Central Asia Travel: A Beginner’s Guide

Deserts and dictators. Yurts and nomads. Silk Road cities, staggering yet underrated mountain ranges, Soviet detritus, and one of the world’s greatest road trips.

This is Central Asia. The ‘Stans. Never well understood, but absolutely worth an attempt to understand.

Line of Horses and Peak Lenin - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
A glimpse of Pik Lenin (23,000+ feet) along the Pamir Highway near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

Although a visit to Southeast Asia kicked off our around-the-world journey back in 2006, the former Soviet Union – the Caucasus and Central Asia (known as the ‘Stans) — was the real impetus for our trip. Before we’d set off, Audrey had worked with these countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) remotely from a desk in Prague for over four years. During that time, she’d built up an appetite to experience them firsthand.

I, too, was game. But our guidebook made the region sound somewhat menacing.

Truth was, we weren’t really quite sure what to expect.

Dan with Bactrian Camel - Murghab, Tajikistan
Stroking a lonely wooly Bactrian camel in Tajikistan’s high desert.

Some of you may be thinking and many of you have asked: “Central Asia? Is there really anything to see and do there? Is it safe?

Yes, and yes. Now let’s go!

Beautiful, Offbeat: Central Asia Travel Overview

If you’re looking for something off-path in all ways literal and figurative, Central Asia makes a good travel candidate. Filled with incredible mountain landscapes, friendly people and quirky experiences of the Soviet hangover variety, Central Asia is hard to beat when it comes to raw, discover-the-world potential. To this day, it remains one of our favorite and most fulfilling travel experiences.

Because tourism is still relatively new across Central Asia (for us, this was one of its appeals), there isn’t the same fully fleshed out tourism infrastructure that you’ll find throughout the rest of Asia. So you’ll have to make an effort. The flip side is that you’ll find friendly locals to shepherd you to your next — and often unexpected — adventure.

Kyrgyz Man and Dog - Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyz shepherd, holder of great life and travel wisdom.

Still curious and undaunted about what you’ll find in the ‘Stans of Central Asia? From west to east, here’s a country-by-country beginner’s guide to some of our favorite travel spots and experiences in the region.

Note: In this piece, we’ll only cover Central Asia. We’ll cover The Caucasus region in a separate piece.

Turkmenistan

Crater in the Desert - Darvaza, Turkmenistan
One of Turkmenistan’s collapsed natural gas craters. But this one’s not on fire.

From a red tape and visa perspective, Turkmenistan is the trickiest of all Central Asian countries to navigate. But don’t cross it off your list immediately, for it will likely surprise you and reward you for your perseverance.

Caspian Sea

If you have some flexibility in your schedule and you find yourself in Azerbaijan looking for a way out, we highly recommend taking the overnight ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku,Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Talk about a stunning and peaceful way to transition to a new region. Just stay away from the woman attendant on board who looks like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
More reading: Reflections Crossing the Caspian Sea

Ashgabat

Large Dome at Turkmenbashi's Mosque - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat’s Kipchak Mosque: Turkmenbashi’s final resting place.

Las Vegas meets Pyong Yang in Turkmenistan’s quirky capital city of white marble, fountains and 20-mile “health walks.” While the rotating gold statue of Turkmenbashi is no longer on display, there are still plenty of reminders of Turkmenistan’s bizarre, self-consumed former leader (let us know if Turkmenbashi vodka is still on the market – good stuff).

Ashgabat’s Tolkuchka market on Sundays is the largest open air market in Central Asia; worth getting yourself out of bed to get there early. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find an active disco scene complete with Russian mafia, gorgeous women and enough drama to pack a Brazilian soap opera.
More reading: Ashgabat, The City of Love: A Scavenger Hunt

Gonur Depe, Merve and Konye-Urgench

Camel in Front of Kyz Kala - Merv, Turkmenistan
Merv: More camels than tourists at this Silk Road City.

Kick up 1000s of years of relatively undiscovered history as you walk just about any of Turkmenistan’s archaelogical sites. Check out the mostly unexcavated site of Gonur Depe where you’re literally sifting through 4,000 years of history. Yes, 4000 years! Then, stop by the cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench for a taste of Turkmenistan’s station on the Silk Road.

More reading: Kicking Up 4,000 Years of History in Turkmenistan

Darvaza Gas Crater

Looking into Darvaza Gas Crater - Darvaza, Turkmenistan
The Darvaza gas crater, on fire 24×7.

Standing at the edge of a collapsed, blazing natural gas crater in the Karakum desert is one part hellishly hot, another part downright cool, particularly when you appreciate it from a tent, full moon overhead. Along the way there, pop by the oasis village of Jerbent for a peek at desert life that feels Thunderdome-ish and otherworldly.

