The three big Central Asian drawcards are the mountains, the chance to see nomadic life up close and the historic Silk Road.
Kyrgyzstan probably offers the best combination of mountains and nomads. Its growing tourism industry has extended to include homestays in many towns and villages where you can sleep in a family’s house and eat delicious homemade food. (More about Kyrgyz homestays)
Groups like CBT and Shepherd’s Life can organise a night in a yurt or you may be able to arrange this yourself by just turning up at some of the more well known alpine sites like Svetov Dolina or Lake Song Kol. Kyrgyzstan also has the simplest and most visitor-friendly visa regulations so if you’re looking for a taste of Central Asia without too much red tape, it’s the country to concentrate on.
Uzbekistan is still the most visited country in the region, with tourists from all over the world keen to see the beautiful tiled mosques of Bukhara and Samarqand. The old city in Bukhara is particularly beautifully restored. Remote Khiva is another historic and popular destination and you can see silk weaving in the Fergana Valley.
The problem with Uzbekistan is the red tape. You are supposed to be registered in a hotel every night – a hassle for cyclists. Police checks of your papers are common. It’s impossible to extend your visa. (More on Uzbek regulations)
For a pure mountain experience, Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway can’t be missed. You do have to get a special permit to ride the Pamir Highway in addition to a Tajik visa and flying into the capital Dushanbe isn’t the cheapest option so getting set up for a Pamir Highway tour will require a little capital. Once you’re there, there’s little to spend your cash on and other cyclists have spoken highly of the hospitality of the locals in this corner of Central Asia. A nice recount of a trip along the Pamir Highway is The Totally Knackered Tour.
That leaves just Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan is little visited because it’s perceived as expensive. Most activities like trekking can be done cheaper in Kyrgyzstan, although day-to-day expenses while cycling are comparable. Kazakhstan is also associated with Borat, which may attract or dissuade you. There is some nice scenery to be found but little that measures up to its neighbours.
Turkmenistan tends to be a country people just pass through because of the severely restrictive visa situation. Things have tightening up lately and now 5-day transit visas are the norm – barely enough time to cycle the distance from the Iranian to the Uzbekistan border, let alone do any sightseeing. If you really want to explore Turkmenistan you’ll have to shell out for a tourist visa and guide. The people are very friendly and there are some classic sites like the ancient city Merv but you really have to want to see Turkmenistan to make a cycle tour possible here. Doing it independently, on a budget, isn’t an option.