Reasons to Visit Central Asia

Georgia

From the hanging balconies in the crumbling Old Tbilisi district and the Persian-style sulfur baths clad in turquoise mosaics, to unique art nouveau buildings falling into disrepair sitting side by side with futuristic glass structures, Tbilisi is a city that inspires.

The Georgian capital lies on the banks of the Mtkvari River and is surrounded by mountains on all three sides. Archeologists trace the first settlement in today’s Tbilisi to the 4th millennium BC. Its position on the old Silk Road turned it into a multicultural hub, reflected today in the city’s ethnic diversity and eclectic architecture.

The baths in Abanotubani follow the Persian tradition, only the thermal water bubbles up naturally from the ground below. Tbilisi gets its name from the Old Georgian word “tbili,” meaning warm, because of its hot, sulfurous water. Moving away from Abanotubani, a walk into the Old Town reveals old Georgian and Armenian churches, mosques and synagogues and even the ruins of the most northern Zoroastrian fire temple.

Way up in the Caucasus Mountains around 2,200 meters above sea level, this small village is Europe’s highest continuously inhabited settlement. Sitting at the foot of Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest point, Ushguli is famous for the medieval defensive towers connected to each house. It’s deep in the Svaneti region, known for its unique culture that was once cut off from the rest of the country.

Georgia is home to some of the most unusual cave cities in Europe. By themselves, they’re reason alone to visit the country. The oldest is Uplistsikhe, an ancient settlement that resembles a lunar landscape. Others include Davit Gareja, a vast monastic complex carved into the rock of Mount Gareja, and Vardzia, a spectacular underground city that once housed 2,000 monks.

One of the best ways to get to know the country is through its food. In fact, if you haven’t tried a Georgian supra, or feast, you haven’t experienced all Georgia has to offer. The local cheese bread is called khachapuri, the most famous being the Adjaran variety. It’s a baked bread boat filled with gooey, melted, tangy sulguni cheese, a whole egg yolk and some slivers of butter. Yes, it’s heart stopping, but so delicious. Khinkhali dumplings come with a spiced meat filling that releases its juices when cooked, so you have to suck out the stock before eating. Then there are delectable walnut dressing salads, bean stews cooked with fragrant cilantro and mtsvadi, tender marinated meat cooked on a kebab skewer.

Georgia adopted Christianity back in 324 AD and the country is full of spectacular churches and cathedrals in incredible locations. Whether it’s the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mtskheta’s Svetitskhoveli Cathedral or Kutaisi’s Bagrati Cathedral, or the dramatic hill top position of the church in Kazbegi, Georgia’s churches never fail to paint a pretty picture. Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.

Georgians might appear a serious bunch at first, but most are kind and welcoming. For Georgians, a guest is a sacred thing, and they will often go out of their way to help you. Their generosity and hospitality will often take the form of lots of food and even more drink.

Kyrgyztan

Kyrgyzstan has some of the most stunning landscapes that one can come across! You’ll be blow away by the stark beauty of the Issyk Kul Lake with turquoise blue water that is rich in minerals, you can go trekking in the mighty Ala Archa National park that is 4895 meters in height with 50 mountain peaks, the once flourishing ancient Silk Route in Burana and the vast freshwater Song Kul Lake . With wildflowers and high altitudes, you will be drawn more into the wilderness and lush valleys of this country. Not to mention it is extremely accessible to tourists as there are ample of options of transportation like shared cabs, long-distance buses and rented vans.

The ethnic population of Kyrgyzstan are the nomadic people who are on constant move with their pastures. During summers they settle along the hiking trails with their yurts. Yurts are portable, sturdy tents covered in felts and are the traditional dwelling places of pastoral nomads here. The nomads of Kyrgyzstan are extremely welcoming and hospitable to tourists and you are welcome to spend a night with them in their yurt and enjoy a hot meal with the family. Taking a closer peak to their culture is one of the top things to do in Kyrgyzstan.

