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Central Asia

Map of Central Asia
Area 4,003,400 km2[1]
Population 61,551,945[2]
Density 15 per km2
Countries  Kazakhstan
Nominal GDP (2009) $ 166 billion
GDP per capita (2009) $ 2,700

Central Asia is a region of Asia from the Caspian Sea in the west to central China in the east, and from southern Russia in the north to Afghanistan in the south. It is also sometimes known as Middle Asia or Inner Asia, and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent.

Various definitions of its exact composition exist and no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road.[3] As a result it has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, West Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.[4]

In modern context, Central Asia consists of the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Other areas are often included such as Mongolia, Afghanistan, northern-Pakistan, north-eastern Iran, north-western India, and western parts of the People's Republic of China such as Xinjiang. Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, and southern parts of Siberia such as Tuva may also be included in Central Asia.

During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, Central Asia was a predominantely Persian[5][6] region that included sedentary Sogdians, Chorasmians and semi-nomadic Scythians, Alans. The ancient sedentary population played an important role in the history of Central Asia. Tajiks, Pashtuns, Pamiris and other Iranian groups are still present in the region. After expansion by Turkic peoples, central Asia became also the homeland for many Turkic peoples, including the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs, and Central Asia is sometimes referred to as Turkestan.



Three sets of possible boundaries for the region
Central Asia's location as a region of the world

The idea of Central Asia as a distinct region of the world was introduced in 1843 by the geographer Alexander von Humboldt. The borders of Central Asia are subject to multiple definitions. Many text books still refer to this area as Turkestan, which was the name used prior to Stalin's rule.

The most limited definition was the official one of the Soviet Union that defined the "Middle Asia" as consisting solely of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, but did not include Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Mongolia. This definition was also often used outside the USSR in this period.

However, the Russian language has two distinct terms: Средняя Азия (Srednyaya Aziya or "Middle Asia", the narrower definition which includes only those traditionally non-Slavic, "Central Asian" lands that were incorporated within those borders of historical Russia) and Центральная Азия (Tsentral'naya Aziya or "Central Asia", the wider definition which includes "Central Asian" lands that have never been part of historical Russia). However, there lacks a meaningful distinction between the two in the English language; and so "Central Asia" is used for both Russian usages, thus creating some confusion.

Soon after independence, the leaders of the five former Soviet Central Asian Republics met in Tashkent and declared that the definition of Central Asia should include Kazakhstan as well as the original four included by the Soviets. Since then, this has become the most common definition of Central Asia.

The UNESCO general history of Central Asia, written just before the collapse of the USSR, defines the region based on climate and uses far larger borders. According to it, Central Asia includes Mongolia, Tibet, northeast Iran (Golestan, North Khorasan, and Razavi provinces), Afghanistan, Northern Areas and the N.W.F.P. province of Pakistan, Kashmir and Ladakh districts of India, central-east Russia south of the Taiga, and the former Central Asian Soviet Republics (the five "Stans" of the former Soviet Union).

An alternative method is to define the region based on ethnicity, and in particular, areas populated by Eastern Turkic, Eastern Iranian, or Mongolian peoples. These areas include Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Turkic regions of southern Siberia, the five republics, and Afghan Turkestan. Afghanistan as a whole, the Northern Areas of Pakistan and the Kashmir Valley of India may also be included. The Tibetans and Ladakhi are also included. Insofar, the mentioned peoples are considered the "indigenous" peoples of the vast region.

There are several places that claim to be the geographic center of Asia, for example Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuvan Republic in the Russian Federation, and a village 200 miles (320 km) North of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China.[7]


United Nations geoscheme for Asia:      North Asia      Central Asia      Southwest Asia      South Asia      East Asia      Southeast Asia

Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high passes and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes. The vast steppe areas of Central Asia are considered together with the steppes of Eastern Europe as a homogenous geographical zone known as the Euro-Asian Steppe.

Much of the land of Central Asia is too dry or too rugged for farming. The Gobi desert extends from the foot of the Pamirs, 77° east, to the Great Khingan (Da Hinggan) Mountains, 116°–118° east.

Central Asia has the following geographic extremes:

A majority of the people earn a living by herding livestock. Industrial activity centers in the region's cities.

Major rivers of the region include the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya and the Hari River. Major bodies of water include the Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash, both of which are part of the huge west/central Asian endorheic basin that also includes the Caspian Sea.

Both of these bodies of water have shrunk significantly in recent decades due to diversion of water from rivers that feed them for irrigation and industrial purposes. Water is an extremely valuable resource in arid Central Asia, and can lead to rather significant international disputes.


Since Central Asia is not buffered by a large body of water, temperature fluctuations are more severe.

