Central Asia is a fascinating part of the world that few people ever get to visit. This article will define Central Asia as the five former Soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan - it will not include Afghanistan or Mongolia (which are sometimes included in "Central Asia").
These countries are some of the least explored in the world and are gems full of history and some of the world's most spectacular scenery and exceptionally friendly people. But these countries often experience unrest, and it is important to check for up-to-date information before going there.
Kazakhstan - The Largest Central Asian Country
Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the Central Asian countries and the most developed. The vast bulk of the country is flat Asian steppe - like the Mongolians; the historic Kazakhs once roamed these vast steppes on horseback.
- Capital: Nur-Sultan (Formerly Astana)
- Largest City: Almaty
The capital is the new city of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in the northern steppes. But the historic capital and largest city is Almaty in the south. Almaty lays at the foot of some of the mightiest mountain ranges in the world and is a stunning place to visit.
- Visa Requirements: Visa-Free One Month
Kazakhstan is visa-free for a month for most nationalities. There has been recent political unrest in Kazakhstan - while it is typically a safe country to visit, one should check for updates from the U.S. Department of State.
Kyrgyzstan - The Mountainous Country
The Kyrgyz people are similar in many ways to the Kazakhs, but whereas Kazakhstan is mostly flat, Kyrgyzstan is incredibly mountainous. The capital and largest city is Bishkek, and the country is famous for the massive and pristine alpine lake of Issyl Kul.
- Capital and Largest City: Bishkek
Kyrgyzstan is generally less developed than Kazakhstan but is very tourist-friendly. A must in the country is to take multi-day horseback riding trips through the mountains and sleep in traditional yurts.
- Visa Requirements: Visa-Free 60 Days
Uzbekistan - The Country With Rich Ancient Architecture
The two main attractions in Uzbekistan are its stunning architecture and the ghost fleet at the now largely disappeared Aral Sea. Uzbekistan is the most popular country in Central Asia and lies on the Silk Road. There are numerous group tours that go to Uzbekistan, where one can see the incredible architecture at Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. If one has time, visit the ghost fleet on the vanished Aral Sea Too.
- Capital and Largest City: Tashkent
For most Western passport holders, Uzbekistan is visa-free for 30 days - but for Americans, they need to apply for an e-Visa online (this is very easy and straightforward).
- Most Western Passports: Visa-Free 30 Days (Canada, UK, EU, Australia, NZ)
- American Passports: e-Visa Required
As of the time of writing, parts of Uzbekistan are experiencing significant unrest - check for updates on the situation before going.
Tajikistan - Home Of The Pamir Highway
Tajikistan is a small alpine country nestled between Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It is a poor country, but one that welcomes tourists. One of the greatest attractions in Tajikistan is the famous and remote Pamir Highway - it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who get to do it.
- Capital and Largest City: Dushanbe
To visit the Pamir Highway, tourists need a permit to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (it costs $20.00)
- Visa Policy: Visa-Free For 30 Days (Except UK)
Until 2022, tourists needed to apply for an e-Visa to visit Tajikistan, but since 1 January 2022, visas have been waived for most Western countries (except the United Kingdom, which still requires an e-Visa).
Turkmenistan - The Hermit Country
Turkmenistan is very different from the other four Central Asian countries. The country is largely closed to tourism, and visas are very difficult to obtain. Tourists need organized tours that will likely be quite expensive and tour guides to take them around the country.
- Capital and Largest City: Ashgabat
- Visa Policy: Visa Required And Very Difficult To Obtain
One way to visit Turkmenistan is to just transit from Iran to Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan - the transit visa is for five days. However, this option is very difficult for Americans, Canadians, and the British as it is difficult for them to visit Iran.
It is not recommended to visit Turkmenistan unless one is an experienced traveler. Visitors need to be careful what they say, do, and what they take pictures of. It is common for the police to follow tourists. Never talk about politics while in Turkmenistan.