The mountains and altitudes are one of the tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan. Hence the mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan offers not only a scenic view but also endless trekking opportunities to all the hiking enthusiasts. The trails are for everyone, whether you are a beginner or a pro and not to forget the nomads in their yurt are always there to welcome you if you wish to take a break and your breath.

Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan’s Silk Route isn’t very well known. But the sites are stunning and epic as they are located as high as 3000 mts above sea level and in the middle of no where. If you’re interested in the Silk Road history, then you must not miss these places in Kyrgyzstan – a 3000+ years old Osh bazaar in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city; Tash Rabat that was an inn for the Silk Route travelers. It is almost impossible to believe that thousands of traders must have traveled through all these greenery, mountains and trails with their camels and horses for centuries!

Wondering what to eat in Kyrgyzstan? The food is a beautiful fusion with delightful inspiration from Asia, Turkey and Russia with a lot of bread, meat, rice, potatoes, hot soups and their version of dumplings. Most of the eateries and street food have halal-friendly options making it a Muslim- friendly country as well.

The eagles is the national bird of Kyrgyzstan. You will come across a lot of nomads holding up their eagles for demonstration in summers but the real eagle-hunting (traditionally known as Salbuurun in Kyrgyzstan) happens in winters. Tourists can watch these majestic eagles hunting for their masters. An obvious Kyrgyzstan attraction, this particular skill, even though not practiced anymore for survival is still taught to every passing generation and is an integral part of the Kyrgyzstan culture.

When you visit Kyrgyzstan, you will realize that the locals are extremely charming and welcoming. If you are wondering where to stay in Kyrgyzstan, then worry not, a lot of locals offer accommodation in their yurts, guest houses, family homes at affordable rates. Staying with the locals is the best way to experience this nation.

Armenia

It’s already worth visiting Armenia because of its majestic and unique Mount Ararat. Ararat is a symbol of homeland for all Armenians and despite the fact that now it is not situated on the territory of Armenia, it is exactly from here that opens the most exciting and unforgettable view of this sacred mountain. According to the Bible, Noah’s Ark stopped at this mountain after the World Flood. After the water of the flood had completely gone, Noah came down and settled in the Ararat valley. That’s why Armenians have such respect to this Biblical Mount, and the climbing to it is considered a pilgrimage to the holy places. If you go up to the top of the Cascade (Yerevan, Tamanyan 10), you’ll get a completely unforgettable view of both Mount Ararat and Yerevan. But still, for those who want to truly enjoy the magnificent views, it is best to go to the monastery of Khor Virap. The road will take you about one hour drive from Yerevan, but the memories will last a lifetime. It is difficult to move look away from the mountain, and being surrounded by such beauty, it will become clear why for Armenian Ararat is more than just a beautiful mountain.

The history of Armenia dates back to 4110. The travelers visiting this country will be able to get in touch with both modernity and past millennium. And all this on such a small territory! This country is also the first one on the world that adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301. And now the unique architectural monuments of Christianity can be seen everywhere! Armenian temples and monasteries do not have such exquisite design, as, for example, the Gothic creations, but they are so majestic that visiting them you feel special unique reverence. It is impossible to know the soul of Armenia without visiting these remarkable places. Take a tour to Geghard, Tatev, Noravank, Sevanavank, Haghpat, Echmiadzin Cathedral and feel the magnificent soul of Armenia.

Lake Sevan is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It is located at an altitude of about 1900 meters above sea level, and when you stand on its bank, sometimes it seems that the water surface is about to touch the sky. Due to its beauty, Sevan is called “the pearl of Armenia”, and due to a huge size – “Armenian sea”. The area around the lake is a great place for a holiday or weekend. The best time for visiting it is, of course, the summer when the water is warm enough and spending a hot day near the water is a real delight.

