THE FIVE CENTRAL ASIAN REPUBLICS COVER A VAST AND DIVERSE AREA. TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR VISIT, YOU NEED LOCAL KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERTISE, AND TOUR OPERATOR KALPAK TRAVEL.
Building the Silk Road For thousands of years, the Silk Roads were the sole links between Europe and China. Men, goods, and ideas travelled back and forth the crisscross of trading routes, and at the crossroads wealthy cities blossomed, famed across the known world. The central part of the Silk Road, the great Eurasian steppe and the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, was the most challenging part of the route but also the most rewarding.
Merchants and missionaries dreamed of walking the golden road to Samarkand, of reaching Noble Bukhara, or finding themselves in the markets of Kashgar. Centuries on, the Silk Road had lost none of its appeal: If anything, the fact that Central Asia slipped behind the Iron Curtain for much of the 20th century has increased its intrigue.
The UNESCO treasures of Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Turkestan might be familiar to readers of National Geographic, but few travellers have ever had the chance to see them for themselves. The region’s natural and manmade wonders appear regularly on people’s bucket lists and now, thanks to improved communications links and a reduction in local bureaucracy, they can finally be ticked off. The Silk Road in Central Asia is a work in progress, and it has been for more than 3,000 years. Vestiges of the oldest, most fragile archaeological sites still remain, waiting to be explored, and above and around them stand medieval masterpieces of art and engineering, and buildings erected to the glory of God.
No tour of the region would be complete without taking in Central Asia’s extraordinary urban centres, past and present, and in attempting to understand the beauty (and sometimes brutalism) of the built environment. This whirlwind story is to inspire your very own Silk Road odyssey of one or more of the five fascinating Central Asian republics.
The Ancient World No one knows when man first settled in Central Asia: There have certainly been people here since the Neolithic era, and possibly before. The earliest population would have been pastoral nomads, and their nomadic descendants survive even to the present day, but as early as the 4th millennium BC there were already those who settled down and built themselves villages and towns. 5,000 years ago, people in Tajikistan’s Zarafshan Valley had already established a mining centre at Sarazm. They processed copper and turquoise from nearby mines, and had sophisticated forms of agriculture. Visiting Sarazm (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) today, you can still clearly make out the city’s mud brick walls and streets. Across the border in Uzbekistan, the same is true of Samarkand. Canals were dug to supply the Iron Age city with water, and by the time that Alexander the Great arrived in 329 BC, Samarkand was already flourishing. The most impressive archaeological finds from this period are in the Afrosiab Museum, and they include exceptional frescos showing life on the ancient Silk Road, and the diversity of people and cultures living here. Statues, weapons, coins, and ceramics have also been found.
The Golden Age of the Silk Road The infamous Genghis Khan rode through Central Asia with his Mongol horde in the 13th century, leaving devastation in his wake. Entire cities were razed to the ground, their inhabitants killed, but then they rode on. Those who survived rebuilt their cities from scratch, creating buildings and public spaces, which pushed the engineers and architects of their day to their absolute limits.
Travelling through Uzbekistan, it can feel as if every town, every city, has an architectural masterpiece. Wealthy merchants endowed religious institutions and public buildings alike, ensuring that they would be remembered long after their own time on earth had ended. In Shakhrisabz, Emperor Timur’s Ak Serai (White Palace) boasted a 65m tall tower decorated in blue, white, and gold mosaics, a significant portion of which still stands. Kokand, too, has its palace, mosque, and madrassa, and in Andijan the turquoise tile-clad domes still punctuate the skyline. But it is the sites of Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand which visitors long to see, and rightly so. These three cities, all of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are nothing short of magnificent. The entirety of Khiva’s Ichan Qala is an open-air museum where you can wander in the courtyards of mosques and madrassa, climb colourful minarets, and muse about the fate of women who once lived in the khan’s harem.
