All in all I liked Central Asia quite a bit, and I definitely feel like it's an underrated part of the world that is only going to see more and more tourists in the years to come. Kyrgyzstan is certainly doing the best job out of all the countries in promoting tourism by being visa free and establishing community based tourism offices all around the country. It would be nice to see Uzbekistan, and especially Turkmenistan ease up on their visa requirements. But Turkmenistan is run by a crazy dictator, so I doubt that'll happen, but Uzbekistan might. I liked Uzbekistan, but considering I spent $200 to get my visa there, I'll certainly never be going back at that price.
Here's my ranking of the places I went:
1. Kyrgyzstan: Absolute best country in Central Asia! It has the most interesting culture, some of the friendliest people, and best scenery out of all the Stans. I loved the rolling green countryside with the mountain backdrops, the alpine lakes, the semi-nomadic lifestyles, their obsession with horses, and all the yurts camps. Plus you can find great hiking almost anywhere in this mountainous gem.
2. Tajikistan: Doing the Pamir Highway is just such a unique experience. Very few parts of the world are as rugged and desolate as the eastern part of the country. It's something I'd never do again, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless. Outside of that, there are some great untapped hiking opportunities in the Bauteng Vally and the Fann mountains, and probably quite a few other places that I don't know about. Like Kyrgyzstan, this country is 95% mountains, so the possibilities for hiking are quite endless.
3. Uzbekistan: Amazing desert cities with stunning Islamic architecture. Certainly the most historically rich country in the region. I have to knock it down a few points due to the visa cost and difficulties. Plus the heat.
4. Xinjiang: Even though I really liked Kashgar, and Chinese food is great, overall traveling in Xinjiang was the least enjoyable region that I traveled to. The problem is mostly the government's overbearing presence in the region. It's just frustrating being in a place that has had very few ethnic clashes in the last few years, but walking around you would think this place was an active warzone. You can't go outside any of the cities without stopping at police checkpoints every 10 miles. Getting to the Kyrgyz border was the biggest bureaucratic nightmare I've been apart of. But hey, I at least I got here before the government decides to just totally shut off the region to foreigners, which I suspect might happen in the not so distant future.
PROS OF TRAVELING IN THE STANS
Culture: It's very unique! Being that all of the Stans were former USSR, it's a fascinating to see how Russian culture intermingles with Muslim culture. Russian is usually the 2nd language people speak, they use the cyrllic alphabet, and you can see Russian influence just about everywhere you look, from the buildings to the food to the music. I'd assume it also plays a role in that Central Asia has a very moderate interpretation of Islam. In the larger cities people wear what they please and are quite fashionable. Want to wear a tank top and booty shorts? No problem. Like everywhere else, the countryside is more conservative.
Scenery: Spectacular mountains everywhere in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Deserts in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan. Whatever floats your boat. As stated before the hiking kicks ass. And it's mostly unregulated and free: Hike where you like, pitch a tent where you want, doesn't matter! Stop and see if a yurt family wants to take you in for a night? Sure why not?
Cost: Dirt cheap! Some of the cheaper traveling I've done. I actually went under budget on this trip! It's easy to eat street meals for 1 or $2. Getting a main course at a nicer restaurant was still only about $3-5. Hostels and yurt stays also about $5. Shared taxis: Only a few dollars for rides of a few hours. Hitchhiking is always possible (and easy) as well. There's not a ton of real touristy activities or nightlife, so it's hard to blow through a lot of money. The biggest expenses are taking shared taxis to distant, off the beaten track locations or having to hire a vehicle.
Meeting people: In each major tourist destination there is usually one or two hostels where all the western tourist go. There's few enough travellers where you feel almost compelled to strike up conversations with the people you come into contact with, which I like. You don't get that same feeling in bigger tourist destinations.
Shish Kebabs: Overall Central Asian food is pretty bland, but I had some damn good shish kebabs! Beer is halfway decent as well.
Hospitality: Considering tourism is still in it's infancy in this part of the world, locals, for the most part, will look out for tourists and help them in any way they can if they get lost or need help. I had numerous people go out of their way to help me out along the way. Also you almost never get hassled by annoying touts and the like.
Safety: Never felt even close to being in danger at any point in the trip. Never got anything stolen, never met anyone at all who had any problems whatsoever.
Yurts! Well this mostly a Kyrgyzstan thing, but I stayed in yurt camps multiple times and always enjoyed it. Other non-yurt homestays are possible as well.
Sim Cards: Easy to get, super cheap, and work pretty well in/around the cities.
Location: Well, probably the biggest pain the ass about visiting the Stans, especially if you're American, is getting there. Flying into Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) is usually the cheapest way to go. Flying in and out of some of the other Stans is usually quite a bit more expensive.
Transport: These countries aren't great for people with time constraints. Considering how much of it is mountains, and the state of the road, you might need a considerable amount of time to get from A to B. There are surprisingly few public buses, so shared taxi is the main mode of transport, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But if you're going somewhere that locals don't normally go and can't find anyone to share with, it'll get expensive quickly. Traveling in a small group is best. Also, most of the cars are old as hell and breakdowns are a semi regular occurrence. These guys are all gear heads though, (they have to be) so it usually doesn't take too long to get the problem sorted out.
Language barrier: You'll be able to get by with just English in the cities, it'll be trickier in the smaller cities and countryside. And good luck reading a menu if you haven't learned the Cyrillic alphabet! I recommend learning some basic Russian phrases before coming. I enjoyed practicing my super basic Russian when I was here. Counterpoint: Google translate is so good nowadays that you can speak into it in English and it'll pump out a pretty good translation in Russian.
Food: As mentioned earlier it is kind of bland. No spiciness whatsoever. It's not bad, it's just not great. I never really got tired of it though, unlike some other travelers I met. You've got: Manti (dumplings), lagman (oily spaghetti), Shashlik (skewered meats), Plov (rice or pilaf with meat), and Samsa (baked pastry of mutton and onions), and noodle soups as the bulk of the cuisine. Naan bread is served with every meal along with tea. Oh, in cities they have fast food hamburger and kebab stands as well! Soft serve ice cream is everywhere too. I'm not even sure this category is a Con anymore!
Visas: Huge pain in the ass for Turkmenistan, large annoyance for Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is easy to do online, but still costs $70. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: A+
Nightlife and Partying: Mostly non-existent outside of the capital cities. Most of the time in Central Asia you'll eat dinner, maybe have some drinks or play some cards for bit and then hit the hay. If you're looking to get wild after the sun goes down, it's not the place for you. Every once in a while you can find some locals taking down some Russian vodka though, which they might ask you to join...
Kumis: Fermented horse milk. It's gross, but it's a staple in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. If locals invite you in for a drink they're gonna either give you tea or kumis. Everyone is always hoping it's tea, but it's usually kumis. Your hosts are very proud of their kumis making ability and they want you to enjoy it as much as they do, so it's impolite to not finish the whole glass!
Laundry: Unlike more touristy places, they don't have places where you can just give them your bag of laundry and get back the next day all neatly folded in a bag. Some hostels have a washer and dryer, but there is always a big line to get to it. I had to hand wash my own laundry a few times on this trip and I HATE it.
Internet: pretty crappy
And that's all I can think of right now! But overall I would say the Pros vastly outweigh the Cons!