The grand question of it all when it comes to Central Asia, where in the world is it? The next grand question of all is, is there even anything to do there? Well, we were asking ourselves the same question, because honestly before we embarked on this trip, we have also never heard of these countries before. The most popular question will be, are you sure it’s safe to travel there?? Well, read on our guide to travelling Central Asia and you decide for yourself…
Introducing the Five ‘Stans’
Situated in the middle of more ‘popular’ countries like China, India, Afghanistan, Russia and Iran, is where Central Asia sits solemnly. Central Asia consists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Kazakhstan, the biggest Stan of all the Stans, also one of the wealthiest with a huge resource of oil in its vast lands. Kazaks were once people that tended the steppes, and some still do until now. Almost the entire northern part of Kazakhstan speaks Russian and being the closest to Russia, they’re also the most influenced by the Russians. The futuristic metropolis capital of Astana is worth visiting for an out of the world architectural experience!
Mountainous Kyrgyzstan has loads to offer if you are into adventure travel. Hiking at Ala-Archa, sea activities at Lake Issyk-Kol, skiing at Karakol, horse trekking and snowboarding at Arslanbob, climbing up to 7,000m and above to Lenin’s Peak or staying in a yurt at Lake Song-Kol. The Community Based Tourism (CBT) network in Kyrgyzstan is really strong and extensive, making it very easy to get useful information and to travel around.
Being the only visa free country as well as the cheapest among the Stans, it is an ideal place to rest while you wait for the successful application of your visas for the rest of Central Asia.
The main highlight of Tajikistan for us was mostly the breathtaking views along the Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley where you will also get to pass by the border of Afghanistan which offers you a glimpse of Afghan life! The multicolored Fan and Zerafshan Mountains also offer a wide range of mountain activities from hiking to heli ski.
Another of our significant memories of Tajikistan was getting stopped almost too frequently by the police at the roadside, apparently asking for bribes according to our driver. But they didn’t give us any trouble though.
Uzbekistan is one of the most common reasons why people visit Central Asia. With its distinctively beautiful Central Asian turquoise mosques and rich history, Uzbekistan more or less defines Central Asia when one talks about the region. The transportation network in Uzbekistan is also relatively fast and efficient, with a train system that runs to all the great historical destinations. Authorities are friendly and you get into less trouble with the police as compared to the other Stans.
To be honest, one of the things that we’ll remember most about Uzbekistan was having to carry around the exceptionally thick stack of notes (the highest note value is only worth $2.50)! Sometimes people even carry around money in plastic bags. Having said that, the security is pretty tight and the crime rate is low, making it very safe to travel in Uzbekistan.
Attractions are generally very ‘Universal Studios’ theme park like (think the “Mummy” section), but still we were very impressed by their stunning intricate architecture. It’s a must to visit Bukhara – the holiest city of Central Asia, Samarkand – the heart of the Great Silk Road and Ancient Khiva – the city of slaves! Or if you prefer to travel off road in Uzbekistan where we stopped by Asraf village, visited the fast disappearing Aral sea and admired the ruins of ancient Khiva.
The ‘North Korea’ of Central Asia, shrouded in mystery even before we enter. In our guide book, Turkmenistan has the least information as compared to the rest of the Stans. The visa application was also freight with complexity and time. The most available visa in Turkmenistan is the transit visa, which in itself is already expensive. To get a tourist visa, you would need a guide to follow you throughout your journey in Turkmenistan and you have to pay for his meals and accommodation on top of his fees of at least more than US$100 per day. But this also means that Turkmenistan receives lesser foreign visitors to their country as compared to the rest of the Stans and the locals will be really curious about you.
One main highlight of Turkmenistan is its “Gates of Hell”, a humongous burning crater that has been burning for the past 40 years. The capital, Ashgabat, is truly a sight to behold, with its magnificent exotic architecture, police at almost every corner of public buildings, rows and rows of similar looking hotels and modern transportation system. Also, one thing that really caught our eyes was how every building and structure consist of at least one portion painted in “Turkmen Green”, which is the color of their flag.
Central Asia provides a whole range of activities from skiing to mountain hiking, horse riding, camel riding, yurt stays, rafting and cycling. Too bad we were there during winter and we were limited to a only small selection of what Central Asia has to offer.
But still, we had a great time horse trekking & snowboarding at Arslanbob, skiing and snowboarding at the beautiful Karakol ski resort, trekking to see the frozen waterfall of Ala-Archa, driving along the amazing Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, visiting the fast disappearing Aral Sea, exploring the ancient mosques and mausoleums of Bukhara, the holiest city of Central Asia and many more!
Accommodation really ranges from the very authentic and unique home stays in Tajikistan to typical hostels which were filled with locals (because of the cheaper rent). In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan it is possible to stay in yurts, given the right season that is.
