Are you considering a trip to visit Central Asia? Are you planning to move here? Or are you curious to read more scholarly and better-researched and better-written stories than I have here on my blog? Fear not, because I’ve spent enough time here now to be able to give you a reading list of my 10 favorite books about Central Asia that can help you better understand it and get pumped up about visiting.
By the way, I’ve included easy links to the product pages for each book on Amazon to make it that much easier to pick up a copy of each book before your trip! Many are available for Kindle, but the others that aren’t too expensive in physical form.
#1 The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk
This is one of the seminal accounts of the geopolitics that led to the original battles for colonial control of Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Great Game was the name for this colonial struggle which sought to control 2000 miles of inhabited land between the Russian Empire and British India, and is part of why Afghanistan has the Wakhan Corridor snaking out to China – it was originally meant as a buffer zone so that the two empires would not have a direct land border. This history helps you understand the forces that shaped the region, and many of the forces that still influence it today.
#2 Inside Central Asia by Dilip Hero
This is an excellent survey book provides a nuanced dip into the histories of every country in the region, from internal politics of the Soviet Era to Turkey’s modernization and the Iranian Revolution. This is an absolute must-read to understand the forces that have shaped this region and the diverse paths its countries have followed since 1990.
#3 Everyday Life in Central Asia by Jeff Sahadeo and Russell Zanca
This is a collection of essays about all kinds of different peoples and places across the region. Rather than some sweeping generic geopolitical history, though, this brings you down to the street level and the voices of locals. It has its issues but it’s definitely a worthwhile read.
Amazon link: Everyday Life in Central Asia: Past and Present
#4 Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron
This is a travelogue of the author’s journey from China along the ancient Silk Road route, encountering modern peoples along the trading route that has been used for millennia. Definitely a different style of writing, but one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Amazon link: Shadow of the Silk Road (P.S.)
#5 The Lost Heart Of Asia by Colin Thubron
I enjoyed Shadow of the Silk Road enough that I also include Thubron’s other book about Central Asia on this list.
Amazon link: The Lost Heart of Asia
#6 Restless Valley by Philip Shishkin
This is a stunner. Reading like a thriller novel, but completely true, Shishkin takes you right into the middle of the events he has witnessed first-hand in and around the Fergana Valley and Kyrgyzstan, including some of the only international accounts of some of these events that not even locals will discuss today. It’s definitely one of the most engrossing books about the region.
#7 Under Solomon’s Throne
I love this book for the sole reason that it is all about my beloved Osh. It’s quite academic, but the depth of its research has given me a newfound appreciation for and understanding of my adopted home. It can be hard to find but it’s worth the effort if you plan to visit. Definitely one of the finest books about Central Asia out there.
#8 Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov
Chingiz Aitmatov is one of the most celebrated authors of the entire Soviet Union. Aitmatov is Kyrgyz, but he wrote his books while living in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and other areas in several different languages, so his books carry an interesting universality with them through the region. This book, Jamilia, is widely considered one of his finest works, and tells the story of love on a Soviet collective farm in the days of the Kirghiz SSR. It’s a great first step into the literature of the region.
Amazon link: Jamilia
#9 A Carpet Ride To Khiva by Christopher Alexander
I really enjoyed reading this book while I explored Khiva back in September, and found it a fascinating look inside the community that lives there. It is the true account of a man who went to work in Khiva, and together with locals created a carpet and embroidery workshop that still works today and supports local women.
Amazon link: A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road
#10 Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins
This is a Kazakhstan-specific travelogue that provides a humorous window into the largest of the Central Asian countries. The author somehow had direct access to the President while he was writing this, while also traveling out to meet modern nomads who still hunt with eagles, so it has a surprisingly broad coverage of the country.
I hope this gives you a good launching-off point for your reading and your travels! If you’re looking for additional books about Central Asia, check out the reading lists and reviews over at Caravanistan. They’ve got individual lists of the best books about every country in the region that should be very useful to anyone curious about or planning travel to the region!