4 mins

An expert's guide to Central Asia

James Wilcox, co-founder of Untamed Borders, helps you get under the skin of the complex and fascinating region

Mosque (James Wilcox)

The Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Mazar e Sharif, Afghanistan

It's not really a secret but it is awesome.

Mazar e Sharif means tomb of the exulted, and the entire city centre is a park devoted to the polychrome tiled shrine of Ali. The park is also home to thousands of white doves, legend has it that if a black dove arrives it will turn white within a week. This added to the steady flow of Burkha clad women and turbaned men quietly paying pilgrimage ensure that it is a peaceful haven in an otherwise turbulent country.

How to be a veggie in Central Asia

Vegetarians in Central Asia sometimes get a raw deal. Outside of big cities, kebabs or rice and meat are often the only options on the menu. My tip is to go to the bigger restaurants and ask what the staff are eating. Usually the owner will have to feed the staff and to keep costs down will cook up a pot of tasty vegetable curry. Just be firm and arrive early and you'll probably be able to get a bowl of delicious eggplant or okra stew.

Try ski touring in Central Asia

If you like travelling, mixing with remote cultures and skiing then you could be on the cutting edge of tourism. In Kashmir, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan projects are ongoing to developing ski tourism in remote areas. Staying in yurts or local homes, discovering new routes and bagging first descents are all part and parcel of trips to this brave new world of skiing.

Check out www.40tribesbackcountry.com and www.gear4guides.com for ideas.

Play Siat Khnam, the Meghalaya lottery

India is the land of travel secrets but here is one of my favourite off beat events. In the small tribal state of Meghalaya you'll see small shops on every street displaying two-digit numbers. This is Siat Khnam, the Meghalaya lottery. But what do they use as their random number generator?

In a back street of the capital, Shillong, you'll find a small piece of open ground. At 4pm every day 50 tribesmen with bows fire 50 arrows at a huge straw target. After five minutes they stop and the number of arrows that hit are counted. The last two-digits give the random number for the lottery. The tension is palpable as the arrows are counted, like a tribal greyhound track waiting for a photo finish, full of men smoking and clutching little bits of paper.

It's not Las Vegas and thank god for that.

Visit Derbent 

UNESCO World Heritage cities are often beautiful places overrun with tourists and giftshops. If you want an antidote then go to Derbent in Russia's deep south. 

The city, whose name means “locked gate” in Persian, marks the end of the 40-kilometre-long Alexander Wall that linked the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus mountains and kept the barbarian hoards from the north out of ancient Persia. The old city contains the world's only intact Sassanid-era fort which you will have to yourself to explore. The best thing about Derbent is that it gets no foreign tourists. If you give the museum a ring ahead you'll probably get a city tour by the informative curator.

James Willcox is the co-founder of Untamed Borders, an adventure travel company that specialises in travel to south and central Asia. He will be speaking at The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show, appearing in The World of Adventure Theatre on Sunday the 27 January 2013 at 15:00 till 15:45.

Adventure Travel ShowAdvance tickets to the show are now on sale Get your tickets for only £5 (that’s saving £5 off the door price!) by quoting ‘WANDERLUST’ when booking tickets online at www.adventureshow.com.

Related Articles