Most of the accommodation that we stayed in were reasonably priced around $10-$15 per person and majority even provided free breakfast. The breakfast was a simple affair which usually consisted of tea, bread and eggs. The most expensive hotel that we stayed at would be in Turkmenistan which cost us $60 for a very simple room and that was already the cheapest hotel that we could find.
Authorities can get a little annoying in some countries. In Kyrgyzstan, we got stopped by the police who demanded our passport and claimed that we need a registration form. They took us to this small police booth where they tried to communicate with us for 30mins but failed due to the language barrier. We obviously knew that they were trying to fish out a bribe from us, but throughout the entire process, we just stood there playing dumb tourists. We got released after 30mins as they couldn’t find any reason to fault us.
In Tajikistan, the police we encountered were mostly on the roads. Most drivers hated them, as according to our driver, every time he gets stopped by the police, it’s always about money.
In Uzbekistan however, it’s a different story. The police there were really friendly and helpful. We’ve heard from some sources that it used to be a problem until the government wanted to boost the tourism industry and warned the police from giving tourists any problem. So now when tourists are being spotted by the police, the police will avoid them instead of targeting them like what the police in other Stans will do.
In Turkmenistan, the police were pretty friendly apart from warning you not to take photos of public buildings. They would in turn end the conversation asking you if you love their country. Well, we haven’t tried saying no, but please tell us if you decide to try 🙂
Crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan via Bordobo was no doubt the easiest! All you have to do is to sit in the car while your driver takes your passport, exits the car to go to the office and gets your passport stamped.
For the rest of the borders that we crossed, namely from China to Kazakhstan (Khorgos), Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan (Korday), Tajikistan to Uzbekistan (Oybek) and from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan (Hojell), the borders were relatively similar. Bag checks weren’t too thorough, process wasn’t too slow either.
In Kyrgyzstan it was essential to get your registration slip from the custom and make sure that they stamp twice on the slip. The borders of Uzbekistan was probably one of the strictest in our opinion. It could be due to the fact that we chose the more isolated and less used borders, thus the guards were freer and at the same time curious about us. But the borders of Uzbekistan’s (in or out) definitely required an extremely thorough bag check and thorough meaning, being questioned about every single thing in your bag. Post coming up soon on the border crossing in Central Asia.
Electricity is dangerously unstable in Tajikistan, even in the capital of Dushanbe. There was once where we literally jumped for joy when the lights came back on at our hostel. Otherwise, we mostly depended on candle lights when we were in the villages along the Pamir and Wakhan.
For the rest of Central Asia that we visited, electricity is not much of a real problem. One thing that we learnt from from the owner of a hotel at Uzbekistan was that since his hotel was nearer to a popular tourist destination which was lit up at night, the electricity in his hotel was more or less consistent as the government prioritised electricity to areas situated around tourist destinations.
We love the food in Central Asian! There is rice, noodles (tasty lagman) and plenty of bread. Bread is the staple for them and they eat it with every meal. It is usually bread with soup, bread with salad or bread with rice. Tea is also being drunk most of the time, more often than water! Kurutob which we could only find in Dushanbe was one of Daniel’s all time favourite. It consist of bread with yogurt-based sauce mixed into a vegetarian delight! Another local’s speciality was Shashlik (meat kebab roasted over charcoal fire) which is a must try also!
Internet access goes with electricity. Needless to say, electricity comes first before internet access is even possible. For our journey across Central Asia, wifi access was not much of a problem, except for its atrocious speed at some areas. You are lucky enough if you get to load your emails.
The fastest wifi connection that we experienced was in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. At the time of writing, internet connection was still pretty new in Central Asia and its monthly subscription fee was rather expensive for the vendors. So far the majority of the places that didn’t have wifi were in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Central Asia boasts a plethora of languages. From each Stan having its own language to the different dialects in the villages. However, the ex-soviet countries still actively speak Russian which is either their first language like in Kazakhstan or second language like most of the other Stans. Hence, it’s extremely useful to at least know the basics of Russian when travelling Central Asia!
US Dollars and sometimes Euros in cash are the best option in Central Asia, especially so in Uzbekistan where the black market plays a vital role in exchanging money. Exchanging money via the black market in Uzbekistan can sometimes get you more than 30% of what you are suppose to get if you get it through the banks and ATMs.
Drawing money (local currency, Euros or USD) from ATMs in countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is not complicated. In Uzbekistan however, drawing money could be a whole day affair where the ATMs in Tashkent (capital of Uzbekistan) are often either not working or do not have enough cash inside them. In Turkmenistan, it was even more rare to find a working ATM. The only way out would be to bring sufficient Dollars or Euros in various denominations to places like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, especially so if you are planning to follow our route down to Iran.
