By far the largest of the ‘stans’, Kazakhstan has the Caspian Sea on its western side, the Aral Sea in its south-western corner, and a topography ranging from mountains to plains and deserts. The native Kazakhs, a mix of nomadic Mongol and Turkic tribes, have rarely united as single nation in the past. Kazakhstan’s cities are surprisingly modern and both Astana, the capital, and the former capital Almaty, are tree-lined and set against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Within 30km of Almaty it is possible to see everything from desert valleys to snowy peaks and the rare ‘sighing’ sand dunes.
Fiona’s travel tips
THE GREAT GAME: The Great Game refers to the 19th century battle for supremacy played out by the Russian and British empires for political dominance in Central Asia. While Russia spread east, swallowing up the Silk Route khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, Britain edged determinedly north towards the forbidden land of Tibet, with the aid of knowledge accumulated by fabled pundits like Nain Singh. The very centre of this political chessboard was the Gilgit Valley, where, high among the mountains, the borders of India, China, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan all converge.
DON’T MISS: Drinking green tea in Bukhara’s Lyiab-y-hauz in the shade of an ancient mulberry tree, watching some of the elders sitting cross-legged on charpoys bent over a chess board.
BOOKS: Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game and Eastern Approaches by Sir Fitzroy Maclean.
BEST TIME TO GO: The ideal time to travel is May to September, apart from Turkmenistan where the height of summer is better avoided.
FOR THE ACTIVE: For wild, remote, back to nature trekking, Tajikistan is perfect.
WHY NOT: Start your journey in Azerbaijan and cross by local ferry from Baku into Turkmenistan, the hottest, driest and harshest of the stans, where Ashkhabad’s Sunday Market will be swarming with the dominant Turkmen tribe, the Tekke, resplendent in their extraordinary shaggy hats.
Kazakhstan: 9 hours (direct)
Kyrgyzstan: 9½ hours (direct)
Tajikistan: 9 hours (indirect)
Turkmenistan: 9 hours (indirect)
Uzbekistan: 8¾ hours (direct)
Clients’ comments“Our journey along the Silk Route was truly memorable. These beautiful ancient lands with their Khanate cities and bazaars, unforgiving deserts and high, snow-capped mountains with lakes and lonely passes are memories we will treasure. Our guides were knowledgeable, helpful and fun, sharing their own family lives and culture with us, helping put all that we saw into a social context. The planning and organisation of our trip was faultless and Fiona’s first-hand knowledge and contacts in Central Asia smoothed a forced change in plans at short notice efficiently and effortlessly. Thank you so much."
Mr and Mrs Rob Aylott, Central Asia from Baku to Urumqi