There are cultural angles to the adventure too, however, and some of the best of these are to be found in Kyrgyzstan. Just a couple of hours outside the capital, Bishkek, another world awaits, and the country’s community-based tourism network, CBT, will help you discover the countryside at your leisure. Social enterprise Indy Guide offers a similar service across Central Asia and Mongolia, connecting independent travellers with local guides, trekking guides, and drivers.
One of the most exciting options is a trek through the mountains to Song Kol, ending up with a yurt stay on the lake shore. It’s a chance to see local life up close, and as the yurts — felt tents set up seasonally while the nomads graze their livestock — are family homes, not set up as a tourist attraction, it’s an authentic experience. You might well be asked to help with repairing the yurt, slaughtering a sheep for dinner, picking wild herbs from the mountainside, or even feeding a semi-tame eagle chick, captured from the nest and being raised to hunt small game. Don’t forget that if the night’s particularly cold, all visitors will share one made-up bed, snuggling up with half a dozen people side by side beneath the blankets, so bring clothes you’re happy to sleep in, and prepare to get cosy with your new friends!
If the thought of all that open space puts the frighteners on you, don’t forget that Central Asia has some pretty epic urban sites, too. Places like Merv were, before the onslaught of Genghis Khan, some of the biggest and richest cities in the world, and in Uzbekistan the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva are still thriving. All five ‘Stans boast UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and in the case of Khiva, the entire Old Town is a museum, albeit one in which you can stay the night, eat in restaurants, and enjoy a beer as you look at the magnificent buildings and historic collections of art, textiles, weaponry, etc.