Central Asia now seems at the distant periphery of the world, but at one time it was the centre of culture and contemporary thought. Discover the blue domes and mosaics of Silk Road architecture. Bargain amongst the locals in vast and varied bazaars. Trek and ride horses through mountain forest reserves. Camp by a desert crater licked by the ‘flames of hell’. Take lunch on a daybed in the shade of a walnut grove.
The ex-Soviet states at the heart of Central Asia offer a variety of unforgettable and unique experiences – if you’re keen to see something few have seen and go where few have gone, set off with Peregrine on any one of our trips through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
Two of our newest adventures are Glimpse of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan Revealed. Glimpse of Kazakhstan is the perfect connection for Asian travellers – taking you from Uzbekistan through to Western China, with wilderness treks and remote towns in between. Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan Revealed is a discovery of the great desert culture and latter-day personality cult of Turkmenistan, as well as an exploration of the Silk Road cites Islamic architecture and remote villages.
Glimpse of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan might be renowned in some circles as the home of Borat, but in reality it is a huge country of diverse ethnicity and beauty. It is largely unknown to the wider world – which no doubt is much of the attraction for many travellers. Its sheer size and small population mean much of its wide open spaces are devoid of people – walk in any direction in the World Heritage-listed Aksu-Dzhalaby biosphere reserve and you’ll swear it’s just you, the ibex, the bears and a million wildflowers. There are snow leopards and lynx in the upper reaches too, though the elusive creatures are rarely sighted. Our trip gets amongst these rare climes on foot, a brilliant vantage from which to experience the stunning Altau Range.
The trip also takes in the largest city and former capital, Almaty. There are museums, parks, cathedrals and bazaars aplenty, most notably the Green Bazaar and the magnificent Zenkov cathedral. It’s a great example of Tsarist architecture, reminiscent of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red square. It is a wooden building, allegedly constructed entirely without nails, and has stood for over a century through devastating earthquakes. Thankfully, the interior murals and icons remain intact.
The bazaar is the centre for trade in local produce and a photographer’s paradise. It is also the best place to enjoy the company of the diverse local people, even to try some of the local delicacies in the cafes atop the main trading floor – tuck into serves of spicy lamb wrapped up with butter and sour cream, and wash it all down with a tall glass of camel milk!
The final train stretch takes us to Urumqi in Western China. The nearby Heavenly Lake is renowned for the Chinese love story that is said to have drawn from the lake’s epic natural beauty. Legend has it that around 3000 years ago the Queen of the West entertained the head of the Western Zhou Dynasty, King Mu, at the lake. They wrote poems to one another, one in which the queen asked: “The white clouds drift where the mountains reach the blue sky. From a faraway place, you travelled past thousands of mountains and thousands of streams to come to us. If you remain as strong and fine as you are now, will you come back to us?” The king replied in a poem of his own: “After I have returned to my kingdom and led my people to a prosperous life, I will come to you again.” It is not known whether the king did indeed return, but after a walk along the trails around the lake and a quiet sit overlooking the lake’s epic mountain panorama you’ll recognise why the two lovers felt the way they did in such a place – it’s serenely beautiful.
Travelling across the desert sands of Turkmenistan, it’s easy to imagine the caravans of old plying their wares overland from remote village to distant city, with mythic adventures on the journey in between. The massive, gas-rich country is still renowned for its vast wind-whipped sands, skilled horseman and ethnic craftwork, and for a strong spirituality borne of living in the desert. These days, however, it’s perhaps most well known for the eccentricity of its former leader, a man whose presence is felt wherever one travels in Turkmenistan.
The golden statue of President for Life Saparumat Niyazov gazes out over the capital, Ashgabat, for all to revere. He sprung to prominence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and made his mark with many odd decrees. He banned ballet, proclaiming it indecent; renamed the days of the week after his family; made his rambling autobiography/poetry volume/moral treatise, Ruhnama, the basis for university study and the national driving test; and built statues across the country to memorialise his reign. He passed away suddenly in 2006, but a cartoonish monument in the shape of his book still stands. Niyazov’s siblings and mother died in an earthquake when he was young. He was saved because his mother threw him out the window as the earthquake hit… The monument commemorating this moment has been sculpted into a supremely odd statue in the capital – a bull rolls a globe on its shoulders (the earthquake), from which springs a woman throwing a baby. The baby is made of gold.
Darvaz Crater is another spectacular manmade oddity, way out in the desert. Back in the Soviet days a hug gas reserve was found. While trying to access and harness it, the earth collapsed to create a crater that started leaking poison gas into the atmosphere. To stem this toxic flow, the Soviets decided to light it up. It burns to this day… You can only take a short look over the rim before the heat is too much, but it indeed looks like a gateway to hell, with flames licking the crater floor – an impressive sight in the day that’s even more spectacular at night from our nearby camp.
Turkmenistanhas other intriguing sights too, especially those centered on the national horse. The Akhal-teke horse is an ancient breed – about 10,000 years ago, as desertification took hold of Central Asia, the stocky horses indigenous to the steppe grasslands began to evolve into the lean, graceful but hardy horses that inhabit Turkmenistan today. The horse is the forebear of the Persian Arab, with similar looks but a size more like a thoroughbred. They are coveted racehorses, show jumpers and dressage mounts. We meet some of these beautiful animals at a stud just outside the capital.
Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, the local hero is the great Timur, one of the conquerors of Central Asia in a long succession of aggressive men riding horses, including, of course, Genghis Khan. These days, the locals are as welcoming as the modern-day Turkmen, whether you’re strolling the neighbourhoods between the blue-domed medrassahs of Samarkand, shopping beneath the old bazaar domes of Bukhara or kicking back in the countryside near the Nurata mountains.
Samarkand, one of the great ancient cities of Uzbekistan, has been described as an inland Atlantis – it must have been a sight for sore eyes among caravan travellers crossing some of the most inhospitable climes anywhere, whether in the depths of snowy winter or the shadeless zenith of summer – food, water and company, as well as some of the most amazing architecture you’ll see anywhere, present in this city of diverse ethnicities.
The Registan was once a confluence of sandy riverbeds but is now the site of three grand medrassahs replete with minarets and elaborate mosaics. Explore their shady colonnades and rooms and soak up the history of a place that saw an enormous growth in world knowledge and trade.
Elsewhere in Uzbekistan lieBukhara and Khiva, two other ancient Silk Road cities. Sit by and sip a drink by the central pool and Bukhara and you’ll be among the residents who come here in the late afternoon to enjoy the pool’s cooling influence and the company of friends and family. Walk its narrow cobbled lanes and between the carved columns of Khiva’s grandest architecture and you’ll be well aware of the great breadth of history seeping through the place.