The Stans of Central Asia are among the most fascinating and unforgettable destinations you could ever visit and undoubtedly the most adventurous corner of the whole continent. Comprising the countries of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan — the latter remaining off limits to tourist — Central Asia boasts some of the least visited yet most rewarding Asian countries of all. Most especially if epic adventures are what you crave. Incredibly enigmatic and blissfully remote, the Stans hide a bevy of stellar hidden secrets. From some of the world’s tallest peaks to its remotest deserts, its most ancient walled cities and mesmerizing collection of manmade and natural treasures, our top 5 most epic adventures trips in Central Asia will guide on a magnificent journey of discovery.
So buckle up and hold on, intrepid adventure, for Central Asia beckons.
The overland route to rival all overland routes, the Pamir Highway offers unsurpassed adventures on the hair-raising Roof of the World. The famed M41 stretches almost 750 miles, from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to the Kyrgyz town of Osh, crossing one of the harshest yet most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet. After the nearby Karakorum, this is the second-highest highway on earth although calling it a highway, to be brutally honest, is a bit of a stretch. Tackle this challenging overland route and your constant companion for the 7-12-day drive will be an array of truly magnificent landscapes, which guide you from the dusty desert depths of the Wakhan Corridor (from where you can wave to passing Afghans across the river) to eyeball-busting altitudes of more than 14,000 feet, with impossibly lofty snowy peaks framing the scene on all sides. You’ll pass solitary herders and remote villages along the route so if you time your travels well, replenishing your supplies will be a breeze. Well, sort of. A challenging gig that offers more adventure than you could ever imagine, a crossing of the Pamir Highway is indeed one of the most epic adventures you could have, anywhere in the world.
What was once one of the region’s most prolific fishing lakes is now nothing more than a barren desert yet if you think that endless sandy horizons is all there is to it, you’ll be in for a mind-boggling surprise. Lake Aral is both a tragic tale of over-farming and one of the world’s most astonishing spectacles, with an array of stranded ships making it seem more like the setting of a Hollywood Armageddon blockbuster flick. To reach it, you’ll have to hone in on your 4WD skills and tackle a long drive across the lake bed over hundreds of miles, staring open-mouthed at the otherworldly beauty of it all. Calling this one of the most photographic places on earth would not be much of a stretch. Pack camping gear to soak up the dazzling starry sky at night and stop in the town of Nukus to fill up on fuel, water and tasty shashlik.
Kyrgyzstan is often rated as the most beautiful of all the Stans and much of this has to do with the fact that almost the entire country lies at an altitude of about 5000 feet. This is a mountainous haven with few rivals and boasts sparkling lakes, glorious peaks and spectacular gorges. One of the most enticing and adventurous destinations in the country is Issyk-Kul Lake, famous for its fascinating history and bewildering beauty. After Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca, Issyk-Kul is the world’s largest mountain lake and sits at an altitude of 5250 feet. With an average depth of more than 2,000 feet and being fed by no less than 10 separate rivers, the lake boasts an eye-feasting hue of sapphire blue and is framed by either luscious verdant hills (on the north) or red sandy shores (on the south). All of this visual feast is itself framed by the sky-reaching Tian Shan Mountains. To get there, you must drive over and through fertile hills inhabited by famously hospitable semi-nomadic tribes who set up their yurts in the summer months as they take their cattle to pasture. They’ll no doubt invite you in for a cup of butter tea or a shot of their beloved kumis, a liquor made of fermented mare’s milk that has been known to make grown men weep. For aesthetics and culture factor alone, a drive through Kyrgyzstan and an Issyk-Kul adventure is an absolute must, even if you were to never get out of your car. But alight at Issyk-Kul you will, we guarantee, for a circumnavigation of the lake by car alone would take at least 10 hours. On the way, stop at one of the many villages lining the shores and enjoy a day of sunbathing and swimming in the super salty lake and take your 4WD off-road to explore the enthralling Skazka Canyon, one of Issyk-Kul’s most gorgeous natural playgrounds.
The ancient Silk Road, a trade route that connected Southeast Asia and Central Europe during the golden years of the Mongol Empire, is nowhere at its most resplendent than in Uzbekistan. Home to the three most bejewelled Silk Road highlights of all — the walled city of Khiva and the multicolored splendors of Bukhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan offers undoubtedly the easiest and most colorful adventure of all. Only 500 miles separate the three cities, with each stop offering a kaleidoscope of breathtaking sites, including the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum and the resplendent Registan of Samarkand. Due to the sheer concentration of things to see and do (plenty of options for desert adventures between these hubs) plan on dedicating at least 10-12 days on an adventure-filled drive from Khiva to Samarkand.
It’s fair to assume that when Soviet authorities lit a gas-emitting crater in the desert area of Derweze to ‘burn off the potentially poisonous gases’, they never could’ve imagined that the resulting fire would continue to burn, uninterrupted, for more than 40 years. But alas, it did. And how! The Derweze Crater, dubbed the Door to Hell by locals, is Turkmenistan’s most famous highlight and a site that simply boggles the mind. Found right in the heart of the Karakum Desert and believed to hold one of the world’s largest deposit of gas, the Derweze Crater is often listed among the ‘most bizarre places in the world to visit’ and a trip to see it is an adventure all its own. Tours to see the crater after sunset are astonishing enough yet choosing to spend a night camped here is even more unforgettable. The sheer size and light emanated by the crater are enough to hold you captive for hours on end, so wait until the tour groups have left, take out your camping chair and enjoy what will surely go down as one of the most memorable nights of your life. Just remember to set up your camp well away from the crater to avoid a little dose of lethal poisoning and, for an extra epic injection of fun, visit as part of the yearly Mongol Rally.
For the extreme trekker and the intrepid overlander, the discerning explorer and the traveler in search of remote, spellbinding and soul-reviving experiences: the top 5 most epic adventures trips in Central Asia will surely tug at the heartstrings of all fearless wanderers. So skip the glitzy beach resorts and mainstream destinations of southern Asia, this year, and head off on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to a corner of the continent most people have never even heard about.
By: Rossella Di Palma
By: Rossella Di Palma
By: Rossella Di Palma