Even if you do not have much time to travel around Armenia, try to necessarily visit the monastery of Tatev. It is located at a distance of 253 km from Yerevan, which will take about 4 hours ride by car. The road is long, but it’s worth it – you will go to the south of Armenia through the scenic mountains, alpine meadows, and waterfalls. The monastery of Tatev was built right on the edge of a cliff and looks amazingly at the background of surrounding nature. You can get to the monastery by cable way “The rings of Tatev”. It was built not long ago and is the longest in the world as its length is 5 km! The cable way stretches over the picturesque gorge of the river Vorotan, and takes you straight to the monastery.

Yerevan is a cozy pink city, which history dates back to 2790 years. It is beautiful both day and night, however, the evening city has special attraction. Evening lights are turned on, and you can go to the center of the capital and visit its “heart” – the Republic Square. Every day from May to October lots of people gather at the square to enjoy colorful and spectacular musical fountains. This show is the favorite attraction of both locals and tourists.

Any tourist after the trip to Armenia mentions the kindness and hospitality of the locals. Armenians are people with open and warm heart; they are so glad to meet their foreign guests and try to do everything for making them feel as comfortable as possible.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire, combines the historical, mysterious and exotic with hospitable locals who can never do enough to help a tourist. The government recently made it easier to visit Azerbaijan by introducing an eVisa and after oil prices fell, the country suddenly became a very affordable destination. Here are a few reasons to visit this little-explored nation in the Caucasus.

More than a third of the world’s mud volcanoes are along the Absheron Peninsula. Mud or sedimentary volcanoes by their technical name, erupt plumes of mud after pockets of subterranean gas build pressure forcing it to the surface. Azerbaijan’s Turaghai and Boyuk Khanizadagh are among the world’s largest at 700 metres (2297 feet). The volcanoes tend to bubble away slowly causing the sides to build up over time.

Similar to their Georgian neighbours, the culture in Azerbaijan makes people open and welcoming. They give the best hospitality possible. One Airbnb host in Baku insisted on walking to the supermarket and carrying our shopping bags, despite being on his lunch break with an outside temperature of 40°C. Another in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, took us sightseeing and back to his village for the night without expecting anything in return. Younger Azerbaijanis speak some English and are almost always happy to help.

The Caucasus Mountains stretch across parts of northern Azerbaijan and Georgia creating a variety of historical and cultural villages. Quba, in Azerbaijan’s northeast, is a favourite tourist destination. Nearby Laza, Xinaliq and Buduq communities make interesting villages to visit to experience a culture almost entirely lost to time. The region is also home to the East Caucasus Mountain Jews. It’s advisable to visit as part of a tour.

Baku hosted the Grand Prix for the second time in 2017 as the global superstars of Formula One descended on Azerbaijan’s capital. The Baku City Circuit covers 51 laps around the 6 km (3.7 miles) track in the capital’s long straight streets. Fans from around the world came for the occasion.

The architecture in Azerbaijan is varied. From Baku’s modern Flame Towers and opulent House of Government to medieval palaces and temples dotted here and there. The Walled City of Baku combines elements of medieval and traditional Islamic Azerbaijan styles. Europeans, attracted by Baku’s first oil boom in the 19th-century, designed the Old City with baroque and gothic architecture. And the same as other former socialist republics, like those found in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, you’ll face the endless apartment blocks typical of the 20th-century.

Azer translates to fire. In ancient times, the locals worshipped fire and built temples around the endless flames originating from subterranean gas. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions, originated in Azerbaijan. Ateshgah, a fire temple in the Baku suburbs, was once a significant site. Fire is still an essential part of Azerbaijani identity and culture with the 2012 Flame Towers in Baku paying respect to their heritage.

Carpet weaving in Azerbaijan dates back to antiquity. Family tradition and techniques pass from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Men sheared the sheep and women dyed and weaved the carpets. Most use wool, a combination of green, red, yellow, cream and blue form complex motifs and patterns, each unique and with its own story. Today, Azerbaijan has seven carpet producing regions.

