In 2019, you voted Uzbekistan as your top emerging destination; in 2020, Kyrgyzstan stole its neighbour’s crown. What is it about these Central Asian republics, and how can you choose between them?
Population: Around 30.5 million
Total area: 447,400 sq km
Famous for: The UNESCO- listed cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva
Did you know? Uzbekistan’s one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world (the other’s Liechtenstein) – in every direction, there are two or more countries between Uzbekistan and the sea.
Population: Around 5.9 million
Total area: 199,900 sq km
Famous for: Shining a light on nomadic cultures through the World Nomad Games
Getting there: Air Astana flies from London to both Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (via a connection).
You’ll find iconic mosques, madrasas and minarets clad in turquoise and blue tiles in the heart of the Silk Road.
Ismail Samanid’s mausoleum is one of the earliest examples of classic Islamic architecture, with models from medieval Uzbekistan even helping inspire India’s Taj Mahal.
Kyrgyzstan’s predominantly nomadic population left little in terms of a built environment, but the population made up for it in the 20th century.
Cities such as Bishkek and Osh boast Soviet architecture, from classical opera houses to Brutalist apartment blocks.
Human history here dates back over 10,000 years, with Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Manichaean societies prevailing long before the arrival of Islam in the eighth century.
The Navoi petroglyphs depict extinct wildlife; Alexander the Great built at Nurata and Kampir Tepe; and more than 50 ruined castles have been excavated in Khorezm.
The vast poem Epic of Manas describes the triumphs of Kyrgyz hero; this oral history is key to national identity.
Scientists have discovered remnants of an ancient civilisation at the bottom of Issyk-Kul Lake and hundreds of carved balbals on the steppe, while the Burana Tower’s all that remains of an ancient city.
Silk Road cultures are enshrined in Uzbekistan and its UNESCO sites.
Emperor Timur brought craftsmen to Samarkand from as far as India and Iran, and masters in woodwork, silk weaving, ceramics and miniature painting continue their legacy today, which can be admired at Tashkent’s Applied Arts Museum.
Kyrgyzstan’s culture was born on horseback. It’s defined by a clan-based society and the traditional migration of the nomadic population.
You can still sleep in a yurt beneath a felt shyrdak rug, ride bareback besides flocks of sheep or even use a trained golden eagle to hunt for rabbits.
There’s an empty beauty in the Kyzylkum Desert, which covers much of Uzbekistan.
But here, too, you’ll find the Amu Darya River with its fertile flood plains; the agricultural patchwork of Fergana; man-made reservoirs and lakes; and the snow-capped peaks of the Chimgan range, which beckon hikers and winter sports enthusiasts alike.
More than 90% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous. If you rolled Kyrgyzstan out flat, it’d probably cover the same land area as China.
Bishkek is ringed by jagged peaks; Issyk Kul and Song Kul are Central Asia’s most photogenic lakes and the country offers high mountain passes, gorges, forests and meadows.
For well-preserved ancient history and bejewelled Silk Road architecture, Uzbekistan is impossible to beat. But if your appetite is for unspoilt mountain landscapes, yurt stays and experiences of nomadic life, Kyrgyzstan may have the edge.
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