10 Extraordinary Places You Should Visit in Central Asia

Mountains loom above a herd of horses grazing in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo: Michal Knitl/Shutterstock)

Looking for an adventure that's off the beaten path and won't break the bank? Look no further than Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — referred to in shorthand as the "5 Stans."

Sometimes identified as Central or Middle Asia, these five countries are surrounded by Russia to the north, Afghanistan and Iran to the south, the Caspian Sea to the west and China to the east.

The suffix "-stan" means "land of" in the Farsi language, and each country's name references the tribes who historically lived there, including the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Turkmens and so on. Together, the Stans make up 1.5 million square miles and boast a population of nearly 68 million people. Although each country speaks its own language and possesses a distinct culture, the region as a whole shares a common legacy of nomadic heritages tied to the historical Silk Road.

In addition to a fascinating history that spans thousands of years, it's a region filled with a diverse array of natural biomes — from treeless, grassy steppes and lofty snow-capped mountains to cold, arid deserts.

Despite all this, it's easy to overlook them in favor of other more popular destinations. Here are 10 remarkable places that may change your mind about that.

Pamir Highway — Tajikistan

Pamir Highway, Tajikistan. (Photo: Jakub Czajkowski/Shutterstock)

Although it was only paved in the past century, this scenic yet remote route has been used for millennia as one of the numerous links along the ancient Silk Road. Beginning in Afghanistan and terminating in Kyrgyzstan, the bulk of the road traverses the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, where it's not uncommon to spot nomadic yurts, yaks or even a rare herd of near-threatened Marco Polo sheep.

Kaindy Lake — Kazakhstan

Kaindy Lake, Tien Shan, Kazakhstan. (Photo: Maxim Petrichuk/Shutterstock)

This eerie sunken forest in the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan was created more than a century ago after an earthquake rocked the area. The violent shake triggered a landslide of the surrounding limestone slopes, forming a natural dam that was gradually filled with rainwater. Today, Kaindy Lake is one of Kazakhstan's most popular natural tourist destinations.

Mo‘ynoq — Uzbekistan

Moynoq, Uzbekistan. (Photo: Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock)

The city of Mo‘ynoq in western Uzbekistan was once a bustling seaport, but today it's just a ghostly desert outpost. Decades-long irrigation projects shrunk the Aral Sea to just 10 percent of its original size. As Atlas Obscura explains, "the water’s edge is now more than 150 kilometers away from the city, and the former fishing fleet of Moynaq sits in a surreal setting in the middle of the desert."

Burana Tower — Kyrgyzstan

Burana Tower, Kyrgyzstan. (Photo: Labusova Olga/Shutterstock)

Set against a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains, the Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan's Chuy Valley is one of the country's most important landmarks. Completed sometime in the 11th century, the site includes the tower and a series of graves, mausoleums and the remains of an ancient castle. The minaret was originally much taller (about 148 feet), but earthquakes over the past several centuries have knocked it down to its current height of 82 feet.

Door to Hell — Turkmenistan

Door to Hell, Turkmenistan. (Photo: Lockenes/Shutterstock)

This ominous pit of fire was formed in the 1970s after Soviet engineers attempted to drill the site for natural gas. Not long after the operation began, the ground beneath began to collapse. No one died, but as poisonous methane gas continued to spew out of the crater, engineers decided to set the gas alight and burn it off so as to not endanger the lives of nearby villagers. They only expected it to take a few weeks, but the Door to Hell continues to burn to this day.

Charyn Canyon — Kazakhstan

Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan. (Photo: YRABOTA/Shutterstock)

It may not be as big as the Grand Canyon, but Kazakhstan's colorful Charyn Canyon is one of the country's most fascinating geological wonders. The canyon's most jaw-dropping rock formations can be found in the "Valley of Castles," which is about 330 feet deep and a kilometer long.

Registan Square — Uzbekistan

Registan Square, Uzbekistan. (Photo: eFesenko/Shutterstock)

Probably one of the most biggest reasons you should add Uzbekistan to your bucket list is its outstanding roster of Islamic architectural masterpieces. One of the most iconic examples are the series of ancient madrasahs (schools) found in Registan Square of the ancient city of Samarkand.

Akkergeshen plateau — Kazakhstan

Akkergeshen plateau, Kazakhstan. (Photo: Marina Khlybova/Shutterstock)

Located in the Atyrau region of eastern Kazakhstan, this gorgeous limestone plateau was formed during the Jurassic period. In addition to its distinctive hoodoos and caves, Akkergeshen boasts ancient shark teeth as well as dinosaur fossils and footprints.

Iskanderkul — Tajikistan

Iskanderkul, Tajikistan. (Photo: Tarasenko Nataliia/Shutterstock)

This turquoise-hued alpine lake is located 7,201 feet above sea level in the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan. Named in honor of Alexander the Great, Iskandarkul (Iskandar is Farsi for Alexander) is one of the country's most popular and scenic tourist destinations.

Greater Kyz Kala — Turkmenistan

Greater Kyz Kala, Turkmenistan. (Photo: Milonk/Shutterstock)

Situated along the Silk Road, this intriguing fortress-like structure is just one of several buildings found within the ancient oasis city of Merv, Turkmenistan. Due to the city's remarkably well-preserved archaeological ruins, it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1999. According to National Geographic, "these buildings were elite rural residences, probably constructed in the 8th or 9th centuries."

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