Memos from Asia

Introduction to Central Asia: Facts, History, and Beautiful Scenery

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Nur-Sultan (Astana), Kazakhstan, beautiful white Hazrat Sultan mosque, the largest mosque in Central Asia.

When you hear “Central Asia”, can you identify which region it is? Many people don’t know where exactly Central Asia is. Central Asia generally refers to the following five countries:

  • Uzbekistan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Tajikistan
  • Turkmenistan

You may not be familiar with these countries. One of the attractions of Central Asia is the ruins associated with the Silk Road. There are many ruins that have been registered as World Heritage sites.

In this article, you will have an excellent opportunity to get interesting and general information about Central Asia.

Where is Central Asia?

Central Asia map

Central Asia is a landlocked region, which is located in the heart of Asia. The region shares borders with Russia in the north, China in the east, the Caspian Sea in the west and extends till Iran and Afghanistan in the south. (Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Central-Asia)

Central Asia is composed of the 5 post-soviet countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The countries are also known as 5 “Stans” due to the same ending in their names. Some people also consider Afghanistan and the western borders of China as a part of Central Asia.

The 4 of the Central Asian countries are Turkic, while only Tajikistan is Persian-speaking state. (Asia Society, https://asiasociety.org/central-asia-historical-overview)

Quick introduction to countries

Kazakhstan:

Golden autumn in the capital of Kazakhstan. Modern buildings and blue sky.
  • The largest, the richest, least corrupted, and the most developed country in Central Asia;
  • The largest landlocked country in the world;
  • The capital city is Nur-Sultan;
  • Occupies 25th place in the ranking of best places to do business;
  • FDI inflows (Foreign Direct Investment) accounted for over 330 billion USD in 2019;
  • The population is 18.7 million with a 99.7% literacy rate;
  • Since 2005, it is a member of World Trade Organizations. (Kazakhembus, https://kazakhembus.com/about-kazakhstan/facts-about-kazakhstan)

Uzbekistan:

Tashkent TV Tower Aerial Shot During Sunset in Uzbekistan
  • The only double-landlocked country in the globe except for Lychenstein;
  • The most populated country with over 34 million citizens;
  • One of the safest and happiest countries in the world;
  • Large exporter of cotton and gold;
  • 4th in the world regarding gold reserves. (Global Connect, https://globalconnect.uz/uzbekistan/interesting-facts)

Turkmenistan:

Ashgabad city
  • 2nd biggest country in the region after Kazakhstan;
  • The least visited country in Central Asia with an estimated 15,000 visitors. To compare, more than 6.7 million people visit neighboring Uzbekistan. (UzDaily, http://www.uzdaily.uz/en/post/54048);
  • 80% or more area of Turkmenistan is deserts;
  • About 90% of people are employed by the government;
  • 4th country with the biggest natural gas reserves;
  • The population is roughly 5 million. (Arzuw.TM, https://arzuwportalturkmenistan.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/most-interesting-facts-turkmenistan/)

Tajikistan:

Iskanderkul Lake in Tajikistan
  • The smallest country with 143,100 sq km (55,251 sq miles) and
  • The population was 9 million in 2019;
  • The capital city is Dushanbe;
  • More than 90% of the territory is mountainous;
  • The official language is Tajik;
  • The economy is dependent on agriculture and service. (Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Tajikistan)

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan gorges.
  • The economic, political, and administrative center is Bishkek;
  • It is in the list of the least crowded countries in the world;
  • Around 36% of the population lives in urban areas;
  • Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country;
  • One of the largest glaciers in the world – Inyl-Chek is located there. (Gadvantures, https://www.gadventures.com/blog/fascinating-facts-kyrgyzstan-travel/)

Central Asia and the Middle East

One may easily confuse Central Asia with the Middle East.

The Middle East is a term introduced by western countries, so it is not one of the Asian sub-regions like Central Asia. Middle East consists of countries such as Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and so on, where is happening many military and political conflicts. (Infoplease, https://www.infoplease.com/atlas/middle-east)

However, Central Asia is composed of rather peaceful countries.

