Kyrgyzstan – The ‘Stans Part 4

May 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia

Today we continue our offbeat excursions to explore the things to see and do in Central Asia. This week we visit Kyrgyzstan, a rural and mountainous country that will remind you of the gorgeous scenery of New Zealand yet with a very different and distinct nomadic culture. Some actually call it the “Switzerland of Central Asia” due to the fact that it’s a land-locked nation comprised almost wholly by the Tian Shan mountains. You’ll also hear that Kyrgyzstan is the most accessible of the ‘Stans, due to the rather straightforward visa process and availability of direct flights from major airports such as London Heathrow.

Photo credit - noviceromano

Photo credit - noviceromano

The People

The true highlight of this country is actually the people. In the capital of Bishkek there are many Russians, but outside of there you will find people who still live in traditional, nomadic ways. They travel by horse, not by car (probably a wise choice once you see the condition of the roads). By summer they live in yurts and by winters they have sturdier shelters. But despite living in what must be one of the harshest climates in Asia to be a nomadic culture, these are some of the most hospitable people in the world.

The stories of friendliness and warmth are endless, and something you’ll no doubt encounter on any visit here. Be sure to take note of the mingling of cultures; as mentioned, there are many Russians in the capital, but Russian influences can be seen even in the nomadic cultures. The Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim nation but the powerful Kyrgyz vodka that is prevalent in day to day life is obviously a holdover from the days of Russia.

Photo credit - noviceromano

Photo credit - noviceromano

The Scenery

Ok, so if people are the main highlight of Kyrgyzstan, the other thing that you’ll be here to see is the mountain scenery: unspoilt, endless, and awe-inspiring. It’s one of those places where a postcard just doesn’t describe how incredible it looks.

Song Kul Lake takes top marks. It is the second largest lake in the country, and it has the unique feature of being in a flat, hidden valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, hence the tourist draw. Spend your days horseback or walking the terrain covered by wildflowers; by night, before withdrawing to your yurt for the night, look at the stars which seem so close you could reach out and touch one.

Manzhyly, another nomadic outpost, sits on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul and is another good base for hikes and exploring. There’s so many types of trails and sights, you can base yourself in one place yet have so many different experiences. Try to find an old Muslim cemetery; they’re filled with a kluge of sights, from metal yurts to sandstone mausoleums.

A great resource to use for help touring the countryside is Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan.

Photo credit - El Tuercas

Photo credit - El Tuercas

The Drink

While the food in Kyrgyzstan is similar to that of the rest of Central Asia, the drink culture has developed a few specialities you will want to check out. As mentioned, vodka is very prevalent, and of course your hosts will offer you as much tea as you can drink. But the drink culture gets far more interesting than that.

For beer lovers, there’s “bozo” which is a bitter made from wheat, not hops. It’s served more like a UK real ale – room temperature and a bit frothy. Come summer you’ll have “jarma”, a refreshing concoction made of fermented barley. If you like your spirits and the vodka is too much for you, sample some “Kyrgyzstan Cognac,” a type of brandy.

And if after all that booze you find you have a sore head the next day, ask for some kumys – fermented mare’s milk. It’s known to have restorative properties, but is definitely an acquired taste, so if you’ve not got a solid stomach then it is probably best to stick to the mineral water.

If You Go

Unless you are a passport holder of one of the former Soviet nations or Japan, you’ll need a visa. Most Europeans and other major English speaking nations can obtain a visa from their embassy or consulate before travel or upon arrival at the airport and do not require registration with local officials upon arrival.

Note that if you enter the country via an unmanned border crossing you may have trouble exiting, so be sure to get your passport stamped.

Kyrgyzstan is a relatively safe country, but women are strongly advised not to travel alone and travel by car in the mountainous regions can be treacherous. The roads are being refurbished throughout the country but conditions are still quite rough.

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About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.

Uzbekistan – Stans Part 3

May 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia

The next stop in our tour of the “new” backpacker circuit in Central Asia is Uzbekistan. Landlocked nation with the exception of the bordering Aral Sea, the Uzbek countryside is a series of deserts and dunes. It has a reputation for being unfriendly to foreigners (and perhaps unfriendly to locals too), but there’s still some gems to be unearthed. Let’s explore what Uzbek has to offer.

