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Central Asia’s Top Ten

Horseback riding and camping in Kyrgyzstan – Crossing mountain ranges with nomads above Karakol, Kyrgyzstan is unforgettable. The mountain landscapes make Montana seem ordinary and the views of Lake Issy-kol (the second largest high altitude lake in the world) are sublime. We did a day of horseback riding and four days of hiking. The price of admission: days of soreness after the ride. Well worth it for the highlight of Central Asia.

Sleeping in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan – Yurts are hard not to like. They are giant fuzzy igloos that looks like they need a hug (I did give one a hug and the owner promptly came out to see what I was doing). These portable homes are made out of felt, a lot of felt. Kyrgyz women typically take about two years to make one. The interiors are beautifully adorned and the thick felt mats make it a perfect place to sleep after a long day in the mountains. If you can fall asleep at all after your 10th cup of chai with butterfat and sugar that is.

Rainbow over the Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan – Tamerlane’s capital is the jewel of Central Asia…and its tourist center. Since Tamerlane killed everyone in Asia who didn’t have artistic talent or who wouldn’t fight in his army, you are guaranteed to be blown away by the tile-work and art in this city. We happened to be walking out of the city after a rainy day and saw a rainbow stretching from his tomb to the Registan.

Khiva, the best of the Silk Road ruins – Foolishly, we almost skipped this stop on the Silk Road. This preserved (and reconstructed) city is the only place in Central Asia where you can get a sense of what it was like to walk around in a city when the region was at its peak. The towers, palaces and city walls are equally brilliant in the sunlight and the moonlight.

Aral Sea, Uzbekistan (what’s left of it) – Moynaq is the most remote, godforsaken place you will (or perhaps even can) visit. Formerly a fishing town and tourist destination at the edge of the Sea, Moynaq now finds itself 150 kilometers from the water. All that is left is dry desert, acrid sand and a village of 6,000 people – we couldn’t figure out what they were all doing there. One of the few places in the world where you can’t buy bottled water and probably the place in the world that needs bottled water the most (since the water table is contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides). Depressing, but a worthwhile visit for a truly humbling lesson about what happens when man trifles with nature.

Afghan market in the Wakhan Valley The only other place in the world that we have been that didn’t have bottled water (or even Coca-Cola for that matter) is the Wakhan Valley. This Valley makes up the Wakhan Corridor, which is that thin part of Afghanistan that sticks out eastward to China. The mountain ranges are so massive and the settlements so remote that each valley in this region has its own language.

Grilled Chicken Platters in Kyrgyzstan – After weeks of Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik cuisine, we would brace ourselves for each meal (and even tried cooking a few of our own). We were pleasantly surprised on entering Kyrgyzstan by the dramatic improvement of the food. Our favorite was the sizzling-chicken-on-a-metal-platter as it is called in Russian. It is a mix between a fajita and Chinese stir-fry. Compared to potatoes with potatoes on top it is devine.

Tracking snow leopards (unsuccessfully) in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan – Snow leopards are hard to see, so we didn’t see any in Tajikistan. The rugged Pamir Mountains were well-worth the journey. If you haven’t been to Asia, you haven’t seen mountains above 7,000 meters, much less whole mountain chains with peaks reaching above this altitude. We hiked to a pass at 15,600 feet with peaks dwarfing us on all sides and bright green valleys stretching out below. Really spectacular.

Osh Bizarre – We were overwhelmed by all the stuff for sale and mix of Uzbek, Russian, Kyrgyz and Chinese culture. Coming from Tajikistan, we dropped our bags on the way to the hotel directly on the side walk and stared…stores, stores and more stores! With tomatoes…and what is this?! A watermelon! We also found ak kalpaks (white felt hat that men in Kyrgyzstan wear that is supposed to look like a mountain with snow on it) for sale – reasonably priced and extra crazy with tassles for the hat lover back home.

Dushanbe – Dushanbe was a refreshingly beautiful. After the bustle of Asian cities, it was nice to see a quiet city with tree lined streets. We also picked up our best meal in Central Asia here. Dushanbe isn’t worth a trip to Central Asia in its self. But if you want to attend the Bozkashi World Championships, it is definitely worth a trip from around the world in itself.

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