THE STANS MAP & HIGHLIGHTS

A squint at a map reveals the sheer scale of Central Asia, so itís easy to see how getting around takes time. If you want a good overview of all five Stans, overland tours exist that take around 28 days. If youíre content to visit just three countries, there are trips that slot into a fortnight, usually focusing on the Silk Road history of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with the natural beauty of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan woven in. Generally, trips to the Stans are small group tours (although tailor made vacations with a driver/guide exist), and you should expect road travel, and lots of it, with distances vast and conditions poor.
1. Ala Archa National Park
2. Almaty
3. Altyn-Emel National Park
4. Ashgabat
5. Bukhara
6. Darvaza gas crater
7. Iskander Kul
8. Khiva
9. Kyrgyzstanís Lakes
10. Pamir Highway
11. Samarkand
Ala Archa National Park

1. Ala Archa National Park

Just 40km from Bishkek, Ala Archa is towered over by the 4,000m-plus peaks of the Kyrgyz Alatau Range. Itís a captivating expanse of rugged rise and fall, with deep glacial canyons, too, and easy walking along the Ala Archa river. Hiking here is bliss, with half day walks to waterfalls or a day long climb to the foot of the Ak-Say glacier.
Almaty

2. Almaty

Once Kazakhstan’s capital, Almaty remains the favoured city of many Kazakhs, thanks to its pleasant climate, snowcapped mountain backdrop and cosmopolitan vibe. Modern Almaty showcases the nation’s wealth in its glitzy downtown streets, but historic sites include the wooden Zhenkov Cathedral, built without nails. From here, take a daytrip to the Tamgaly petroglyphs, carved into the rock during the Bronze Age.
Altyn-Emel National Park

3. Altyn-Emel National Park

This park protects a huge area of Kazakh desert and rocky landscapes. Itís known for its Ďsinging dunesí which hum and vibrate in the wind, and for the colourfully striped Aktau Mountains. The 100m deep Charyn Canyon lies to the south, cleaving the endless, open plains surrounding it. Itís actually five canyons and its most famous, the Valley of the Castles, is Central Asiaís answer to the Grand Canyon.
Ashgabat

4. Ashgabat

Turkmenistan’s bizarre and OTT capital was rebuilt in the 1990s after the 1948 earthquake which killed 110,000 people. White marble buildings, boulevards and fountains give it a Vegas feel, while its numerous monuments are futuristic and flat-out weird. Visit the excellent National Museum, the Carpet Museum – see the world’s biggest carpet! – and the open-air Tolkuchka bazaar, which sells red Turkmen rugs and camels.
Bukhara

5. Bukhara

Easy to walk around and wonderfully relaxed, Bukhara is both living museum and thriving city. It has 140-odd protected buildings, some spanning 1,000 years, and its centre is packed with stupendous Islamic mosques, Madrassas and minarets. Beyond this, the atmospheric streets throng with Uzbek families who have lived here for generations. Soak up the Silk Road history then sit back and enjoy a snapshot of local life.
Darvaza gas crater

6. Darvaza gas crater

This utterly unexpected sight is a 30m deep pit of flaming methane in the middle of Turkmenistanís magically bleak Karakam desert. The crater has been nicknamed Ďthe door to hellí and its origin is shrouded in mystery, but itís been burning for some 40 years. Camp here to appreciate its bizarre glowing beauty and heat at night, when passing birds circle above, attracted by its searchlight beam.
Iskander Kul

7. Iskander Kul

Overexcited writers often describe lakes as ‘turquoise’ but Iskander Kul really is. Lying on the northern slopes of the Gissar Range in Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains, this glacial lake looks a striking opal blue in the sun. It lies at an altitude of over 2,000m, so it’s pretty cold for swimming in. Instead, hike around its peaceful shores, admiring the bird life and surrounding mountains.
Khiva

8. Khiva

Fascinating Khiva was a key stop on the Silk Road and became one of the most powerful khanates of the 19th century. Unlike equally historic Samarkand and Bukhara where life goes on, here life has been frozen. The historic old town, Ichan Qala, is so well preserved it’s almost eerie walking down its mud walled alleys. Local people can’t buy property here; it has to be passed down through families.
Kyrgyzstanís Lakes

9. Kyrgyzstanís Lakes

Beautiful Song Kul is a 3,000m high glacial lake bordered by a vast landscape of mountains and meadows, dotted with yurts that are home to seasonal families of nomads. To the northeast, Issyk Kul is Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake. Utterly beautiful, it’s held in high regard by the Kyrgyz, and known locally as ‘the pearl of the Tien Shan’, the massive mountain range that protects it.
Pamir Highway

10. Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway, aka the M41, runs from Osh in Kyrgyzstan through Tajikistan, and into Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It’s the only continuous route through this mountainous terrain, and in Tajikistan it winds below the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Tien Shan ranges. Dotted with homestays, hot springs and quirky markets, it’s a fascinating route, but traveling on ‘the roof of the world’ can be gruelling, with many sections unpaved.
Samarkand

11. Samarkand

No city is more synonymous with the Silk Road’s former majesty than spectacular Samarkand, with the architecture of its Registan square decorated with polished gold, emerald and turquoise tiles. If it looks like new, that’s because it is – since Independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has seen a flowering of traditional crafts, and Timur’s formerly crumbling buildings have been restored to gleaming glory.

Our top The Stans Vacation

Central Asia overland tour, the stans

Central Asia overland tour, the stans

An epic journey through the five 'stans' of Central Asia

From £4999 26 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2019: 31 Aug
2020: 29 Aug
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TRAVEL TIMES IN THE STANS

A rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in the Stans.

Bukhara – Samarkand, Uzbekistan: 5 hours by road Bukhara – Khiva, Uzbekistan: 7 hours by road Darvaza gas crater – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: 4 hours by road Almaty – Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan: 4 hours by road Bishkek – Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan: 1 hour by road Dushanbe – Iskander Kul Lake, Tajikistan: 2.5 hours by road Tashkent to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, by fast train: under 2 hours
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dudarev Mikhail] [Intro Box: Kalpak Travel] [Ala Archa National Park: Gael Varoquaux] [Almaty: Torekhan Sarmanov] [Altyn-Emel National Park: Stomac] [Ashgabat: John Pavelka] [Bukhara: Michal Huniewicz] [Darvaza gas crater: Stefan Krasowski] [Iskander Kul: Rjruiziii] [Khiva: Chris Shervey] [Kyrgyzstanís Lakes: Laurent de Walick] [Pamir Highway: rugbyxm] [Samarkand: Arian Zwegers] [Travel Time: Ninara]
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