My Top 9 Central Asian Experiences
My Top 9 Central Asian Experiences
9. The Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan
The desolate, dirt-poor, despotic alpine outpost known as Tajikistan was mostly 8 days of unbridled Hell for me. But there was one region that didn’t totally suck. The south-eastern border with Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor. The area has great natural beauty, some incredible natural springs and very friendly people. It was almost like I wasn’t in Tajikistan anymore. I go into more detail about the Wakhan Corridor here.
8. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
As the capital of Central Asia’s only democracy – and a sapling one at that – Bishkek is a city at a crossroads. Sitting at the foothills of the scenic Tienshien mountains, it initially appears to be little more than a dilapidated Soviet Metropolis, with wide open boulevards and bleak, crumbling apartment block facades. But just beneath this is a place eclectically starting to show the benefits of free enterprise. I was amazed to find a New Zealand owned, Spanish named Sierra Manas Café that served as good a Latte as any trendy brunch spot back home. But infinitely more impressive was the Korean owned, fried chicken eatery, Chicken Star, which also featured an art gallery and live jazz. Now I’ve lived in Tennessee, and gone out of my way to seek out the best fried chicken that the South has to offer, which up until now had been the legendary Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis. But Chicken Star is on another spiritual plain. This could easily be the best in the world. And it’s in fucking Bishkek. I need to give a shout out to my impromptu local guide, Aziza, without whom I’d have found neither.
Surprisingly good eateries aside, the place is incredibly cheap, the Wi-Fi reasonable, the nightlife varied, and English is spoken amongst most young people. The Damas Hotel is excellent value all round.
7. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The former capital of the brutal Timurid Empire was the inception point for me visiting Central Asia in the first place. In terms of comparisons with elsewhere, this is the Rome of Central Asia, with the Registan and Shah-i-Zinda standing in for the Forum and Pantheon. While the modern city that surrounds these historical wonders is low on charm and high on weirdness – it’s an absolute must see for anyone coming to this part of the world. I elaborate a little further on the city here.
6. The Kyrgyz/Tajik Border near Sary-Mogul, Kyrgyzstan
On the first overnight stop of my Tajik road trip that would come to redefine my idea of misery, I was yet blissfully unaware of what was to come. The drive had actually started in the Southern Kyrgyz city of Osh and our first stop was at a tiny traditional yurt outpost, just a matter of miles from the Tajik border and about 20 kms south of the tiny Kyrgyz border village of Sary-Mogul. That’s about as good a location as I can describe, since I really don’t know where it was.
The area is absolutely stunning. Kind of like a windswept, natural, super-sized Hobbiton. The deceptively high altitude made the clouds appear as though they were little more than 30 meters overhead, and the afternoon light made the entire place look otherworldly. The scenic value of the place is simply unique. Staying the night in surprisingly cosy, traditional yurts, I ventured out a couple of times in the night to gaze at the night sky, which was on a level like I’d seen nowhere else. The fact that I was there in 2016 was redundant. It could just of easily been 1016.
5. Astana, Kazakhstan
You needn’t be in Kazakhstan more than a second to realise that Borat’s representation of the country is about as accurate as Super Mario represents plumbers. And nowhere, anywhere, makes this comparison seem more absurd than the capital city of Astana, a place that wouldn’t look out of place in The Jetsons.
The city didn’t even exist until 1998. Back then it was little more than a village on the barren northern steppe of the country, when then – and still – President Nazarbayev plucked it from obscurity to turn into the nations new capital. With the post-soviet depression shaken off and new infrastructure in place to harness the countries immense oil reserves, the full might of the new Kazakh economy was thrown into turning the tiny village into a global showpiece. And it succeeded. Walking around Astana feels a bit like Back to the Future II without the flying cars. Impressive national museum aside, the cities futuristic architecture is the only real reason to come here. Most Kazakhs sneer at the place as a soulless, ‘fake’ city and it’s not too far from the truth as the place was built entirely for the countries administration. I loved the The Khan Shatyr Shopping Mall though. It features a dinosaur theme park, health club and tropical beach wave pool on the top level – all enclosed beneath a colossal ‘Space’ yurt.
4. Darvaza, Turkmenistan
Darvaza doesn’t actually exist anymore. It used to be a small village located in the middle of the deadly hot Karakum (Black) desert, but was ‘removed’ by former Turkmen Dictator Turkmenbashi for being ‘ugly’. The village now lends its name to the remote area surrounding a natural wonder like no other: A gigantic burning natural gas crater. Only after the sun starts to set do you get to see why this place has become known as the Gates of Hell. Obviously I had to dress up as the devil here. Check out the details of this adventure here.
3. Almaty, Kazakhstan
The largest city in Kazakhstan is a cosmopolitan dream, and while it lacks the surreal ostentatiousness of Astana’s skyline, Almaty has everything else going for it. Having just flown in from Tajikistan, I was ready for some comfort, which I found by checking into the Ritz Carlton. After my friend arrived a day later, we enjoyed experiencing the coolest restaurants, bars, and social life the city had on offer on account of the wealthy local socialites he was acquainted with. I also bought some ridiculous designer clothes, met some stunning Kazakh girls, made good use of the spa and gym facilities of the Ritz, spoke English everywhere, and otherwise just totally fucking enjoyed myself. The Soviet Legacy Arasan Spa and Wellness club downtown was about as far as I strayed into doing anything local, though that too was a great experience. After Experiencing Tajikistan like the countries 99% it felt pretty goddamn good – as well as poetic – to experience Almaty like the 1%.
2. Khiva, Uzbekistan
Possibly the best kept secret in Uzbekistan, Khiva is the Lost City of Lost Cities. A one of kind ancient, architectural enigma that has been preserved in its entirety. It’s beautiful, uncrowded, and might just have the greatest city walls on the planet. It was without doubt my favourite place in Uzbekistan and the only place in the country I’d be excited to revisit. You can read more about me raving about Khiva here.
1. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Move over North Korea, there’s a new wacko Orwellian state in vogue. Welcome to Ashgabat, the ghost town ground zero of the world’s premiere Loony Toons police state, fittingly presided over by a malevolent Mickey Mouse. If that sounds like the most ridiculous premise for anything ever, let me assure you, it doesn’t go far enough – The capital of Turkmenistan had me in a suspended state of what-the-fuck for the entire duration I was there. It’s for this reason that it tops this list. For the complete Ashgabat experience, book a night at the Ylldyz Hotel – a paint by numbers knock off of the Burj al Arab Hotel in Dubai.
To paraphrase a movie that concerns itself with alternate realities; No one can explain what Ashgabat is, you have to see it for yourself.
I tried though. You can watch the video I made about it below – probably ensuring I’ll never be issued a Turkmen visa again. Fortunately, one time in this place is enough.