Central Asia comprises six countries: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. With the one exception of Afghanistan, all of these countries were once a part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Exploring these countries is incredibly fascinating because you can explore both the rich, nomadic culture that flourished along the Silk Road in juxtaposition with the oppressive legacies left behind from the USSR.
In 1991, these former Soviet regions were tasked with the enormous responsibilities and hurdles necessary to become independent states and distinguish themselves as sovereign, unique countries. Throughout this process each country has also differentiated themselves by the extent to which they’ve chosen to embrace or part with their Soviet past (i.e. keeping/destroying monuments, how they convey Soviet occupation in their museums, etc.). For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects to take note of when traveling throughout Central Asia, and the influence of the countries’ present-day relations with Moscow. One of the most obvious artifacts of Soviet rule that still remains after nearly 30 years is the dominance of the Russian language. The many intricacies of post-Soviet Central Asian culture and politics make the region a must-see for Russian-language learners, history and political buffs, and adventurists alike.
Last updated: 2/23/2022
So, let’s begin!
There are many things to love about America, but let’s be honest, the average American’s geography knowledge outside of the 50 states + territories is not one of them. In fact, it is shockingly lacking (check out this Jimmy Kimmel video clip for some secondhand embarrassment). All this to say that, on average, most Americans probably would not be able to identify Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan on a map, which is a GREAT thing for adventurous travelers like ourselves! Significantly less tourists, very favorable currency exchange rates, and exceptionally unique travel experience opportunities that will leave you being able to say, “Yeah…I did that!” So if you’re up for a trip that’s a little less mainstream, Central Asia is definitely the way to go!
The terrain throughout Central Asia varies by country and region, but the main landscape that connects the regions together is Central Asia’s iconic mountain ranges. The mountain ranges are absolutely breathtaking and are a definite “must-see” for hikers and backpackers. As you journey through the mountain ranges you’ll see countless waterfalls, lakes, grazing animals, and yurts. If you backpack through the steppes or mountains of Central Asia, you must stay in a yurt overnight!
Check out Matador Network’s article here for more information on how to do this.
Between the classic Soviet cement-heavy architecture, monuments adorned with hammer and sickle emblems and street names dedicated to infamous Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin, remnants of a Soviet past are conspicuous in Central Asian cities to this day.
During the Soviet Union such leaders were idolized as almost God-like figures due to the massive “cult of personality” that surrounded them. The effects of such personality cults are reflected not only in Soviet architecture and monuments, but in film, art, and nearly every aspect of Soviet life – This ubiquitous official art form is known as Socialist Realism. Every time I see one of these examples in real-life, it feels like I’ve entered a history book!
These Soviet reminders are especially common in major cities, but one can also find Soviet traces in the countryside. Although less common, several collective farms still exist today that are left over from the Soviet Union.
Check out an interesting article here from National Geographic about one abandoned collective farm in Kazakhstan.
To say that the people of Central Asia are hospitable would be an immense understatement. The locals understand that Central Asia is not at the top of many people’s travel destinations. Therefore, the majority of people I met were very surprised and grateful that I had chosen to visit their country and learn about its history and culture. In fact, Kazakhstan is currently striving to become the world’s most hospitable country!
I was invited to sit for countless teas, given gifts at dinner parties, and was always assisted when asking for help/directions/recommendations.
It goes without saying, however, that not every single person I met invited me to their dachas for the weekend. When you speak English in public in Central Asia, people will stare out of curiosity – this is to be expected. But don’t be aghast if some of those stares are followed by scoffs of “American spy.” A bit of distrust with westerners, unfortunately, still lingers following the Cold War, so just prepare for that as well. That being said, the vast majority of people I met in Central Asia were extremely welcoming and generous.
This is easily one of the most appealing aspects of choosing Central Asia as a travel destination. If you’re deciding between Central Asia and a more mainstream travel destination, such as western Europe, you will no doubt be able to stretch your dollar further in Central Asia. This means you’ll be able to travel for a longer period of time, do more premium-level sightseeing (e.g. guided tours, adventure sports/activities, etc.), and not worry as much about general expenses such as food, accommodation, or transportation.
The favorable exchange rates allow you to relax a bit more without constantly feeling like you are spending an arm and a leg. Not only does this make for a more relaxing trip, but also a safer one. You’re less likely to shirk important safety-related expenses, such as travel insurance or opting for a taxi at night instead of walking home alone in the dark.
That being said, if you’re traveling to Central Asia and looking to take advantage of the cheap prices, you should not anticipate or expect extravagance. There are, of course, different levels of comfort that you can choose to pay more for. However, the great thing about Central Asia is that, unlike at a lot of popular tourist destinations, basic tourist attractions are not exorbitantly priced simply because it’s a tourist attraction.
Visiting a foreign country where you can use your target language in everyday life really is the best way to learn a language. Not only can you practice speaking with fluent speakers what you’ve already learned, but you will also learn how people speak in everyday life, as opposed to textbooks. Just think about English – We use so many phrases, contractions and colloquialisms in our daily speech that rarely appear in an ESL textbook.
Central Asia is the perfect place to go if you want to speak the target language and not break the bank. Especially if you are traveling for a longer period of time, and you’re able to make money online, you can enjoy a significant amount of time there while trying to attain fluency.
Additionally, when I went to Kazakhstan for the first time, a local Kazakh lady told me how great it was that I was in KZ and not in Russia.
How do you figure? Both countries speak Russian, right?
She explained to me that the Russian that is spoken in former Soviet countries where Russian was not spoken prior to 1917 spoke “чистый” Russian. The word “чистый” typically means clean or tidy. I was quite confused because you would normally use “чистый” when talking about cleaning your room, brushing your teeth, etc.
In this case, she explained that because an entire generation of people in Central Asia were pressured to learn Russian as a second language, their Russian resembles that of a textbook. Specifically, she said, they speak with less slang, less colloquialism, and adhere closer to various grammar rules. I’m no linguist, but it’s certainly an interesting argument to be made.
Growing up in southern California, I didn’t think there was much room for improvement when it comes to fresh produce. Oh boy was I wrong – The fruit in Central Asia is the juiciest and most flavorful produce I’ve had in my entire life. During the summer, cities are overflowing with fresh fruit from street vendors, grocery stores, and bazaars. I was considering bringing an entire melon back from Kyrgyzstan as my carry-on, but, after learning that that was illegal, decided against the idea.
I like to make it a point to visit the bazaar(s) in each city that I visit. Bazaars are a great place to scour for souvenirs, everyday items at a huge discount, and again, they are a great way to practice your Russian language skills.
Due to their large size, bazaars are usually located on the outskirts of towns. This is great for Russian learners because, as a general rule, the further you go from the city center, less English is typically spoken. Therefore, bazaars are a great spot to practice your Russian because there isn’t that common language to fall back on.
The nomadic lifestyle on the steppes is truly unique to Central Asia and unlike anything else on the planet. Learn about traditional nomadic dwellings called yurts, including how they are built to be easily transported, their spacious and colorful interiors, and how this reflects nomadic cultural norms and traditions.
This rich history helps to explain why modern-day generations have a very strong connection to their ancestors of the steppes. I was amazed to find that the people of Central Asia could tell me their family history going back generations and generations.