The Five Stans of Central Asia have often been called, “the lost heart of Asia.” This is because they are still largely undiscovered by tourists, making them a hidden gem for travelers looking for adventure. The Five Stans consist of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. If you’ve seen pictures, you’ll know how surreal the landscapes here are. You have turquoise lakes and snow-capped mountains that tower over green valleys. You have deep forests that are surrounded by grassy plains and rocky deserts filled with dunes. Some places you go to sit on a beach or ski down a mountain. This is the place you visit to culturally enrich yourself and be in awe of the world.
The Silk Road
More than 2,000 years ago this region was part of the “silk road,” one of the most historical and significant trade routes. Between the traditional villages, lively bazaars, historic towns, and modern cities you see an ever-changing architecture. Parts of the architecture were such a feat that even Ghengis Khan didn’t have it in him to destroy something so beautiful.
Linking the East and West, the blend of influences found here makes the Five Stans one of the most culturally rich places in the world. At the time, their geographic location positioned them in one of the optimal areas for trade. This brought with it ancient Greek and Roman armies, Muslim conquests, and Mongolian invasions. In more recent times, there was even Soviet occupation, which is still evident in the language and continued close ties to Russia. This is an overview look at the Five Stans, which defines a trip of a lifetime.
When most people think of the Five Stans, their images are primarily from Uzbekistan, which is known to have the most impressive architecture. Uzbekistan has four unmissable cities: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. You’ll inevitably travel in and out of Tashkent because it’s the capital city of Uzbekistan. It also has one of the better hotels you’ll stay at during your trip, which becomes a luxury given the rustic accommodations in the other cities of Uzbekistan. Tashkent itself though does have interesting stops for a day tour. The Old Town has a bustling carnival and traditional markets that blend with more modern buildings. The architecture is also interesting where Khast Imam Square display both Soviet and Arab influences.The 16th-century Barak Khan Madrassa has a beautiful turquoise-blue dome. Additionally, The Muyi Mubarak Library has one of the oldest copies of the Quran.
When you see photos of the Five Stans, most of the most iconic come from Samarkand. Samarkand is a blue-tiled city and one of the most famous stops on the Silk Road. Here, you’ll find historic tombs, mosques, observatories, and the famous Registan Square. Registan Square is a collection of three madrassas, which were religious universities. The Ulugh Beg Madrassa was constructed during the Timurid empire in the late 1300s. On either side the Shirdor and Tilla Kari Madrassas were added in the 17th century. Today they house beautiful markets and a hidden coffee shop or three. Also in Samarkand is the famed Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, where the great ruler Timur and his family are buried. It looks nothing like a cemetery though, but instead a stunning collection of buildings inlaid with intricate turquoise and blue tile work.
Bukhara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has 140 architectural monuments. The 2,000-year-old Ark Citadel and mosaic-covered Mir-i-Arab are a must-visit. Journey on to Khiva, a settlement deep in the desert. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site that looks almost exactly how it did centuries ago.
Tajikistan is known to have the most unspoiled beauty when it comes to landscapes. Although it may not have the best hotels, the sights make it more than worth a visit. Spend time in the capital, Dushanbe, visiting Istikol Square, the Samany Monument, and the historical museum. But, the real gem of Tajikistan is its nature. Travel to the Fann Mountains where you’ll see peaks that reach up to 18,000 feet. This mountain range also has the famous Iskanderkul Lake, named after Alexander the Great. This lake is comparable to the best Switzerland has to offer, with crystal clear waters. Spend time exploring the area around the glacial lake and see the biggest waterfall in the entire country.
Kazakhstan is considered the most glamorous of The Five Stans, having both rich infrastructure and beautiful national parks. The capital is Astana, and its largest metropolis is Almaty, which is also considered to be the most European city in Central Asia. There are quaint cafes, trendy restaurants, and new hotels to enjoy while here. Stop by Timur Malik Fortress, the city’s central mosque, and the Mausoleum of Sheikh Muslihiddin. But besides the city life of Almaty, Kazakhstan has a diverse set of landscapes. Visit the waterfalls of Turgen Gorge, the Iron Age burial mounds of the Assy Plateau, and Charyn Canyon (a mini Grand Canyon). Additionally, Altyn Emel National Park offers the chance to explore the Kapachagai Reservoir where you can spot wild animals. Journey further and the landscape will turn into a semi-desert. Visit the famous “Singing Dunes,” two large sand dunes situated between the Keesha and Ulken Kalkana mountains.
Like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has the feel of a modern city that has both modern sensibilities and a rich history and culture. Bishkek, the capital has great restaurants, trendy cafes, and an emerging nightlife. From Bishkek, head through the mountain vistas till you reach Chychken Gorge. The gorge is located in Sary-Chelek Natural Reserve, a UNESCO Protected Biosphere Reserve that has nomadic shepherds and traditional yurt houses. The area also has over 1,000 species of plants, hundreds of kinds of birds, and close to 50 mammals. Go through the stunning backdrops and reach the 12th-century village of Arslanbob. The village is surrounded by waterfalls, rivers, and a walnut forest that dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. Legend has it that the walnuts of Arslanbob were so good, he exported them and used them as a form of payment.