According to the WWF Ecozones system, Central Asia is part of the Palearctic ecozone. The largest biome in Central Asia is the Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. Central Asia also contains the Montane grasslands and shrublands, Deserts and xeric shrublands and Temperate coniferous forests biomes.


Geographical extent of Iranian influence in the 1st century BC. Scythia (mostly Eastern Iranian) is shown in orange.
A Scythian horseman from the general area of the Ili river, Pazyryk, c.300 BCE.

The history of Central Asia is defined by the area's climate and geography. The aridness of the region made agriculture difficult and its distance from the sea cut it off from much trade. Thus few major cities developed in the region, instead the area was for millennia dominated by the nomadic horse peoples of the steppe.

Relations between the steppe nomads and the settled people in and around Central Asia were long marked by conflict. The nomadic lifestyle was well suited to warfare and the steppe horse riders became some of the most militarily potent peoples in the world, limited only by their lack of internal unity. Any internal unity that was achieved, was most probably due to the influence of the Silk Road, which traveled along Central Asia. Periodically great leaders or changing conditions would organize several tribes into one force, and create an almost unstoppable power. These included the Hun invasion of Europe, the Wu Hu attacks on China and most notably the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia.[8]

During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, southern Central Asia was inhabited predominantly by speakers of Iranian languages.[5][9] Among the ancient sedentary Iranian peoples, the Sogdians and Chorasmians played an important role, while Iranian peoples such as Scythians and the later on Alans lived a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The main migration of Turkic peoples occurred between the 5th and 10th centuries, when they spread across most of Central Asia. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols conquered and ruled the largest contiguous empire in recorded history.

The dominance of the nomads ended in the 16th century, as firearms allowed settled peoples to gain control of the region. Russia, China, and other powers expanded into the region and had captured the bulk of Central Asia by the end of the nineteenth century. After the Russian Revolution the Central Asian regions were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Mongolia remained independent but became a Soviet satellite state. However Afghanistan remained independent of any influence by the Russian empire.

The Soviet areas of Central Asia saw much industrialization and construction of infrastructure, but also the suppression of local cultures, hundreds of thousands of deaths from failed collectivization programs, and a lasting legacy of ethnic tensions and environmental problems. Soviet authorities deported millions of people, including entire nationalities,[10] from western areas of the USSR to Central Asia and Siberia.[11]

With the collapse of the Soviet Union five countries gained independence. In nearly all the new states former Communist Party officials retained power as local strongmen. None of the new republics could be considered functional democracies in the early days of independence, although it appears Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia have made great strides. Other parts of Central Asia remain part of China or Russia.


Blue-eyed Central Asian and East-Asian Buddhist monks, Bezeklik, 9th-10th century.


Islam is the religion most common in the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Xinjiang and the peripheral western regions, such as Bashkiria. Most Central Asian Muslims are Sunni, although there are sizeable Shia minorities in Afghanistan. Islam is also the most prevalent religion in Northern Pakistan and northwest-India.

Buddhism was prominent in Central Asia prior to the arrival of Islam, and the transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Road eventually brought the religion to China. Tibetan Buddhism is most common in Tibet, Mongolia, Ladakh and the southern Russian regions of Siberia, where Shamanism is also popular. Increasing Han Chinese migration westward since the establishment of the PRC has brought Confucianism and other beliefs into the region.

Nestorianism was the form of Christianity most practiced in the region in previous centuries, but now the largest denomination is the Russian Orthodox Church, with many members in Kazakhstan. The Bukharian Jews were once a sizable community in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but nearly all have emigrated since the Collapse of the Soviet Union and the revival of Islam in the region.


Yama, the Lord of Death.

At the crossroads of Asia, shamanist practices live alongside Buddhism. Thus Yama, Lord of Death, was revered in Tibet as a spiritual guardian and judge. Mongolian Buddhism in particular influenced Tibetan Buddhism. The Qianlong Emperor of China in the 18th century was Tibetan Buddhist, and would sometimes travel from Beijing to other cities for personal religious worship.

Note the human skulls and severed heads that festoon Yama's crown and necklace, which give some concept of the size that Yama was expected to be when one faced him at one's death. This particular Dharmapala is painted wood, four feet high in total.

Central Asia also has an indigenous form of improvisational oral poetry which is over 1000 years old. It is principally practiced in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan by akyns, lyrical improvisationists. They will engage in lyrical battles, the aitysh or the alym sabak. The tradition arose out of early bardic oral historians. They are usually accompanied by a stringed instrument—in Kyrgyzstan, a three-stringed komuz and in Kazakhstan a similar two-stringed instrument.

