5 Central Asian Capitals:
- The capital of Kazakhstan – Astana
- The capital of Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek
- The capital of Tajikistan – Dushanbe
- The capital of Turkmenistan – Ashgabat
- The capital of Uzbekistan – Tashkent
The capitals of Central Asia
Five countries with one common past – that’s how to describe the five nations that comprise the region of Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, collectively known as the Stans, were once part of the Soviet Union.
In 1991, they secured their independence, and since then they’ve been on a journey, developing their fledgling political systems, growing their economies and consolidating on the potential for tourism earnings. Each is unique, something that will be apparent to anyone who visits more than one of them. They might share a common geography, but their historical legacy and cultural differences set them apart. You might be planning to visit them all, or trying to make the tricky choice between them. Either way, read our brief guide to help you confirm you’re making the right decision.
Astana is one of the youngest capitals in the world. Replacing Almaty as capital in 1997, this vibrant corner of Kazakhstan was planned and built by a legion of globally renowned architects such as Norman Foster. These masterful professionals blended modern materials such as glass and steel with the traditions of the nomads who roamed these lands for centuries, incorporating references to legends and classic symbolism into decorative elements.
Larger than life Astana has big ambitions. Its dimensions reflect this, from its tall skyscrapers to its huge shopping malls and museums. The weather, too, refuses to be tamed. In summer, temperatures in the city soar to 40°C and in winter plummet by as many degrees below zero. This is no ordinary city.
Without equal in Central Asia, Astana embraces the West. You’ll find Starbucks and McDonalds alongside a host of familiar names in commerce and business. Kazakh cuisine is presented alongside food from across the globe. Nowhere else you will see such a mix of nomadic culture with modern high-tech ideas. In 2017, World Expo came to Astana, with a focus on meeting the world’s future energy needs.
Bishkek was once famous as the greenest city in the Soviet Union. Today, visitors will encounter a city center stuffed to the gills full of the small parks and tree-lined streets that led to it receiving that coveted epithet. It’s those trees which make the summer heat bearable, casting a dappled shade to mitigate the discomfort that you’d expect from temperatures that regularly top 40°C. A gentle breeze often blows, cooling the wandering explorer lost in its labyrinthine alleyways. It’s an eminently walkable city, packed with the charming restaurants and hidden gems that make a place special.
Yet, it too is a planned city, laid out in Soviet times. Landmarks are conveniently concentrated in and around Ala-Too, the city’s main square. Its two bazaars have an enduring popularity with travelers. One is the largest in the whole of Central Asia. The other, Osh Bazaar, feels more oriental and has a more human scale. Both remain resolutely local and though you’ll find souvenirs to take your fancy, those haggling will most likely be local.
Nearby, in the city’s hinterland, you’ll find Ala Archa. This national park is heavenly when the bustle of Bishkek gets too much to bear. Lofty peaks tower over the valleys, their 4000-meter summits sidetracking trekkers while casual day hikers are easily satisfied by the park’s lower altitude trails. This is a capital city that tries to hold nature at bay, but just can’t manage it, the magnificent, snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains refusing to fade into the distance.
Dushanbe – the capital of Tajikistan
Like its neighbors, the rate of progress and change in Tajikistan is rapid, and never more than in its capital, Dushanbe. Over the past decade, new buildings have shot up all over the city, rising from the glories of the past and representing a nation proud to be independent. Ambition has no boundaries. Its central square boasts one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.
Dive into its narrow alleyways, however, and alongside charming teahouses where waitresses wear traditional costume, you’ll find fascinating museums. Each tells the stories of great Persian poets, philosophers, and scientists. Watching over it all is the golden statue of Ismail Somoni, the 10th-century founder of the Persian Samanid dynasty. Yes, Tajiks are of Persian origin in contrast to the other Turkic Central Asian states. Those same museums will reveal many treasures from the past: a statue of Buddha 13 meters in length & coins bearing inscriptions in Greek. All of them were found within Tajik borders, proof should you require it of the country’s rich cultural heritage.
Once you’re there, it’s hard to drag yourself away from Dushanbe, but if you do, you’ll find it’s a good starting point to tour the picturesque Fann Mountains or traverse the Pamir Highway. Are you listening? This under-rated and little-known capital is calling your name.
Ashgabat – the capital of Turkmenistan
Ashgabat is a city of wonders. Ask most Westerners to pinpoint it on a map, and they’ll struggle, yet the architecture of this absorbing capital warrants a mention in the Guinness Book of Records not once but five times. It is recognized as the city with the most marble buildings in the world, the largest fountain complex, the tallest flagpole, the largest indoor Ferris wheel and even the biggest star-shaped monument.
Guided tours will vary, but one place they all end up at one point or another is at the monument to the Ruhnama Book, a weighty tome written by the country’s first president. In the evenings, sometimes it serves as a screen, displaying key verses from the book, historical events or entertainment programs. By now you’ll be hooked. Ashgabat’s large museum will introduce you to the ancient history of the Turkmens as well as its present achievements. This marble and gold city is a perfect introduction to the enigmatic and isolated land of Turkmenistan.
Tashkent – the capital of Uzbekistan
Tashkent is the largest city in Central Asia, its importance spanning several centuries. It is an Oriental, Soviet and Silk Road city all at once. This varied history results in a wondrous mixture of architectural styles. Walking Tashkent’s streets is like walking through history.
Echoing Moscow, Tashkent has beautifully decorated Metro stations built during the Soviet era. But it isn’t Russian: the spiritual administration of the Muslim community in Central Asia is located in Tashkent and the city is home to one of the oldest and most holy Qurans from the 7th century. In Tashkent, travelers can experience Oriental mosques, Silk Road bazaars and Soviet construction, yet at the same time enjoy modern comforts and a variety of entertainment options.
The best way to get a feel for these five incredible cities is to travel there. Our Best of Central Asia Tour will take you on a memorable journey through all these cities – and much more – in three weeks. If you are a person who strives to see as much as possible in a limited amount of time, this tour could be perfect for you. And if you would rather explore capitals of Central Asia in depth and take your time, keep up with our blog as we will continue revealing some of the secrets of our favorite destinations.