Central Asia or "The Stans" is a vast landlocked region of Asia, increasing in popularity amongst travellers who want to experience one of the world's last great frontier lands. In Stalin’s time, the area was known as Turkestan. Soon after Independence, the five former Soviet Central Asian Republics, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, were defined as Central Asia. This is the common modern definition.
Our small-group tour of The Stans covers the first four. The history of Central Asia is defined as much by the area's climate, as by its geography. Since the area is not buffered by any large body of water, temperature fluctuations are severe. The aridness of the region made agriculture difficult and its distance from the sea also restricted the growth of industry. Thus, few large cities developed in the region, instead, the area was for many centuries dominated by the nomadic horse people of the Steppe. Steppe horse riders became some of the most militarily potent people in the world.
Periodically, great leaders would organise several tribes into one force of almost unstoppable power. These included the Hun invasion of Europe, the Wu Hu attacks on China and most notably the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia. The fracturing of the Mongol Empire led to the resurgence of the Turkic people and from one minor tribe near Samarkand arose the tyrant Timur around 1405. His descendants ruled on separately in small kingdoms and duchies for almost a century. The dominance of the nomads ended in the 16th century, as firearms allowed settled peoples to gain control of their surroundings. Russia, China and other powers expanded into the region and had captured the bulk of Central Asia by the end of the 19th Century.
The geography is varied, including high plateaus, mountains, vast deserts, and treeless, grassy steppes. Much of the land is too dry and rugged for farming. A majority of its people earn a living by herding livestock. The two major rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya used to replenish the Aral Sea. Now that most of their water is diverted for cotton growing, this sea/lake has virtually disappeared. Water is an extremely valuable resource in Central Asia and has led to rather significant border disputes.
The Silk Road gave rise to unprecedented trade, but its place in human history resulted from the unique interchange of ideas, innovations and philosophies that occurred amongst the very different peoples that used it.
Our travels will encompass many of these historic places along with many other "story-book"destinations – many of which are UNESCO-listed. Wonderful monuments, some restored, some not; museums full of ancient artefacts; colourful bazaars, all combined with stunning landscapes, will make this a memorable experience.
Uzbekistan has the three living, breathing ancient cities of Samarkand, Bhukara and Khiva. Turkmenistan has large modern cities and ancient well-preserved ruins within a short drive of each other. The landscape of Kyrgyzstan will remind you of New Zealand with its snow-capped mountains and beautiful lakes. Kazakhstan is the economic powerhouse of the region and in its recent capital –Almaty, you may feel like you are in Russia.
There are parts of Central Asia that will have hardly seen a traveller before, and there are many wild and beautiful landscapes to be explored. Don’t be surprised if the locals want you in their photos!
1. History, history and more history in every direction
2. Uzbekistan’s Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva
3. The immense beauty of Kyrgyzstan’s snow-capped mountains and lakes
4. Turkmenistan’s ancient cities of Merv and Nisa
5. The warm and friendly people who will want to interact with you