Lucy Kelaart, Editor of Steppe Magazine, gives us her guide to the five ‘Stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Tucked between India, Russia and China, the five ‘Stans are a congregation of mountains, steppe grassland and desert. Once a mix of feudal khanates and nomadic peoples (use modern-day Afghanistan as a reference), they were formed as republics under Stalin’s rule. Now, 20 years after independence, they are forging their own identities. Here’s her guide to what each one offers.
K A Z A K H S T A N
The resource-rich boom country: oil, gas, uranium – you name it, Kazakhstan’s got it. In the cities, high-rise construction is relentless, although there’s little fear of overcrowding in a huge country with just 16 million. Travel into the countryside, and you will find tulips stretching across the steppe and clear blue lakes in the mountains; go in winter, and you can hunt with golden eagles. For the past two decades, it has been run by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who managed the transition from former Soviet strongman to ‘democratically elected’ premier with the skill (and some help from Tony Blair). Old habits die hard; however: political opposition is mysteriously absent.
K Y R G Y Z S T A N
Long known as an island of democracy in the region, it recently underwent a peaceful power transition (after several revolutions) in an election where the new president won a modest 60 per cent of the vote (compare that to 97 per cent in Turkmenistan). Stunning mountains and a nomadic horse-riding culture are its main assets; in late spring, the hills are alive with wildflowers, and the (semi) nomads emerge from apartment blocks to head for their summer pastures. If you fancy drinking fermented mare’s milk and sleeping in a yurt, this is the place for you.
T A J I K I S T A N
The mountainous southern neighbour of Kyrgyzstan, where ‘Great Game’ spies and explorers once ventured, Tajikistan’s awesomely dramatic highland landscapes are now testing playgrounds for hardy climbers, trekkers and adventure travellers. Nascent rural homestay programs mean you might stay in timelessly photogenic rural villages hosted by gold-toothed, white-bearded patriarchs in iridescent Joma robes. The people, predominantly Persian- rather than Turkic-speaking, are enormously hospitable, but little English is spoken, and rural transport is so irregular that you will probably want to fork out for a rented 4WD. But the marvels of the Wakhan Valley, the starkly beautiful ‘Roof of the World’ Pamirs and the breathtaking lakes and pinnacles of the Fan Mountains all contribute to making Tajikistan arguably Central Asia’s most exciting destination.
T U R K M E N I S T A N
This is a large desert state, where income from an enormous gas field is used to keep the population happy with cheap flights, gas, electricity and food. As in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the president is wildly popular, according to the government. The country is home to the world’s largest carpet and indoor Ferris wheel. There are also breathtaking sights, including Merv, a desert city stacked by Genghis Khan, and the sandy Kopet Dag mountains on Iran's border. If you like riding, come for the famed Akhal-Teke horses.
U Z B E K I S T A N
The heart of Central Asia and the historic hub of the region. The most settled of all the states, it’s home to the romantic-sounding cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Like the rest of the region, much of its beauty lies in its friendly people. Go off the beaten track, and there’s much to explore, from a Soviet avant-garde art museum in the west to the palaces of the last Khan of Kokand in the east. With the mildest climate of all the ‘stans, it’s best visited between February and October.
Copyrights: Condé Nast Traveller