The 9 greatest ecotourism experiences in Central Asia

From yaks and yurts to Pshart homestays and Pamir Highway journeys, Sophie Ibbotson shares the best natural and ecotourism experiences in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan…

Sophie Ibbotson
20 November 2019

The Silk Road occupies a romantic place in our collective imagination, but after decades of isolationism, the Central Asian republics – better known as the ‘stans – are only now opening up to tourism.

Wanderlust readers chose Uzbekistan as their Top Emerging Destination for 2019, and we all known that the UNESCO World Heritage wonders of Samarkand and Bukhara dazzle.

But to really appreciate the natural beauty of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan? It’s time to be a responsible traveller, and embark on one of the best ecotourism experiences in the region.

Here are the top 9 ecotourism experiences in Central Asia…

1. Yaks and yurts in the Pshart Valley, Tajikistan

Pshart Valley, Kyrgyzstan (Maximum Exposure Ltd)

Kyrgyz nomads drive their flocks high into the Pamir Mountains in summertime to find fresh pastures, setting up their traditional yurts as temporary homes.

Visitors are welcome to join them for a night or two in the Pshart Valley west of Murghab, learning firsthand how to care for yaks, milk horses, make yoghurt, and weave.

Conditions in the valley are basic, but the views are spectacular and the hospitality warm. The income from hosting guests helps families preserve their way of life. The Pamir Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA)coordinates yurt and homestay bookings, as well as providing drivers and guides.

2. Homestay at Kah Kaha Fortress, Tajikistan

Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan (Shutterstock)

Down in the Wakhan Corridor, entrepreneur Shoira runs the two bedroom Intizor Guesthouse beside the ruins of Kah Kaha Fortress.

It’s a traditional style Pamiri property with sacred ibex horns above the gates to offer protection to those inside. Shoira grows all her fruit and vegetables in the garden, and her home cooked meals are the highlight of any stay.

From the house, you can look across the Wakhan to Afghanistan and then stroll over to the fortress, which you are almost certain to have to yourself. Book your stay through PECTA, or just turn up in person.

3. Camels and folk singing in the Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan

A Bactrian camel in the Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

The camel is the ship of the desert, the symbol of the Silk Road. In Uzbekistan’s Kyzylkum Desert, you can stay at Safari Yurt Camp and ride out across the dunes on board one of the fluffy (and usually good-tempered) Bactrian camels.

Riding by camel gives you an elevated view of the landscape and a sense of how ancient merchants travelled. When darkness falls, there’s a timeless magic to the atmosphere around the campfire, especially when one of your hosts gets out his stringed instrument and begins to sing haunting folk songs. These are the sounds of the Silk Road.

4. Explore the Sentob ecotourism hub, Uzbekistan

Sentob ecotourism hub, Uzbekistan (Maximum Exposure Ltd)

The village of Sentob in Navoi has just 2,064 inhabitants, but together they’ve turned their community into Uzbekistan’s pre-eminent ecotourism hub.

10 families have opened homestays and guesthouses; others offer lunches, guided walks, tours of their orchards, and musical performances.

At Rahima’s Homestay, I was welcomed with freshly baked bread from the tandoor. It’s an easy walk along the valley to the Sentob petroglyph site (where the oldest rock carvings are thought to be 10,000 years old), an abandoned village with the remains of a Buddhist temple, and the shrine of a medieval Sufi saint.

5. Wild swimming in Tudakul and Aidarkul, Uzbekistan

Lake Tudakul, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

The twin lakes of Tudakul and Aidarkul are jewels in the Kyzylkum Desert. Tudakul is an Important Bird Area (IBA), and more than 250 bird species have been recorded locally, many of them migrants and wintering waterbirds.

Both lake shores are wonderfully underdeveloped, and in the height of summer nothing beats stripping off your clothes on the beach and walking out into the cool, clear water.

The edges of the lakes are shallow enough for paddling, but as you go further out the water becomes deeper, and you can swim undisturbed for hours.

6.Hiking through Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan

Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan (Maximum Exposure Ltd)

South of Bishkek, the Ala Archa National Park stretches across the slopes of the Tian Shan Mountains. The juniper trees give the park its name, and provide food for the many indigenous species of wildlife.

Hiking through the Ala Archa Gorge with a guide from CBT Kyrgyzstan, you can expect to see roe deer, marmots, and wild goats, whilst birds of prey swoop and circle overhead.

There are snow leopards in the upper reaches of the park, too, and they’ve been photographed recently using camera traps, though they tend to be both shy and well camouflaged.

7. Cross country skiing at Chimgan, Uzbekistan

Snowy peaks of Chimgan, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Central Asia is a year-round destination, and in the Chatkal Mountains north-east of Tashkent, winter sports are developing fast. There are ski resorts with lifts at Amirsoy, Beldersay, and Chimgan, but those who prefer a lighter environmental touch should plan on cross country skiing.

Ulysse Tour takes guests into the Greater Chimgan, providing ski equipment as well as local guides. The snow cloaked mountains are dramatic, the air as fresh as can be, and unlike the pistes in Europe, you may well ski all day without seeing another soul.

8. Picnicking at Lake Kaindy, Kazakhstan

Lake Kaindy, Kazakhstan (Shutterstock)

Kalpak Travelrates Lake Kaindy as one of the top five sites in Kazakhstan. That’s why they bring guests here to hike, horse ride, and picnic.

This surreal-looking lake was created naturally in 1911 when an earthquake flooded a stretch of forest: the birch trees stand out like silvery spears above the turquoise water.

In the winter, you can come to Kaindy for ice diving and trout fishing, but the real pleasure is walking here in the late spring when the vegetation is most verdant, then sitting at the water’s edge enjoying a picnic and a glass of wine.

9. Cycling the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

Pamir Highway, Tajikistan (Shutterstock)

The Pamir Highway is without doubt one of the world’s greatest road trips. It winds its way from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, climbing to a breathless height of 4,655m. Whilst you can drive the Pamir Highway by 4×4, the eco-friendly alternative is to cycle.

If the physical challenge is too much, or you’re short of time, you don’t have to cycle all the way: Paramount Journeycan supply mountain bikes, vehicle support, and guides so you can bike the most scenic sections through the Tajik National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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