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Uzbekistan vs Kyrgyzstan: Which Central Asian country should you visit?

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?

Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Uzbekistan

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.

Kyrgyzstan

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).

Uzbekistan vs Kyrgyzstan on... architecture

The iconic blue exteriors of Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

The iconic blue exteriors of Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

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.

Ismail Samanid's Mausoleum in Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Ismail Samanid's Mausoleum in Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

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.

Uzbekistan vs Kyrgyzstan on... history

Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

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.

Carved balbals on the steppe, Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Carved balbals on the steppe, Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

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.

Uzbekistan vs Kyrgyzstan on... culture

Discover the nomadic culture of Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Discover the nomadic culture of Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

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.

Tashkent's Applied Arts Museum, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Tashkent's Applied Arts Museum, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

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.

Uzbekistan vs Kyrgyzstan on... landscape

Ayaz-Qala, the ruins of an ancient Khorezum fortress in Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Ayaz-Qala, the ruins of an ancient Khorezum fortress in Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

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.

Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

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.

Verdict

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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