Why go? Our original reason was that the whole of Central Asia was a black box. We hear about "the 'stans" but who really knows what's there? We went to find out.
"Stan" roughly translates to "land of" in Persian, and there are a lot of 'stans. We chose to visit Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, for reasons of logistics and safety, and spent enough time in Uzbekistan to see its major cities and some rural, tourists-don't-usually-go-there places. In these places tent camping is the only option. I generally view Cam-Ping as a forbidden city not to be visited, but sometimes if you want to see a place... .
Surprise: It's not as if you've seen one 'stan you've seen 'em all. Comparing the major cities of three countries, Tashkent (Uzbekistan) feels Soviet. It was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union, and in the 1960's largely rebuilt reconstructed it after an earthquake. Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) feels Chinese. Almaty (Kazakstan) feels European.
Locals were friendly and fun. A car pulled ahead of us on a lonely road; these men climbed out to meet us. Love the traditional hats!
That these places are noticeably distinctive is all the more remarkable given the enormous changes effected during the Soviet era. National borders were gerrymandered to dilute the political effectiveness of any group. Nomadism was effectively outlawed, as was religion. Turks were resettled from Georgia; Koreans were resettled from eastern Russia (who knew?); pockets of locals were resettled here and there. The result is an ethnic mosaic with Russian, by default, as the dominant language.
Start with Tashkent, the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union. Historically it was a Kyrg city but the Soviets placed it in Uzbekistan. It has good hotels and a it's possible to find good coffee, but not much to see. One could spend a few days seeing Chorsu bazaar, the beautiful city parks, some truly strange Soviet architecture, and the Fine Arts museum. The latter is a small and delightful surprise, showing post 19th century art by local artists. The people are friendly. It took us a while to figure out that "Hello, trees" means "Hello, tourist." Beyond that, don't expect English.
Getting around is easy on the subway, which is clean and itself worth seeing. A one-way ride costs about twelve cents. Uzbekistan is a bargain all around. The city will never be known for its food, or its beer. The ubiquitous regional dish is plov, a pilaf made in and sold from huge vats, often on the sidewalk. It's signature flavor is mutton fat. Enough said. The beer is tasteless; stick with vodka.
A government building and good example of the current architectural style in Tash.
The UNESCO/cultural sights are in Khiva, Bokara and Sammarkand, all of which were khanates on old silk road routes (the silk road isn't one road, but a network of trading routes). They accessible by fast train. As for sights, think 3M: mosque, madrassa or mausoleum. All are constructed of mud, so unless they are constantly in a state of rebuilding they revert to lumps of dirt in the desert. The majolica tile decoration is exquisite.
Above, a street scene in Bokara. Below, a typical tiled window frieze. Right: a mosque in Khiva.
Khiva is the smallest and most authentic of the three. Bokhara has accessible history and more elaborate sights. Sammarkand is the jewel, but quite "hollywood" by comparison. Except for Shah-i-zinda, the monuments are reconstructions of the originals (see comment about mud, above). Shah-i-zinda is almost completely covered with telework, and the tiles are small, resulting in less deterioration. If you could only see one sight in all of Uzbekistan, it should be Shah-i-zinda.
Rural Uzbekistan is austere in the extreme, and beautiful in that way. There are few roads and even fewer cell towers. If you go, take a satellite navigation device. The people, and there aren't many of them, are welcoming in the extreme--curious and generous. There are a few farms and villages, clustered around water sources. Tourists cause a ruckus because of the novelty. In one largish town our stopping for lunch caused a traffic jam on the only road, as people stopped to gawk and talk.
Below: Tent camping at an oasis.
Left: Austere in the extreme. That cluster of walls in the swale is a farm.
If you've heard of Bishkek at all, it is likely because of the Uyghers. China is less than a hundred kilometers away, and Bish is a favorite for Uygher disaphora. It's a gritty city, called Frunze in Soviet Union days. Frunze was a Soviet leader, and the Freunze museum is a worthwhile stop. The others are the city parks--beautiful and spacious--and the changing of the guard near the monument to Manas. From the city parks, on a nice day, you can find a spot to enjoy the stupendous scenery around the city.
Manas, by the way, is the star of a thousand -year-old epic poem of the same name. The Kyrgs revere him.
Almaty was our choice for Kazakhstan. The most well-known city in the country, to westerners at least, is probably Astana. It was repeatedly described to us as "Dubai with bad weather," so we opted not to go there. Also, it is a long way from everything else. As things turned out, there was an early snow storm in Almaty.
But Almaty still did not disappoint. It is comparatively wealthy, with good restaurants and beautiful parks. With its mountain setting that is a dream for anyone who loves the outdoor activities, I don't understand why the city does not appear on a "world's best places" list. That's the thing to do there--head for the hills. But, the city is good for walking, and the Green Market is worth a visit. The latter is named because of the color of the building, although it is possible to buy produce there as well.
Cathedral in Almaty, after an early snowfall.
People are not their government, and there is plenty of good reading about the geopolitical situation in central Asia. But, it's impossible to visit this part of the world outside of the context of its political history. Central Asia was the setting for "the Great Game," as Rudyard Kipling called it, in the 1800's, which was a shadow war between Britain and Russia and more or less stopped when Russia formally and overtly annexed khanates in the 1870's. More recently, under Karimov, Uzbekistan declared independence, apparently because the Soviets were too liberal for him. Under him Uzbekistan achieved international infamy because of repressive tactics, such as torture by boiling, and because of corruption. There is a new president now who is opening up the economy, but if there have been mass releases of Karimov political prisioners, that is a well-kept secret.
The economy in Uzbekistan is dependent on cotton, and that crop and the way it is cultivated there in the desert is largely responsible for the demise of the Aral Sea. Sad. Forced labor is or was an issue. Historically all people were recruited to pick cotton. Schoolteachers, for example, were required to stop teaching and go pick cotton. With all the adults in the fields, there was no place for children to go but to the fields also. Hence, a problem with child labor. Farmers, who had to rent land from the communist government, were paid little or not at all; the government sold the cotton at world market prices and used the proceeds to fund itself. For these reasons, there is a worldwide boycott of Uzbek cotton. As of 2018 farmers were required to hire pickers and pay them a market wage, but it's doubtful there are enough workers to pick cotton at the scale required, and little mechanization either.
Against all this, Afghanistan and its opium produ