Turkmenistan is the least traveled of The Five Stans, partially because it’s a challenge to get the visa. However, if you go with the right tour company, you’ll get an insight into the beauty and history of the country’s past. The capital, Ashgabat, is known as the white-marbled city. The city has both new and gilded architecture, a result of the massive earthquake that occurred in 1948. You can take day trips from here to two UNESCO-listed ancient cities Nisa and Ancient Merv. Nisa was the capital of the Parthians in 3,000 B.C. It is also famous for Geok Tepe which is where the Turks made their final stand against the Russians in 1881. Additionally, due to its size and history, Merv is considered one of the most important sites in Turkmenistan.
A trip to the Five Stans is a step back into history and a chance to experience the remains of a bygone age. A whole civilization that was once on top, similar to how the U.S. is currently, is now for the most part, overlooked. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips that puts time and history into perspective. The Five Stans completely opens you to some of the most naturally beautiful as well as stunningly constructed monuments still in existance, thousands of years later. This is an example of a seventeen day itinerary that explores Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.
Day 1 – Arrive in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and explore the Old Town, the Muyi Mubarak Library. Then head over to the blue domed Barak-Khan Madrassa, and Independence Square.
Day 2 – Spend another day in Tashkent visiting some of its museums and palaces. Alternatively you can take it easy and enjoy the pool at the Hyatt, your home base. Also worth a thorough wander is the Old Town, where there’s a carnival and local breweries to explore.
Day 3 – Fly and then drive to the city of Khiva where you will explore the ancient inner city of Itchan Kala. The visit the Djuma Mosque and the mausoleum of Sayid Alauddin.
Day 4 – Spend the full day on a trip to see the Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm.
Day 5 – Drive through the stunning landscape from Khiva to Bukhara. Stop along the way for picturesque photo opps and for a local lunch when you arrive in Bukhara.
Day 6 – Visit famous madrassas, minarets, and mosques – including the Mir-i-Arab. Then visit the local markets and have tea at the Silk Road Tea House. We highly recommend a tea tasting.
Day 7 – Have another day in Bukhara visiting the Ark Citadel and the Royal Mosque. From there head to the Samanid Mausoleum, and the Bahauddin Naqshband Ensamble.
Day 8 – Venture to the town of Nurata and visit the mosque, the fort of Alexander the Great, and the Chasma Complex. Afterwards drive on to Lake Aydarkul and spend the night there.
Day 9 – Drive into Samarkand and see the Registan Square. Then visit the Gur-Amir Mausoleum and the city’s oldest winery.
Day 10 – Spend the whole day sightseeing in Samarkand. Stop by the Siyab Bazaar and the Afrasiab Museum. Then visit the paper factory, the Ulugbek Observatory, and the Mausoleum of Prophet Daniel.
Day 11 – Drive across the border into Pendjikent, Tajikistan. Explore the excavation site of Sogd, the Rudaki Museum, Olim Dotkho Mosque, and the bustling market.
Day 12 – Take a day trip to Iskanderkul Lake, walking around the perimeter and seeing the waterfall.
Day 13 – Drive into the foothills of Istaravshan and tour Muktepa. Visit ancient madrassas, mosques, and mausoleums.
Day 14 – Transfer to Khudjand and see the Temur Malik Fortress, the mausoleum, and the mosque.
Day 15 – Drive back to Tashkent and then fly to Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan. In the afternoon visit the Shymbulak Mountain Resort and take cable cars up to Talgar Pathway.
Day 16 – Take a helicopter tour of the Almaty region seeing the Turgen Gorge, the Assy Plateau and Kolsai Lake. Go to the Charyn Canyon, their mini equivalent of the Grand Canyon, and Altyn Emel National Park.
Day 17 – Explore the Kapachagai Reservior and after lunch return to Almaty. Drive to the airport and fly out from here.
In the capital cities of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, there are international hotels that achieve a high level of standard. In Almaty, Kazakhstan, there’s a Ritz-Carlton with some of the best service of all their hotels. Tajikstan unfortunately has not yet caught up on accommodations, so be ready to rough it. We stayed in a place where the toilet violently flushed all evening, but would do it ten times over again to get a look at the unspoiled beauty of the country. We’re not going to list the hotel here, as hopefully by the time you make it to the Five Stans, you’ll have better options.
Hyatt Regency Tashkent
Where to Eat in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek is the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, and if you’re making comparisons, think of it as the Washington D.C. of the Five Stans. A number of international UN representatives base themselves out of Kyrgyzstan. Accordingly, it means there is a cafe and restaurant culture. This is where to eat in Bishkek, and is from both personal experience as well as local recommendations.
Chef KG Restaurant
IWA Rooftop Bar
Where to Eat in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Of all the Stans, Kazakhstan is the most upscale. Almaty is not the capital city, (which is Astana) but it is like the New York City of Kazakhstan. You’ll see chic bars, restaurants and well-dressed diners, as it’s a favorite stop of neighboring Russians. The city is about luxury and glamour, which is reflected in the dining scene. This is where to eat in Kazakhstan.
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Olivier Restaurant & Bar