A quarter of a century on from independence, the Central Asian ‘Stan nations are still shrouded in obscurity and intrigue.
The five nations that make up the crux of the ancient Silk Road route from China to the West have had more than their fair share of growing pains.
From economic woes and corruption to the legacy of late “strongman” leaders such as Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan the ‘Stans are, in their very occasional mentions in the international media, rarely associated with good news.
Yet these are nations that contain some of the most staggering natural and man-made landscapes on the planet.
From the endless steppes of the Kazakhstan interior to the immense temples and minarets of the Samarkand and Bukhara to the jutting, thrusting, snow-covered peaks of the Tian Shan mountain range, this is a region with a refreshing lack of hype surrounding its attractions which visitors can expect to have mostly to themselves.
Here are six of the best ‘Stan experiences:
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Timur’s tomb (Uzbekistan)
He made pyramids out of the skulls of those he slaughtered.
Those who challenged him often got buried alive. Seventeen million people are said to have died as victims of the megalomania of Timur, the 14th century emir whose plans for world domination created an empire that stretched from modern day India to Istanbul.
His death came while on a campaign to invade China when he was struck down by fever.
Timur’s tombstone, located in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, is the largest single block of jade stone on earth.
It’s best not to get too close though.
Rumors were passed down the centuries that a terrible fate – would befall the nation should his body ever be disturbed.
In 1941 Soviet archaeologists opened the coffin. Three days later the Nazis invaded the USSR.
Local Tip: While in Samarkand, visitors should try some of the distinctive local bread.
It’s different to any other in Uzbekistan due to the huge flat round loaves being glazed and scattered with sesame seeds.
It’s somewhat on the dense side in terms of taste but is believed to be edible for three years after it comes out of the clay oven.
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Khiva’s giant unfinished minaret (Uzbekistan)
As fat as a water tower, squat and emblazoned with belts of glorious turquoise friezes, the most beguiling attraction in the ancient trading city of Khiva (now in present day southern Uzbekistan) isn’t even finished.
The dimensions of the Kalta Minor Minaret, even in its abruptly truncated state, are gargantuan.
Begun in 1851 by Muhammed Amin Khan, the intention was to build a minaret so high that it would offer views all the way to Bukhara.
The Khan’s death meant the structure was never completed and it stands today, along with ramparts, throne rooms, seminaries and battlements, as an all but forgotten graveyard to an ancient regime of khans.
The elegiac atmosphere of this ossified city is best experienced late in the day when, as dusk falls, visitors can almost feel that, behind squat wooden doors, they might just catch a glimpse of the ghost of a tyrant khan, clutching a scepter and shuffling towards his harem.
Local’s tip: It’s not possible to climb up Kalta Minor but visitors can take the (very) steep climb up the nearby Friday Mosque for outstanding views outside of prayer times.
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Tashkent’s food bazaar (Uzbekistan)
The Chorsu market in the Uzbek capital Tashkent looks like it should be part of a particularly ambitious Stanley Kubrick movie set.
A gargantuan dome that looks like the ultimate piece of Soviet space age era fantasy, the interior is designed in concentric circles lined with merchants selling typically Uzbek carnivorous cuts including horse sausage, sheep’s lungs, mutton, goat and camel meat, huge skewers of kebab meat and pies made with the fat from a sheep’s rump.
It’s noisy, overwhelming and incredibly cheap for most foreigners. The Silk Road may be ancient history but to see modern mercantile hustle in full effect, there is nowhere more exciting in Central Asia.
Local’s tip: The Tashkent metro is cheap, efficient and a quite staggering example of Soviet modernism.
Look out for the Cold War space age themed design of the Kosmonavtlar (Cosmonaut) station platform, complete with ceiling painted to resemble the Milky Way and murals of Icarus and first man in space Yuri Gargarin.
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Eerie Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
One of the more obscure capitals on the planet, Ashgabat has the feel of a showpiece city.
Boulevards are wide, litter is non-existent, grandiose modern structures awash with glass, steel and marble are everywhere.
But where are all the people? The population is barely one million and the lack of pedestrians or a clearly defined “downtown” means that exploring Ashgabat can be a disorientating experience.
Self-declared “president for life,” Saparmurat Niyazov (who died in in 2006) banned advertising, meaning that it’s hard to identify from the outside whether a building is, say, a restaurant or a dentist surgery.
A decade after his death, the regime is every inch as strict, though the cult of Niyazov lives on in the form of a 312-foot-high solid gold statue known as the “Arch of Neutrality,” which, barring mechanical failure, rotates so that the late president is always facing the sunlight.
Local’s tip: Night curfews can be enforced in Ashgabat making walking the streets after 10 or 11 p.m. illegal.
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The luxury train
The Silk Road was once, and remains, something of an endurance test to cross.
But there is one way to traverse the ‘Stans without an excess of stamina.
German rail company Lernidee operates the only luxury train route in Central Asia.
Starting in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, the train heaves through the highlights of the Silk Road in just over a fortnight including Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva before terminating in the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat.
Expect cabins overflowing with drapes, cake tier stands, divans and friezes and a dining car that works minor miracles with local produce to create meals that would satisfy even the most demanding of kings or emirs.
The luxury doesn’t come cheap though – the price of a berth starts at 2,870 euros ($3,230).
Local’s tip: Visas to Turkmenistan can take time. Best to start early.
It can take up to four months to process – though it’s more likely that they’ll be granted in four weeks.
Visitors typically need to have an invitation letter from a registered tour agency before they even begin the visa application process
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Horses for (main) courses in Almaty (Kazakhstan)
Served in thick, unctuous slices on top of a bed of noodles, and with not a vegetable or salad in sight, the ancient nomadic traditions of the Kazakh people may not be hugely apparent on the streets of the palatial former capital Almaty.
Yet, when it comes to a special occasion dinner, only one dish will do: horse meat.
Known as “beshbarmak” and translated as “five fingers” apparently because it’s supposed to be eaten with hands, the meal is served on colossal communal plates and washed down with endless glasses of chilled “Derbes” beer.
Local’s tip: The strong, beefy flavor isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but the best place in the city to indulge in beshbarmak is at Gakku Restaurant on Keremet Street, where the dish is served with a broth thickened with fermented horse milk known as “kumiss.”
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Rob Crossan is a freelance journalist and radio presenter based in Stockwell, South London.