Central Asia has always been at the crossroads between Eastern and Western civilizations. In the past, the ‘stans’ (Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) were vital links for the trade of knowledge, religion and commerce. Today, Central Asia is better known for its strife-ridden impoverished nations led by dictators masquerading as presidents.
This is a shame, because the region traversed by the famous Silk Road has some amazing historical and cultural sites that rival anything in the world. The Minaret of Jam or the sparkling lakes of Band-e Amir are both potentially hot travel destinations. But the prospect of getting kidnapped or shot tends to put a damper on your holiday.
Even so, there are some pockets of relative stability that can be explored by more adventurous travelers. Mongolia’s vast empty landscape is ideal for trekking and mixing it up with nomadic yak herders. may have a megalomaniac for a president, but it produces great wine and welcomes anyone willing to make the journey.
Turkmenistan’s Arabic vibe gives it an atmosphere straight out of a Lawrence of Arabia story. Trading hubs like the Tolkuchka Bazaar haven’t changed much in 2,000 years, and were the original centers of global trade. Cultural oases like this are what make the arduous and dangerous journey into Central Asia worth it.
The landscape in Central Asia is dominated by moonlike expanses of empty wasteland with occasional mountains to provide visual relief. Kazakhstan embodies this sense of desolation with its lunar environment and its slowly decomposing industrial cities. But hop over to booming Armenia and you’ll find beautiful mountains and plenty of cultural attractions in this cradle of humanity.
Uzbekistan is arguably the most historically important Central Asian country, as it was a major stopover along the Silk Road. Samarkand and Bukhara are treasure troves of architecture and ancient civilization. Travelers are rewarded with exclusive bragging rights and a better perspective on the world at large.
But the fact remains that Central Asia (at the moment) is one of the most dangerous places to travel. The days of the Hippie Trail and a friendly version of Afghanistan are just a dream relegated to the annals of travel.