Know your Tajikistan (pictured) from your Turkmenistan (dreamstime)
List 06 November

How to remember the 7 'stans

Know your 'stans, from your Tajiki' to your Afghani'

There’s a distinct lack of originality in Central Asian nomenclature: no less than seven countries are called something-stan. The core five are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan; Afghanistan and Pakistan are honorary ’stans – they share the suffix (Persian for ‘land of’) but are less central geographically.

This region has much shared history, linked first by the Silk Road, later by Soviet rule. But each is quite unique – in terrain, culture and travel experiences too.

Our quick guide will help you tell one ’stan from another.

1. Tajikistan

Capital: Dushanbe
Area: 143,100 sq km
Population: 7.8 million

Sandwiched between China and Afghanistan, this former Persian settlement is made up of a mêlée of clans. Its long and combative history takes in Alexander the Great, Russian and British spy games and a civil war.

Despite being the poorest of all the former Soviet countries, it’s rich in travel experiences, offering striking scenery and gargantuan peaks – 93% of the country is mountainous.

Highlights:

  • Driving along the Pamir Highway for dazzling views
  • Silk Road relics and the natural beauty of the Wakhan Corridor
  • Hiking in the Fan Mountains, to wander among Tajik herders, lakes and wild goats

Top tip: Keep documents handy: military officials will be eager to vet your papers in towns; there are numerous checkpoints too.

2. Kyrgyzstan

Capital: Bishkek
Area: 199,951 sq km
Population: 5.5 million

Rich in nomadic culture, high peaks and super horse-riding across the steppes, Kyrgyzstan is the adventure hub of Central Asia. It has few historical sites – thanks partly to the marauding of Genghis Khan. But what it does have is mountains. Lots of them.

More than 90% of Kyrgyzstan is higher than 1,500m, making it a paradise for walkers, trekkers, climbers, riders and anyone who loves epic scenery.

Highlights:

  • Yurt-staying near the shores of shimmering Issyk-Köl lake
  • Horse-riding; the alpine meadows of Jeti-Oghuz Canyon are ideal
  • Visiting Tash Rabat, Central Asia’s most evocative Silk Road caravanserai (roadside restive inn)

Top tip: In remoter areas, toilets are usually long-drop: take your own toilet paper and soap.

3. Uzbekistan

Capital: Tashkent
Area: 447,400 sq km
Population: 28.4 million

Land-locked and ’stan-locked, Uzbekistan was once one of the most vital hubs on the Silk Road. Samarkand is a city of dazzling mosques, monuments and caravanserais, but it’s far from alone. Bukhara and Khiva gleam with a medieval architectural bounty: intricately tiled palaces, minarets, mausoleums and madrasahs (Islamic schools) grace the cities respective squares.

Highlights:

  • Exploring Samarkand’s mighty Registan square
  • The ancient Khorezm region boasts the remains of two milliennia-old qalas (fortresses)
  • Bartering for carpets in the bazaars of Bhukara – dark red is the signature colour

Top tip: A pure wool carpet might cost £200-plus; carpets on cotton bases, about half that price; silk options, ten times as much.

4. Turkmenistan

Capital: Ashgabat
Area: 488,100 sq km
Population: 5 million

Off the beaten track and slightly off the wall. From Ashgabat’s rotating gold statue of deceased President for Life Niyazov, to dinosaur footprints and burning gas craters of the Karakum Desert, unique experiences await.

Highlights:

  • The Yangykala Canyon, rivals USA’s Bryce Canyon for colours

Top tip: You need guides outside the city – independent travel forbidden.

5. Kazakhstan

Capital: Astana
Area: 2,724,900 sq km
Population: 17.5 million

This Central Asian giant’s appeal for travellers lies in its
emptiness. The country stretches from the shores of the Caspian to the
Chinese border, with desert, steppe, mountains and lakes in between. The
nomadic peoples of the Central Highland steppes offer fine yurt
hospitality.
Highlights:
Hopping between the ancient cities dotting the Silk Road through the Kazakh Desert

Top tip: Read In Search of Kazakhstan (£8.99, Profile Books) by Christopher Robbins for insight. 

 

6. Pakistan

Capital: Islamabad
Area: 796,095 sq km
Population: 190 million

Sadly, Pakistan is the stuff of negative news headlines. You need to do your research beforehand, but visitors will be rewarded with a warm welcome, awe-inspiring scenery and world-class remnants of ancient civilisations – yet few other tourists.

Highlights

  • Driving Karakoram Highway – where Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakorams collide

Top tip: Be culturally considerate – cover legs/shoulders (both sexes).

7. Afghanistan

Capital: Kabul
Area: 652,230 sq km
Population: 30.4 million

Its location has guaranteed it a starring role in Silk Road trade, but, sadly, a string of conflicts has decimated the country’s wildlife, architecture and infrastructure while the security situation remains highly volatile.

Highlights:

  • The Wakhan Corridor is currently the most secure region

Top tip: A handful of tour operators (eg Wild Frontiers) run trips.