Best stops along the Silk Road?
July 12, 2014 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Where in central Asia would you recommend for sightseeing, photography, street life, and general wow factor?

I've been particularly and increasingly intrigued by the great trading cities of the ancient world, and am considering planning a trip to at least one destination, either alone or with my family. What do you know about the ancient cities along the old trading (spice & silk) routes, and which ones would you dis/recommend? Tashkent, Almaty, Bishkek, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Bukhara, Ashgabat? Where have you been? Where would you go? What should I include in my considered destinations?

US passport holder, in case it matters, but live in the UK. Plenty of low-budget/low-overhead travel experience in various regions, and lots of travel with the kids. Speak some Russian, if pressed to by circumstance. Anything you can recommend would be great, but assume I know about LP's Thorn Tree & similar fora, and have checked out these old askMeFi questions. Cheers!
posted by Emperor SnooKloze to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I recall a travel writer for the Los Angeles Times travelled the Silk Road via motorcycle; I found the review very interesting and recommend looking on the LAT site for the article.
posted by effluvia at 12:50 PM on July 12, 2014

For the experience of a great Silk Road trading city, you are going to want to hit Uzbekistan's Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Tashkent was rebuilt in a modern style after a major earthquake during Soviet times and does not have much of an air of antiquity, nor many historic sites. BUT, you'll probably have to transit through there in any case.

Almaty is the most cosmopolitan city in Central Asia, IMO, and while attractive in other ways, may not be the historical experience you are looking for. As Kazakhs were nomads, there is not so much extant architecture from the Silk Road period in that part of Central Asia. The best sites in Kazakhstan in that regard would be Taraz and Turkestan (near Uzbekistan), but maybe not worth the trouble if it will require you paying extra for additional entries/exits on your visa.

You will need your Russian - little English is spoken in the capital cities, let alone outside of them. An effort to learn some greetings and formalities in the local language (e.g. Uzbek, Tajik) will go a long way in terms of goodwill with local people.
posted by scrambles at 1:14 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may want to add into consideration for your trip some Silk Road cities in Xinjiang, China. I have traveled to, studied and worked in post-Soviet Central Asia for many years, but a trip to Xinjiang added a dimension to my understanding of the region. In particular, consider Kashgar and small towns around the Tarim Basin. That said, I was there 10+ years ago and the relocation of many Han Chinese to Xinjiang and destruction of historic parts of the cities may make them less interesting nowadays - seek out advice from someone who has traveled there more recently.
posted by scrambles at 1:26 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kyrgyz were also nomads, so you will also see less historic architecture in that region. However, no visa is required and if you like alpine scenery, you may want to take a trek, stay in a yurt, visit an alpine lake or caravansarai (Tash Rabat). Osh is an Uzbek-Kyrgyz city which may have a bit more of a historic vibe to it - I haven't been. You could alternately stay within Uzbekistan and visit nearby cities on the Uzbek side of the border (e.g. Kokand) to get a feel for what the Ferghana valley is like.

I haven't made it to Turkmenistan yet, but a life goal is to visit Konya-Urgench, Ashghabat, and Mary. However, the bureaucratic obstacles to tourism will be higher than in Uzbekistan, including mandatory use of a tour guide throughout your trip. And I can't imagine that these cities will top Uzbekistan's Silk Road cities in terms of sightseeing, streetlife, or wow factor, except in terms of monuments dedicated to the post-Soviet cult of personality.
posted by scrambles at 2:07 PM on July 12, 2014

but a trip to Xinjiang added a dimension to my understanding of the region.

Be aware that it grows increasingly difficult to get into Xin Jiang as a foreigner due to the ethnic tensions and CCP desire to keep them under wraps.
posted by smoke at 3:15 PM on July 12, 2014

Well your first link is mine...

Really it begins and ends for me with Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarkand as far as cities go. There are other little sights on the way (konye-urgench, sharisabz) that are worth the trip.

Tashkent, Bishkek ( I shared a glass of wine with Donald Rumsfeld there. Really - it was bizarre), Almaty (read what scramble says about settled vs nomads - that's why) - eminently skippable. Have not been to Dushanbe but have heard the same. Asgabat may be worth seeing just for sheer lunacy of it - tho when I was there Niyazov/Turkmenbashi was still alive.

