If you’re looking for a travel destination less explored (ugh, the mass tourism), you should consider the mythical Silk Road countries: 5 Stans (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), along with Silk Road China. I hope this article will give you some inspiration and ideas for your dream Central Asia itinerary.
So, without further adieu, shall we?
P.S. I’ve written a blog post on what to do in Kyrgyzstan, what to eat and how to get around, before, so do check it out to learn more about the country before you start planning your itinerary. The classic 7-day itinerary for Kyrgyzstan usually looks like this:
- Bishkek for a stopover and a visit to Burana tower on the way to Kochkor. Some stay longer for one day hike in the Ala Archa national park or 2-day hiking at Issyk-Ata
- Overnight at Kochkor for felt making workshop and arranging the horse riding to Song-Köl lake
- 2 days at Song-Köl lake with horse riding and a yurt stay
- Overnight at Bokonbayevo for Bel Tam yurt stay, Skazka Valley, Barskoon waterfall and Tuz-Kol salt lake
- Overnight at Karakol with a 2-day hike to Ala-Köl or in Jyrgalan area
You can also visit Jeti-Oguz Canyon for Seven Bulls Rocks
- Cholpon Ata for the petroglyph site and Chon-Kemin national park (horse riding, rafting)
Of course, the trip can be modified/extended to include:
- A hike to mesmerizing Köl-Suu alpine lake
- Osh – especially if you’re travelling to/from Uzbekistan
Best time to visit Kyrgyzstan: May to September
Explore ancient cities along the Silk Road in one week:
- Overnight in Tashkent, the capital
- 2 days in Samarkand, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. Poets and historians of the past called it “Rome of the East, The beauty of sublunary countries, The pearl of the Eastern Muslim World”
- 2 days in Bukhara was once a large commercial hub on the Great Silk Road and a centre of learning renowned throughout the Islamic world
- Overnight in Khiva, an ancient trading centre on the Silk Road and the capital of Khiva Khanate. You’ll also visit Urgench as a stopover for Khiva
Extend your trip with the stops in these destinations:
- Sentyab, a Tajik village in Nuratau Mountains for a rural visit
- Ayaz Qala mud fortress in the middle of nowhere
- Towns in the Fergana Valley: Rishtan, known for its glazed ceramics, and Kokand. These are ideal stops if you’re travelling to/from Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Best time to visit Uzbekistan: April-May and September-October
If your time in Kazakhstan is limited, I’d recommend you stay around Almaty and cover the Golden triangle route, and potentially visit Astana, the capital. Plan for a week:
- 1-2 day in Almaty (we’ve got a useful Almaty guide to help you around, including a city walking map)
- 4-5 days for Golden Triangle: Kolsai Lakes, Lake Kaindy, Charyn Canyon, Singing Dune and Altyn-Emel National Park
- 1 day in modern Astana
What else there’s to see in Kazakhstan? Consider visiting:
- Baikonur Cosmodrome: The site has mostly been used to launch Soviet Union and Russian cosmonauts, but after the Cold War cooled, American and European astronauts started to launch there as well. The cosmodrome is still in use today so you might spot the actual launches, if lucky!
- Aral Sea: the lake that disappeared. Today you can see the dry landscape that reminds of a ship graveyard.
- Aksu-Zhabagly national park, if you aren’t going to Kyrgyzstan
- Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan, if you aren’t visiting Uzbekistan
Best time to visit Kazakhstan: April-June and September-October
One of the two lesser-known siblings of the Stan family where over 90% of the country are mountainous. It’s the easiest to visit the country if you’re coming from Kyrgyzstan and heading to Uzbekistan next.
