8. Drive the Pamir Highway
Khorog (Tajikistan) to Osh (Kyrgyzstan)
Simply put: the Pamir Highway is one of the world’s most remarkable road trips. Starting from the steep and craggy mountain valleys around Khorog, the Soviet-era road climbs rapidly onto the high-altitude Pamir plateau, framed by rolling mountain ranges on either side and dotted with intense cobalt-blue lakes and white Kyrgyz yurts.
Need to know: Vehicle hire with driver is possible through agencies in both Khorog and Osh. You will also need a permit (see No. 5); figure on at least three days, preferably more.
Also try: Tashkurgan, Xinjiang – On the Chinese side of the Pamirs sits this evocative fortress, immersed in scenery and not far from the 7,000m-plus peaks of Muztagh Ata and Kongur Shan.
9. Camp at the gates of hell
One of the Central Asia’s most bizarre sights is this collapsed 70m wide crater, whose natural gas field has been burning out of control in the middle of nowhere since 1971. Camp here in the desert overnight and you’ll see why locals call this dramatic fiery pit ‘the Gate of Hell’. Bring your own marshmallows.
Need to know: Tourists need to go on an organised tour in order to get a Turkmenistan visa.
Also try: The Aral Sea – For an equally remote and eerie night’s camp, take a 4WD to the ever-retreating shores of the dying Aral Sea, straddling Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
10. See Silk Road Art at Mogao Caves
Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Blending Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Gandharan and Uyghur styles, the cave art at Mogao is breathtaking in its artistry and is the perfect symbol for the Silk Road’s ability to mix east and west. The caves were lost for centuries until ‘rediscovered’ by Aurel Stein and other Western archaeologist-explorers in the early 20th century.
Need to know: You can only a visit a small number of caves and the complex can be closed during rain or snow.
Also try: The Jade Gate – A key Silk Road junction and tax garrison 80km from Dunhuang that once controlled the passing traffic in jade from Khotan.
11. Tour the desert citadels of Khorezm
Hire a Soviet-era car for a day trip out of Khiva and you can explore a string of ancient ruined citadels, forts and castles that sit marooned and baking in the desert like giant melted sandcastles. The enigmatic ruins are all that’s left of a great civilisation that flourished alongside the Oxus River some 2,000 years ago.
Need to know: Figure on around US$60 (£45) for a car and driver for the day. The sites are in Karaqalpaqstan, an autonomous region inside Uzbekistan; no additional permits or visas are required.
Also try: Nisa, Turkmenistan – This little-visited site, 18km from Ashgabat, is all that remains of an early Parthian citadel and capital.
12. Explore a personality cult
If Turkmenistan is the North Korea of Central Asia, then Ashgabat is its Pyongyang: an hermetic but architecturally extravagant capital city that is lined with giant white marble-clad buildings and yet oddly devoid of people. The empty multi-laned boulevards lead past statues of the former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-styled ‘Turkmenbashi’ (Father of the Turkmen), as well as the wonderfully Monty Python-sounding ‘Ministry of Fairness’.
Need to know: Other curiosities not to miss include the golden statue of Turkmenbashi and what is claimed to be the world’s largest handwoven rug at the Carpet Museum.
Also try: Moynaq – A fishing port without a sea, travellers visit to see fishing boats marooned surreally in the desert sands, 100km from the nearest water.
13. Stroll Islam’s greatest public square
Isfahan’s epic main square, the 560m-long Naqsh-e Jahan, is the monumental creation of Shah Abbas I and is the epitome of Iranian Safavid splendour. Framed on three sides by the mesmerising tilework and floating turquoise domes of the 17th-century Imam (Shah) Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace, it is the perfect place to soak up the glories of Persian architecture.
Need to know: Isfahan is easily visited as part of a classic triangle of central Iranian sights, throwing in Yazd to the south-east and Shiraz to the south.
Also try: Samarkand’s Registan Square – Similarly framed on three sides by incredibly ornate madrassahs (religious schools) and minarets, it’s a highlight of Uzbekistan.
14. Trek the Tian Shan Mountains
Among the forested alpine-style meadows and valleys of the Tian Shan, south-east of Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul lake, is the easiest place to arrange/attempt a DIY trek into the ‘Heavenly Mountains’. Snow-capped peaks beckon at the end of flower-filled valleys and several high-altitude lakes offer great campsites on treks that last from two to seven days.
