Visiting the Stan countries isn’t on most people’s agenda – or even their radar! With this in mind, you are already a leading legend! Have you been dealt with a group of baffled expressions on your friends or family’s faces once you’ve announced your wish to travel to the faraway region? Needless to say, you’re in a safe space here. This corner of the internet is where the writer and readers are in agreement that the Central Asian countries will be an incredible part of the world to visit, travel and explore.
Table of Contents
- What to Know Before Travelling the Stan Countries
- What to Expect from a Trip to the Stans
- Food Culture in the Stans
- How to Travel Around the Stans
- What to Pack for a Visit to the Stans
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What to Know Before Travelling the Stan Countries
What are the 5 Stan Countries?
The five Central Asian countries are often referred to collectively as the ‘Stans’… After all, when they are listed together they can be quite a mouthful. Each country has retained their own language, currency and customs, so travelling throughout the region country-by-country can pose various confusions and challenges from border to border.
The ‘Stans’ include Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – without mentioning the additional Stans: Afghanistan and Pakistan (although they are otherwise considered to be Southern Asia, as opposed to Central Asia).
These five countries are within such close proximity that travelling the entire region may often be more logical than completing each country separately trip-by-trip. That being the case, visiting the Stan countries is an excellent choice for any ambitious globetrotter that is seeking to travel to as many countries as possible.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Stans?
In a nutshell, May to June or September would be the best period to plan your visit to the Stans. It would be during this time that the mountains are still picturesque with snow caps. Plus, the temperatures will be comfortable for exploring and sightseeing. If you were to delay your trip to July and August, then the temperatures have the potential to become extremely hot. Any earlier in the year, then the days could become clouded over with the addition of rainfall.
Be Prepared with Cash
Overall, Central Asia is a cash-based economy. You can expect to find very few ATMs out with large cities. Restaurants, bars, shops, hostels and hotels rarely accept credit cards. Therefore, you should bring the entire sum of money that you believe you’ll spend on your trip.
Each of the five Central Asian Stans operates with a different currency. US Dollars are the best alternative currency to exchange or stow away as an emergency reserve.
What to Expect from a Trip to the Stans
The vastness of Kazakhstan is somewhat difficult to comprehend. If you are flying from one side to the other, the expanse of the incredible landscapes will blow your mind. This is the world’s ninth largest country, and without a huge population to match, that’s a whole lot of wilderness.
Kazakhstan borders the south of Russia. The country extends from the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains whilst also bordering China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Until 1991, Kazakhstan was a republic of the Soviet Union.
Your time in Kazakhstan will likely be centred around Almaty, the former capital and largest city near the Kyrgyzstan border. Take your time to enjoy Almaty’s amenities as the city is one of the most modern and developed economies in Central Asia. At the same time, don’t forget to escape and explore the surrounding beauty. The Big Almaty Lake and Charyn Canyon are all but a day trip away from the city.
Notable Cities & Towns: Almaty, Shymkent
Main Airports: Almaty, Astana, Aktau
Currency: Kazakhstani Tenge (KZT)
Language: Kazakh, Russian
The countryside of Kyrgyzstan beckons as the country is a landlocked gem of glacial lakes, alpine forests and dramatic snow-capped peaks. Visitors will be inspired to hike, camp or horse trek through the stunning scenery to experience the traditional nomadic lifestyle and culture.
Kyrgyzstan is a land of nomads who still value their centuries-old culture and traditions. Witnessing this way of life is not for the faint-hearted with local sports and activities including eagle-hunting and Kok Boru (which is a national game whereby a group of horsemen toss a dead goat carcass between two goals).
Notable Cities & Towns: Osh, Karakol, Jalalabad
Main Airports: Bishkek, Osh
Currency: Kyrgyz Som (KGS)
Language: Kyrgyz, Russian
Tajikistan is a popular destination for highland tourism and alpinism. The scenery is spectacular with high peaks, grassy meadows, sketchy roads and some of the cleanest rivers.
In terms of size, Tajikistan encompasses the least amount of land among the five Central Asian states with a total area of 143.1 thousand square kilometres. However, in terms of elevation, Tajikistan ranks at the top by having the most and highest mountains than any other country in the region.
Notable Cities & Towns: Murghab, Khujand, Khorog
Main Airports: Dushanbe, Khudzhand
Currency: Tajikistani Somoni (TJS)
Visit Turkmenistan for an even more unique experience; a country notorious for instituting some bizarre laws. There are many unusual tourist attractions including the Darvaza Gas Crater, Ruhnama Monument and Kow Ata Underground Lake. However, this adventurer’s reward does not come without the challenge of travelling across the border; Turkmenistan is currently one of the more difficult countries to enter in the world.
Notable Cities & Towns: Mary, Turkmenabad
Main Airports: Ashgabat
Currency: Turkmenistani Manat (TMT)
Visiting the Stan countries does not have to be an entire outdoor expedition centred around mountainous scenery. Uzbekistan is a country of rich cultural heritage which is instantly visible from the grandeur of Tashkent’s underground metro stations and the intricacy of every blue pattern in the Islamic architecture. This country will dazzle you between each Silk Road town and the capital city.
Notable Cities & Towns: Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva
Main Airports: Tashkent, Samarkand, Namangan, Fergana
Currency: Uzbekistani So’m (UZS)
Food Culture in the Stans
Plov, Plov and more Plov; this rice and meat dish will be served everywhere. The locals eat Plov for any meal; breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plov is dished out all over Central Asia, but it’s particularly common in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Do you think you’ll be so hungry that you could eat a horse? If you are looking for a truly authentic dining experience when you are visiting the Stan countries, then you could try the horse meat. How horse meat tastes, depends on how it is prepared and cooked. Personally, I’d suggest trying the national dish of Kyrgyzstan – Beschbarmak. This consists of horse meat that has been cooked in a broth and served over homemade noodles. In fact, you may prefer to share this plate as it can be very filling!
Considering Central Asia’s history with Russia, you can also expect at least a few neat vodkas despite the region’s predominately Muslim religion.
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How to Travel Around the Stans
The Stans can be explored independently though this is not common, especially via public transport. English is not widely spoken so if you are not up to scratch on your Russian then the already limited public transport options may be an even bigger challenge.
You’ll have much greater freedom to roam the landscapes with a hired car. If you plan to do so, expect long distances, rubbish roads and possibly the odd interaction with a curious police officer.
Commit to a local guide or book with a recognised tour operator to enable you to explore more in a shorter space of time.
What to Pack for a Visit to the Stans
Your typical packing list for visiting the Stan countries will ultimately vary depending on when you visit and the activities that you intend to partake in.
Expect the summer to be ridiculously hot, especially in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Although, if you are hoping to reach the high mountainous regions of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, then temperatures can drop quite significantly, so layers should be your packing strategy.
An expedition to the Stans can alternate between city breaks and hiking adventures. This could see your outfit types change each day. Pack clothes that would be suited to both.
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Furthermore, the women amongst us may be contemplating certain items of clothing that are better suited to conservative countries. In my experience, there were very few instances in which a headscarf was necessary, though, instances nonetheless. Take one just in case!
Similarly, covering your shoulders and knees will not be necessary on a daily basis, although the act would be appreciated by smaller communities out of major cities and most religious sites will not let you in otherwise.
All-in-all, try to avoid over-packing when visiting the Stan countries. You will inevitably be moving around often, so don’t regret any unnecessary extra weight. There are plenty of bazaars for you to grab yourself a bargain if you forget any items. Plus, laundry services are available at most hotels (if you don’t mind losing a few socks each time).
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