The Epic of Central Asia packs in a tremendous lot of old-fashioned travel romance in just three weeks. We visit three of the five ’Stans: beginning in Turkmenistan, and wending through Uzbekistan—which every fan of eye-snapping Islamic architecture and slam-bam history must eventually visit—and finally reveling in Kyrgyzstan. The vibrating roster of place-names in this journey reminds us of William Hazlitt’s insight: “In traveling we visit names as well as places.” Names that quicken the blood: Ashgabat, Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Ferghana, and on and on.
In a fair and balanced world we’d devote a few pages to all those names, but let’s single out just a few: Samarkand—whose Registan Lord Curzon called “the noblest public square in the world,” and to which we travel. Glorious Bukhara, from which, the old saying goes, “the light ascends to heaven.” Khiva, smaller than its oasis brethren of Bukhara and Samarkand, beat them to World Heritage Site status, a telling indication of its intimate beauty. Walking the narrow streets of Khiva’s old city is the next best thing to time travel.
More great names and places: Mile-high Issyk Kul, a larger Lake Tahoe, which we circumnavigate, glancing up at the snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan; Karakol, with its idyllic setting, warm hosts, and fantastic Sunday bazaar; Djety Oguz Gorge, with our favorite, charming eagle hunter and mesmerizingly beautiful canyons; and the fertile, refreshingly green Ferghana Valley.
Note that if this trip isn’t epic enough for you, or you’re reluctant to go home without completing your ’Stans’ collection, we’re happy to extend your trip with visits to Kazakhstan and mountainous Tajikistan, the compelling Caucasus, western China, or other intriguing Central Asia locales, tying in newer place-names with the legendary.