Some also learn to sing the Manas, Kyrgyzstan's epic poem (those who learn the Manas exclusively but do not improvise are called manaschis). During Soviet rule, akyn performance was co-opted by the authorities and subsequently declined in popularity. With the fall of the Soviet Union it has enjoyed a resurgence, although akyns still do use their art to campaign for political candidates. A 2005 Washington Post article proposed a similarity between the improvisational art of akyns and modern freestyle rap performed in the West.[12]

Territory and region data

Country Area
Population density
per km²
Nominal GDP
millions of USD(2009)
GDP per capita
Capital Official languages
 Kazakhstan 2,724,900 16,004,800 6 107,714 $6,700 Astana Kazakh,Russian
 Kyrgyzstan 199,900 5,482,000 27 4,576 $800 Bishkek Kyrgyz,Russian
 Tajikistan 143,100 7,349,145 51 4,736 $700 Dushanbe Persian
 Turkmenistan 488,100 5,110,000 10 16,197 $3,200 Ashgabat Turkmen
 Uzbekistan 447,400 27,606,000 62 32,710 $1,200 Tashkent Uzbek

Territories sometimes included

Country or Territory Area
Population density
per km²
Nominal GDP
millions of USD(2009)
GDP per capita
Capital Official languages
 Afghanistan 647,500 31,889,923 49 13,320 $400 Kabul Persian,Pashto
 Pakistan 803,940 168,925,500 210 164,557 $900 Islamabad Urdu, English, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi
 Mongolia 1,564,116 2,736,800 2 4,212 $1,500 Ulan Bator Mongolian
 China- Xinjiang Province 1,660,000 21,586,300 13 62,520 $2,900 Urumqi Chinese, Uyghur


The ethnolinguistic patchwork of Central Asia

By the most inclusive definition, more than 80 million people live in Central Asia, about 2% of Asia's total population. Of the regions of Asia, only North Asia has fewer people. It has a population density of 9 people per km², vastly less than the 80.5 people per km² of the continent as a whole.


The languages of the majority of the inhabitants of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics come from the Turkic language group.[13] Turkmen, closely related to Turkish (they are both members of the Oghuz group of Turkic), is mainly spoken in Turkmenistan and into Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tatar are related languages of the Kypchak group of Turkic languages, and are spoken throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and into Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Uzbek and Uyghur are spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang.

Russian, as well as being spoken by around six million ethnic Russians and Ukrainians of Central Asia,[14] is a lingua franca throughout the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Mandarin Chinese has an equally dominant presence in Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang.

The Turkic languages belong to the much larger, but controversial Altaic language family, which includes Mongolian. Mongolian is spoken throughout the region of Mongolia and into Buryatia, Kalmyk, Tuva, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang.

East Iranian languages were once spoken throughout Central Asia, but the once prominent Sogdian, Khwarezmian, Bactrian and Scythian languages are now extinct. However, the East Iranian Pashto is still spoken in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, and other minor East Iranian languages, such as Shughni, Munji, Ishkashimi, Sarikoli, Wakhi, Yaghnobi and Ossetian are also spoken in various places in Central Asia. Varieties of Persian are also spoken in the region, locally known as Darī (in Afghanistan), Tojikī (by Tajiks in Tajikistan), and Bukhori (by the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara).

The Tibetan language is spoken by around six million people across the Tibetan Plateau and into Qinghai, Sichuan and Ladakh.

Dardic languages are predominant in the Northern areas of Pakistan and north-western India and spread into Ladakh and NWFP and include Shina, Kashmiri and Khowar.

Tocharian, an Indo-European language, was once spoken in Xinjiang and parts of Afghanistan, but is now extinct.


Central Asia has long been a strategic location merely because of its proximity to several great powers on the Eurasian landmass. The region itself never held a dominant stationary population, nor was able to make use of natural resources. Thus it has rarely throughout history become the seat of power for an empire or influential state. Central Asia has been divided, redivided, conquered out of existence, and fragmented time and time again. Central Asia has served more as the battleground for outside powers, than as a power in its own right.

Central Asia had both the advantage and disadvantage of a central location between four historical seats of power. From its central location, it has access to trade routes to and from all the regional powers. On the other hand, it has been continuously vulnerable to attack from all sides throughout its history, resulting in political fragmentation or outright power vacuum, as it is successively dominated.

