25 April 2018.
Wedged between China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan, Central Asia or ‘the ‘stans’ are slowly gaining momentum as the next big travel destination.
Striking mountains and the boundless desert set the scene for epic hikes and bucket list worthy road trips, while harsh Soviet cities and dazzling silk road masterpieces weave together fragments of this region’s fascinating and often brutal past.
There are so many ways to travel through Central Asia and at a first glance it can all feel a little overwhelming, and that’s before things like transport logistics and visas get thrown into the mix. But things are changing slowly with the relaxing of entry requirements and constantly improving tourist infrastructure meaning it’s never been a better time to visit.
We spent almost four months in Central Asia guided by the changing seasons and chopping and changing plans on a whim as new and exciting destinations popped up on our radar. We were forced to skip over a number of places that sat high on our list for the simple reason that there was no reasonable or affordable way to get there. We lost far too much time in the cities merely because they provided the comforts of home we had so desperately been craving. In short, our trip didn’t always unfold in the most logical of ways, but it was pretty amazing nonetheless.
Need some help in planning your own adventure? This was our complete Central Asia itinerary, where we went, where we loved, what we wished we’d done differently and where is earmarked for next time around.
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Entry + Exit Point | Almaty, Kazakhstan
Duration | This route took us 3.5 months or 110 days – 25 in Kazakhstan, 47 in Kyrgyzstan, 22 in Tajikistan, 14 in Uzbekistan and a final 2 days in Kazakhstan before flying out. In the capital cities, we made use of the decent wifi to catch up on work and so generally spent far more time there than was strictly necessary. For those with less time, this route could absolutely be condensed into a shorter period or chopped to leave out one country or another altogether.
Time of Year | We arrived in Almaty in mid-July at the height of summer and left in early November when the leaves had fallen from the trees and snow covered the mountains. The seasons heavily dictated our route and ultimately, this was probably the best time frame for this length of trip and itinerary. Yes, the cities were excruciatingly hot but the mountains were lush green and comfortable for hiking while the Uzbek desert offered up cool autumn days.
Countries Covered | Of the 5 Stans, Turkmenistan was the one we didn’t make it to. For this trip, the difficulty in obtaining a visa just didn’t seem worth the hassle for the very limited number of travel days allowed if approved. Plus, there was so much we were excited to see in the remaining countries that it didn’t feel like we were missing out.
25 days | July + August
Our journey through Central Asia began in Kazakhstan, between the leafy boulevards and bustling markets of its former capital, Almaty, incidentally a perfect place to begin your own trip through the region.
After getting lost in the Green Bazaar, touring the city’s churches and parks, gorging on the fantastic international cuisine on offer and enjoying a sunset from Kok Tobe, we took a day trip to the mountains to enjoy the hiking near Medeu and Shymbulak. There are a variety of trails leading to waterfalls and spectacular viewpoints, though our favourite was the fairly challenging Four Peaks Trail.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city, head east toward the desert where you’ll find the burnt orange Charyn Canyon and the brilliant blue oasis of Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy. Though transport in these parts is a little tricky, it’s well worth staying overnight to give you a little more time to explore.
If bright city lights are your thing, don’t miss the sparkling metropolis of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in the country’s north along with a day or weekend trip to the lakes at nearby Borovoe National Park. In truth, our main reason for heading north was to attend the Astana Expo but otherwise we’d probably have skipped this area in favour of exploring the beautiful landscapes of the south instead.
Kazakhstan Itinerary | Almaty – Charyn Canyon – Kolsai Lakes – Saty + Lake Kaindy – Almaty – Astana – Borovoe National Park – Astana – Almaty
Border Crossings | Flew in direct with Air Astana from Beijing and left via the Kordai crossing on the marshrutka between Almaty and Bishkek.
