The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

In terms of space, Central Asia has a lot of it.

With a com­bined land area of 3,926,790 square kilo­metres, the Five Stans cov­er 2.63 per­cent of the world’s land­mass. Although that is an area far lar­ger than India, Cent­ral Asia has a pop­u­la­tion dens­ity of just eight­een people per square kilo­metre. India, by com­par­is­on, is 25 times as densely pop­u­lated. What is in all of that space in-between the people? What does the nat­ur­al world con­jure across Cent­ral Asia? In this art­icle we take a trip to six of the most extraordin­ary centres of the nat­ur­al (and unnat­ur­al) world of Cent­ral Asia, to dis­cov­er how the people of Cent­ral Asia are both shaped and shap­ing the vast envir­on­ment around them.

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

It makes sense to begin with the “Roof of the World” — the Pamir Moun­tains. Writ­ten about in the West since the time of Ptolemy, cen­tur­ies ago three branches of the Silk Road used to cross the Pamirs. Whilst most of the range lies with­in Tajikistan, its fringes seep into Afgh­anistan, China and Kyrgyz­stan. A diverse array of soci­et­ies live in semi-autonom­ous and autonom­ous areas of the moun­tains. Many are small nomad­ic com­munit­ies of Tajiks, but size­able pop­u­la­tions live in small cit­ies such as Kho­rog.

Climbers in 1978 pose for a pho­to­graph with ‘Peak Com­mun­ism’, as the highest point in Cent­ral Asia was then known.

The tallest peak of the Pamirs — Kongur Tagh — is not in Cent­ral Asia, but China. Ismoil Peak is the highest in the region, at a mod­est 7,495m — the fiftieth tallest moun­tain in the world. Formerly known as Peak Com­mun­ism, the moun­tain was more formerly still named after Joseph Stal­in, but gained its cur­rent name in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury to com­mem­or­ate the Saman­id emir, Ismail Samani.

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

‘The Gates of Hell’, which for the past four dec­ades has been a bench­mark for ‘The hot­test thing in Turk­menistan since…’

From the heights of heav­en, we jour­ney to the Gates of Hell. Yes, the door to the under­world can be found in Turkmenistan’s Karak­um Desert, 275km north of the country’s cap­it­al. The Dar­vaza Gas Crater emerged in 1971 fol­low­ing a Soviet drilling acci­dent. In an attempt to extract oil, engin­eers rup­tured a nat­ur­al gas pock­et unearth­ing an enorm­ous crater, and swal­low­ing up the rig. Imme­di­ately, tox­ic gas spewed from the 230 feet-wide crater and anim­als in the area soon began to per­ish. In an attempt to cull the spread of meth­ane, geo­lo­gists opted to set the crater on fire, and thus the Flames of Hell came to Earth. It is not unusu­al for gas craters to be set on fire but, usu­ally, they extin­guish with­in a few weeks, months, or at most, years; no one knows when, or even if the Dar­vaza Crater will stop burn­ing. Today, the Gates of Hell is a pop­u­lar tour­ist attrac­tion, which Google help­fully informs us is “Open 24 Hours”.

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The fam­ous ‘dis­ap­pear­ing lake’ act.

Tragedy hit Cent­ral Asia in the 1960s, in what many experts believe to be one of the greatest eco­lo­gic­al dis­asters of all time. The Aral Sea was one the world’s fourth-largest lake — the second largest in Asia. Cov­er­ing 26,000 square miles, it truly was one of the nat­ur­al won­ders of the region, divid­ing a chunk of bor­der between Kaza­kh­stan and Uzbek­istan.

Fish, and thus the loc­al fish­ing industry, has declined immensely since the dis­ap­pear­ance of water. This pho­to­graph of a beached fish­ing ves­sel in the Bay of Zhalanas, Aral­sk, Kaza­kh­stan, illus­trates the point.

Today, that bor­der requires not a boat to cross, but feet. In the 1960s, as part of the Soviet eco­nom­ic plan to make Cent­ral Asia the world’s largest pro­du­cer of cot­ton, the two great rivers of Cent­ral Asia were diver­ted for an irrig­a­tion pro­ject. The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had fed the Aral, but cata­stroph­ic neg­li­gence rap­idly depleted the sea’s water sup­ply. By 1990, the sea split in two, and by 2003, the depth had fallen by 72 feet. Even­tu­ally, the Aral held just one-tenth of its ori­gin­al volume. Fish­ing ports turned to bar­ren waste­lands and dust bowl­ing swept up sand and chem­ic­al residues from the now exposed seabed. Although a glob­al effort led by the World Bank has sought to rein­vig­or­ate the North­ern Aral Sea, many experts believe that the vast major­ity of this once great lake will remain bar­ren. The Aral Sea dis­aster provides a stark and rather apo­ca­lyptic pre­quel to the world’s loom­ing water crisis.

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

At elev­en times the length of Canada’s Ath­abasca Gla­ci­er, the Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er is the world’s longest non-polar Gla­ci­er.