Photo credit - upyernoz

Photo credit - upyernoz

The Silk Road

Many wonderful sights can be explored following the route of the former Silk Road as it passes through Uzbekistan and is a good start to exploring the flat and seemingly endless countryside. Khiva is a top stop; formerly a capital city (at the time a kingdom called Khorezm), it’s now a wonderful open-air museum on a city that flourished in riches from the Silk road trade. Check out the East Gate, which was once home to a slave trade market. There’s the Tash Havli palace, with rooms for all of the different suitors and concubines. And of course, the iconic Kalta Minaret, a tower intended to be Central Asia’s tallest minaret. It stands unfinished to this day.

Smarkand is another important Silk Road destination. The gorgeous dome of the Gur Emir building is a must for all photographers (it’s actually a mausoleum), as is the Registan square. From here the gates and pillars feel as authentic and iconic as more famed backdrops, like the Taj Mahal.

Lastly but certainly not least is Bukhara, full of visitor attractions. The Ark, a palace, features a museum on the city’s history and the nearby Zindan is a hot spot to see the Bug Pit, a torture chamber which needs little explanation. But the real star of the show is the Kalyan Minaret, once the tallest building in Central Asia and the oldest monument in Bukhara (built around 1127). The first time it was built, it collapsed due to some mis-engineering, but it was finally erected properly and was spared by Genghis Khan when he destroyed the city in the 1200s.

Photo credit - upyernoz

Photo credit - upyernoz

Tashkent Architecture

The Uzbek capital of Tashkent was destroyed in 1966 after a strong earthquake. Because the city was under strong Soviet control at the time, today the city looks far more Soviet than elsewhere in the region. Everything from traffic signs to monuments and parks have that “look” (hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it). But you simply must take in the Soviet influence on the Tashkent subway. The highlight is the Cosmonaut station but nearly every stop is like a museum.

Photo credit - ideali

Photo credit - ideali

Food and Drinks

I can’t seem to talk about anywhere without talking about the food. But first, let’s mention something that many travelers complain about: getting ripped off. You’ll find many restaurants don’t have menus. This is so they can charge you an unreasonable fee after you’ve already eaten. To avoid this, ask for price information up front if it isn’t available, and be firm in asking for an itemized bill. Challenge it if it contradicts what you were told (though you’ll likely get footed with it anyway).

Manti is a huge Uzbek favorite, no surprise as you’ll find manti in both Turkey as well as the other Central Asian states. It’s a dumpling filled with lamb (and a lot of lamb fat), then steamed. It’s delicious. Somsas are another tasty treat that you’ll find in restaurants or even on the street; they can be filled with potatoes or pumpkin or meat. In summer you’ll see ‘spring’ somsas, which are filled with a special grass that grows in the mountains. If they’re made traditionally they’ll be put into a clay tandoori, which adds to the flavour.

To wash it all down, you’ll have plenty of choice for drink (though be careful with tap water, which is usually to be avoided). Tea is a popular option, and tradition states the tea be poured from the pot to the cup and back three times, then the fourth time it is offered to the guests. Hospitality plays a huge role in Uzbek tradition, so tea cups do not stay empty for long.

Uzbek also has some great wines, believe it or not. Khovrenko Winery is one of the most well known, but there’s several in the country. You can even go to a wine tasting in Bukhara in the west.

If You Go

You’ll of course need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website explains the process and fees in detail. For many, you’ll need a Letter of Invitation, which your travel agent or accommodation can obtain for you. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll need to register your local address, but if you stay at a respectable hotel they’ll handle this for you, but just be sure that it is taken care of.

If you’re flying in, the main entry point is through Tashkent, served by several European and International carriers, as well as Middle-Eastern Airlines such as Turkish Airlines and Uzbekistan Airways. Check out CheapFlights.co.uk for some excellent flight deals heading to Tashkent.

