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Oh all you travelers out there. You think you’ve been there done that. Just because you rode elephants in Vietnam and drank chi in Turkey you think that you’ve seen the world, well don’t get ahead of yourself. You have missed out on a large (if not the largest) portion of the surface of the planet if you have not been to Central Asia.
For the purposes of this section I will include Russia, Georgia and the countries of the former Soviet Union, most of whose names end in ‘Stan. Another major factor that might define a country as Central Asian, is lack of access to the ocean…with the exception of Russia, none of the countries on the list have a sea port this, more than anything has a profound effect on culture. This region is as untouched by tourism as they come and by going there you will a true traveler, not simply a tourist.
Whether Russia is indeed part of Europe or part of Central Asia is up for debate, and that debate rages in the country today. For instance, a trip to Moscow or St. Petersburg whose reveals a population wealthier than most Western European nations? These cities are as European as they come, but the majority of the population of Russia lives spread out in the east, and their culture and lifestyle is something quite different. Regardless of politics, Russia is a great place for travel. From the beaches of the Caspian, to the frozen tundra of Siberia there are few countries with geography as rich and varied.
Russian culture may strike some as cold and forbidding (and this is certainly true) but this should not stop the average traveler from going there, and really on the balance, it is no worse than France. You will also notice that the superstitions and daily life here are unlike anything else you could imagine. Russians are people who have seen it all, and their lives are very fascinating.
While Georgians look European and act European, their culture is something completely Unique. Few people know of this tiny country hugging the Black sea, but they should. Georgia has sandy beaches, palm trees, jagged mountains, lush plains and major cities. But beyond that they have a culture that goes back millennia. In fact, the Georgian alphabet and language is completely unique…one of only 13 distinct language groups in the world. A walk down a Georgian street will have you in awe. Even their music sounds strange, it sounds like the music of no other country. But beyond all of this is Georgian food and drink. This is THE place in the world to satisfy and quench. The best tea and wine in the world is made here and Georgian food is simply amazing…and plentiful (but not for vegans). Recently the country has had some political trouble, but when that settles down, the country will be a premier destination for all travelers.
Some people might think that Kazakhstan is a wasteland of a country…and they would be right. This almost completely flat country has very little to offer in the way of Contiki tours, but who cares, Contiki tours suck. If you want to see a place that has much of the worlds, oil, and more Nuclear weapons than France, you should check out Kazakhstan. You will not see another traveler while you are here and thusly, you will have the run of the country. Kazakhs are very friendly people, and you will just as alien to them as they are to you…a welcome change for a traveling American. Plus, you’ll be able to witness a style of life that you figured went out of still 200 years ago.
Of all the ‘Stans, Uzbekistan has by far the most to offer any traveler. It has the most varied landscape, the most history and it borders all of the other former Soviet Republics in that region. The main problem is, nobody wants you there. You will not be treated very well if you come here. But when you think about it, isn’t that just the reason to go. Imagine how astounded folks will be when you tell them that you have been to Uzbekistan. And another point of interest, Uzbeks are beautiful. In a strange turn of events major modeling agencies are touring the region looking for Uzbek models. They have a kind of United Nations look to them that blends Caucasian, Indian, Oriental and Middle Eastern. With a face like that, and a lean body that has lived on sun flower seeds, you can sell anything to anyone anywhere.
Kyrgyzstan is probably the most friendly of the ‘Stans. With very little to offer the world except for hospitality, you can travel very easily in the country and witness true nomadic life as it was practiced thousands of years ago. This is also a deeply spiritual culture that might even remind you of ancient Native American culture more than anything Asian. The folks here were quick to shuck off the colonial rule of the Soviets and ever since they have been enjoying the freedom that they enjoyed before that nasty period. If you are in Central Asia you have to stop here, it will cleans you of the nasty taste in your mouth after having been in Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan is less like a country and more like minestrone. While the country is largely made up of ethnic Turkmen, there are also many other peoples living in the country, and in fact, Turkmen can be found all over the region, and their culture extends as far as places like Turkey and Iraq. But these will one day bode well for the Turkmen. Beneath the barren landscape of their countries lies some of the richest oil reserves in the world, and when they actually get their act together and start pumping it, they will have money that will rival that of Saudi Arabia. This could spur many Turkmen to return to their native homeland…or it may not…Turkmen are a strange people, who still seem to have that nomad lifestyle that seems to be in their blood.
Tajikistan is probably the most attractive of all the ‘Stans, it has mountains as high as those in Nepal, and some beautiful river valley’s. The people here are also extremely friendly. It is also probably the last of the ‘Stans that travelers think of, so as long as you are willing to take things as they come you will be treated like gold and you’ll have a magnificent time. You probably don’t want to spend much time in the cities though, people don’t exactly like living in cities here, so they are relatively empty. This is truly a country of nomads, for nomads; by nomads…and if you are brave enough to travel to Tajikistan you are probably something of a nomad.
Much like Russia, Afghanistan might not be considered a Central Asian country. Some might think of it as Asian, others Middle Eastern. I guess that’s why the place has been so tumultuous for its entire history. I think it is central Asian, because the landscape is very similar to that of the other ‘Stans, but most importantly, the country is land locked, which has greatly shaped its character.
Of course, we are all familiar with Afghanistan’s recent history, and while the country is just as beautiful and forgiving as ever, it now has some slight stability in the urban regions. But don’t be fooled. Afghanistan is dangerous. People still might not fond of people who look like people, who dropped hundreds of thousand pound bombs on people. If you are interested in going to Kabul, there are many opportunities with Aid agencies and the military, so I would not advise doing so, unless under their auspices.
Again, not on the top of everyone’s list for a travel destination, this place can be just as beautiful as anywhere when looked at with objective eyes. But the real treat to Mongolia is its people. When you think of it, these folks took over the better part of the known world. Many people forget that, because they left no architectural legacy, nor a religious one. But what they did leave was piles and piles of genes. Mongolian genes can be found almost everywhere on earth. From, India, to Poland to Iraq to China, Mongolians left their mark, and they even created a new Blood type. AB blood was created when Mongolian herdsmen (who lived off of milk) swept across the world and bred with wheat eating people of the west.