Getting a mobile number is definitely recommended not only in Central Asia, but for travelling anywhere else in general if it’s for perhaps 2 weeks or longer. The ease of being able to call your hostel in advance to enquire about reservations or to call for a taxi if you’re stranded in a secluded location really make the sim card so valuable. Shared buses or taxis might also need to call you when they are ready to leave (since they only leave when the bus is full).
The sim cards are relatively cheap and some even come with a data bundle. Mobile providers such as Beeline, Ucell, O!, Altel have all been tried and tested by us. They provide a wide range of coverage and works brilliantly even in hard to reach places. Topping up your sim card is very convenient in Central Asia as top up booths can be found almost anywhere in supermarkets, shopping malls, bus stops or even along the streets.
People & Culture
In the past, the 5 Stans were just one big country, Turkestan, which was filled with people of various ethnic groups identifying themselves in their own territory. Ever since the USSR sliced up Turkestan into the 5 Stans, the different ethnic groups have been trying to adapt to their new identity. This involuntarily resulted in ethnic clashes around Central Asia, most recently 2010 in Kyrgyzstan which led to thousands of innocent deaths. It is not surprising to find people of Uzbek ethnicity in Kyrgyzstan or Tajik people in Uzbekistan.
The people are extremely friendly. They shook hands and greeted everyone that they met, almost as though they were like collecting handshakes. Random people walked up to us and gave us sweets and one man even gave us a handful of walnuts while we were just standing on the street.
An 8 year old boy gave us bread on the bus, and when we alighted, he dashed to the nearby shop and bought us another hot steaming bread. It was very heartwarming. Many of the locals also asked us to take a photo of them and then thanked us after that. One of most memorable experiences was getting invited to a local family’s home in Uzbekistan where we had the best authentic homestay experience in Central Asia.
We have to say that travelling in Central Asia is really safe. Apart from the occasional pesters from the authorities as we have mentioned earlier, we haven’t encountered any instance of danger, or near misses.The drivers were rather, how should we put it, adventurous. But our trip was overall pretty safe. At best, just keep your eyes away from the road and concentrate on your book or something that will distract you from the crazy driver.
The bazaars are usually the most dangerous when it comes to pickpockets. So as a general rule of thumb for every country that you travel in, always keep your valuables away from those pockets that are very accessible. The North Face pants that we’re wearing has a hidden zipped pocket within a pocket which is very useful when it comes to hiding our valuables.
Shared taxis made up the most of our transportation experience in Central Asia. Public buses or Marshrutka in cities are often packed until there is no space for even air. Squeezing out of the bus is really an experience itself. People in places like Tajikistan also buy their own mini vans, put up homemade number signs and tadah, they are in the public bus business.
Taxis are ubiquitous, almost any car can be a taxi, just always remember to fix the price before you take the taxi. Actually, to be absolutely sure, always double and triple check the price before getting into the car.
In places like Turkmenistan where the value of Turkmenistan Manets are very close to Dollars, confusion can occur. $100 for a long distance taxi ride is very different from 100 Manet. There was once when we agreed on 100 Manets but after reaching our destination, the driver insisted that we meant US$100.
Hitchhiking can also be somewhat of a problem in Central Asia given that anyone is a ‘taxi’. There were several occasions when we attempted to ‘hitchhike’ only to be asked for money after reaching our destination. Maybe it was also because we did not specify “no money or free” before getting into the vehicle.
Visas can be quite a headache in Central Asia. The only country that does not require a visa is Kyrgyzstan. For Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, you will need to get a costly LOI before applying for the visa. Oh and one more thing to note, Turkmenistan’s visa application is the only one which does not require you to leave your passport there for days before you get your visa. Check out our guide on visa in Central Asia!
Bonus: Travelling Central Asia during winter
Central Asia during winter is amazingly void of tourist and it made us feel like we were the only travellers wandering around the entire country. During our 4 months in Central Asia, the only time that we met people from outside of Central Asia was in more touristy places like Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
The hotels were usually almost always empty, which could be a pro or a con. Pro being that we had no problem booking accommodation at the very last minute. Also, sometimes you even get to receive special treatment from the owner! There was once when we were one of the only few guests in a hotel and the owner actually moved the wifi router closer to our room just so that we could access the wifi directly from our room! Con is when some of the hotels were not operating at all during winter.
Another bonus of travelling during winter is that there’s a high chance that you might get to spot rare animals such as the Marco Polo sheep which only comes down from the high altitudes during winter to drink water from the river! Check out our post on travelling along the Pamir Highway where we also experienced the coldest temperatures (-38°C) and explored ancient petroglyphs.