Political cartoon from the period of the Great Game showing the Afghan Amir Sher Ali with his "friends" Imperial Russia and the United Kingdom (1878)
  • To the North, the steppe allowed for rapid mobility, first for nomadic horseback warriors like the Huns and Mongols, and later for Russian traders, eventually supported by railroads. As the Russian empire expanded to the East, it would also push down into Central Asia towards the sea, in a search for warm water ports. The Soviet bloc would reinforce dominance from the North, and attempt to project power as far south as Afghanistan.
  • To the East, the demographic and cultural weight of Chinese empires continually pushed outward into Central Asia. Manchu Qing dynasty would conquer Uyghurstan/East Turkistan and Tibet. As part of the Sino-Soviet bloc, China would keep Tibet. However, with the Sino-Soviet split, China would project power into Central Asia, most notably in the case of Afghanistan, to counter Russian dominance of the region.
  • To the Southeast, the demographic and cultural influence of India was felt in Central Asia, notably in Tibet, the Hindu Kush, and slightly beyond. Several historical Indian dynasties, especially those seated along the Indus river would expand into Central Asia. India's ability to project power into Central Asia although has been limited due to the mountain ranges in Pakistan (and the country itself, which has somewhat advanced greater into the affairs of the overall region), as well as the cultural differences between Hindu India, and what would become a mostly Muslim Central Asia. From its base in India, the British Empire competed with the Russian Empire for influence in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • To the Southwest, Western Asian powers have expanded into the Southern areas of Central Asia (usually, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Several Persian empires would conquer and reconquer parts of Central Asia; Alexander the Great's Hellenic empire would extend into Central Asia; two Islamic empires would exert substantial influence throughout the region; and the modern state of Iran has projected influence throughout the region as well.

In the post-Cold War era, Central Asia is an ethnic cauldron, prone to instability and conflicts, without a sense of national identity, but rather a mess of historical cultural influences, tribal and clan loyalties, and religious fervor. Projecting influence into the area is no longer just Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan, India and the United States:

  • Russia continues to dominate political decision-making throughout the former SSRs, although as other countries move into the area Russia's influence has slowly waned, yet they are still the dominant power.
  • The United States with its military involvement in the region, and oil diplomacy, is also significantly involved in the region's politics. The United States and other NATO members are the main contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and also exert considerable influence in other Central Asian nations.
  • China, already controlling Xinjiang and Tibet, projects significant power in the region, especially in energy/oil politics (for example, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).
  • India has geographic proximity to the Central Asian region, and in addition, enjoys considerable influence on Afghanistan.[15][16] India maintains a military base at Farkhor, Tajikistan and also has extensive military relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.[17]
  • Turkey also exerts considerable influence in the region on account of its ethnic and linguistic ties with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and its involvement in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Political and economic relations are growing rapidly (e.g. Turkey recently eliminated visa requirements for citizens of the Central Asian Turkic republics).
  • Iran, the seat of historical empires which controlled parts of Central Asia, has historical and cultural links to the region, and is vying to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.
  • Pakistan, a nuclear-armed Islamic state helped to sustain Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and is termed capable of exercising influence. For some Central Asian nations, the shortest route to the ocean lies through Pakistan. Pakistan seeks Natural Gas from Central Asia, and supports the development of pipelines from its countries.

War on Terror

In the context of the United States' War on Terror, Central Asia has once again become the center of geostrategic calculations. Pakistan's status has been upgraded by the U.S. government to Major non-NATO ally because of its central role in serving as a staging point for the invasion of Afghanistan, providing intelligence on Al-Qaeda operations in the region, and leading the hunt on Osama bin Laden, believed to still be in the region.

Afghanistan, which had served as a haven and source of support for Al-Qaeda, under the protection of Mullah Omar and the Taliban, was the target of a U.S. invasion in 2001, and ongoing reconstruction and drug-eradication efforts. U.S. military bases have also been established in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, causing both Russia and the People's Republic of China to voice their concern over a permanent U.S. military presence in the region.

Western observers and governments have claimed that Russia, China and the former Soviet republics have taken advantage of the War on Terror to increase oppression of certain ethnic groups, including minority separatist movements, as well as some religious groups.