- 4-6 days on Pamir Highway (or M41) – follow it from Kyrgyzstan all the way to Dushanbe. It’s seriously picturesque though it can be quite intense and tiring. Make some stops along the way:
- Karakul Crater Lake on the way to Murgab village for an overnight stay
- Jelondi village for a hot spring
- Alternatively leave M41 for Langar for petroglyphs and Pamiri spirit shrines, Bibi Fatima hot springs in Vichkut village (map) and visit Ptup for the Yamchun Fort
- Khorog for the market and a walk to Jisev village
- 2 days in Dushanbe, the capital. Visit the Museum of National Antiquities, Haji Yakoub Mosque & Madressa and Hissor Fort.
- Iskanderkul, a must-see alpine lake. Did you know that the name of Iskanderkul Lake means the Lake of Alexander the Great? There are many legends about the lake and Alexander the Great.
- Khujand for Khujand Fortress, mosques, museums and bazaar
Additional stops and extensions:
- From Murghab, some go to Gumbezkul in the Pschart valley for trekking or hike to Sarez lake
- From Khorog do a 4-day hike to Grumm-Grzhimaylo glacier
- If you’re into rock climbing, there is a great site at Varzorb, 40 minutes away from Dushanbe
- Sarazm UNESCO listed ancient settlement and hiking to Seven lakes, each of a different colour, in the Fann Mountains
Best time to visit Tajikistan: June to September
The other lesser known sibling of the Stan family. Usually, the tours are joined with the visit to Uzbekistan or Iran. Plan 3-4 days to visit:
- Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, for an overnight stay. Visit the city’s monuments and a Sunday market “Tolkuchka”
- Merv, UNESCO World Heritage Site that was a major centre of international trade and crafts located on the Silk Road, with a transfer via Mary
- Darvaza gas crater (also known as ‘Door to hell’), located in the middle of Karakum desert, with a stop in Erbent village on the way from Ashgabat. Did you know that this fire has been burning since 1971? It’s a truly spooky sight at night.
- Potentially stop at Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan for its mausoleums, but most continue their trip to Uzbekistan – if they aren’t history buffs – and skip it altogether
Best time to visit Turkmenistan: March-June and September-November
Visit Central Asia
Central Asia Express Itinerary
The fastest way to sample Central Asia is to visit just 2 countries: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These countries are a great example of the diverse and colorful landscape found in the region. Your express itinerary should keep you busy for 10-14 days.
See the Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan sections above for more details on the destinations.
Thorough Central Asia Itinerary
Visit all the Stans! The five Stan tours usually follow an itinerary similar to this:
The main task for you will be ensuring smooth transfers between the countries.
Silk Road Itinerary
If you want to really understand the region, its history, culture and people, your journey should start in China and cover at least Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. What should you visit in China:
- Start your journey to Beijing. China’s capital needs 3-4 days alone to cover the sights
- 2 days in Xian. Explore Muslim Chinese culture, including the peculiar mosque and the food at Saturday street market
- 2 days in Zhangye that is home to China’s largest reclining Buddha and colourful Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park
- A stop in Jiayuguan, the last outpost of the Chinese Empire. Explore Jiayuguan Fort and a remote section of the Great Wall
- A stop at Dunhuang for Crescent Lake oasis, surrounded by Mingsha Shan singing sand dunes and Mogao Caves with almost 500 caves and 2.5 thousand statues
- 2 days in Turpan for traditional mud dwellings, nearby Flaming Mountains, the Turpan Depression (second only to the Dead Sea in Jordan as the lowest point on earth) and ancient Silk Road city of Jiaohe
- 1 day in Kashgar, an old city with a myriad of beautiful examples of Uyghur Islamic architecture
From there, continue to Kyrgyzstan via Torugart to Naryn or Irkeshtam Pass to Sary Tash. Plan for a month-long journey.
Alternatively, start at Urumqi that “was a major hub on the Silk Road during China’s Tang dynasty, and developed its reputation as a leading cultural and commercial centre during the Qing dynasty in the 19th Century” (Wikipedia). Take a few days to explore this buzzing city! If you have time to venture outside of the city, visit Heavenly lake of Tianshan and Bogda Peak.
Then transfer to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
What’s your dream Central Asia itinerary?
Or have you travelled to Central Asia before? Share your experiences with us!