Security and safety is a mixed bag in Uzbekistan. It is technically a police state, which has made it quite safe, but visitors should be alert at all times and use a heavy dose of common sense. Some tips:

• You’re required to carry documentation with you at all times and may be asked to see it by a police officer. Most embassy websites state that it is sufficient to carry copies of your passport (and Uzbek visa!) and leave the originals at the hotel and offer to take the officer there upon request. They won’t usually bother.

• You’ll often be propositioned to check out the “night life” – either by local tour guides or just those on the streets. Trust us, you aren’t interested in what they have to offer, just say no.

• Otherwise, just use common sense for safety. Don’t wear expensive jewellery or carry bags/purses that could be easily stolen. Street crime is just as big of a problem as overall violent crime in the region.


Unearthing Asia is a travel zine focusing on Lifestyle, Culture and Attractions all over Asia. Don’t miss out on the best travel ideas and inspirations in the region of Asia, such as this list of top Vietnamese noodle treats.

About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.

The Stans Part I – Kazakhstan

March 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Attractions, Crossroad of Asia, Culture

You’ve heard of the ‘stans, even if you don’t realize it. They are quickly becoming the new backpacker circuit in Central Asia, offering great off-road touring, expansive nature, and that slight twinge of discomfort in not knowing how safe really things are, which the more adventurous travelers just can’t get enough of. So here’s your four-part quick guide on the ‘stans, starting with Kazakhstan.

Photo credit - Martijn Munneke

Photo credit - Martijn Munneke

Photo credit - upyernoz

Photo credit - upyernoz

A Russian Legacy

Kazakhstan is the largest of the ‘stans and the world’s nine largest country, bordering on Russia which is just to the north. This part of Asia was under the Soviet Union’s control until 1991, and the communist legacy has left an indelible impression on the country. At first glance, the empty rusting ships that sit on the Aral Sea look like the poor victims of global warming, or perhaps the oddly placed film set. However, it was the Russians who diverted rivers away from this massive lake to irrigate cotton fields. It is a must-see.

Then there is the ever-present radioactive threat from former Soviet nuclear dumps; many villages are death traps where radiation levels are thousands of times higher than safe. Similar to the Aral Sea, across the country entire villages laid empty and abandoned, left to rot.

Photo credit - Irene2005

Photo credit - Irene2005

Photo credit - Colleen Taugher

Photo credit - Colleen Taugher

Almaty Joy

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan and its former capital. It is a popular stop with tourists and expats because of the great urban vibe yet snow-capped mountains within eyesight on a clear day. Some of the best views are from Koktobe , which can be reached by cable car.

You cannot tour the presidential palace in Almaty, but the architecture is worth a visit. Across the street is the National Museum, which has explores Kazahk history. But when you’re finished, it is market time. Barakholka in the northwest section of town is famous for bargain discounts on knock-off products; it is busiest on weekends, especially Sunday, the perfect opportunity for people-watching. Zelyony Bazaar is another loud, crazy place where you can find great spices to take back as souvenirs.

For getting out of town, be sure to check out the Turgen Gorge, famous for its waterfalls. There are several walking trails through the forests as well as hot springs. There is so much near Almaty, hence why it makes such a great tourist base.

Photo credit - livepine

Photo credit - livepine

Photo credit - Dan..

Photo credit - Dan..

Tian Shan Mountains

It seems like most tourists I know who visit Kazakhstan head for the Tian Shan mountains. But why not – its exactly what many countries don’t have: endless miles of desolate mother nature, waiting to be explored and show off its hidden gems. Big Almaty Lake is must-see for sure – the blue of the lake is unreal. But what about the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory? Better see it while you can – with a lack of funding, its future remains unclear. Or the Alma Arasan ski resort? Or the Kosmostantsia meteorological research center? As if another world, the Tian Shan feels like its stuck in another time. Just read this Tian Shan experience for what a preview of what these mountains are like.

If You Go

Nearly all visitors require a visa to enter Kazakhstan. However, many readers will be eligible for a simple application procedure which will grant you a tourist visa you can obtain at any Kazakhstan diplomatic mission. For details and the application, visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan website.