Major cultural and economic centres

See also


  1. ^ The area figure is based on the combined areas of five countries in Central Asia.
  2. ^ The population figure is the combined populations of 5 countries in Central Asia (last updated Feb 22, 2010).
  3. ^ Steppe Nomads and Central Asia
  4. ^ Travelers on the Silk Road
  5. ^ a b Encyclopædia Iranica, "CENTRAL ASIA: The Islamic period up to the mongols", C. Edmund Bosworth: "In early Islamic times Persians tended to identify all the lands to the northeast of Khorasan and lying beyond the Oxus with the region of Turan, which in the Shahnama of Ferdowsi is regarded as the land allotted to Fereydun's son Tur. The denizens of Turan were held to include the Turks, in the first four centuries of Islam essentially those nomadizing beyond the Jaxartes, and behind them the Chinese (see Kowalski; Minorsky, "Turan"). Turan thus became both an ethnic and a geographical term, but always containing ambiguities and contradictions, arising from the fact that all through Islamic times the lands immediately beyond the Oxus and along its lower reaches were the homes not of Turks but of Iranian peoples, such as the Sogdians and Khwarezmians."
  6. ^ C.E. Bosworth, "The Appearance of the Arabs in Central Asia under the Umayyads and the establishment of Islam", in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. IV: The Age of Achievement: AD 750 to the End of the Fifteenth Century, Part One: The Historical, Social and Economic Setting, edited by M. S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth. Multiple History Series. Paris: Motilal Banarsidass Publ./UNESCO Publishing, 1999. excerpt from page 23: "Central Asia in the early seventh century, was ethnically, still largely an Iranian land whose people used various Middle Iranian languages.". [1]
  7. ^ 43°40'52"N 87°19'52"E Degree Confluence Project.
  8. ^ A Land Conquered by the Mongols
  9. ^ C.E. Bosworth, "The Appearance of the Arabs in Central Asia under the Umayyads and the establishment of Islam", in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. IV: The Age of Achievement: AD 750 to the End of the Fifteenth Century, Part One: The Historical, Social and Economic Setting, edited by M. S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth. Multiple History Series. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1998. excerpt from page 23: "Central Asia in the early seventh century, was ethnically, still largely an Iranian land whose people used various Middle Iranian languages.
  10. ^ Deported Nationalities
  11. ^ Anne Applebaum – Gulag: A History Intro
  12. ^ «In Central Asia, a Revival of an Ancient Form of Rap - Art of Ad-Libbing Oral History Draws New Devotees in Post-Communist Era» by Peter Finn, Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, March 6, 2005, p. A20.
  13. ^ Ethnographic maps
  14. ^ Robert Greenall, Russians left behind in Central Asia, BBC News, 23 November 2005.
  15. ^ India: Afghanistan's influential ally
  16. ^ India, Pakistan and the Battle for Afghanista
  17. ^ Reiter, Erich. The Impact of Asian Powers on Global Developments. Springer, 2004. ISBN 3790800929, 9783790800920. 
  18. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin G. 1963. "The consonantal system of Old Chinese." Asia Major 9 (1963), p. 94.
  19. ^ Konjikala: the Silk Road precursor of Ashgabat
  20. ^ Konjikala, in: MaryLee Knowlton, Turkmenistan, Marshall Cavendish, 2006, pp. 40-41, ISBN 0761420142, ISBN 9780761420149 (viewable on Google Books).
  21. ^ The history of Afghanistan, Ghandara.com website
  22. ^ "Kabul" Chambers's Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge (1901 edition) J.B. Lippincott Company, NY, page 385
  23. ^ Zabeth (1999) pp. 14-15
  24. ^ D. Saimaddinov, S. D. Kholmatova, and S. Karimov, Tajik-Russian Dictionary, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan, Rudaki Institute of Language and Literature, Scientific Center for Persian-Tajik Culture, Dushanbe, 2006.

General references

  • Dani, A.H. and V.M. Masson eds. UNESCO History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO, 1992.
  • Mandelbaum, Michael. ed. Central Asia and the World: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994.
  • Olcott, Martha Brill. Central Asia's New States: Independence, Foreign policy, and Regional security. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996.
  • Soucek, Svatopluk. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Marcinkowski, M. Ismail. Persian Historiography and Geography: Bertold Spuler on Major Works Produced in Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Pakistan and Early Ottoman Turkey, Singapore: Pustaka Nasional, 2003.
  • Rall, Ted. "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?" New York: NBM Publishing, 2006.
  • Stone, L. A' 'The International Politics of Central Eurasia', (272 pp). Central Eurasian Studies On Line: Accessible via the Web Page of the International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research: http://www.iicas.org/forumen.htm
  • Weston, David. Teaching about Inner Asia, Bloomington, Indiana: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies, 1989.

