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10 Highlights of the 'Stans' of Central Asia

From the mighty mountains of Tajikistan to the futuristic architecture of Kazakhstan's capital, the 'Stans' of Central Asia are brimming with otherworldly adventures. Here are some of the highlights.


Silk Road

Extending from East Asia to the Mediterranean, the Silk Road passes through many 'Stans,' including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. From the cobalt-blue tiles and ornate mosaics of Samarkand's Registan Square, and the domed bazaars of Bokhara, to the old fortified city of Khiva, a trip along the Silk Road will take you back in time to an ancient era of lucrative international trade.
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Aralsk, Kazakhstan

Rusting shipwrecks litter an eerily still arid desert once flooded by the fourth largest lake in the World; the Aral Sea. Due to the construction of Soviet irrigation channels in the 1960s, the Aral waters shrunk beyond recognition, leaving the village of Aralsk, previously a busy fishing port, high and dry and completely landlocked. Explore the former sea bed by 4WD and visit the local museum to learn about the disaster and the efforts to try and restore water to the area.
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Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan

Venture beyond the usual tourist trails to discover the mountainous Wakhan Valley region. Wedged between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, steep golden hillsides soar into the skies either side of vast green plateaus. A buffer zone between the Russian and British empires during the "Great Game," this remote corridor once served as a trading route through the region. Today, that route is the Pamir Highway, which takes us to Ishkashim, where we sample local food and enjoy shows by Wakhi dancers and talented musicians.
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Fann Mountains & Seven Lakes, Tajikistan

Rising at dawn, we drive up into the craggy valleys of Tajikistan's towering Fann Mountains. Rocky flanks rise into the clouds, and a dusting of white snow veils the highest peaks. A hike into the 'Seven Lakes' region reveals a myriad of alpine lagoons enveloped by the picturesque sierra. From vibrant hues of blue to tantalizing turquoise, the lakes appear to change colour as the sun sweeps across their mirror-glass waters and the steep hillsides plunge their shorelines into shadow.
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Darvaza, Turkmenistan

Crimson red and deep orange embers glow brightly against the inky black sky of Turkmenistan's Karakum desert. Sat in our camp at the edge of the Darvaza Crater, it's hard not to be mesmerized by the unusual fiery display. The flaming spherical void, also known as the 'door-to-hell,' is thought to have formed following the collapse of a natural gas field that geologists lit to burn off the gas. Fifty years later, it is still ablaze and a sight you'll never forget!
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Khiva, Uzbekistan

Feel as though you've been transported onto an 'Arabian Nights' film set as you wander within the turreted walls of Khiva's Old Citadel, a major Silk Road trading hub during the 19th century. Buildings embellished with elaborate mosaic tiles of every shade of blue rise out the sandy desert, and ancient towers ascend into the heavens. Climb the steps of Dzhuma Minaret for far-reaching views of this well-preserved medieval city and browse handmade wares in the bustling bazaars.
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Issy Kul lake, Kyrgyzstan

A mirror image of the mighty Tien Shan mountains reflects in the tranquil waters of Kyrgystan's Issyk Kul Lake. The second-largest alpine lake in the World, its name translates as 'warm lake,' so-called because its saline waters never freeze, despite sub-zero winter temperatures. Walk along the tranquil shoreline to discover ancient petroglyph rock carvings dating back to the 7th century BC, and visit the nearby city of Karakol to explore the Buddhist inspired Dungan Mosque and the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral.
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Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Aquamarine domes tower above the golden city skyline, and mosaic walls gleam in the bright sunlight in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Seek out Registan Square to discover intricately tiled madrasah doorways and stand under the immense blue arch of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Immerse yourself in the local culture with a walk through narrow winding alleyways and browse the lively bazaar crammed full of local produce, including delicious dried apricots, juicy dates and aromatic fresh bread.
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Nur-Sultan (Astana), Kazakhstan

Feel as though you've been teleported into the future as you wander through the centre of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana). Virtually built from scratch since 1998, Kazakhstan's modern capital boasts vast shopping malls, soaring skyscrapers, and giant domes of glistening glass. Ascend 100 metres to the top of Bayterek Tower for panoramic views across the city, visit the gilded minarets of the Nur Astana Mosque, and learn about Kazakh history within the blue-glass and white-marble cubist structure of the National Museum.

Baikonur, Kazakhstan

Isolated in the middle of a vast open steppe in Kazakhstan, Baikonur is home to the World's first spaceport and is the only launch site for manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Enter the Russian controlled cosmodrome to learn about space missions undertaken by Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space), Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space), and, more recently, British astronaut Tim Peake. Visit the Space Museum to discover the history of Soviet and Russian space programmes, and sit in a cosmonaut's seat within the decommissioned Buran spacecraft.