Some 140 architectural monuments survive in Bukhara, from the Poi Kalyan — one of the few buildings to avoid Genghis Khan’s wrath — to the extensive Ark fortress and the mausoleum of the Biblical prophet Job. Samarkand’s Registan, a square flanked with three stunningly decorated madrassas, was the centrepiece of the Silk Road city, but no less important are the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Shah-i Zinda necropolis, and the astronomical observatory of Ulugh Beg.
The Soviet Union The Bolshevik Revolution and the birth of the USSR was undoubtedly a period of turmoil, and in the course of the 20th century there were uncountable individual tragedies. But in Central Asia, the Soviet Union brought with it rapid development, industrial, economic, and social. The still predominantly agrarian (and sometimes nomadic) population began to urbanise, and this necessitated a new era of building in cities and towns. Though the likes of Almaty, Bishkek, and Dushanbe had been laid out by the Russians in the late 19th century, it was under the Soviets that they blossomed.
The Soviets built public buildings in neo-classical and Stalinist gothic styles: For the first time there were museums, theatres, and universities and, of course, statues glorifying Soviet heroes. In Bishkek it is still possible to see a statue of Marx and Engels, right next to a large statue of Lenin; and in Almaty the Memorial of Glory remembers the sacrifice of 28 guardsmen who are said to have destroyed 18 Nazi tanks but in doing so almost all lost their lives.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, suffered a devastating earthquake in 1966, but this gave architects the chance to build a new, planned city from scratch. They laid out the wide boulevards, which are still the arteries of the city today, and lined them with trees for shade. There are plazas, fountains, and inspiring monuments, as well as block after block of standardised apartment blocks built for the Soviet workers.
Central Asia Today Independence came suddenly to Central Asia, and it was a shock: No one anticipated the Soviet Union would fall, or how quickly. The newly independent states — now the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — had to establish their own identity and project their power at home and abroad. This was essential if they were to bring together their disparate populations into a cohesive nation.
Architecture was one of the tools they chose to use. Each of the Central Asian capitals has its post-independence highlights, from Dushanbe’s Presidential Palace and giant flag pole, to Tashkent’s Amir Timur Museum and statue of Amir Timur.
But two cities in particular stand out: Astana, built almost from scratch as the brand new capital of Kazakhstan; and Ashgabat, the oil-rich capital of Turkmenistan. Astana has no parallel. You could describe it as the steppe’s answer to Dubai, or a real-world Magic Kingdom, but these comparisons do not do the vision — or the skyline — justice. For Kazakhs, Astana demonstrates the future of their country: They want to be leading the region not only economically and politically, but also artistically and culturally. The world’s leading planners and architects, including Japanese Kisho Kurokawa and British Lord Norman Foster, have all made their mark. Here you’ll find the Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest tent; a glass pyramid; the gleaming Emerald Tower; and the Central Concert Hall, a dynamic turquoise structure that looks like a shard of glass.
Less visited, but equally ambitious, is Ashgabat. Here everything seems to be built of marble, shining white in the sun. The Alem Cultural Centre has the world’s largest enclosed Ferris wheel, and the soaring Arch of Neutrality is topped by a gold statue of Turkmenistan’s first president, Turkmenbashi. The Independence Monument is no less impressive.
Exploring Central Asia The five Central Asian republics cover a vast and diverse area. To make the most of your visit, you need local knowledge and expertise, and tour operator Kalpak Travel (www.kalpak-travel.com) combines this with Swiss professionalism and attention to detail. Kalpak arranges bespoke and small group tours to every country in the region, and you can also have a taste of them all with the 13-day Central Asia Express tour (€3,890 per person) or the more in-depth Best of Central Asia (21 days; €3,290 per person). You can expect the services of a passionate local guide who will immerse you in the sights, sounds, and culture of each city you visit. This is your ticket to the inside story of each republic today, the quirky hotspots, unforgettable views, and best restaurants that the locals normally keep to themselves.