For the curious traveler, a trip to the ‘stans’ in Central Asia is a perfect adventure. The ‘stans’ — that is the collection of countries in Central Asia whose name ends in ‘stan’ — are some of the most fascinating places in the world. From luscious green mountains, through to snow-capped peaks and turquoise lakes, this region is blessed with the stunning natural scenery. Its cities are an interesting mix of Soviet-era architecture, bustling Asian markets, and ancient customs.
There are seven central Asian countries in total that end with the suffix ‘stan’, which in Ancient Persian or Farsi means “the land of”, or “nation” Over the years, many of the ‘stans’ have passed through the hands of various empires, with the most recent being the Soviet Union (USSR), which ruled over Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmeni, and Uzbekistan, until the USSR was dissolved in 1991. Today, the ‘stans’ are opening up for tourism and we take a look at some of the highlights of the countries ending in ‘stan’.
If you’ve seen the film Borat you may have an idea of what Kazakhstan is like — and the reality is completely different. Kazakhstan is arguably the jewel of Central Asia. It’s known for its lush green countryside, epic mountain scenery and desert-plains. The country’s lakes are some of the most beautiful in the world, with crystal clear, milky blue waters, while its canyons feature incredible rock formations and interesting archeological finds. Its star mountain-range is the Tian Shan mountains, where you can spend several days hiking, bathing in lakes and staying in traditional yurts. Be sure to check out the incredible Kaindy Lake in the Tien Shan mountains, where birch trees emerge from the crystalline waters. It’s a sight you’ll never forget.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s cities feature an interesting mix of new and old, as Soviet architecture is mixed with shiny new-builds in a truly fascinating way. The country’s cities and towns are packed with bustling Asian markets and bazaars, where you can try Central-Asian fare such as exotic dried fruits, savory dishes drizzled with pomegranate and Chinese-influence noodle dishes.
Sitting hotly on Kazakhstan’s heels is Kyrgyzstan, which is a country packed with breathtaking nature. From the stunning, turquoise Alakol Lake, through to the country’s epic mountains, you’ll be spoilt for choice with things to do. The country lies in the center of the ancient Silk Road trade route that ran from China to the Mediterranean and its cities are packed with history and archeology. After exploring the cities, be sure to stay in a traditional yurt to truly experience local culture and unwind in the countryside. During the summertime, yurts are put up by families all over the country and are used by locals looking to relax.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the easiest ‘stans’ to travel to and the country’s capital of Bishkek is known to be a good place to fly into, especially if you’re coming from Europe. Flights are reasonably cheap and the visa situation is more flexible than some of the other ‘stans’. So what are you waiting for?
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Uzbekistan’s desert-like scenery and ancient towns are a big draw for tourists looking to explore Central Asia. The country has thousands of years of history, with its past as part of the main Silk Road trade route shaping its cities today. To brush up on the country’s history, head to the ancient city of Samarkand, which was once the pride of the Silk Road trade route. It’s a stunning city filled with ornate mosaic works and unique architecture. Additionally, head to the famous Registan Complex to see some of Uzbekistan architecture at its finest.
The country is packed with elegant mosques, featuring intricate designs, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites and viewing the mosques is one of the top things to do in Uzbekistan. Another great thing to do is hike through the Gulkam Canyon, where you’ll find amazing mountain canyons and crystal clear streams. Gulkam Canyon is close to the country’s capital of Tashkent, so there’s no excuse not to get a spot of fresh air in your lungs.
Meanwhile, for the foodie traveler, Uzbekistan is the best ‘stan’ to visit. Be sure to try a samsa, which looks similar to an Indian samosa, or the succulent shashlik kebabs.
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Turkmenistan is the most mysterious of the countries ending in ‘stan’ thanks to its history as a country that’s been very much hidden from the world until recently. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the country fell into the hands of President Niyazov who kept the country tightly under wraps. Today, the country is opening up to the outside world, and it is possible to enter as a tourist, although it’s a tricky process that involves several stages before approval, including a letter of invitation. Check out this visa guide to Central Asia.
The capital city of Ashgabat is well worth a visit for the curious traveler. Ashgabat is an interesting mix of monuments to the former president, white marble architecture, and leafy parks. The atmosphere is bizarre and fascinating in equal measures and will have you wanting to find out what’s really under the surface.
While Turkmenistan is not blessed with the same type of natural scenery as you’ll find in some of the other ‘stans’, it does have epic gas craters, known as the ‘gates of hell’. The Darvaza gas craters, located in the heart of the Karakum Desert, are fiery holes that lead to…well..no-one knows where. The gas craters are a natural gas field that was set on fire by geologists to prevent the spread of methane gas and the craters have been burning continuously since 1971. It’s an impressive sight that you’ll be wanting to take a lot of photos of.
The last of the ‘stans’ in our roundup is Tajikistan, which is known for its epic mountain scenery (a whopping 93% of the country is mountainous!). Tajikistan is home to an impressive belt of snow-capped mountains that emerge from the desert plains. For the adventurous, the Pamir Highway runs through the mountains and provides an incredible road trip through the range, passing through alpine forests and lakes. Ditch the car for a day and ride on horseback through the Pamir plateau.