Hidden gems of Central Asia captivate Chinese tourists

2024-06-08 11:12:01China Daily Editor : Mo Honge ECNS App Download

Mir-i-Arab Madrasah, a historical Islamic educational institution, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (CHINA DAILY)

It is as old and venerable as Rome, the eternal city, and Athens, the city of wisdom, yet Samarkand, the pearl of the Muslim world, draws only a fraction of the attention that those two capitals do.

Indeed, while most people know that Rome is in Italy and Athens is in Greece, few would have even heard of Samarkand, let alone know that it is in Uzbekistan.

That very anonymity, largely a result of being all but ignored by the world's travelers, may be what is helping fuel a surge of Chinese tourists to the countries of Central Asia, where they are discovering the marvels of Samarkand and other ancient and unheralded treasures.

This new interest in the region was helped 11 years ago when President Xi Jinping unveiled in Astana, Kazakhstan, a proposal that would eventually be known as the Belt and Road Initiative. The spotlight was shone on this corner of the world and sparked travelers' passion to discover new attractions and adventures.

"Before going to Central Asia I had only a vague idea of what it is like," said Yu Shengnan, 31, an office worker in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.

"I chose to go there because I was planning a low-cost world trip and realized that cities such as Almaty and Samarkand were affordable transit points for traveling through the Middle East."

Yu, who completed her 300-day around-the-world trip last year, said she was delighted by what Central Asia had to offer.

"For me, Central Asia was full of wonderful surprises. There's a lot of stunning natural landscapes and rich historical heritage to explore. The architecture is diverse, with Soviet-era style to be found next to magnificent mosques. I've been to many Arab countries, but the mosques in Samarkand are astonishing. Central Asia really does provide an unforgettable experience."

The visa-free policy adopted by China and Kazakhstan last year has added to the allure of Central Asian countries for Chinese tourists, who can now stay in Kazakhstan for up to 30 days visa-free, and in Uzbekistan for 10 days. Last year, about 217,000 Chinese tourists visited Kazakhstan, a twelvefold increase from 2022, according to official figures.

As 2024 has been designated the Year of Kazakhstan Tourism in China, an even larger influx of Chinese tourists is expected to visit the country.

In the first quarter, Central Asia witnessed a significant rise in travel, with Chinese visitors increasing by more than 300 percent year-on-year, according to, a travel service platform in China.

Most of the visitors are millennials and Generation Z, who are drawn to destinations such as Almaty in Kazakhstan, Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and Dushanbe in Tajikistan.

Central Asia is essentially attracting two types of tourists, Yu said, namely those who view it as a cost-effective transit point on long trips and those who seek niche travel destinations after visiting other countries.

"It's a place where you can experience deep historical and cultural immersion," she said.

Qian Shihao, 29, an analyst in Shanghai, who visited Central Asia 10 months ago, his first overseas trip after the pandemic, said he wanted a destination off the beaten track after having traveled to more than 20 countries.

"I love visiting places with historical depth. I chose Samarkand because I hadn't come across anyone in my social circle who had been there. From there I explored other cities in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan."

Qian said he was most impressed by the "history enthusiasts" he met during his 15-day trip.

"These Chinese tourists come to Central Asia intent on seeing history. They visit ancient ruins and cities that have vanished, and are often surrounded by grazing land or arid desert," he said.

"Locals are mostly blase about these surroundings, but for those Chinese tourists who come here with wide-open eyes there are invaluable fragments of history to be found.

"Here and there, you can even find shards with inscriptions on them. You'll never get this in Europe or Southeast Asia." 

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