Need to know: Lots of operators in Karakol can arrange full guided treks, or just equipment rental if you want to go it alone.
Also try: Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan/ Kyrgyzstan – This pyramid-shaped peak (7,010m) offers Central Asia’s best big mountain scenery, but it’s logistically tricky, so opt for an experienced trekking agency.
15. Learn how silk is made
Khotan (Hetian), Xinjiang, China
The fascinating Uyghur city of Khotan has for centuries been renowned for silk production, and there are still several traditional silk-making workshops here; watch silkworm cocoons being boiled, their filaments unravelled and silk threads being woven into tie-dyed ‘khanatlas’ silks. Experiences don’t get more ‘Silk Road’ than this.
Need to know: Khotan also boasts a fabulous Sunday Market, several desert Silk Road ruins just outside town and a thriving jade market.
Also try: Margilon, Uzbekistan – This is the heart of the Fergana Valley’s silk production, and you can visit small-scale artisan workshops and shop for ikat (specially dyed) silks at the epic Kumtepa Bazaar.
16. Photograph Tashkent's Soviet-era relics
Central Asia’s largest city often gets a bad rap but its combination of Soviet architecture, post-independence monuments and traditional Islamic buildings o er something for everyone. The city’s metro stations are works of art in themselves, the museums are the best in the region and there are some fine Soviet monuments, including a memorial to the earthquake that flattened the city in 1966. Plus, you can view the world’s oldest Qur’an here.
Need to know: Tashkent’s metro was only opened to photography in 2018.
Also try: Astana – the surreal capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, this city is known for its splashy ultra-modern architecture and surrounded by steppe.
17. Explore the Fann Mountains
Tajikistan’s impressive Fann Mountains are studded with dozens of turquoise lakes that are linked by a series of high passes, and the range offers some of the best trekking in Central Asia. Transport to the trailhead starts from Penjikent, where you can explore the ruins and exuberant murals of this once cosmopolitan Sogdian town (the Sogdians were the great traders of the Silk Road).
Need to know: The newly reopened nearby border crossings with Uzbekistan means that you can once more easily combine a trek with a visit to Samarkand.
Also try: Osh & Alay Valley – The 2,500-year old city of Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, has long been a Silk Road stopover and is the launchpad for treks into Kyrgyzstan’s Alay Valley.
18. Join pilgrims at a Sufi Shrine
Sufism has a long history in Central Asia, and its deep roots were the primary reason that Islam survived the Soviet-era ‘atheism campaigns’ of the 1930s. The Timurid-era shrine of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is Kazakhstan’s most famous building and honours the poet and philosopher who was a contemporary of Rumi, and sees plenty of pilgrims.
Need to know: Visiting pilgrims are likely to invite you to join their prayers; if so, hold your hands together in front of your face, palm upwards, during prayers, then run your hands lightly down over your face when things are finished.
Also try: Hazrat-i Bahauddin Naqshbandi Mausoleum, Bukhara – visit Uzbekistan’s preeminent Sufi shrine.
19. Go horse trekking with Kyrgyz Herders
Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is the place to unleash your inner nomad. Saddle up and travel the authentic way between herders’ camps around the fringes of a huge high-altitude lake. After a dinner of noddle stew, fresh kaymak (cream) and yoghurt, you get to snuggle up in a cosy felt yurt. The oases and cities of Uzbekistan and Iran get all the attention, but Kyrgyzstan offers a taste of the Silk Road’s wilder nomadic side.
Need to know: A network of community-based homestays and yurt stays make arranging a DIY adventure a breeze.
Also try: Jyrgalan, eastern Kyrgyzstan – An ecotourism hot spot for community-based hiking and horse trekking.
20. Fill your belly in Turpan
Turpan, Xinjiang, China
Turpan has long been a favourite of travellers to far-western China. A mellow town of bazaars, sweet melons and tender mutton shashlik kebabs, the surrounding desert is home to ancient cities and garrison towns, Uyghur villages and the Serindian cave art of the Bezeklik Caves. Tuck in to hot nan bread, delicious laghman noodles and chewy matang, made from the region’s famous dried fruits and nuts.
Need to know: It’s best to hire transport to see the main sights in a day trip. Check the security situation before travelling off-track in Xinjiang.
Also try: Kuqa, Xinjiang – On the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert, Kuqa has a fine Sunday bazaar, some Buddhist ruins and the Kizil cave frescoes.