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Central Asia

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Central Asia

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Map of Central Asia

Central Asia is most notable for being home to the 'stans': Rugged countries with limited arable land, historically coveted for their position between Europe and East Asia, rather than for their resources (although petroleum reserves in the region are becoming important). They are home to generally poor, primarily Muslim, historically nomadic, mostly Turkic-speaking peoples. All but Afghanistan (which is sometimes categorized separately for this and other reasons) are former Soviet republics that so far have retained authoritarian, secular governments.


The official Soviet (and UN) definition is:

Due to culture and history, however, Iran, Mongolia, Western China (Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai & Western Sichuan), parts of Russia (Buryatia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Tuva, Altai, Khakassia) and parts of Pakistan are often included.


Other destinations


Central Asia is an area that was, until recently, inaccessible for independent travellers. That has all changed, although the traveller will still often come up against a wall of Soviet-style bureaucracy. Despite this, Central Asia is increasing in popularity amongst travellers who want to experience one of the world's last great frontier lands.

Historically and geographically diverse, Central Asia is an interesting region. As a bridge between Europe and Asia, the region was the home of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between the two continents in the first centuries of the common era. The following millennia saw much upheaval and conflict, from the expansion of Islam, the period of Mongol domination and the 'Great Game' between imperial Britain and imperial Russia in the 19th century.

After a traumatic break-up from the USSR, Some Central Asian countries are beginning to find their feet and offer good travelling options. There are parts of Central Asia that will have hardly seen a traveller before, and there are many wild and beautiful landscapes to be explored. That is not to say the region is bereft of problems, chiefly a lack of infrastructure and stifling bureaucracy.

Understand that self-identification is an especially touchy issue in Central Asia, more so than most of Europe. Parts of China (Notably Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang) have a native population that has advocated for secession from China. Often they emphasise their Central Asian identity, something not well-understood by outsiders. For example, Mongolians and Buryats tend to emphasise their historical ties with the Turkic Muslims to the west (despite being Mongolic Buddhists of the Tibetan Rite) and are offended by being compared to the Chinese, and some even call themselves Europeans (by virtue of Russian influence).

This situation is not unique to Mongolic peoples; Tibetans are well known in the West for their disdain for China and any ties they may have to it. Many people in Tatarstan and Xinjiang, among other places, would emphasise their Turkicness over any connection to China or Russia.

The problem goes the other way as well. Many ethnic Chinese are quick to point out that the Manchu Empire included parts of Central Asia, including land no longer controlled by the Chinese.

All in all, Central Asian identity is greatly shaped by their nomadic nature. From Kyrgyz to Tibetans, a history of tribal politics have left Central Asia at once totally isolated from the outside world, and intimately connected to whoever conquered them.


Most of Central Asia (especially by the Soviet definition) speaks some Turkic language. The Turkic languages are a very broad group, and while some are mutually intelligible (depending on your level of proficiency), many are not. For those willing to take a stab at the language(s) of the great Turkic horde, a good place to start would be here.

Mongolic languages (while arguably related to Turkic ones) are not comprehensible to the speaker of any Turkic language. These are scattered across the continent, from Mongolia, to Inner Mongolia (in China), to Buryatia and Kalmykia (in Russia).

Iranic languages are thankfully related to English, albeit distantly. They are spoken in some parts of China, as well as by the majority in Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan, and by a large minority in Uzbekistan.

A working knowledge of Russian will be extremely useful in most regions described as Central Asian.

Get in

As mentioned above, the definition of "Central Asia" can be controversial. One reason why the one used on this page is useful, however, is visas.

All Central Asian countries require visas for virtually everybody, and the difficulty of getting them ranges from a minor hassle (Kyrgyzstan) to virtually impossible if one does not have 'connections' (Turkmenistan). Before issuing a visa, many countries will require a letter of invitation, often best obtained via a specialist travel agency, although some hotels will also issue them for confirmed reservations. Start working on your visas well in advance, as it may take weeks for the gears of bureaucracy to grind through your application, and make sure you comply with any local police/bureaucracy registration requirements after you've arrived.

By plane

The hub for the region is Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which has the most flights to destinations outside Central Asia. Unfortunately the airport also has a reputation for being unpleasant, and it is best to avoid flights which arrive here late at night.

There are also increasingly good options for flights to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You can fly here directly from London, Frankfurt, Beijing, Seoul, Moscow, Riga and various others.

Most Afghans and Pakistanis travel by air to Islamabad or Lahore and go by road to their final destinations.

To arrive in other Central Asia cities will generally require a transfer in one of these hubs.


From Russia

Trains going to Central Asia leave from Moscow Kazansky station. Trains go to Tashkent (56 hours/US$80), Almaty (78 hours/US$120), Bishkek (75 hours/US$70), Samarkand (85 hours/US$100), and others.

From China

There is a line from Urumqi, China to Almaty, but the bus is quicker. An interesting option is the challenging crossing from Kashgar, China to Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass. This was a major link on the old Silk Road.

From Iran

The border is closed to foreigners, but there are buses running between Mashhad and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

From Pakistan

Travelling to different areas of Pakistan is quite easy by train, bus or taxi. The route from there into Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass is not currently safe. The Karakoram Highway North into China is challenging but possible. It gets you to Kashgar; from there routes to Central Asia are either difficult (West to Bishkek) or long (swing North to Urumqi and then Almaty).

By boat

There is an irregular service between Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.

Get around

Getting between Central Asian countries is tricky. Until recently, it was practically impossible to get into Türkmenistan. Get as many visas as you can before you leave. If not, make sure you're "stationed" in one and have time to deal with the bureaucracy at each embassy before you go.


The whole region is filled with steppes and mountains. Beautiful scenery that has served as the backdrop for a half dozen empires. Most tourists to the region arrive in the capital and immediately book a tour of the mountains or countryside (especially in Kyrgyzstan).




The further south you are, the more flavourful the cuisine is. Afghanistan and Tajikistan have far different cuisine than the Mongolic or Turkic cuisines, which are mostly hearty, spice-free, meaty fare.

All Central Asian countries are heavily carnivorous. There are local vegetarians in all Central Asian countries (even Afghanistan) but they are in the minority. This means while you can go without meat and survive, you will attract odd looks.


With the notable exception of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan(where hashish smoking dominates), Central Asia is dominated by drinkers. Muslim Turkic and Persian states are filled with liquor just as Buddhist Tibet and Mongolia are. However, as most of this region is Muslim, make sure you do all your drinking around like-minded individuals. You won't be put in any danger by drinking around a pious individual, but they will likely not be too impressed.

The liquor of choice is almost always vodka, introduced by the Russians. Fermented mare's milk is popular as well.

The non-alcoholic drink of choice is always tea.

Stay safe

Safety in Central Asia is a complex issue. While Afghanistan is famous for the possibility of kidnappings, riots and Taliban resurgence, most other Central Asian countries risk riots after years of autocratic or near-autocratic government. Tibet was recently engulfed by riots.

This is not to say that the entire region is a death trap. Most of the time, most of the region is peaceful. But even then you have some concerns. Most likely for the tourist is having one's pocket picked. See each individual country for a more complete summary.

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