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Inspirational travel stories and offers to help you plan your trip.
On Boxing Day 1990 while we were enjoying Chrissy on the beach with some left over ham sammies and playing with our new toys, turmoil was going down on the other side of the world. The once mighty world power, the USSR, was collapsing. In the following months, the world was introduced to no less than 15 new countries, many of which we still know little about today. Six countries you most likely heard of (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and Russia) went to Europe, and nine others went to Asia. Many went straight to war or dictatorship, but now with most having now shrugged off the last of the USSR’s influence, they’re fast becoming some of the world’s hottest and most unique travel destinations. Never mind worrying about how to pronounce them, here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know…
Easily the largest and arguably the most well known (thanks to Borat) is the nation of Kazakhstan. It’s the worlds ninth largest country and has a population of 17 million people, most of whom still live in rural areas. However Kazakhstan has the regions strongest economy thanks to rich stocks of oil and uranium. This has enabled the country to rapidly modernise which is mostly evident in its largest city and former capital Almaty, as well as the country’s current capital city Astana. Both are full of gleaming new skyscrapers and eager to show the world their development by bidding for events such as the Olympic and Asian Games. Tourism to Kazakhstan hasn’t quite yet taken off, but the country is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, some extremely impressive modern and ancient architecture (think mausoleums and mosques) and one of the most important bird migration stopping grounds for those twitchers amongst us.
Easily the most populated of the new Central Asian states, Uzbekistan is home to nearly 30 million people. The country has some of the world’s highest deposits of gold, copper, uranium, oil and gas, all of which have propelled its economy to one of the fastest growing in the world. Its capital city of Tashkent is located on the Silk Road so has seen its fair share of tumultuous history. At various times it has been ruled by Islamics, Mongols, Russians, and now finally, Uzbeks. Tourists visit the country to see its stunning castles built of sandstone and adorned with beautiful porcelain decorative patterns and towering minarets. Much of the country has a desertlike climate and you’ll have the opportunity to visit ruins of ancient cities like you would in Egypt etc. Many of them are said to be founded by Alexander the Great as he moved east from Europe conquering everything in his path. Rock climbers and mountaineers will also enjoy the many easily accessible peaks.
One of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Central Asia is Turkmenistan. However with large reserves of yet more oil and gas, the country is turning its fortunes around slowly but surely. Most investment has happened in the capital city of Ashgabat which has a delightful array of public squares and parks amongst some impressive architecturally designed buildings. Outside of the cities are three UNESCO World Heritage sites, all of which are the ruins of cities or fortresses along the Silk Road. The country is also home to one of the world’s truly unique attractions, the Door to Hell. In 1971 some scientists were drilling for oil and instead struck natural gas. Worried about the gas leaking and suffocating nearby villages, they decided to light it on fire to burn it off. Unbeknown to them, they had struck one of the largest pockets of natural gas in the world and the fire still burns in a 70 metre crater to this day!
The smallest of the Central Asian states is Tajikistan. Mountains cover 90% of this landlocked country, and over half of its entire area is over 3000 metres above sea level! The country has a rich culture with no less than 12 cultures or empires having reigned at some stage. Throughout the country are the remains of these many cultures, especially in the capital city of Dushanbe. But it’s the mountain scenery and beautiful lakes that attract people to Tajikistan. If you tend to get a bit car sick on windy roads, this may not be the best destination for you! Perhaps the country’s most impressive attraction is the Yamchun Fort, an ancient ruin of a castle built atop a mountain peak, Tajikistan’s answer to Machu Picchu. One novelty you’ll probably quickly get over is the Shakhriston Tunnel which lops eleven hours off the drive to Uzbekistan. However the tunnel is seven kilometres long, one lane in places, and regularly jammed with broken down cars and buses.
No we didn’t just mash the keyboard there, Kyrgyzstan is a real country! Ruined by years of civil war, the country is now one of the poorest in Asia. However with massive gold reserves, the future of Kyrgyzstan is bright… and shiny! The country’s capital has vast city squares surrounded by brutalist style public buildings, a glaringly obvious throwback to its Soviet past. The country is being promoted as an eco destination thanks to its mountainous landscape, and very popular beaches around Issyk Kul (a lake). It’s also a great place to learn about the Mongol Empires that once ruled the area with many farmers still retaining their equine and agricultural tactics.
So, while these countries are not yet super popular, they really are emerging as destinations for intrepid travellers. Infrastructure is poor, airlines are dodgy, visas are required, and there’s few reliable operators around, but of course, your favourite House of Travel agent can take care of all that.