Most will find the people of this country warm and friendly as hospitality is part of the Kazakh culture; the biggest problem is a corrupt police force. Be sure to always have your paperwork on hand in case you are asked for it.

Given the size of the country, you’ll likely make heavy use of local transport. Trains and buses are the most common and most economical; you can also use air transport for a few key routes (planes are new and safe), and within cities using local taxis are cheap and fairly easy.

Enjoyed this article? Check out our other travel inspirations to Central Asia – Backpacking in EgyptBeach Fun in IsraelMiddle Eastern Cuisine

Unearthing Asia now offers travel packages throughout the region of Asia. Check out our promotional offers of Luxury Private Villas in Bali, perfect for Honeymooners or those looking for a little romance. We also have great offers for hotels in Singapore, resorts in Phuket and many more.

About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.

Exploring Uzbekistan

September 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia, Culture

Uzbekistan lies at the heart of the Great Silk Road. For centuries, oases of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva brought respite to the caravans as they made their way across the desert. A tour through this country immerses you in the essence of the progress of civilization as it moved west. Today, Uzbekistan preserves this heritage while striving to bring its largely rural, historically nomadic populations better lives in a post-Soviet world. Slightly larger in area than California and with a population of 26 million, Uzbekistan contains more than half of Central Asia’s people.

Photo credits - dwrawlinson

Photo credits - dwrawlinson

Known as the ‘sunny republic,’ Uzbekistan is arid with annual rainfall between only 4 and 8 inches. But its heavily irrigated river valleys make it the second largest cotton exporter in the world. It also contains important mineral resources and is a world leader in gold production.

Historically, Uzbekistan is exceedingly rich, making it a truly great tourist destination. More than 4,000 historic sites dot the country, and thus its stature as the pearl of the ancient Silk Road. Civilization was already ancient here when Alexander the Great conquered the region in the 4th Century BC. Up until the discovery of ocean routes to India and China, Uzbekistan lay at the crossroads of communication between East and West and was the center of trade and exchange of ideas.

The conqueror Tamerlane (1336-1405) was born near present day Shahrisabz and created an empire that extended throughout Central Asia to Turkey and south to the Ganges. Tamerlane was also a patron of the arts and transformed Samarkand into a magnificent capital for his empire. Importing artisans from conquered territories, He and later rulers commissioned majestic buildings many of which still stand.

Photo credits - Gusjer

Photo credits - Gusjer

Central among them is the Registan, which was the heart of the city. Madrasahs or Muslim religious academies face three sides of the square, giving, one built by Tamerlane’s grandson who also built an observatory which he used to advance the science of astronomy during his reign.

Another legendary city is Bukhara, lying to the west. Another oases for Silk Road caravans, Bukhara became one of the great learning centers in the Muslim world and spawned the mystical Sufi sect of Islam. The city today still contains 350 mosques and supports more than 100 religious academies. With narrow streets, many parks and gardens, numerous historical sites and lively bazaars, a visit to this ancient city will satisfy a diverse range of interests. Travel here and you are sure to find something that resonates with your spirit.

Photo credits - Sitomon

Photo credits - Sitomon


Further west still, you come to a museum under the blue sky, Khiva. A city reputed to have been founded by Shem, one of the Biblical Noah’s sons, Khiva has preserved its ancient past and been turned into a living record of its days as a key center of trade along the Silk Road. The historic center of the city contains spectacular examples of Islamic architecture. Palaces, minarets and mausoleums from centuries ago have been preserved and refurbished making Khiva a lens through which you can gaze into history.
Unearthing Asia now offers travel packages throughout the region of Asia. Check out our promotional offers of Luxury Private Villas in Bali, perfect for Honeymooners or those looking for a little romance. We also have great offers for hotels in Singapore, resorts in Phuket and many more.

About the Author. Julia Feydman, has always been fascinated by the history of the Great Silk Road. Over time, her passion as well as many memorable trips to the area have grown into a successful, U.S. based travel agency – East Site, Inc. Central Asia Travel is one of the major routes her company specializes in. Visit her travel website East-Site.com today and discover Uzbekistan for yourself!