Central Asia is a fascinating part of the world that few people have the opportunity to visit. This article will define Central Asia as the five former Soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – it will not include Afghanistan or Mongolia (which are sometimes included in ” Central Asia”).
These countries are some of the least explored in the world and are gems steeped in history and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and exceptionally friendly people. But these countries often experience turmoil, and it is important to check for up-to-date information before going there.
Kazakhstan – The largest country in Central Asia
Kazakhstan is by far the largest and most developed country in Central Asia. Most of the country is a flat Asian steppe – like the Mongols; historical Kazakhs once roamed these vast steppes on horseback.
- Capital: Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana)
- Biggest city: Almaty
The capital is the new city of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in the northern steppes. But the historic capital and largest city is Almaty to the south. Almaty sits at the foot of some of the mightiest mountain ranges in the world and is a stunning place to visit.
- Visa requirement: One month visa-free
Kazakhstan is visa-free for one month for most nationalities. There has been recent political unrest in Kazakhstan – although it is generally a safe country to visit, check for updates from the US State Department.
Kyrgyzstan – The mountainous country
The Kyrgyz people are in many ways similar to the Kazakhs, but while Kazakhstan is mostly flat, Kyrgyzstan is incredibly mountainous. The capital and largest city is Bishkek, and the country is famous for the massive, pristine alpine lake of Issyl Kul.
- Capital and largest city: Bishkek
Kyrgyzstan is generally less developed than Kazakhstan but is very touristy. A country staple is multi-day horseback riding through the mountains and sleeping in traditional yurts.
- Visa requirement: 60 days visa-free
Uzbekistan – The country with rich ancient architecture
The two main attractions of Uzbekistan are its stunning architecture and the now largely extinct Aral Sea Ghost Fleet. Uzbekistan is the most popular country in Central Asia and is on the Silk Road. There are many group tours in Uzbekistan, where you can see the incredible architecture of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. If you have time, visit the Ghost Fleet on the extinct Aral Sea.
- Capital and largest city: Tashkent
For most Western passport holders, Uzbekistan is visa-free for 30 days – but for Americans, they must apply for an e-Visa online (it’s very simple and straightforward).
- Most Western passports: 30 days visa-free (Canada, UK, EU, Australia, New Zealand)
- US passports: e-Visa required
As of this writing, parts of Uzbekistan are experiencing significant unrest – check for updates on the situation before you go.
Tajikistan – Home of the Pamir Highway
Tajikistan is a small alpine country nestled between Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It is a poor country, but which welcomes tourists. One of Tajikistan’s biggest attractions is the famous and remote Pamir Highway – it’s a unique experience for those who do it.
- Capital and largest city: Dushanbe
To visit the Pamir highway, tourists need a permit to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (it costs $20.00)
- Visa policy: Visa free for 30 days (except UK)
Until 2022, tourists had to apply for an e-Visa to visit Tajikistan, but as of January 1, 2022, visas have been waived for most Western countries (except the UK, which still requires an e-Visa). e-Visa).
Turkmenistan – The land of the hermit
Turkmenistan is very different from the other four Central Asian countries. The country is largely closed to tourism and visas are very difficult to obtain. Tourists need organized tours which will probably be quite expensive and tourist guides to take them around the country.
- Capital and largest city: Ashgabat
- Visa policy: Compulsory Visa and Very Difficult to Obtain
One way to visit Turkmenistan is to simply transit from Iran to Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan – the transit visa is five days. However, this option is very difficult for Americans, Canadians and British because it is difficult for them to visit Iran.
It is not recommended to visit Turkmenistan unless you are an experienced traveler. Visitors should be careful of what they say, do and what they photograph. It is common for the police to follow tourists. Never talk about politics in Turkmenistan.