Kazakhstan

One of Kazakhstan’s most curious sights is the Buddhist rock carvings and paintings of bodhisattvas at Tamgaly Tas, (literally, ‘stones with signs’) found on the banks of the Ili River, 100 miles north of Almaty.

Shymbulak Ski Resort (shymbulak.com) is a short 30-minute drive from Almaty city centre, making it ideal for a quick ski session (the season runs December to April). It’s the most advanced ski resort in Central Asia so you can expect mod-cons like Wi-Fi and cafes.

Orange-hued, enormous and thoroughly Instagrammable, Charyn Canyon is Kazakhstan’s answer to the Grand Canyon. Possible as a (long) day trip from Almaty.

Almaty’s Green Market features lanes of horsemeat and entrails weighed on huge peeling Soviet-era scales. This is no Borough Market but it is a fascinating insight into what city-dwelling Kazakhs eat.

Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is home to the third largest mosque in Central Asia, the gold-capped Nur Astana Mosque.

Created by an earthquake in 1911, and hidden in the Tien Shan Mountains, this brilliantly turquoise lake has faded spruce trees that poke out of the water creating a unique landscape. It’s a rough five-hour drive from Almaty.

Bayterek Tower is an iconic 97-metre tall tower in the capital Astana that is crowned with a golden egg. You can travel in a lift up 86 meters into the egg, for views of the city and the manicured gardens below.

It’s not easy to witness rockets blasting off from the place where Yuri Gagarin made history but some tours are available to the Baikonur Cosmodrone for the very rich or well connected (and it’s allegedly easier for citizens of former USSR countries).

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is a country with an expanding tourism industry potential. Ashgabat has a modern international airport, the base of Turkmenistan Airlines. Furthermore, tourists from abroad are deterred by the restrictive visa regime with all the countries of the world. There are many historical buildings and natural beauty areas to visit in this country which attract visitors with its cultural values and historical richness.

Konye-Urgench, located on the south bank of the Ceyhun River in the north-east of Turkmenistan, is an important Central Asian city. History is quite old. There are many ancient cities in the city. Moreover, Konye-Urgench is one of the most visited cities in the country.

Gonur Tepe, located on the border of Turkmenistan, 55 acres of historical archaeological area dating back 2500 years ago. Moreover, this area, discovered by the Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, has many temples of Zoroastrian religion.

Located in Ashgabat, Neutrality Monument is a wonderful building built between 1995-1998. Furthermore, this structure is exactly 75 meters long. Many tourists visit throughout the year this monument, which greets the city with 3 legs.

Ashgabat National Museum of History is located in Ashgabat. It is home to about 500 thousand collections such as, antique artifacts, table-paintings, sculptures, carpets, rugs, fabrics, local clothes. You can visit this museum to have information about the history and culture of the country.

Situated 18 km south of the capital Ashgabat in Bagir Village, Nisa is a historic city. As a result of the work carried out here, a royal building belonging to the Persians of 2500 years and Nisa Fortress was reached and besides this, many historical ruins were reached here.

Independence Monument, located in Ashgabat, the capital city of the country and the largest city, is a monument commemorating the independence of the country in 1991. Furthermore, this monument is 91 meters long and has a wonderful view. This monument, which has become a symbol of the country, is worth seeing.

Gates of Hell is a natural gas well located in the district of Ahmet in Turkmenistan. In 1971, Geologists discovered the world’s largest reservoir of natural gas. However, as Soviet Russia goes a little farther as it pierces the ground, it becomes a giant pit. Moreover, to prevent the toxic gases from reaching the earth, the fire in the hole burns. The flames in this giant pit continue to rise to that day.

Turkmen Carpet Museum, located in Ashgabat, is a museum that has been operating since 1994. You can see large number of carpets here. There is a large collection of many ancient carpets. The huge carpet of 301 square meters, which was woven in 2001, is also exhibited here.

Best Time to Central Asia

While there are slight variations from country to country, this region is generally characterized by a dry climate with extreme fluctuations between roasting summers and freezing winters.