2000km away from the Aral is Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er, the world’s longest non-polar gla­ci­er. First dis­covered in 1878, it is by far the biggest gla­ci­er in the Pamir range and its run­off even­tu­ally trickles into what is left of the Aral Sea. The ice on Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er, found in the east of Tajikistan, is 1000m thick in parts and meas­ures 77km in length. Put in per­spect­ive, Canada’s fam­ous Ath­abasca Gla­ci­er is just 7km long. The source of Fed­chen­ko is found in Gorno-Badakh­shan province upon Revolu­tion Peak, the highest point in the east­ern part of the Yazgulem Range.

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

Kazakstan’s great Canyon will most likely become grand in the next few hun­dred mil­lion years.

Close to the bor­der with China is one of Cent­ral Asia’s more unusu­al sites: Sharyn Canyon. The val­ley began to be formed rather recently — just 90 mil­lion years ago. Its most fam­ous point — The Val­ley of Castles — provides the off the beaten track tour­ist with some truly epic pho­tos for their Ins­tagram. Although it is dwarfed by the Grand Canyon for length, it is still nearly 100km long, and holds some remark­able eco­lo­gic­al sites. A pre­his­tor­ic forest, for example, con­tain­ing a large num­ber of Sog­di­an Ash, a par­tic­u­larly rare spe­cies of Ash. Sharyn Canyon Nation­al Park is 120 miles east of Almaty and the stag­ger­ing views of the ancient dust-orange rock canyon walls are a key attrac­tion for Kazakstan’s incip­i­ent tour­ist industry.

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

Kaza­kh­stan is the alleged birth­place of can­nabis, and in the Chuy Val­ley, 400,000 hec­tares have grown wild in amongst the Tien-shan moun­tains. Ever since the restrict­ive drug policies of the Soviet Uni­on, this has been some­thing of a polit­ic­al head­ache; where­as nature was defeated in the Aral Sea, the hardy nature of wild can­nabis has allowed the crops to sur­vive mul­tiple erad­ic­a­tion attempts, mak­ing can­nabis Kazakhstan’s most potent per­en­ni­al weed. Under the cov­er of night, loc­als are known to des­cend into the val­ley to col­lect small quant­it­ies of wild can­nabis — which is famed for a low potency and con­sequent lack of hangover effects. Large-scale har­vest­ing is inhib­ited by an annu­al police crack­down on efforts to organ­ise col­lec­tion efforts — as such, organ­ised crim­in­als rub shoulders with bohemi­an enthu­si­asts, with no groups hav­ing a mono­poly on the region of nat­ur­al abund­ance.

A ‘high’ val­ley in Kaza­kh­stan. Photo: Mari­usz Kluzniak.

There is your heav­en to hell then — a whistle-stop tour of the nat­ur­al won­ders of Cent­ral Asia. Though it would rarely come to mind when we think of the epic of our nat­ur­al envir­on­ment, Cent­ral Asia pos­sesses some of the most remark­able examples of the undis­covered, the unbe­liev­able, and unfor­tu­nately, the unnat­ur­al. Whilst the Dar­vaza Gas Crater is an example to poke fun at, the Aral Sea dis­aster is not. Per­haps the great meas­ure Cent­ral Asia’s nat­ur­al won­ders is, then, humankind’s utterly fra­gile rela­tion­ship to the nat­ur­al world.

Fact File: Uzbekistan

NameOʻzbek­iston Respub­likasi
Pop­u­la­tion32,979,000 (2017 estim­ate)
Cap­it­al cityTashkent
Offi­cial lan­guageUzbek (offi­cial), Rus­si­an, Tajik
Reli­gionsIslam (88%), East­ern Ortho­dox (9%), oth­er
Life expect­ancy68.45 years
Pop­u­la­tion growth 1.7%
GDP $67.22 bil­lion (2016)
HDI 0.701 (105th)
Gini 0.45
Pres­id­ent Shavkat Mirz­iyoyev


Bor­der­ing the oth­er four Cent­ral Asi­an “Stans”, Uzbek­istan has a rich and col­our­ful his­tory of move­ment, con­quest, and res­ist­ance. After Alex­an­der The Great conquered the region in fourth cen­tury BC, Uzbek­istan wit­nessed sev­er­al dis­tinct phases of extern­al influ­ence. Turkic nomads arrived in the sixth cen­tury AD and by the eight cen­tury Islam was intro­duced by the Arabs. Per­haps most fam­ously the Mon­gol Empire, under Genghis Khan, con­sumed the region in the thir­teenth cen­tury. With the steppes united, trade, com­mu­nic­a­tion and even dis­eases spread massively in the fol­low­ing cen­tur­ies. Uzbekistan’s major cit­ies, such as Bukhara, reaped the bene­fit of rein­vig­or­ated East-West trade links.

