Sunday, May 16, 2004

Soviet, Islamic Turkish - join the culture club

Soviet, Islamic Turkish - join the culture club

Jeremy Atiyah offers a guide to all the 'Stans'

Published: 16 May 2004

Apart from sharing a common syllable at the end of their names, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia all offer a combination of searing deserts and vast mountains, overhung by the whiff of long-lost civilisations.

The culture is a mix of Soviet, Islamic and Turkish, which can make for bureaucratic difficulties: separate visas are required for all the countries, and lone tourists are sometimes viewed with suspicion.
A tour operator might help; some offer overland trips spanning several of the Stans together. Explore Worldwide (01252 760100;, runs a 25-day trip through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China for about £2,100 per person, including flights. Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711; offers a 21-day Spectacular Central Asia tour, combining Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for £1,990 per person, including flights.

You get an idea of Kazakhstan when you realise that it is the ninth largest country in the world, but that only 15 million people live in it. Most of the country comprises drab, empty steppe, and most of the towns were constructed in the Soviet era, when aesthetics counted for nothing. Of more interest are the erstwhile capital city, Almaty (now Central Asia's most cosmopolitan and prosperous city), and the mountainous southern and eastern fringes of the country, where fabulous trekking can easily be arranged in the Tian Shan and Altai ranges.

Getting there: British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies direct to Almaty from £590 return. Tour operators: Naturetrek (01962 733051; offers two-week, all-inclusive birding and botany tours from £2,000.

As a country, this Stan is the most liberal in the region. It is also by far the easiest to visit: its government (unlike that of most of its neighbours) actively promotes tourism. And given its abundance of stunning mountain scenery, the trekking here is some of the best in the world. After trekking with horses in the Tian Shan Mountains, you can sunbathe on the beach by the shores of lake Issyk-Kul, once used by the Soviet Navy for secret torpedo-testing.

Getting there: British Airways flies direct to Bishkek from £690. Tour operators: Regent Holidays (see above) offers a 12-day tour from £1,250 per person, including flights, b&b in Bishkek, full board and shared facilities outside Bishkek and when camping at Song Kul, transfers and sightseeing with English-speaking guides.

Regrettably, this Stan has hardly been visited by tourists since the fall of the Soviet Union, due to ongoing civil strife. A glance at the map tells part of the story: it is a strangely thin country, prodded by fingers of its neighbours. And its longest border is with Afghanistan. The one part of the country that is safely visited is the Fannsky Gory mountain range - great for trekking, but the best base from which to launch visits to this area is Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Getting there: If you want to fly from Europe to Dushanbe there's a once-weekly flight from St Petersburg on Pulkovo Aviation. Good luck. Tour operators: Steppes East (01285 651010; can organise a trekking itinerary for you, starting from Samarkand. A two-week trip costs about £2,000 per person.

This is one of Asia's most obscure and dullest countries, cut off from Europe by the Caspian Sea, and from most other places by mountains. Its deserts are thinly scattered with the ruins of long-forgotten Silk Road cities, if you can find them. One other reason to go there might be to witness a grotesque 21st-century personality cult: portraits and statues of President Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov are everywhere, including a floodlit 12m-high golden statue revolving atop a tower in the centre of the capital city, Ashgabat. The country's second city, Turkmenbashi, has also been named after him. I've been there. It's very dull.

Getting there: Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; flies twice a week via Istanbul for £545.

As a cultural destination, this is by far the most exciting of the Stans. You can go to the opera on the cheap in the capital city Tashkent, before heading for the historic Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Given that you can also arrange fabulous trekking here in the Fannsky Gory (actually in Tajikistan but best accessed from Samarkand), you might not want to bother with the other Stans at all. The only downside of Uzbekistan is that it is a nasty police state.

Getting there: British Airways flies direct to Tashkent from £525. Tour operators: Intrepid Travel (020-8960 6333; offers a 10-day budget tour for £625, not including travel into the country.