We ended up spending almost two months in the Stan’s. Our adventures started in Almaty, Kazakhstan, working our way through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and ending the trip in Uzbekistan. The area is still relatively untouched by tourism, but more so than in recent years so organising visas, day trips and accommodation is easier than ever. Here’s a roundup of our favourite spots we visited:
1. Hiking to Ala Kul and Altyn Arashan – Kyrgyzstan
This was one of the toughest hikes we’ve ever done but we did push ourselves by doing it in just two days. The scenery was phenomenal, the hike excruciating, but it was definitely worth the climb up to see that milky blue glacial lake surrounded by snowy peaks. The hike continued up over a pass, down a lush green valley reminiscent of Switzerland and then we finished up in Altyn Arashan where we stayed in a yurt and dipped in hot springs.
2. Exploring Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes – Kazakhstan
This area felt very off the beaten track. We stayed in a rural homestay and ate food from the land including thick cream that rivalled Devon’s. But of course we were there for the lakes and they were well worth the trip. Kaindy was aqua blue with a mysterious sunken forest inside while Kolsai Lakes were surrounded by wild forested mountains and gushing rivers.
3. The Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan
We diverted off the Pamir Highway into the Wakhan Valley and our jaws dropped. The valley was seriously wild with the high mountains of Afghanistan just across the river from us. It was so untouched and rugged and one hell of a crazy road to drive along.
4. Horse ride and Yurt stay at Kul Ukok, Kyrgyzstan
This two day trip was wonderful, we hired a guide and horse to take us up to the blue lake of Kul Ukok where we were welcomed into a very rustic yurt camp. It was the most traditional yurt we stayed in and we felt very lucky to be eating the delicious homemade meals with the family. We also hiked up to the glacial lake of Kul Tor where snow covered peaks surrounded us. It was a very memorable trip.
5. The Fann Mountains – Tajikistan
This area is still pretty off the radar for most tourists, which is surprising as the scenery is spectacular. We headed to Haft Kul which is a chain of 7 lakes dotted along a 20km stretch of rugged valley. The lakes were crystal clear and various shades of blue and turquoise. It’s a great place to either kick back and relax at a homestay with the friendly locals or go hiking along the shores of the pristine lakes with towering mountains all around.
6. Issyk Kul Lake – Kyrgyzstan
One of the largest high altitude lakes in the world, Issyk Kul is a sight to behold. It looks more like the sea than a lake, but the water is crystal clear and the beaches practically empty. It’s not just the lake that’s amazing though, because behind the lake is red rock deserts and high mountains. We loved exploring the colourful scenery at Fairy Tale Canyon (Shazka).
7. Ethno/Nomad Festivals
Keep your eyes peeled, search online or ask locals if any festivals are taking place during your visit. We were very lucky to arrive in time for an Ethno Festival in Ton, Kyrgyzstan. It was an intimate festival with only a couple hundred guests so it was perfect for us as we hate crowds. We got to witness many traditional sports like goat polo, eagle hunting, archery while riding a horse and also traditional dance.
8. Samarkand – Uzbekistan
Albeit we didn’t love Uzbekistan like we did the other countries, there’s no denying the beauty of the Silk Road architecture. Samarkand has some stunning sights but lacked the tranquility of pedestrianised areas like Bukhara and Khiva. But if you don’t have time to see them all or aren’t really into history like us then you’ll tick all the boxes in this one city.
As you probably noticed most of our highlights were in Kyrgyzstan. It was hands down our favourite country in the Stan’s as it had a bit of everything, mountains, lakes, yurts, culture, deserts, beaches, cheap prices and friendly locals. So if you only have time to visit one country in Central Asia we’d recommended beautiful Kyrgyzstan.