Central Asia is a region begging to be explored. From the ancient Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, snow-capped peaks that beg to be explored in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the white marble and fiery oddities of Turkmenistan, the rugged landscapes of Kazakhstan’s steppe and onto long misunderstood Afghanistan, Central Asia offers a wealth of adventures for travelers looking to experience something a little different.
Central Asia has really taken strides as a whole to open up to tourism in the last few years, aside from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan for obvious reasons. Visa schemes are loosening, letter of invitation documents are fading away and though corruption is still very present, it has gotten leaps and bounds better than in the past. In general, the post-Soviet Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are quite safe, despite most who haven’t stepped in the region would assume.
Best Time To Visit Central Asia
Central Asia is very much a year-round destination. Of course, summer dominates as the main tourist season in the high mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Fall is a great time for exploring more deserty and lower-lying areas that can be dreadfully hot in summer. Spring can be beautiful with flowers in full bloom in valleys, but can pose problems in the mountains with rain and mudslides. Winter can be downright cold, but believe it or not, there are a few ski resorts in Central Asia!
Spring: March to May
Spring kicks off with Nowruz, the Persian New Year. There are Nowruz festivities held throughout Central Asia, one of the most notable being in Mazar e Sharif, Afghanistan. In the valleys of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan come spring flowers but in the mountains high rivers and mudslides. Spring can be a great time to explore Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Central Asian capitals with bearable temperatures.
Still, the biggest draw to the region is its mountains and adventure activities. Thanks to high altitudes, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s famed mountains are best explored in July and August when temperatures are at their warmest. Being that tourism is in full swing in summer this can be the easiest time to find other travelers to cost-share the Pamir Highway and other adventures.
Personally fall is my favorite season in Central Asia, especially September and October. Fall usually brings clearer skies and good temperatures so outdoor activities are prime. Temperatures aren’t yet too cold at higher elevations, and fall brings cooler air to the Central Asian capitals, Silk Road cities and deserts so this is the optimal time for exploring the historical and cultural side of the region.
This is by-and-far the offseason in Central Asia because winter can be quite severe in many parts of the region. Winter is a good time to visit Uzbekistan’s main attractions with almost no crowds. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all offer up ski resorts that would be the main attraction for travelers who want to visit the region between December and February.
What To Do & Where To Go For It
Trekking: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and even western Uzbekistan deliver some of the most epic hiking experiences in the world. Personal favorites include Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains and High Pamir, Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and Bamyan Province, and southeastern Kazakhstan’s Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes.
Silk Road architecture: Uzbekistan and Afghanistan really shine in the architecture department. With countless blue-tiled mosques and madrasas to explore and appreciate, architecture lovers will find both countries true paradises, but tile-fatigue is a real ailment- you’ve been warned. Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara, Mazar e Sharif and Herat will truly impress. If you’re looking for a taste of the architecture without the crowds you could also try Istaravshan and Khujand in Tajikistan’s Fergana Valley.
Desert landscapes: The Kyzyl Kum and Karakum deserts that dominate much of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan’s landscapes are great for exploring and discovering ancient caravanserais. Keep your eyes peeled for wandering Bactrian camels.
Cuisine: Central Asia isn’t known for its cuisine, which as a whole can leave a lot to be desired (and sometimes the toilet). But fear not foodies, there are a handful of great dishes to try and a couple of culinary gems of the region. #1 in my book is Karakol, Kyrgyzstan that offers up a diverse and delicious array of dishes thanks to its Uyghur, Dungan, Kyrgyz, Tatar and Russian influences. In Tajikistan, you’ll need to grab a bowl of cheesy-yogurty kurutob. Finally, Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent, and Dushanbe will give you a break from the typical Central Asian fare with cafes, coffee shops and an array of international cuisine and contemporary restaurants putting modern twists on the region’s favorites.
Epic road trips: Pamir Highway. Need I say more?
Off the beaten path: Welcome to the most offbeat region I’ve delved into! Alas, it’s pretty easy to get off the beaten path in Central Asia. Good options to try are Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley and Yagnob Valley, Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan’s Sary Chelek.
Grand metro stations: Tashkent and Almaty are the only two cities in Central Asia with metro lines. Tashkent was the first of the two and its stations are some of the most beautiful you’ll see in the world. Almaty’s is much smaller and also boasts some marvelous architecture.