Central Asia is often a destination that many people skip when traveling. We think that’s a big shame. We traveled through whole Central Asia by doing The Mongol Rally, and we fell completely in love with it. This part of the world has so much to offer, from the hospitality of the people to the vibrant markets and its beautiful nature. When you like to travel off the beaten path, Central Asia should be on the top of your list! There is still so much to discover. Maybe we can convince you with these awesome things in Central Asia that need to be on everyone’s bucket list.
CROSS THE CASPIAN SEA
Don’t just fly into Central Asia; that’s way too easy right? The most adventurous and nicest way to enter Central Asia is by ferry. Crossing the Caspian Sea is tremendously beautiful, especially when seeing the sun go away behind the horizon during sunset. Although, it’s not recommended if you have a tight schedule. There is no timetable or official departing hours. The boat just comes and goes when it’s full. Even the ticket lady doesn’t always know when the ferry will arrive. Getting on the boat is time-consuming, but it’s all about the experience! Just head over to the port of Baku and ask around to know when the ferry arrives. There are some horror stories about the ferries being old and dirty, but there are some new boats now that are in a much better state! Take enough drinks and food with you, because the shop isn’t always open and you can get stuck in the middle of the sea for a full day.
Port of departure: Baku, Azerbaijan
Port of Arrival: Türkmenbaşy, Turkmenistan or Aktau, Kazakhstan
Time of departure: (almost) every day in the afternoon
Read this article if you want to know how long you can wait on the Caspian Sea ferry.
Travel Tip: Before taking the Caspian Sea Ferry, take some time to explore the Caucasus first.
VISIT THE STRANGEST CITY OF THE WORLD
Getting a visa for Turkmenistan can be difficult, but it’s all so worth it! There’s still so much unexplored in this mysterious country. And if we’re talking about mystery and Turkmenistan, we’re talking about its capital city Ashgabat. The city is the seventh least visited country on earth so that’s why you won’t see a lot of other tourists here. Even regular citizens are hard to spot. Walking around in the center will feel like the place is deserted. Except for the policemen that are standing on every street corner. Only desert surrounds the city. But what makes it so unique? Well, all the buildings in Ashgabat are entirely made out of white marble, the city has wide street lanes, and the statues are made of gold, which makes it a city like no other, especially in these regions. Ashgabat is truly worth the visit. Especially at night, because the president of Turkmenistan wanted that the city could be seen from space and that it would be more colorful than the Las Vegas’ Strip.
THE GATES OF HELL
Somewhere, in the middle of the Karakum desert, close to the town of Derweze, lies a gas crater with the size of a football field. What makes it interesting is the fact that it used to be a natural gas field that eventually collapsed in 1971 because of the drilling of Soviet engineers. To prevent leaking dangerous gasses into the air, they couldn’t find a better solution than setting the crater on fire. Locals have been calling it “The Gates Of Hell” since then. After 45 years, the crater is still burning, and it doesn’t seem that it’ll stop soon. Seeing this phenomenon is just amazing and is definitely one of the coolest things we’ve done during our travels.
Find out how it feels to stand on the edge of the crater.
EXPLORE THE HEART OF THE SILK ROAD
Uzbekistan used to be the beating heart of the Silk Road and still is actually. Exploring all the vibrant markets and cities takes you back in time, back in the days of trading silk and selling fresh products in the bazaars. The ancient cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva are just amazing and the perfect destination to spice up your travel photography. The architecture, with its turquoise tiled buildings and mosques, is just incredible. If you want to get a real Central Asian feeling, Uzbekistan should be on top of your list.
DRIVE THE PAMIR HIGHWAY
Ever wanted to drive on a highway and being the only one around? It’s possible in Tajikistan. And the best thing is, it’s the second-highest road in the world! The Pamir Highway (or M41) connects Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan with Osh, Kyrgyzstan. But most of the travelers start their Pamir adventure in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This famous highway takes you all the way through the Pamir Mountains along the border of Afghanistan up to “The Roof Of The World”, where the highest point is 4,655m. Most of the travelers do the Pamir Highway by hiring a jeep with a driver. A few adventurers make the trip with their bicycle, and we have the uttermost respect for them. Riding here, with the snow-capped peaks is fantastic, and every local that you pass by is so kind!
Travel Tip: Pack enough clothes so you can wear them in layers. During the day, it can get warm, but it’s freezing cold at night. We were there in summer season and it was even snowing on the top!
SHOP AROUND IN THE COLORFUL BAZAARS
Bazaars – or marketplaces – are the main places for trading and selling. You can find them everywhere in Central Asia, from the biggest cities to the smallest villages. Bazaars are known for the great ambiance and colors. They sell everything you can think of. From all types of clothing to all kinds of food and spices. Strolling around these bazaars is a lot of fun and gives you a good perspective about the way of life in these regions. It can get very busy and overwhelming maybe but enjoy your time and try all the different food. Osh Bazaar, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (not to confuse with the bazaar in Osh) is the largest of whole Central Asia.
FIND THE SHIP CEMETERIES OF THE ARAL SEA
Once half the size of the UK, now almost completely gone. The Aral Sea used to be full of fish but has now dried out. Because the Soviet Union dug other channels into the rivers that used to flow into the sea, the water couldn’t reach it anymore. Now, there are still some boats left, laying in the middle of the desert. You can see these ship cemeteries close to Aral, Kazakhstan or Moynaq at the Uzbek side. Be quick before scrappers have taken all the metal from the boats!
We stayed in a yurt for a night, together with these cute kids.
SLEEP IN A YURT
Yurts are the portable homes of the nomadic people in Kyrgyzstan. They are sturdy, round tents covered with skins or felt that can be build up in 5 hours. It’s probably as big as your bedroom but provides everything these people need. It’s basically their bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, living area, etc. When in Kyrgyzstan, it won’t be hard to spot the yurts at the side of the road or in the mountains. Staying in one of the homes will be one of the coolest experiences in your life. As the locals are always super friendly and welcoming, they are happy to provide their guests with a feast. Remember to always give something back to the family, it won’t be much for you, but a lot for them!
Want to have more information about all the great things in Central Asia? Indy Guide is a great resource that can help you with all your questions!
Do you know other cool things in Central Asia that you really have to do once in a lifetime? Let us know in the comments!