External links

City Country Population Image Information
Tashkent  Uzbekistan 2,180,000
Aerial view of Tashkent, Uzbekistan.JPG The capital of Uzbekistan and the biggest city in Uzbekistan. In pre-Islamic and early Islamic times the town and the province were known as "Chach". Tashkent started as an oasis on the Chirchik River, near the foothills of the Golestan Mountains. In ancient times, this area contained Beitian, probably the summer "capital" of the Kangju confederacy.[18]
Ashgabat  Turkmenistan 695,300
PresidentialPalaceAshgabat.jpg The capital of Turkmenistan and the biggest city in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is a relatively young city, growing out of a village of the same name established by Russians in 1818. It is not far from the site of Nisa, the ancient capital of the Parthians, and it grew on the ruins of the Silk Road city of Konjikala, which was first mentioned as a wine-producing village in 2nd century BCE and was leveled by an earthquake in 1st century BCE (a precursor of the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake). Konjikala was rebuilt because of its advantageous location on the Silk Road and it flourished until its destruction by Mongols in the 13th century CE. After that it survived as a small village until the Russians took over in the 19th century.[19][20]
Kabul  Afghanistan 3,000,000
Kabul Skyline.jpg The capital and largest city of Afghanistan. The city of Kabul is thought to have been established between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE.[21] In the Rig Veda (composed between 1700–1100 BCE) the word "Kubhā" is mentioned, which appears to refer to the Kabul River.[22]
Peshawar  Pakistan 2,955,254
Islamia.jpg Peshawar is the capital of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, located on the edge of the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border. In ancient times, a major settlement called Purushpur (Sanskrit for "city of men") was established by Kanishka, the Kushan king, in the general area of modern Peshawar. Purushpur emerged as a major center of Buddhist learning, and the capital of the ancient Gandhara was moved to Peshawar in the 2nd century CE. During much of its history, Peshawar was one of the main trading centres on the ancient Silk Road and was a major crossroads for various cultures between Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.
Mashhad  Iran 2,427,316
Imam Ali Reza.jpg The second largest city in Iran and one of the holiest cities in the Shia world. At the beginning of the 9th century (3rd century AH) Mashhad was a small village called Sanabad situated 24 km away from Tus. It was not considered a great city until Mongol raids in 1220 which caused the destruction of many large cities in the Greater Khorasan territories, leaving Mashhad relatively intact. Thus the survivors of the massacres migrated to Mashhad.[23]
Ürümqi People's Republic of China Xinjiang AR, PRC 2,681,834
Ürümqi 2008.png The capital and largest city in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the cultural center of Uyghurs. Two thousand years ago Ürümqi was an important town on the northern route of the Silk Road, a vast network of trade routes that also facilitated cultural exchanges throughout Eurasia.
Mazar-e Sharif  Afghanistan 300,600
Mazar-e sharif - Steve Evans.jpg The fourth largest city in Afghanistan and capital of Balkh province and is linked by roads to Kabul in the south-east, Herat to the west and Uzbekistan to the north.
Ulaanbaatar  Mongolia 1,067,472
UlaanBaatar-2009.jpg The capital and largest city in Mongolia and the cultural center of Mongolians. The city was founded in 1639 as an initially nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. Since 1778 it has been located in the Tuul river valley. In the 20th century, Ulaanbaatar grew into a major manufacturing centre.
Samarkand  Uzbekistan 596,300
Samarkand view from the top.jpg The second-largest city in Uzbekistan and the capital of Samarqand Province. The city is most noted for its central position on the Silk Road between China and the West, and for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study.
Bishkek  Kyrgyzstan 1,250,000
Bischkek.jpg The capital and the largest city of Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is also the administrative center of Chuy Province which surrounds the city, even though the city itself is not part of the province but rather a province-level unit of Kyrgyzstan.
Tous  Iran N/A Ferdowsi tomb1.jpg An ancient city in the Iranian province of Razavi Khorasan. To the ancient Greeks, it was known asn Susia (Gr. Σούσια). It was captured by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The city was almost entirely destroyed by Genghis Khan's Mongol conquest in 1220.
Astana  Kazakhstan 700,000
Astana1.jpeg The capital and second largest city in Kazakhstan. After Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, the city and the region were renamed "Aqmola". The name was often translated as "White Tombstone", but actually means "Holy Place" or "Holy Shrine". The "White Tombstone" literal translation was too appropriate for many visitors to escape notice in almost all guide books and travel accounts. In 1994, the city was designated as the future capital of the newly-independent country, and again renamed to the present "Astana" after the capital was officially moved from Almaty in 1997.
Dushanbe  Tajikistan 679,400
Dushanbe1.JPG The capital and largest city of Tajikistan. Dushanbe means "Monday" in Tajik and Persian,[24] and the name reflects the fact that the city grew on the site of a village that originally was a popular Monday marketplace.
Bukhara  Uzbekistan 237,900
Bukhara10.jpg The nation's fifth-largest city and the capital of the Bukhara Province of Uzbekistan. Bukhara has been one of the main centres of Persian civilization from its early days in 6th century BCE and since 12th century CE, Turkic speakers gradually moved in. Its architecture and archaeological sites form one of the pillars of the Central Asian history and art.
Almaty  Kazakhstan 1,420,747
Almaty-mountains.jpg It was the capital of Kazakhstan (and its predecessor, the Kazakh SSR) from 1929 to 1998. Despite losing its status as the capital, Almaty remains the major commercial center of Kazakhstan.
Nishapur  Iran 270,972
Attar mausoleum0.jpg The city is located in the Razavi Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, situated in a fertile plain at the foot of the Binalud Mountains, near the regional capital of Mashhad. It's hometown of several respected Persian poets and artists, including Omar Khayyám, Attar Neyshapuri and Kamal-ol-molk.

