In the 1970s, Central Asia was as popular with backpackers as South East Asia or Central America is today. Then civil wars kinda got in the way and backpackers avoided these countries like the plague. However, on reflection, Central Asia sure has a lot of natural beauty, if little else (in some cases). The 7 countries I am talking about are affectionately known as the ‘Stans’ because of their similar-sounding English pronunciation of country names, and I am going to rank them as far as tourism for the international visitor is concerned.
7. Afghanistan is surely a country with amazing beauty in some places, and it was once the Mecca for all backpackers (ask our parents’ generation about it), but nowadays it is simply too unsafe (still!) to ever consider visiting the stronghold of the Taliban. Yet maybe one day we can all get back to the country that gave us the beautiful provinces of Bamyan and Baghlan.
6. Only ranking ahead of Afghanistan in this list because it is a safer place to be, Turkmenistan is nevertheless off-limits to most sane tourists. There is a lot of red tape involved when you want to obtain a visa to Turkmenistan (it don’t even have a Government tourism website) and if/when you get there, pretty much all you will find a barren wasteland full of statues of its previous supreme leader.
5. Pakistan nowadays has a fearsome reputation in the west as a stronghold of terrorism. While this is certainly true, other reasons you should not visit Pakistan (especially as a solo traveller) is that the risks outweigh the rewards, and much of this is because of a poorly designed tourist infrastructure (even their official tourism website looks rubbish!). That said, Lahore is supposed to be good for the culture vultures, and Karachi is said to have nice beaches.
4. There isn’t really anything too bad to say about Kazakhstan, but I never hear people talk about it when travel destinations are mentioned. Unlike the 3 ‘Stans’ ranked worse, it does have some nice places to visit (without security concerns), such as Turkistan and Almaty, but ultimately the country is too large with too poor a transport infrastructure to ever get the chance to see much anyway.
3. Now we are coming to the big hitters. Tajikistan, while not a popular destination by stretch of the imagination, does have some real unspoilt scenery to be discovered, and it is a perfect place for the intrepid adventurer, especially at Iskandarkul and Panjakent, and in Pamir National Park. More and more airlines are also now flying to its capital city, Dushanbe, which makes it easier to reach.
2. Kyrgyzstan is a truly beautiful country. I can never remember how to spell it, but I always remember how impressive the country was from the moment I arrived in Bishkek, and how it was much better than I had expected. While much of the country is poor and rural, this does not detract from the sense of adventure you will have at scenic locations such as Karakol and Issyk-Kul.
1. Uzbekistan is the country in Central Asia that offers the most to travellers. From its burgeoning capital city of Tashkent to its ancient Islamic relics at Samarkand (linked easily by high speed train these days), there is something for everyone to enjoy here, and the people are certainly the friendliest I have thus far encountered in this region, too. Bukhara and Khiva are also great places to visit in Uzbekistan.