Central Asia: Just as Asian as sushi and chopsticks

Where are you going again? It’s near Afghanistan right? Are the Stan countries part of Asia? 

These are some of the questions my husband and I got before we embarked on our recent two-month adventure in Central Asia.

People often forget the Stan countries are part of Asia. They are. 

In fact, they are part of what is termed Central Asia — “central” being the midpoint of the entire Asian continent, a strategic position that allowed the region to flourish for thousands of years. Central Asia and the countries now termed collectively as “The Stans” are in fact just as Asian as any part of Asia. 

Asia is more than sushi, chopsticks, kung fu, Japanese manga, and Buddhism. Asia is also the ancient Silk Road, home to the world’s largest empire of Chinggis Khan, the Muslim religion, naan bread, colourful bazaars, and Turkish languages. 

The ancient Silk Road is so famous, yet so few people travel to these historically significant and culturally rich countries. Most people, including myself until recently, hardly know where they are. 

When you think about it, when was the last time you heard anything about Uzbekistan in Western news outlets? Or Kyrgyzstan? More specifically, when was the last time a Western news outlet reported a positive news story about these countries?  

Unfortunately, especially in North America, most of what ends up reported in our news are tragedies that occur there rather than providing us with a holistic sense of what these countries are really like. After spending two months in this region, I realized so much of what people assume to be true about the region is basically … not.

So throw away everything you thought you knew about Central Asia. Let me re-introduce this historically significant, jaw-dropping beautiful, safe, and friendly region to you by sharing five things you probably didn’t know about Central Asia.

1. They are some of the only nomadic nations left in the world: Mongolia shares a great and long history with the Stan countries and a unique nomadic culture

Mongolian nomad herding his sheep and goats in the countryside
Photo Credit: Eng C.

People often don’t realize Mongolia is actually part of Central Asia. 

Technically it is, and culturally and historically, it is more similar to the “Stans” than to neighbouring China, Japan, or Korea. Despite countless hours of online research, we didn’t know this either, before we embarked on our trip. 

The great Steppe (plains) of Mongolia extends westward to Kazakhstan. Western Mongolia, the most famous part of the country due to their annual Golden Eagle Hunting Festival, is actually populated with people of Kazakh ethnicity.  Some sources say that Kazakh people believe this region of Mongolia is more traditionally Kazakh than anywhere you will find in modern Kazakhstan, and we believe it too. 

Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are historically and traditionally nomadic, but unfortunately the nomadic life has only fully survived in Mongolia, partially in Kyrgyzstan, and is now mostly a remnant of Kazakhstan’s past.

In all three countries, you will enjoy similar food consisting largely of sheep, horse, and beef meat. And Mongolia as well as the Stan countries use Russian Cyrillic as the base for their writing system.

2. They may be the most multicultural countries you never heard of

Typical Central Asian bazaar (market), where locals shop for everything and anything, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Photo Credit: Eng C.

Ethnic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs look like Mongolians, and other East Asians. Yet, due to the region’s complicated history, it is now home to more than 100 ethnicities. 

And as you look around, you believe it. Everyone can be a local, from a blonde and blue-eyed Russian or Ukranian, to someone of Persian ethnicity. Being of Chinese ethnicity, I was able to walk the streets and look like a local, that is, until I opened my mouth and they realized I didn’t speak the local language. 

3. A large population of Asian people in this world speak perfect Russian

Russian culture can be found everywhere in Central Asia, like this pickled herring dishes in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a common Russian dish.
Photo Credit: Eng C.

An entire world opened for us when we explored these ex-Soviet Union countries. 

We realized just how big the world is and how much we have yet to learn, especially being from Canada, in an immigrant country colonized by Britain where everyone of all ethnicities speak perfect English.

Even people in Mongolia speak Russian (our driver went to school in Russia to study mechanics and listened to Russian music during most of our tour). This is a result of the region’s complex history.

4. They may be the safest countries you’ve been scared to visit

Squeaky clean streets of Kazakhstan’s capital, Nursultan (formerly called Astana), known for its incredible architecture.
Photo Credit: Eng C.

Our guidebook claims you will be more likely to trip on the sidewalk than to get robbed or physically harmed. 

I must admit, it’s pretty easy to trip on those uneven Central Asian sidewalks in the capital cities of Bishkek or Tashkent, or even fall into a gaping hole, but from my experience, it is unlikely you will be harmed by a passerby, day or night. This is also what we heard from other travelers including solo female travelers during our journey in the Stans.

Of course, as with anywhere, proper safety precautions must be taken, but overall I felt safer in Central Asia than in the US or Western Europe.

In fact, Uzbekistan has recently been rated as the world’s fifth safest country for solo travellers to visit as of 2018. After traveling this amazing country, I believe it. 

5. They are home to some of the world’s most hospitable people

Friendly locals serving traditional dishes in the outdoor market in Uzbekistan’s capital city, Tashkent.
Photo Credit: Eng C.

Everywhere you go, you will find Central Asian hospitality. 

You will be forgiven for not learning the local language (reminding English speakers how often many are unforgiving of those with absolutely no English skills) and will go out of their way to make you feel at home.

For example, when we first arrived to Kyrgyzstan, we took a taxi in the southern city of Osh to a small remote mountain village called Sary-Mogol where we planned begin our volunteering initiative.

The driver, upon realizing we were hungry Canadians, pulled up beside a Texas burger stand. We laughed and asked him to take us to a more local option.

Deep down we appreciated his effort to bring us to what he thought was the food we like. (North Americans should like burgers right?)

At lunch, he generously offered us food, literally taking a sheep bone out of his own soup and handing it to us. How could we say no? 

There were so many instances where we couldn’t believe the friendliness of the local people. Would even us “friendly Canadians” do that for tourists in Canada? They definitely give us Canadians some stiff competition.

Ancient Silk Road’s best preserved walled city, where time seems to stand still (Khiva, Uzbekistan).
Photo Credit: Eng C.

Central Asia offers so much most people are not even aware of.

From towering mountains in Kyrgyzstan to vast plains dotted with sheep in Mongolia, and to Uzbekistan’s famous ancient Silk Road mausoleums and preserved walled cities, Central Asia’s beauty is hardly matched anywhere else in the world.

Couple this with the mysterious element of the Stan countries, some of which have been closed off for many decades, and Mongolia being home to one of the last true nomadic nations, traveling this region will redefine your definition of what is truly beautiful.

On top of that, you have incredible hospitality and multiculturalism. What more could you want in a travel destination?

So why not make Central Asia your destination for 2019? I encourage you to throw away any preconceived assumptions you might have had in your mind, and explore a world you may not have known existed.

Sunset over Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road’s most famous city.
Photo Credit: Eng C.

Due to time constraints, we did not venture to Tajikistan or Turkmenistan so reference to the Stan countries in this article excludes these two countries.

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