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Asia : Central Asia
Map of Central Asia
Map of Central Asia

Central Asia is most notable for being home to the 'stans': Rugged countries with limited arable land, historically coveted for their position between Europe and East Asia, rather than for their resources (although petroleum reserves in the region are becoming important). They are home to generally poor, primarily Muslim, historically nomadic, mostly Turkic-speaking peoples. All but Afghanistan (which is sometimes categorized separately for this and other reasons) are former Soviet republics that so far have retained authoritarian, secular governments.


Due to culture and history, however, Iran, Mongolia, Western China (Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai & Western Sichuan), parts of Russia (Buryatia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Tuva, Altai, Khakassia) and parts of Pakistan are often included.

Gur Amir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Gur Amir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Central Asia is an area that was, until recently, inaccessible for independent travellers. That has all changed, although the traveller will still often come up against a wall of Soviet-style bureaucracy. Despite this, Central Asia is increasing in popularity amongst travellers who want to experience one of the world's last great frontier lands.

Historically and geographically diverse, Central Asia is an interesting region. As a bridge between Europe and Asia, the region was the home of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between the two continents in the first centuries of the common era. The following millennia saw much upheaval and conflict, from the expansion of Islam, the period of Mongol domination and the 'Great Game' between imperial Britain and imperial Russia in the 19th century.

After a traumatic break-up from the USSR, Some Central Asian countries are beginning to find their feet and offer good travelling options. There are parts of Central Asia that will have hardly seen a traveller before, and there are many wild and beautiful landscapes to be explored. That is not to say the region is bereft of problems, chiefly a lack of infrastructure and stifling bureaucracy.

Understand that self-identification is an especially touchy issue in Central Asia, more so than most of Europe. Parts of China (Notably Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang) have a native population that has advocated for secession from China. Often they emphasise their Central Asian identity, something not well-understood by outsiders. For example, Mongolians and Buryats tend to emphasise their historical ties with the Turkic Muslims to the west (despite being Mongolic Buddhists of the Tibetan Rite) and are offended by being compared to the Chinese, and some even call themselves Europeans (by virtue of Russian influence).

This situation is not unique to Mongolic peoples; Tibetans are well known in the West for their disdain for China and any ties they may have to it. Many people in Tatarstan and Xinjiang, among other places, would emphasise their Turkicness over any connection to China or Russia.

The problem goes the other way as well. Many ethnic Chinese are quick to point out that the Manchu Empire included parts of Central Asia, including land no longer controlled by the Chinese.

All in all, Central Asian identity is greatly shaped by their nomadic nature. From Kyrgyz to Tibetans, a history of tribal politics have left Central Asia at once totally isolated from the outside world, and intimately connected to whoever conquered them.


Most of Central Asia (especially by the Soviet definition) speaks some Turkic language. The Turkic languages are a very broad group, and while some are mutually intelligible (depending on your level of proficiency), many are not. For those willing to take a stab at the language(s) of the great Turkic horde, a good place to start would be here.

Mongolic languages (while arguably related to Turkic ones) are not comprehensible to the speaker of any Turkic language. These are scattered across the continent, from Mongolia, to Inner Mongolia (in China), to Buryatia and Kalmykia (in Russia).

Iranic languages are thankfully related to English, albeit distantly. They are spoken in some parts of China, as well as by the majority in Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan, and by a large minority in Uzbekistan.

A working knowledge of Russian will be extremely useful in most regions described as Central Asian.

Get in

As mentioned above, the definition of "Central Asia" can be controversial. One reason why the one used on this page is useful, however, is visas.

All Central Asian countries require visas for virtually everybody, and the difficulty of getting them ranges from a minor hassle (Kyrgyzstan) to virtually impossible if one does not have 'connections' (Turkmenistan). Before issuing a visa, many countries will require a letter of invitation, often best obtained via a specialist travel agency, although some hotels will also issue them for confirmed reservations. Start working on your visas well in advance, as it may take weeks for the gears of bureaucracy to grind through your application, and make sure you comply with any local police/bureaucracy registration requirements after you've arrived.

By plane

The hub for the region is Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which has the most flights to destinations outside Central Asia. Unfortunately the airport also has a reputation for being unpleasant, and it is best to avoid flights which arrive here late at night.

There are also increasingly good options for flights to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You can fly here directly from London, Frankfurt, Beijing, Seoul, Moscow, Riga and various others.