The best time to visit Central Asia is from late April to May and late August to September. Much of the region is mountainous and during these months you can go hiking and avoid the winter snowfall or sightsee at lower elevations and avoid the fierce summer heat.

Lasting from November to March, winter is also the low season in Central Asia. Whether you’re in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan or the deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, you can expect freezing temperatures. Snowfall often restricts travel, with some roads, trails and passes closed in high-elevation areas.

Generally, this season isn’t recommended for travelling Central Asia. However, if you’re looking to hit the slopes, you’ll find the ski season in Georgia in full swing and you’ll need to book your ski lodge in advance.

Springtime in Central Asia lasts from late April to June. There’s a greater chance of rain in April, but this season generally sees mild temperatures which makes it the ideal time to visit. You can enjoy comfortable hiking in more mountainous countries such as Armenia, spring also brings flowers into bloom across the landscape.

The summer months of July and August bring sizzling hot temperatures to lowland regions, especially in Turkmenistan. But if you’re looking to travel in this season, there are still several options. For those keen to trek, now is the prime season to head into the cooler mountains of Kyrgyzstan or the Caucasus mountains of Georgia and Azerbaijan. It’s also the perfect time to hit the beach-like shores of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan or perhaps head to Lake Sevan in Armenia for sunbathing and watersports.

The autumn months of September and October are considered a great time to visit Central Asia. Similarly to spring, you can expect mild temperatures ideal for cultural sightseeing or heading into the mountains.

Essential Information

Visas

All countries in Central Asia require visas to enter the countries and they do have visa free countries policies.

Time Zone

Most of countries in Central Asia are under GMT+4 and GMT+5 Time Zones. Most Public Offices start from 0900 until 1700 while malls and shopping centers open from 1000.

Languages

Each country in Central Asia have their own languages which are mostly different. Most people in Central Asia do not speak English except people working in tourist sectors.

Currency and Payment

Credit Cards are accepted mostly in big stores or hotels, while smaller stores or restaurants require cash. Some ATMs in Central Asia are not compatible with Visa or Master Card cards and sometimes they detect the cards as stolen cards (even thought the cards are legitimate) and "swallow" the cards. It is advisable to use only ATMs inside banks in the office hours where bank officers are on duty to be able to get the cards back in case of being "swallowed".

Etiquette

Here are some do's and don'ts in Uzbekistan:

Greetings Men – Men greet each other with a big smile and a handshake. Some Central Asian men also place their right hand on their heart and bow or drop their head slightly. Good friends often greet each other by reaching out and shaking hand with both hands, often for some duration of time with the right hand placed on top, gently massaging his friends hand.

Greetings Women – Women generally don’s shake hands. They lightly touch each other’s shoulders with their right hand. Young women sometimes kiss older women as a sign of respect. If you are unsure what to do when you meet a women let her make the first move.

Greetings At PartiesAt parties it is customary for guests who just arrived to walk around the room and shake hands with every one. Some people offer their wrists. This dates back to a time when this gesture was used show that one was unarmed.

Strangers – They do not usually acknowledge each other while passing on the street. Any close contact, however, such as sitting near each other on public transportation or making a transaction at the bazaar, will open the way to introductions. It is common to invite new acquaintances into the home. [Source: everyculture.com <>]

Personal SpaceThere is less personal space than in the United States, and strangers brush against each other in public without apologizing. People tend to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, and physical affection is common between members of the same sex. People usually don’t form lines. Pushing to the front of a group for service is normal and inoffensive.

Right Hand – Try not to accept or give anything with your left hand. The right hand is for eating; the left is for cleaning one’s butt. The tradition has its roots in Bedouin customs in an environment without much water. The Koran states the right hand is more honorable.

Men and Women – Men should not touch women, stare at them or even look them directly in the eye. Women are not supposed to look or smile at men who are not their husbands. men and women, even husbands and wives, should refrain from public displays of affection—kissing, hugging, holding hands—wherever they are in the Arab and Muslim world.