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Central Asia Travel Destinations: Kazakhstan and Tajikistan
At roughly half the size of the 48 contiguous United States, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, with spectacularly diverse geography and no shortage of places to visit. Northern forests gradually turn into wide flat steppes to more arid regions and finally to deserts in the south. Kazakhstan is rich in minerals and has large oil and gas reserves.
Islam and Christianity are the dominant religions, though religious tolerance is the widely recognized norm and, as a holdover from the Soviet era, many people profess no religious affiliation at all. The national characteristic of the Kazakh people is hospitality. Stemming from the country's longstanding nomadic culture, strangers are treated as honored guests. Respect for guests and the elderly as well as tolerance and peacefulness are ingrained from childhood.
Almaty, in the east, is the country's largest city and commercial capital. The ancestral home of the world's apples has been traced to this region. In fact, "Alma" means "apple." The Great Silk Road caravans came through this ancient city carrying spices, porcelain, silk and civilizing influences from the cultured Orient to the more barbaric west.
An over night train trip to the west takes you to the Baykonur Cosmodrome, home of the Russian space program. Once a secretly guarded location, Baykonur is now open to visitors where it is possible to tour the birthplace of space flight, visit the complex where the original cosmonauts trained and where today Russian flights to the International Space Station are launched.
About 100 miles (160 km) east of Almaty are the natural wonders of Altyn-Emel National Park. The region contains rare animals such as Siberian mountain goats, ancient Scythian burial mounds, rock drawings from 3500 years ago and the Kyzyl-Auyz Gorge where there grows the "stone tree" which has bark so hard that it resists an axe. The park also contains otherworldly "lunar" landscapes and the unforgettable "Singing Dunes," which make the sound of an organ in dry weather. Imperceptible movement of grains of sand sliding down the face of the dune in dry weather creates a vibration that becomes electrified in dry conditions, which coupled by resonant conditions in the surroundings, produces powerful sound waves that can be heard miles away.
Here too is Charyn Canyon, referred to as the younger brother of America's Grand Canyon, with deep, colorful gorges, spectacular rock formations and some of the world's finest hiking, canyoning and water rafting.
This mountainous land is the smallest country in Central Asia but is the traditional on ramp to the Silk Road from China. Three primary caravan routes ran through Tajikistan's Tien-Shan and Pamir mountain ranges.
Only around 7% of the land is arable, nearly all of in the fertile Fergana Valley in the north, which produces the major agricultural crop, cotton, which, along with aluminum, are country's major exports.
Tajikistan's capital and largest city is Dushanbe, modern and European styled, with broad tree-lined boulevards and a spectacular backdrop of snow capped mountain peaks. The city features numerous squares and monuments commemorating the Persian influences of the past and its surroundings contain many recreational areas, mountain parks and gorges, one with a 100 foot waterfall.
The National Museum of Archaeology contains the 1600 year old 'Tajik Buddha,' now thought to be the largest statue of its kind in Central Asia. The museum also houses displays of Zoroastrian and Buddhist artifacts.
Khujand is the country's second largest city and an ancient Silk Road trade center. Located at the entrance to the fertile Fergana Valley, Khujand is cited as the easternmost city established by Alexander the Great. As such, it has a rich history and many preserved architectural and cultural sites. It also happens to be a popular mountaineering center in a country where half the land lies higher than 9,000 feet above sea level and which has a number of peaks taller than 20,000 feet.
Near to the border with Uzbekistan is Penjikent, which lay on the only route from the East to Samarkand and flourished from the 5th Century. Arabs destroyed the city in the 8th Century and the ruins were discovered in the last hundred years. Today, the excavation site has been turned into a memorial reserve where tourists can visit a medieval citadel, palace, public buildings, dwellings and a necropolis.
Midway between Penjikent and Dushanbe lies the emerald gem Iskander Kul (lake). The lake is at an elevation of 7,000 among the 4,000 plus peaks of the Fan mountains, which contain many other hiking, fishing or skiing spots for Dushanbe's residents.
To the east is the larger Kara Kul situated amongst high, barren highlands that, with their errie atmosphere and yak herds, are reminiscent of Tibet. The lake is often accessed from Kyrgyzstan, heading west from Osh.
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