Most Afghans and Pakistanis travel by air to Islamabad or Lahore and go by road to their final destinations.

To arrive in other Central Asia cities will generally require a transfer in one of these hubs.


From Russia

Trains going to Central Asia leave from Moscow Kazansky station. Trains go to Tashkent (56 hours/US$80), Almaty (78 hours/US$120), Bishkek (75 hours/US$70), Samarkand (85 hours/US$100), and others.

From China

There is a line from Urumqi, China to Almaty, but the bus is quicker. An interesting option is the challenging crossing from Kashgar, China to Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass. This was a major link on the old Silk Road.

From Iran

The border is closed to foreigners, but there are buses running between Mashhad and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

From Pakistan

Travelling to different areas of Pakistan is quite easy by train, bus or taxi. The route from there into Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass is not currently safe. The Karakoram Highway North into China is challenging but possible. It gets you to Kashgar; from there routes to Central Asia are either difficult (West to Bishkek) or long (swing North to Urumqi and then Almaty).

By boat

There is an irregular service between Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.

Get around

Getting between Central Asian countries is tricky. Until recently, it was practically impossible to get into Türkmenistan. Get as many visas as you can before you leave. If not, make sure you're "stationed" in one and have time to deal with the bureaucracy at each embassy before you go.


The whole region is filled with steppes and mountains. Beautiful scenery that has served as the backdrop for a half dozen empires. Most tourists to the region arrive in the capital and immediately book a tour of the mountains or countryside (especially in Kyrgyzstan).


The further south you are, the more flavourful the cuisine is. Afghanistan and Tajikistan have far different cuisine than the Mongolic or Turkic cuisines, which are mostly hearty, spice-free, meaty fare.

All Central Asian countries are heavily carnivorous. There are local vegetarians in all Central Asian countries (even Afghanistan) but they are in the minority. This means while you can go without meat and survive, you will attract odd looks.


With the notable exception of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan(where hashish smoking dominates), Central Asia is dominated by drinkers. Muslim Turkic and Persian states are filled with liquor just as Buddhist Tibet and Mongolia are. However, as most of this region is Muslim, make sure you do all your drinking around like-minded individuals. You won't be put in any danger by drinking around a pious individual, but they will likely not be too impressed.

The liquor of choice is almost always vodka, introduced by the Russians. Fermented mare's milk is popular as well.

The non-alcoholic drink of choice is always tea.

Stay safe

Safety in Central Asia is a complex issue. While Afghanistan is famous for the possibility of kidnappings, riots and Taliban resurgence, most other Central Asian countries risk riots after years of autocratic or near-autocratic government. Tibet was recently engulfed by riots.

This is not to say that the entire region is a death trap. Most of the time, most of the region is peaceful. But even then you have some concerns. Most likely for the tourist is having one's pocket picked. See each individual country for a more complete summary.

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Proper noun

Wikipedia has an article on:


Central Asia


Central Asia

  1. A landlocked area of continental Asia comprising Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan
  2. A larger area also including Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Tibet, western China, Afghanistan and parts of Siberia, Iran and Pakistan


Simple English

Central Asia is a region in Asia. The countries located in Central Asia are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The United Nations also includes Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of Central Asia.


People have lived in the region of Central Asia since prehistoric times. Most of the region was part of the Silk Road. It was a part of the Persian Empire until Alexander The Great captured it. When he died, the land was given to his general Seleucus. Seleucus slowly lost it to the Parthians. When the Parthians (the Parthians were Persians) lost power, the Sassanids added it to their own Persian empire. However, a couple years later, during about the 600's A.D, Arab armies spreading the faith of Islam quickly captured it. A while later, an Iranian dynasty got semi- autonomy under the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad. They were known as the Samanids. The Samanids controlled most of Central Asia and Northwestern Iran. They had power over this area during the 10th century. With them, Central Asian cities, such as Bukhara and Samarkand, grew in culture. However, Turkish armies from this area took the region away from them. They were known as the Seljuk Turks. At the same time, Timur captured it. After his death, the Timurids ( the name of the people of the dynasty Timur founded) could not hold unto their empire. They lost it to the Mongols. When the Mongols captured it, burned it to the ground. A while later, some rulers decided to make their own empires under that of the Mongols. These empires were known as Khanates. But the Russians decided to take away these lands. Many years later, in 1991, all of the countries of Central Asia declared independence.


Uzbekistan has much cotton. Kazakhstan is wealthy because it has sold oil, gas and metals to Europe and China. Turkmenistan has adjusted better to independence from the Soviet Union than the other Central Asian countries, but it has been run by a dictatorship. Other than Kazakhstan, most of Central Asia are mostly underdeveloped.

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