Uzbekistan vs. Kyrgyzstan: Which Central Asian Country Should You Explore?

Central Asia encapsulates the romance of the Silk Road.

Uzbekistan is home to ancient cities and mindboggling architecture, while Kyrgyzstan has unspoiled natural beauty at every turn. It also offers visa-free travel for most nationalities, making it a popular gateway for many travelers coming to Central Asia.

Hopefully you’re able to make room for both of these incredible countries on your agenda, but if time is tight and you can only pick one, bad luck, you have a tough decision to make. To help you narrow down your options, we asked two travel writers to go head-to-head, giving the case for the destination closest to their hearts.

Uzbekistan is a spellbinding medieval capsule

Have you ever strolled through Khiva’s exquisitely preserved walled city of Ichon-Qala at dawn on a cold spring morning, with ice crystals glinting off the turquoise-tiled Kalta Minor minaret, and the rays of the rising sun illuminating the roofs of the many mosques.

Have you scaled the watchtower of Kuhna Ark at sunset, or wandered Ichon-Qala’s labyrinthine lanes on a breathless summer night? If so, then you know what it’s like to be utterly spellbound by this medieval time capsule, what it feels like to be the only person there, and to be privileged to be drinking in all this grandeur for the first time.

Yes, Uzbekistan is perhaps the most well-trodden of all the ‘Stans, but rightly so.

No other country in Central Asia can match its history as the epicenter of the Silk Road that stretches back millennia, or its embarrassment of riches when it comes to show-stopping architecture

Visit Kyrgyzstan for unique landscapes and nomadic culture

Based in Kyrgyzstan for nearly a decade, Lonely Planet author Stephen Lioy enjoys carrying heavy camera gear to high mountain passes then cadging fermented horse milk off unsuspecting shepherds on the way down.

Somewhere in the mountains south of Issyk-Köl on the way up yet another 1000m (3280ft) climb it hits you – no, not altitude sickness, but the realization that you’ve not seen another tourist in several hours.
What in more popular destinations might signal you’ve hopelessly lost the way in Kyrgyzstan just means you’re on yet another lightly-used Tien Shan trekking route – and there are plenty of those to choose from.

Indeed, the Kyrgyz Republic can proudly claim to sit at an intersection of nomadic culture and high mountain landscapes matched nowhere else in Central Asia – perhaps nowhere else in the world.

Drive up to Son Kol or trek to the shore of Ala-Köl lake – both above 3000m (9843ft).

Walk along the 60km-long (37-mile) Inylcheck Glacier – crossing on and off the ice on a trail that changes through the season as the glacier moves. Freeride untouched backcountry powder at Jyrgalan or Too-Ashuu.

Each evening, bed down in a warm yurt after a filling meal of meat- and carb-dense laghman noodles or gulchetai soup; after all, if it’s enough to fuel a shepherd through the summer it’ll certainly keep you on the trail.

Travelers to Uzbekistan might tell you to visit there for the food – and they’re not wrong! But what they won’t tell you is that you’ll find plov, samsa, and shashlik in Osh that are every bit as tasty (and often at a fraction of the price); as well as cuisines from the 80+ other nationalities that call Kyrgyzstan home.

Karakol city itself is home to at least ten distinct cultural groups, with many of these offering family-hosted dinners or cooking classes to share their cuisines and traditions with travelers.

While admittedly both countries produce beautiful handicrafts, I’m particularly partial to Kyrgyzstan: intricate leather goods and felt handicrafts that, unlike porcelain, fold up nicely in your luggage and wont break on the trip back home.