Highlights | Almaty, Kolsai Lakes, Lake Kaindy and Charyn Canyon
Next Time | Kazakhstan is enormous and there were a number of places that fell off our itinerary purely based on price and logistics. Multi-days tours were often wildly expensive and with few other tourists to share the costs with, we often struggled to justify the high prices and instead chose to splurge on the bucket-list items later in the trip like the Pamir Highway and Peak Lenin. With a bigger budget or simply more time to spend in the south, places on the list for next time would include Altyn Emel National Park, Altay Mountains, Mangistau, Turkestan and Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. The Baikonur Cosmodrome could also be an interesting addition if your trip coincides with a rocket launch.
Things We’d Change | In hindsight, we’d probably skip over Astana as it didn’t quite win us over and the long travel time to and from Almaty left us needing a few days to recover. Instead, we’d have used the time to visit some of the places mentioned above or take the Karkara Valley border crossing between Charyn Canyon and Karakol, Kyrgyzstan instead of backtracking to Almaty.
47 days | August + September
After more than a week of catching up on work in Bishkek, enjoying the cafe scene and eating our body weight in Korean fried chicken, it was time to hit the trails.
In a country that’s more than 90 per cent mountains, prepare to be doing a lot of hiking. From Karakol, the popular 3-day trek to turquoise Alakol Lake and the rejuvenating hot springs at Altyn Arashan is a good place to start. For something truly off the beaten path, explore the trails around Jyrgalan before setting off for the ochre rockface of Jeti-Oguz and its lush Valley of Flowers.
Mountain antics aside, be sure to allocate some time for relaxation along the southern shores of Issyk Kul. The tiny villages dotted around the lake provide a tranquil setting to slip into a slower pace. Choose one and stay a while or hop your way along the shoreline. I chose to spend my time in tiny Tosor in the hopes of visiting Fairy Tale Canyon and the Barskoon Valley, but Tamga and Kaji Say also sound like decent options.
From Bishkek make your way toward Osh by taxi, flight or overnight cargo bus and either head to Arslanbob to enjoy the shade of the world’s largest walnut grove or make a beeline for the Pamir Highway.
Our final night in Kyrgyzstan spent at Tulparkul Lake in the shadow of Peak Lenin and amidst a sea of rolling hills and shimmering lakes was one of the highlights of our time in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan Itinerary | Bishkek – Karakol – Jyrgalan – Alakol and Altyn Arashan Trek – Karakol – Jeti Oguz – Tosor – Bishkek – Osh – Arslanbob – Osh – Tulpar Kul Lake
Border Crossings | Arrived by marshrutka through the Kordai crossing between Almaty and Bishkek and left via the Kyzylart Pass between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
Highlights | hiking in the mountains around Karakol, southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake, Tulpar Kul Lake
Next Time | Kyrgyzstan is experiencing something of a tourism revolution with spectacular new destinations being added to the map every few months along with better tourist infrastructure. A few I’d love to check out are Kol Suu, Son Kul, Ala Archa National Park and Karavshin Gorge. There were also a number of places I’d love to have spent more time, such as the many villages along the southern shore of Issyk Kul and the stunning mountains at Sary Moghul and Tulpar KuI.
Things We’d Change | Despite being in the midst of the walnut harvest season, a bad spring meant the forests around Arslanbob were somewhat disappointing. If you’re planning to visit, definitely check up on the situation before arriving.
22 days | September
The Pamir Highway is the road trip of a lifetime and should absolutely be on your Central Asia itinerary.
From Osh, Tulparkul Lake on the Kyrgyzstan side is an ideal starting point and one of the most spectacular places we’ve ever seen. From there, trace the lonely road through the Pamir Mountains past mirrorlike lakes, jagged peaks and the verdant knot of the Wakhan Valley. Throw in a few high altitude hikes and a collection of remote mountain villages and you’re in for one hell of an adventure.
We opted to head away from the classic route, travelling instead to Rangkul and Jarty Gumbez before weaving through the Wakhan Valley and onwards to Khorog and Dushanbe. We spent about 10 days in Dushanbe relaxing, working and organising our Uzbek visas but ordinarily one or two days in the city is enough, especially as Uzbek visas can now be done online.
