Central Asia is a mix of cultures, traditions, food, architecture and natural beauty – and it’s filled with incredible experiences.
From being captivated by beautiful mosques and shimmering blue lakes, sleeping in a yurt, or exploring ancient cities across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, check out 20 of the must do experiences on your Central Asian adventure.
1. Sleep in a yurt
You can’t visit Central Asia without getting a taste of the traditional nomadic life.
Yurts are large tents lined with felt and you’ll find them scattered throughout Central Asian countries.
One of the best yurt experiences you can have is on the shores of Song Kul (Song Lake) in central Kyrgyzstan. During the summer months, nomadic families live on the lake and you can stay in one of the yurt camps.
The experience includes sleeping in a yurt that is warmed with a cow dung fuelled stove, and eat like the locals do and dine on soups and rice filled with horse or yak meat.
2. Down a shot of kumis
Kumis is fermented mare’s milk – an alcoholic drink traditional to Central Asian countries.
It’s loved by locals in this part of the world but the taste is not for everyone. But when in the Stans….
3. Take a road trip on the Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway is the world’s second highest highway and it runs through Tajikistan.
You can hire a driver for the trip or tackle the highway in your own hire car. Along the way, you’ll witness azure lakes, towering snow-capped mountains, colourful valleys and spectacular panoramic vistas along the winding (and bumpy) dirt highway.
Most people traverse the Pamir Highway from Dushanbe to Osh in Kyrgyzstan (you can start from either end). Stops include the Tajik towns of Murghab, Khorog and Langar. The latter sits on the Afghanistan border and you’ll look into Afghanistan as well as see Pakistan’s biggest peaks.
Along the way you can also swim in hot springs and explore fort ruins.
4. Step inside the Registan
The Registan is located in the city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
The Registan square is flanked by two colourful and intricately detailed madrasahs (Islamic schools).
This magnificent square was built between 1370 and 1500 – and has been restored over the years since in the wake of earthquakes in the region. In its heyday, the square was used for public executions, and to announce royal news.
The buildings of the Registan features wonderful mosaics, illuminated ceilings, towering minarets, and relaxing courtyards – and you can spend hours wandering this beautiful location.
5. Hike up to the desert fortresses of Khorezm
Did you know that you visit a handful of ancient desert fortresses in Uzbekistan?
The fortresses of Ancient Khorezm lie scattered across the steppe near the town of Urgench, located in western Uzbekistan.
You can hire a driver to reach them and then it’s a short walk up the sandy hills to reach each fortress.
6. See a ship graveyard
In the far west of Uzbekistan, you’ll find a ship graveyard.
Muynak used to be home to a thriving fishing industry on the banks of the Aral Sea. Due to the waters being diverted to irrigate crops in the 1960s, the Aral Sea eventually receded, leaving behind a handful of ships. The abandoned ships now sit rusting on the flat steppe.
7. Go hiking in the mountains
No visit to Central Asia is complete without a hike – or two, or three. Central Asia has many hiking opportunities, ranging from multi-day adventures up to bright blue lakes and high altitude mountain passes, or hiking alongside bubbling rivers and through green valleys.
The best hiking destinations in Central Asia are near Karakol in Kyrgyzstan or the Fann Mountains in Tajikistan.
From Karakol, the must do hike is the 3-day trek to Ala Kul (Ala Lake) via the village of Altyn Arashan.
8. Roam the Fairytale Canyon
The unique Fairytale (Skazka) Canyon is a colourful canyon filled with eroded rock formations. The canyon is located on the southern shore of Issyk Kul (Issyk Lake).
9. Drink tea
Drinking green tea is a traditional part of the Central Asia culture. You’ll be offered green tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner and any time you are welcomed inside someone’s home.
Tea is often served in decorative teapots, accompanied by a bowl of bread.
10. Go shopping at local bazaars
When in Central Asia, you’ll find much of your fresh food shopping takes place in the bazaar. Here you can find an assortment of local products such as cheese, bread, meat, fruit and nuts.
Among the best bazaars in the region are the Green Bazaar in Almaty (Kazakhstan), Osh Bazaar in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and bazaars in Samarkand and Bukhara (Uzbekistan).
The bazaars are also a chance to practice your bartering skills.
11. Tour the open air museum of Bukhara
Bukhara was located on the ancient Silk Road route and is one of Uzbekistan’s most beautiful towns. It’s often described as an open air museum with its minarets, madrasahs, mosques and squares.
Must see sights include the Ark Fortress, Po-i-Kalyan Mosque and the Lyabi-Kauz square.
12. Visit Old Khiva at sunset
Old Khiva is another beautiful city in Uzbekistan and the best time to see it is during the golden light of sunset. The Old City of Khiva is contained within some impressive fortified city walls, and inside you’ll find beautiful minarets, stairs leading up to the old city walls, and narrow alleys which are a photographer’s dream at sunset.
You can’t miss the beautiful azure Kalta Minor Minaret as you enter the city from the West Gate. The minaret is particularly unique as it was unfinished – due to the man who ordered its construction passing away before it was completed.
For spectacular views of Old Khiva, climb the north-western section of the city walls for free or the Kuhna Ark Watchtower.
13. See one of the world’s biggest canyons
Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon is located east of Almaty and is one of the world’s largest canyons.
You can take a day trip to the canyon from Almaty with an organised tour or hire a driver.
The most accessible and famous part of the canyon is the Valley of Castles section.
14. Take a train ride along the steppe
Uzbekistan offers modern public transport, in addition to shared taxis and marshrutkas. Train is an efficient way to get around Uzbekistan and get a view of the steppe as you roll along the tracks.
Trains regularly run between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. You can also take a night train between Taskhent and Urgench to reach Khiva.
15. Bathe in hot springs
Tajikistan is home to a number of naturally occurring hot springs. You’ll find them in between Langar and Khorog. They range from springs inside caves to public bathhouses with water almost too hot to dip your big toe in.
You must enter the water without any clothes on. Hot springs are segregated by gender.
16. Eat like a local
Food is a big part of Central Asian culture and you’ll find many delicious traditional offerings.
One must try offering is ayran. It has a similar consistency to yoghurt and is made from cow or yak’s milk and mixed with salt. It’s a savoury dish that can be served as a drink or in a bowl as an accompaniment to bread or meat.
You’ll also come across a lot of traditional dishes filled with horse or yak meat when travelling through Central Asia. Dishes such as dumplings, soups, stews and lagman are all served with horse or yak meat.
17. Get around in a marshrutka
Travels like the locals do and get around in a marshrutka. Marshrutka are mini buses that depart from bus stations when they are full. I won’t sugarcoat it here – they can be uncomfortable and often hot – but they are cheap and often the most convenient way to get around. And it’s always an adventure as you meet locals and get exposed to the local culture.
18. Take a cable car
Kazakhstan loves their cable cars and you can’t visit Almaty without finding yourself on one. Choose from the Kok-Tobe Cable Car in the centre of Almaty to reach a viewpoint, or head into the mountains at Shymbulak.
The Shymbulak Mountain Resort is located at 2,260 metres above sea level and you can take a cable car there from the Medeo ice skating rink. From the resort, you can take another cable car up to 3,200 metres above sea level.
19. Tour the metro stations of Tashkent
Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent is a modern, developed city with an efficient metro system. The metro stations are like an art museum and each station features a different theme honouring famous Russians or Uzbeks.
20. Check out beautiful madrasahs
No matter how many madrassahs (Islamic schools) you see in Uzbekistan, you’re sure to be impressed. You’ll find them across the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.