Top destinations in each Central Asian Countries

Beautiful panoramic aerial drone view to Ishim River Embankment and Nursultan city center with skyscrapers and a modern pedestrian bridge, the capital city of Kazakhstan

Central Asian countries are full of popular destinations and sites due to the rich history and location of the region. In the past, many dynasties ruled the region, so visitors can see the antique buildings and sites of many cultures.

Each country has its unique and distinguishable tourist attractions. For instance, Tajikistan is the best choice if you want to see untouched nature and pursue many outdoor activities. The top places to visit are Pamir mountains, city Khojand and Garm Chashma hot springs.

The visitors who have a great interest in Silk Road and cultural heritages are recommended to visit Uzbekistan. Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara are gems of Central Asia in terms of the historical buildings and eastern style architecture.

The historic architecture of Itchan Kala, walled inner town of the city of Khiva, Uzbekistan. UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Turkmenistan is famous for its capital – Ashgabat, which is included in Guinness World Records as a most white marble city in the world. However, you may encounter some visa regime restrictions.

President palace view in Ashgabat city

Kazakhstan has a great opportunity for tourists who want to see the mix of both historic buildings and modern architecture. Many well-known international brands can be met in Astana such as McDonald’s, Zara and Starbucks, which you cannot see in other Central Asian cities.

Kyrgyzstan is commonly known for beautiful landscapes and lakes. You can visit cities like Osh, Bishkek and Jalal-Abad as well as the lake Issyk-Kul.

Song Kul – high alpine lake in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Brief history of Central Asia (200)

Silk Road

Silk Road is the famous trade route that has a history of 2000 years. Extending from China to Italy, the extensive network road connected the West with the East.

The route played a vital role in the development of ancient cities in Central Asia. Historic cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Termez, Kokand, Shakhrisabz, Tashkent and Andijan in Uzbekistan, Khodjand and Istaravshan in Tajikistan, Merv and Nisa in Turkmenistan, Tokmak in Kyrgyzstan, Almaty and Otrar in Kazakhstan hosted the merchants in camels in the crowded cities.

Due to Silk Road, Central Asians had access to products and materials, which were hard to produce in the region at that time. Common exchanged things were horses, camels, carpets and precious stones.

Currently, the Silk Road attracts many tourists to the region, so Central Asian economies are greatly benefiting from its popularity. (Kalpak Travel, https://kalpak-travel.com/blog/silk-road/)

Mongol conquest

The increased military power of the Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan was a threat to Central Asia. In 1219, Genghis Khan with 200,000 troops attacked Central Asia.

The emperor of Kwarezmid Empire in Central Asia, Alauddin Muhammad decided to make all cities to defend themselves separately. It was a huge mistake, which caused the invasion of the whole region.

Thousands of ordinary people executed in Bukhara. Other thousands were killed in Samarkand. The massacre was carried out by Mongol commanders continued in other towns of Central Asia. Majority of cities were burnt and destroyed. (Xorazmiy, http://xorazmiy.uz/oz/pages/view/314)

Russian Empire

Moscow, Russia – September 2020: Men in costumes of soldiers of the Russian Empire with rifles standing on armored train background, historical reconstruction of the World war I

In the XVIII century, the Russian empire started showing aggression towards Central Asian countries. There were 3 governments or Khanates in Central Asia at the time: Bukhara Khanate, Khiva Khanate and Kokand Khanate.

The countries could not unite forces against a mutual enemy, so the Russian Empire started invading Central Asia.

Afterwards, the competition between the Russian Empire and the British Empire started and each wanted to take control of Central Asia.

In 1864, Russian troops invaded Kokand and occupied Chimkent, a city located in modern Kazakhstan’s area. Next year, current Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent was conquered. (Arxiv, https://arxiv.uz/ru/documents/slaydlar/tarix/rossiya-imperiyasining-turkistonni-bosib-olishi-uning-istibdodiga-qarshi-milliy-ozodlik-kurashi-jadidchilik)

Unlike the Moghul Empire, the Russian empire did not make massive slaughters. Instead, the Empire and the afterwards Soviet Union tried to eliminate intelligent people of the nation. The failure of the British Empire to rapidly conquer Afghanistan resulted inability of the empire to restrain Russian Empire.

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