Truth be told, we found Tajikistan much harder to get around than the other countries in Central Asia and by this point in the trip the travel fatigue was definitely starting to creep in. Almost every destination required a 4WD taxi that may or may not be going on a certain day, was generally rather expensive and came with the extra hassle of negotiating fares. The Pamir Highway was absolutely incredible, but these other factors certainly limited our willingness to explore much further afield.
Tajikistan Itinerary | Pamir Highway via Wakhan Valley – Khorog – Dushanbe (see exact itinerary here)
Border Crossings | Arrived via the Kyzylart Pass between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and left into Uzbekistan at the Turnisoda/Denau crossing. In 2018, the Penjikent border was finally reopened and is now the much better option for travelling between Dushanbe and Samarkand.
Highlights | Pamir Highway
Next Time | The Fann Mountains and Bartang Valley are definitely on the cards.
14 days | October
From the stark mountains to the riches of the ancient silk road. Immaculate blue mosaics, soaring minarets and rambling alleyways unite the main cities of Uzbekistan, though each reveals a unique character of its own.
Marvel at the enormous madrassas of Samarkand and the narrow corridors of Shah-i-Zinda before moving onto the bright chambers and leafy plazas of Bukhara. While these cities are the most famous, understated and often overlooked Khiva was our favourite of the lot.
Uzbekistan Itinerary | Samarkand – Bukhara – Khiva – Tashkent
Border Crossings | Travelled to Samarkand via at the Turnisoda/Denau crossing from Dushanbe, though these days the Penjikent border is the much better option. Left on the overnight fast train between Tashkent and Almaty.
Highlights | Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, as well as the refreshing change in cuisine.
Next Time | The environmental devastation of the Aral Sea and the remaining cargo ships in the desert.
If planning our itinerary through Central Asia left us scratching our heads, then trying to figure out the best way to actually get there took us to new realms of confusion.
An initial search on Skyscanner offered up the best flight routes as 40+ hour ordeals from Sydney with no less than three pointless layovers in random cities across China (that would require an extra visa) before finally touching down in the ‘Stans at a cost higher than a month’s rent each. No thanks! With no logic behind the options that were provided, I decided to ditch the search engines and instead set about mixing and matching every possible combination of flights between Sydney and destinations in Asia or the Middle East that offered direct connections to Central Asia.
Truth be told, depending on where you’re arriving from, there may be very little choice of flights. In general, Almaty is served by a wide range of airlines making it an excellent and economical arrival point, while Kyrgyzstan’s growing popularity makes Bishkek the next best option. Tashkent, Dushanbe and Ashgabat still have very limited international flights and are served by few airlines.
From Australia, it worked out much cheaper to book our flights separately. This also allowed much better connections than those offered on any of the search engines and with more reputable airlines. From Sydney, we flew to Beijing with Qantas for a 5-hour layover before changing to Air Astana direct to Almaty. Air Astana’s widening network across Asia makes it a good choice from most major hubs in the region.
From the Americas, virtually everyone I met had arrived via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines or via Moscow with Aeroflot, both of which offer easy connections at competitive prices.
Getting to Central Asia from Europe is easy with direct flights from a number of capital cities, particularly during summer. Low-cost airline Pegasus is generally the cheapest option with regular flights to Europe via Istanbul year round.
Overlanding your way from Asia or Europe? It’s possible to cross into Central Asia from all neighbouring countries, though China, Iran and Russia are the most common entry/exit points and all require special visas. For up-to-date info on all relevant border crossings in the region, see here.
If you’re travelling the Trans-Siberian, it’s also possible to travel across the border into Kazakhstan, but you’ll need a double entry visa if you intend on returning to Russia.
At Central Asia’s far eastern point, where the sprawling desert runs into the Caspian Sea, it’s possible to leave by ferry. Running on an unpredictable and highly changeable schedule, ferries depart from Aktau in Kazakhstan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan for Azerbaijan and Russia. See this guide for more info.