
Trek Central Asia’s Lofty Peaks
Duration: 4-8 weeks
ne of the best ways to experience Central Asia is to focus on the beautiful mountain scenery that dominates the eastern side of the region. Fly into Almaty, the extremely modern commercial center of Kazakhstan, and explore the foothills that surround the city. The Aksai Gorge to the north makes a good overnight trip, while Charyn Canyon to the east (nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Central Asia”) is an ideal daytrip or camping excursion.
From Almaty, head south across the border of Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek. If you’re short on time, continue on from Bishkek to the Ala-Archa National Park or the mountains east of Issyk-Kol. If possible though, get deeper into Kyrgyzstan’s peaks south of Osh. The famous walnut forests of Arslanbob and the lower slopes of Peak Lenin both offer fine trekking opportunities with the possibility of camping or homestays.
Turn from Osh to the east towards the Pamir Highway or west towards the Fergana Valley town of Khojand, both in Tajikistan. The Pamir route makes a great launching point into the high seasonal pastures used by Kyrgyz and Tajik herders who migrate in and out of these mountains with the seasons. As an alternative to this travelers’ favorite, the Fan Mountains south of Khojand have their own share of rivers to raft, passes to conquer, and rocks to climb. Whichever route you choose, continue onto Dushanbe to do some urban exploring before flying out of the region.
Legacies of Colonialism and Environmental Disasters
Duration: 1 week
or a unique themed-trip, consider an itinerary focused on some of the environmental messes left behind by the Soviet Union. Burning gas craters and receding seas give visitors tangible evidence of the negative impacts of colonialism in Central Asia.
In the deserts of Turkmenistan between Konye-Urgench and Ashgabat, the Darvaza Gas Crater has burned uninterrupted since 1971. The Soviet geologists who ignited the accidentally-tapped pocket of natural gas predicted it would take no more than a few weeks to burn off. Over forty years later, tourists are still driving over the sand dunes to camp by the crater.
The Aral Sea, often ranked among the most significant environmental disasters of modern times, straddles the border of western Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Though once among the largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea level was reduced to one-tenth of its original size when Soviet-era irrigation projects in Uzbekistan diverted most of its feeders. Visiting from Kazakstan’s Aralsk presents a somewhat positive outlook on the sea. Though the city’s once prosperous harbor is still dry, the northern Aral Sea is slowly growing as a result of restorative measures taken by the Kazakh government.
In contrast, the Uzbek town of Moynaq is growing farther from the lake as the southern Aral Sea continues to recede. Without regular access to clean water and plagued by dust storms blown up from the former seabed, the town is a sad reminder of the negative footprints left behind by colonial intervention in Central Asia.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013.