Space on Earth

Starry Skies & 3 Other Reasons to Visit Central Asia for Astrotourism

If there’s one great thing about the developing destinations across the globe, it’s that they’re almost always good for stargazing. Places like Southern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia are still developing the brightly lit infrastructure that eventually makes enjoying the night sky impossible. Whereas over 80% of Americans can’t see the stars in any meaningful way, these up-and-coming regions still have large areas of dark sky to enjoy.

I recently spent several weeks traveling in Central Asia as part of a campaign to encourage tourism in the region. Naturally, I was keen to see how dark the skies were – and I was not disappointed! Now I’m pulling together some of the reasons I think astrotourists, space enthusiasts, and amateur astronomers who love adventure should plan a trip to Central Asia.

There are Ample Dark Skies in Central Asia

Tajikistan Stars - sunriseOdyssey via Flickr
Tajikistan Stars – Photo credit: sunriseOdyssey via Flickr

Central Asia might not be a region on your radar, but it’s absolutely massive: the five countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) are some 1.5 million square miles in total area. In all that space, there are 74 million citizens.

Like most destinations, many of the people in these countries live in the cities. For example, roughly 1 million people live in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; 1.8 million live in Almaty, Kazakhstan; and 2.3 million live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. All this to say that there’s quite a lot of wide open space and nature that’s undeveloped – and unpolluted by light.

If you’re planning a trip to Central Asia, you probably already plan to do some hiking and/or backpacking, and that’s an ideal chance to enjoy the night sky. You could camp at Kolsai Lake #2 as part of the three-lake 16-mile hike in Kazakhstan, or anywhere along the Pamir Highway trek in Tajikistan.

Yurt Camps are an Ideal Stargazing Accommodation

Yurt Camp - Thomas Depenbusch via Flickr
Photo credit: Thomas Depenbusch via Flickr

If you’re looking for a way to enjoy Central Asian culture and stargazing, consider booking several nights at a yurt camp. These accommodations are usually run by a local family that lives on the property and sets up the yurts in traditional styles.

The nomadic peoples of Central Asia used yurts as their primary accommodation because they are easy to set up and tear down – and thus also mobile for moving between camps and grazing lands. Yurts are decorated in any number of styles and colors; most of the internal decorations tell the stories or myths of the ethnic group who owns the yurt.

Yurt Camp - Bryan_T via Flickr
Photo credit: Bryan_T via Flickr

Yurt camps are now a common tourist attraction as part of a multi-day itinerary in Central Asia. During my trip to Kyrgyzstan, I spent two nights in Kara-Kyz yurt camp outside the town of Karakol. Because of its isolated location and the fact that we were only allowed three hours of power from the generator each night, the rest of the night we had virtually no light pollution to interfere with enjoying the night sky.

Central Asian Metro Stations Celebrate Aerospace History

Baikonur Metro in Almaty

As part of the former Soviet Union, the countries of Central Asia show the influence of Soviet culture and history. This is especially the case in the cities with public metro systems. Soviet metro stations are notoriously beautiful in design and often have a theme for each station.

For example, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the Kosmonavtlar station is a memorial to Soviet aerospace history. In the station and on the platforms, you’ll find plaques commemorating the various achievements of early Soviet rocket scientists and astronauts.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan be sure to visit Baikonur station if you love space. This metro station is a combination of Soviet practical design for a space station like Mir with the futuristic style of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can even watch footage from recent Roscosmos launches on a screen at the end of the station! (Baikonur

Russia Launches Rockets in Central Asia

Soyuz Launch - Kazakhstan

Speaking of Baikonur, it’s impossible to mention Central Asia without talking about Russia‘s top launch facility: Baikonur Cosmodrome in western Kazakhstan. Established during the Soviet era, Baikonur was an ideal spot for launches because of its geographic placement and distance from urban areas.

Roscosmos still uses Baikonur for launches today – including all crew launches to the International Space Station! For this reason, all U.S. astronauts spend several months training with their Russian colleagues in Moscow. They also must learn Russian before they are allowed to fly to the ISS. While NASA may not use Baikonur once SpaceX and Boeing complete development of their Commercial Crew systems, it will still be the primary Roscosmos launch location.

There are several tour operators that allow you to visit Baikonur to see a launch, including Space Adventures.

Travel Tips for Astrotourists in Central Asia

If you’re sold on heading off-the-beaten-path to enjoy a variety of astrotourism experiences in Central Asia – rocket launches! stargazing! oh my! – here are some additional travel tips to help you maximize your experience.

1. Plan Your Trip for the New Moon

If you plan on stargazing in Central Asia, be sure to time your trip for the week surrounding the new moon in the month you plan to visit. Even in the dramatically unpolluted dark skies of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, a first quarter moon cast a ton of light that made stargazing more difficult during my trip.

2. Arrange Logistics in Advance

It will help a lot if you hire a driver and guide in advance if you plan to explore beyond the major cities in Central Asia. While most locals speak both Russian and a local language (e.g. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, or Uzbek) in the cities – many will speak only the local language in rural areas. Having a drive/guide will make planning and your day-to-day experience much smoother.

Also be aware that you can’t visit Baikonur independently. You must book a tour to visit the Roscosmos launch facilities, so be sure to do that well in advance.

Yurt Camp in Kyrgyzstan at Night

3. Pack Layers & Prepare for Adventure

Central Asia is a great destination for adventure travelers of all kinds – including astrotourists! However, it’s important to pack all the gear and equipment you’ll need to enjoy those hikes and stargazing sessions. It can get quite cool at night in Central Asia. This is especially Kazakhstan which is further north and higher in elevation than other countries in the region. Plan ahead by packing layers, a hat, gloves, and headlamp to take full advantage of your trip with minimal discomfort.

There you have it! If you’re looking for other tips on traveling in Central Asia, I’ve shared them on my blog:

Have other questions about visiting Central Asia? Let me know in the comments!

This post was made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She decided to start the site after realizing how many friends and family had never seen the Milky Way, and that space tourism was going to unlock the next great travel destination: space!

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