The Mon­gols and the Silk Road put the coun­try firmly on the map, but it wasn’t until the early six­teenth cen­tury was invaded by the Uzbek. Under the lead­er­ship of Abdul­lah, the empire took in parts of Afgh­anistan and Per­sia, but soon broke down. That lack of unity left the Uzbek­istani prin­cip­al­it­ies at the mercy of the expand­ing Rus­si­an Empire in the lat­ter half of the nine­teenth cen­tury. In the wake of the Rus­si­an Revolu­tion, the Uzbek frac­tured between Soviet sup­port­ers and the Bas­ma­chi, with the lat­ter even­tu­ally suc­cumb­ing to Sta­lin­ist policies. Col­lect­iv­isa­tion, indus­tri­al­isa­tion, and indi­gen­isa­tion were all pur­sued by the Uzbek Soviet Social­ist Repub­lic dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Soviet industry shif­ted from vul­ner­able pos­i­tions in West­ern Rus­sia to Uzbek­istan dur­ing WWII, whilst in the post-war years a drastic drive toward mass pro­duc­tion of cot­ton led to sev­er­al major eco­lo­gic­al dis­asters. With the col­lapse of Com­mun­ism in 1989, Uzbek­istan even­tu­ally secured its inde­pend­ence in 1991, after sev­er­al cen­tur­ies of Rus­si­an rule.

Art­work on the rooftop of the Tilla Kari madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbek­istan. Photo by Patrick Rig­gen­berg.


Uzbek­istan is cur­rently wit­ness­ing a moment­ous peri­od eco­nom­ic growth. Accord­ing to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s eco­nomy is set to grow faster than any Cent­ral Asi­an or East­ern European nation between now and 2019. State invest­ment in gas, gold and cot­ton pro­duc­tion has cre­ated a boom­ing export eco­nomy. The future for­tunes of exports are largely tied to the per­form­ance the Chinese and Rus­si­an eco­nom­ies, and their gen­er­al down­turn has con­cerned Uzbek­istani policy makers. Yet even with that con­sidered, a strong small busi­ness sec­tor has lif­ted large sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion out of poverty and into employ­ment, a sign that the country’s eco­nomy is shift­ing toward a great­er reli­ance on intern­al rather than extern­al mar­kets.


The meal is a cent­ral pil­lar of Uzbek cul­ture. Tan­door baked bread (tandir) holds a sac­red place at the meal, and can only be torn by hand and nev­er thrown out. Palov (plov or pilaf) is per­haps the most fam­ous dish in the region — and across Cent­ral Asia. Often con­sidered to be the old­est dish in Uzbek cuisine and it is believed Alex­an­der the Great was served palov after cap­tur­ing Marakanda. Cooked in a large pot, palov is a rice based dish cooked with lamb, rais­ins, and entire bulbs of gar­lic, seasoned with tur­mer­ic, cori­ander, and cumin.

Pilaf (plov) is a pop­u­lar dish through­out Uzbek­istan and the Cent­ral Asia region. Photo Jarda Pulao.


Music is omni­present in Uzbek soci­ety. Whis­pers of the ancients can be heard in tra­di­tion­al recit­als at funer­als and com­mem­or­ative cere­mon­ies, dis­tinct from European music in its mono­phon­ic tex­ture. Uzbek­istan boasts some incred­ibly influ­en­tial musi­cians in the region. Ari Babakhan­ov is amongst the most fam­ous. Known for his immense con­tri­bu­tion to tra­di­tion­al Bukhara music, he also tran­scribed and noted down extens­ive amounts of Per­sian poetry and pop­u­lar Uzbek and Tajik works. Today, Uzbek­istan has a diverse music scene, with rock and rap the most pop­u­lar forms.


Close friends or fam­ily of the same sex greet each oth­er with a kiss on both cheeks. At a meal, guests are expec­ted to take a turn as toast­mas­ter, prais­ing the host for wel­com­ing them into their home. Fam­ily and com­munity is of immense value in Uzbek­istan. Com­munit­ies are gov­erned by the mahal­lya, a self-gov­ern­ing unit of neigh­bours and fam­il­ies sup­port­ing one anoth­er. Most girls marry before the age of 21, and wed­dings involve the entire com­munity; hun­dreds of guests are typ­ic­ally invited.


2016 wit­nessed the elec­tion of a new pres­id­ent, Shavkat Mirz­iyoyev in Uzbek­istan. Pri­or to Mirziyoyev’s elec­tion, the nation had been ruled by Islam Karimov, a deeply con­tro­ver­sial who was con­sist­ently cri­ti­cised by the inter­na­tion­al com­munity for extens­ive human rights abuses in the coun­try. For example, the United Nations has found tor­ture to be insti­tu­tion­al­ised in the coun­try. Press cen­sor­ship remains a major issue and many west­ern news out­lets are not allowed to func­tion in the coun­try. How­ever, whilst human rights abuses remain a key issue, the gov­ern­ment has taken steps to erad­ic­ate human traf­fick­ing and cul­tiv­a­tion of opi­um for export pur­poses.