15th December 2019
Central Asia is known colloquially as ‘the Stans’, which consist of the former Soviet republics of
Even if you haven’t heard of the countries that make up the Stans, The Silk Road may be a more familiar name. This famous network of ancient roads winds through the Stans, allowing you to follow in the footsteps of traders, herders, explorers and such legends as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
Let’s find out more about the Stans or the ‘Lost Heart of Asia’ as it has been described by UK travel writer Colin Thubron.
The Stans is a region of vast steppes, deserts and mountains where mass tourism has barely made any inroads, but that’s not to say the Stans doesn’t have cities. You’ll find Soviet-style big cities like Ashgabat in Turkmenistan or Almaty in Kazakhstan which have certain glitz and glamour, friendly locals and even WiFi.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the most visited countries of the Stans by UK tourists, but they still only manage to attract 1,000 people each year respectively. This is in comparison to the 8.5 million people that visit Spain each year. So it’s safe to say you won’t be bumping into anyone you know unless they decide to do the same group tour.
The cuisine of the Stans may be a culture shock for the uninitiated so you’ll need to have an open mind. Dishes vary throughout the Stans, ranging from basic meaty broths with bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers, to hearty meat grills, Samsa (a kind of samosa) and plov (the national dish made of rice, vegetables, quail eggs, and meat).
The national drink is fermented mare’s milk (kumis) which is an acquired taste, but you can also wash down your meal with neat ice-cold vodka.
While decent, comfortable hotels with ensuites are a staple of any tour to the Stans, for many visitors, the chance to overnight in a traditional yurt homestay is a big drawcard. Here you won’t find many trappings of the Western world but you’ll be given a warm and generous welcome.
We’ve put together some highlights of the five Stans that you can expect on a Central Asia tour.
The Turkmen capital of Ashgabat is commonly used as a jumping off point for a five Stans tour because it has a large international airport. The city is a perfect introduction to the Stans, and is often described as weird or wacky because of its architecture. It has a high concentration of buildings constructed out of white marble and it’s even won a Guinness World Record for them.
Former president-dictator Saparmurat Niyazov also didn’t want to be forgotten so there are plenty of amazingly detailed statues of him dotted around. This is a police state with tight security and you won’t be allowed to take photos freely. But as part of a guided tour you can visit attractions such as the National Museum, Independence Park and the Ottoman style mosque of Ertoghrul Gazie.
Uzbekistan has a population of 33 million and is the most visited country in the Stans. A cultural and geographic crossroads, it was an important link in the Silk Road and features many ancient cities from that period. Bukhara and Samarkand are the two standouts that most tours visit.
At Bukhara you’ll find trading domes, hundreds of well-preserved mosques, bazaars, and caravanserais that date largely from the 9th to the 17th centuries. Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and deemed one of the most beautiful cities of the Stans. It’s filled with blue-tiled mosques, madrasas and stunning decorative mausoleums that inspired the Taj Mahal.
In stark contrast, travelling to the smallest of the Stans means heading up into the mountains where pure glacial streams flow freely and you share the road with yaks and cows. In Tajikistan you’ll discover a traditional way of life unchanged for millennia and friendly, curious locals who make you feel like you’re the first and only person to visit.
The scenery is Tajikistan's drawcard and it abounds with plenty of big, bold and beautiful views. Journey over the Anzob Pass taking in the unforgettable vistas of the Fan Mountain range, to the pristine Lake Iskandar Kol where you can hike until your heart’s content without meeting another soul.
It’s a short flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to reach the capital of Bishkek in the north of Kyrgyzstan. While you can easily spend a day exploring the city, taking in the Osh Bazaar and the main square Ala Too, it’s the countryside that beckons. Kyrgyzstan is full of natural beauty where sweeping steppe, glacial lakes and alpine forests dominate the landscape.
Yurt homestay camping in the meadows by Song Kul lake is a highlight of this Stan and you’ll be made to feel welcome by sharing family meals (and a cup of kumis!) after exploring the area on foot or horseback. Ala Archa National Park is also a beautiful landscape to hike through and just half an hour outside Bishkek.
The world’s ninth largest nation, Kazakhstan is a lot of country for a small amount of people. Suffice to say most Stan tours will concentrate on the city of Almaty, the largest city situated near the border of Kyrgyzstan and a trading and cultural hub.
Surrounded by the spectacular Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, from Almaty you can take excursions to the Tien Shan mountains and Big Almaty Lake, as well as taking in the Silk Road sites of Turkestan, Sauran and Otrar. Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced of all the Stans, so you’ll find a good standard of accommodation, food and transport in Almaty.
UK passport holders will need a visa to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (details can be found on Travcour visa agency). There are no visa requirements for Kazakhstan for visits up to 30 days or Kyrgyzstan for visits of up to 60 days.
Want to visit this fascinating region and experience the Stans of Central Asia for yourself? Then be sure to check out our tour The Five Stans of Central Asia or contact Wild Frontiers for more information.