Now is the time to visit Central Asia; still in its prime as a popular travel destination, it’s a region that promises adventure, surreal scenery, intriguing culture and warm locals (many of whom will offer you the chance to stay in one of their traditional yurts with them as your welcoming hosts).
To prep you for the trip of a lifetime, here is a guide to Central Asia’s most remarkable natural and artificial sights.
Darvaza Gas Crater (aka the ‘Door to Hell’), Turkmenistan
Stay in a yurt or bring your own tent for nighttime views of the ‘Door to Hell’
Appropriately nicknamed the ‘Door to Hell’ by locals, the Darvaza Gas Crater is a menacing sight in the middle of the Karakum Desert. This ominous molten pit is 69 metres wide, 30 metres deep and emits so much heat you’ll have to cover your face when standing close to the edge. Though the crater’s origin is disputed, it’s widely believed that it was created 40 years ago by a team of Soviet scientists who were searching for oil but found gas instead; in 1971, a pocket of gas caused the drilling rig to collapse and – in order to prevent the feared spread of methane – the researchers set the hole alight. And it’s been burning ever since. The fire now lures tourists from all over the world, and can be reached on a tour or by public bus or train from the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat – but most visit on a transit visa itinerary from Iran or Uzbekistan. For truly intrepid travellers, there is also an option to hire a 4x4 or an off-road motorbike and drive there yourself from Darvaza. There are yurts located 150 metres from the crater, or you can take your own tent and camp nearby. Organize your itinerary across the border in Uzbekistan, staying in comfort at Kavsar Boutique Hotel.
The Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
Follow the thunderous Panj River through the Wakhan Corridor of the Pamir Highway
Starting in Afghanistan and ending in Kyrgyzstan, the wild and remote Pamir Highway was once a part of the ancient Silk Road. Today, this 1200km dirt road remains one of the only routes through the monumental Pamir Mountains (the world’s fourth highest mountain range) and attracts intrepid travellers keen to cycle or drive through its extraterrestrial landscapes. The most scenically splendid part of the route follows the thunderous Panj River through the Wakhan Corridor, with narrow winding roads cutting through precipitous cliffs high above the water. Spot yaks or maybe even a rare herd of the region’s spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep as you traverse desert plateaus and snowy mountain passes. And witness enormous turquoise lakes lined by thirsty camels, pitching tents along the way for some of the world’s most scenic camping. Be aware that you will need to acclimatise to the altitude, bring a visa and hire a driver or car. Start your adventure in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, staying at Guest House VIP the night before you set off.
Visit Samarkand's Registan Square and be dazzled by its ancient monuments
The ancient city of Samarkand was once the crossroads of all the ancient cultures that used the Silk Route and is famous for its mosques and mausoleums. Its most celebrated monument is Registan Square, a beautifully restored public space lined by three medieval madrasahs (Islamic centres of learning). It’s a mystical place, with gilded mosques, minarets and arches covered in carved motifs, turquoise domes and a huge glazed mosaic space in the centre. While in Samarkand, essential sights include the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, Bibi-Khanym mosque and Shah-i-Zinda tomb. Stay at Timur The Great guest house, just a 5-minute walk from the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
Song Köl, Kyrgyzstan
Watch the sun set softly behind the mountains from this sensational-looking alpine lake
Song Köl is a sensational-looking alpine lake set 3000 metres above sea level in the northern Naryn Province of Kyrgyzstan. Nearly 30km long and 20km wide, the lake is surrounded by the undulating peaks of the Tien Shan mountains and meadows called 'jailoos', where Kyrgyz herdsmen graze their livestock during the summer months. Watch the sun set softly behind the snowy mountains with eagles soaring over the vast plains sprinkled with white yurts – you can stay in these circular tents, hosted by a nomad family, tasting local food, watching traditional music performances and enjoying exceptional stargazing. After your alpine lake adventure, descend to another, nearby lake, Issyk-Kul, spending another night in a tent beside the water at Jurten Camp Almaluu.
Ancient City of Merv, Turkmenistan
The Tomb of Ahmad Sanjar was built in Merv in 1157
Walking amid the dusty remnants of Merv – an ancient oasis city along the Silk Road – it’s hard to believe it was once the world’s biggest metropolis. At its zenith, it was the capital of the Islamic caliphate and a great centre of culture and learning but it was repeatedly under siege, passing hands between various empires over the ensuing years. After being razed by the armies of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the city never recovered and was eventually deserted. Today, all that is left is a collection crumbling walls and a few monuments rising out of the desert but the appeal lies in the opportunity for contemplation here; walking around this enormous, eerie and empty archaeological site, it’s inevitable you’ll end up grappling with the significance of this bygone civilization, trying to reconcile its huge scale (do allow half a day to visit) with the fact that it’s now one of the world’s greatest vanished cities. To get to Merv, it’s best to stay at European Backpacker & Sakura Hostel in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and fly into Turkmenistan, before driving into the Karakum desert towards Merv.
Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan
Hike, drive or whitewater raft through the spectacular Charyn Canyon
The Mad Max-esque, 90km-long Charyn Canyon can be found within Kazakhstan’s national eponymous park, not far from the Chinese border. Over millions of years, the canyon’s red sandstone was carved by the wind and the river that flows through it into rare and colourful rock formations – the most spectacular sights can be seen in the ‘Valley of Castles’, a popular part of the canyon for four-wheel drive tours. You can also hike in the area, embark on an organised whitewater rafting or canoeing expedition, or simply find a good vantage point from which to watch the canyon glow golden and rust red in the beating sun. To get to the canyon, you’ll need to stay in Almaty, Khazakstan, the night before – we’d recommend Guest House on Sadovaya – and head to Sayakhat bus station, from where you can catch a shared taxi.