Kyrgyzstan is amazing, but not the cities.
posted by JPD at 3:29 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just happen to be in China at the moment and was just in Dunhuang, a city in the Gansu province of China. Not quite as remote as Xin Jiang, but Dunhuang is a special place of interest along the silk road. It used to be a thriving mecca and is now a tiny little town that exists solely on tourism for the mogao caves. The mogao caves were built by buddhist monks that traveled along the silk road and are a really amazing place to visit.
posted by ruhroh at 4:23 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not the original questioner but I've been interested in someday visiting this region and am enjoying the information, though I don't have any immediate travel intentions.

Realizing things may well be completely changed long before I ever made it to the area, I still would be interested in general impressions about what travel costs in the region, how difficult it is to get visas, the advisability and/or feasibility of guide services for people who can't speak any of the regional languages, and anything else that might give not just destination advice but an idea of what hurdles must be cleared to plan a successful trip.
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:32 PM on July 12, 2014

Xinjiang is definitely worth seeing, especially Kashgar at the very western tip, near Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. I was there in 2007 and thought everything was amazing - the culture, the architecture, the landscape. I traveled there overland from another part of China - it might be more difficult if you are trying to do a land border crossing from other parts of Central Asia.
posted by pravit at 5:00 PM on July 12, 2014

I've traveled the Silk Road from Mongolia all the way through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzatan, and Tajikistan. The Chinese side is a bit different, and more touristy in the special way China likes to "clean up" and "improve" tourists sites there.

I wasn't as impressed with Kashgar as much as others, although I missed the big animal market day. However, the rest of Central Asia was amazing. For "sites" you want Uzbekistan. Samarkand, Khiva, and Bhukara. However, the old fort area of Khiva has been emptied to make it kind of a living museum and feels a bit generic compared to the other two. If you decide to go see the boats moored in sand where the Aral Sea used to be I'd suggest flying (a flight from Tashkent isn't too expensive and I was on a backpacker budget). Personally, I liked visiting Tashkent's old Russian buildings, riding the pretty metro, and dodging the police. I wouldn't stay more than a few days, but if you're flying in anyway take a look around.

Kyrgyzstan has a special place in my heart because I spent so much time there trying to get visas and being trapped when China closed its borders for 10 days. Bishkek is a city, but I found the Russian/Kyrgyz aspect to it interesting. There's not much to see there though. However, from there you can make trips to the countryside. If I went again I would do a horse trip somewhere. Osh is prone to violent clashes however the few times I was there it was peaceful. I wouldn't say there's anything to see other than the way people live there, the markets, etc.

Tajikistan is remote and gorgeous. Dushanbe is a small city, nothing much to see, but driving from Samarkand to Dushanbe had gorgeous mountain views. I recommend flying to Kohrog and renting a jeep to drive along the Wakhan Corridor (it runs along the Afghan border) and along the Pamir Highway. Sure, there's some permits involved but it's beautiful if you're okay spending a lot of time in a car. Just don't expect a lot of electricity or hotels. We stayed in the homes of our driver's friends.

Essentially: Uzbekistan for the tourist sites, mosques, old trading towns; Kyrgyzstan for nature, doing outdoor things like hiking or horseback riding, and experiencing nomadic culture; and Tajikistan for remote mountainous scenery and super friendly people.

If I went again I'd like to go to Turkmenistan to see the culture of personality stuff, but would skip Kazakstan again unless I had the means to get hire a jeep to see some of the remote areas. I traveled on a US Passport and only had trouble with Uzbekistan (officials and the people) and was a female traveling alone with no Russian skills. This was 8 years ago now so I'm sure it's even more Westernized.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:29 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If we've convinced you to include Kyrgyzstan make sure you check out the CBT stuff about Song-Kul. Back when I went it was the only game in town, but I've been told by other friends who I talked into going that there are now other options at a lower price. But that should give you a sense of what its like.
posted by JPD at 9:14 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

CBT is a great way to do things in Kygyzstan. Song-Kul and the southern shore of Issyk-Kul have amazing scenery and pleasant camps. Tash Rabat is worthwhile if you are coming or going from Xinjiang. In Uzbekistan Shakhrisabz is worth seeing although there's less to do than in Samarkand or Bukhara. My driver managed to get me a tour of the old Soviet space telescope there which was good fun.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 3:33 PM on July 13, 2014

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