More reading: Natural and Not-so-Natural History Sites in Turkmenistan

Uzbekistan

Smile! Girl with Shaved Head - Bukhara, Uzbekistan
A hearty welcome to Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan offers some of the best-developed tourism infrastructure in the region thanks to its Silk Road cities. A range of guest houses, train connections, and tour companies connect the region. During the time of our visit, Tashkent was the city with the best internet connectivity; its selection of wifi cafes made it an ideal place to catch up on our work.

Classic Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand

Celebration at the Registan - Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The Registan – Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Get your fill of Silk Road snapshots and history along Uzbekistan’s Silk Road route: Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Shakhrisabz. Although Samarkand is the most architecture-loaded, each of the cities is worth a look. Our favorite is Bukhara, perhaps because it feels like living history. People still live in many of its old buildings, and merchants still bargain in the same market areas, much as they might have a thousand years ago. Additionally, it’s hard to find a friendlier and more colorful fresh market than the one on the outskirts of town.

And if you time it right (August time frame), you’ll catch the drivers of the Mongol Rally and their beat up cars — and refashioned ice-cream trucks.

More reading: A Real Peek at Uzbekistan’s Silk Road: A Reflective Scavenger Hunt

Nukus and Moynaq

Crescent Moons on Tombstones at Mizdakhan Cemetery- Nukus, Uzbekistan
Mizdakhan Cemetery, one of the most fascinating and elaborate cemeteries around.

Nukus doesn’t have any Silk Road glam, but it is home to the eclectic Savitsky Museum, which somehow escaped Soviet censorship. It’s also home to Mizdakhan, an extraordinary cemetery featuring mini-mosques and marble- and stone-engravings of the dead.

Once a fishing town on the Aral Sea, Moynaq is today’s bone-dry testament to man’s stunning ability to prosecute war on nature. Rusted boats lay across land that was once shoreline, but is now desert. In full disclosure, we did not visit here but after talking with other travelers we regret this decision.

More reading: A Real Peek at Uzbekistan’s Silk Road: A Reflective Scavenger Hunt

Kazakhstan

Even though we enjoyed two “we’re going to die here” experiences in a relatively short time — crossing the land border from Uzbekistan and getting lost in the Tian Shan mountains – we still recommend you visit Kazakhstan. Among other things, you’ll find that the film Borat is more than a little shy of reality.

Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia

Big Almaty Lake in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Big Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan. Yep, it’s that blue. No foolin’.

The Tian Shan mountains just outside Almaty provide some great hiking opportunities. Take a city bus into the base of the mountains and follow the trails up or walk atop a giant water pipe to Big Almaty Lake and enjoy the mountains and its surreal blue water.

After the lake, continue further up the mountain path for more surreal, this time of a Soviet variety, at Kosmostancia. Don’t be deterred by the rusted vehicles and abandoned look of the place. Astronomers still live and work in those hills and they usually have a few rooms to rent out. Try to squeeze in a stargazing session with the mad Russian astronomer (if he’s still there) and his big telescope. If you continue over the mountain pass, be sure to carry a real trekking map. We didn’t and very nearly disappeared, for real.

More reading: Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia: The Hike and The Observatory and Getting Lost in the Tian Shan Mountains (or, How Kazakhstan Nearly Killed Us)

Kyrgyzstan

If you must choose one country to visit in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan might just be it. Not only is the country over 90% mountainous and studded with beautiful landscapes, but the traditional nomadic culture and people are warm and welcoming. Kyrgyzstan also has a terrific community-based tourism (CBT) network throughout the country that makes it easy to connect and interact with locals, stay in yurts, and take mountain treks on horseback.

Song Kul Lake

Kyrgyz Man Drinks Tea Outside Yurt - Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Yurt at Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan

Combine great mountain scenery and a glimpse into rural Kyrgyz life with a three-day horse trek from Kochkor to Song Kul Lake. Sleep in yurts along the trail and on the edge of the lake. In the spring to summer months, you’ll run into shepherds tending their animals in the hills. We went in October and were blessed with a view of the first snows on the lake and the animal drive as shepherds took their animals to their villages in lower altitudes for the winter. Even if you have no experience on a horse (like us), you’ll be able to manage. After all, we did. Just don’t expect to walk normally the next day.

More reading: A Goat and Five Fingers: A Ramadan Experience in Kyrgyzstan

Karakol Animal Market

Old Kyrgyz Man with Kalpak, Smoking - Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Animal Market in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

We arrived in Karakol, a sleepy town on the eastern fringe of Kyrgyzstan in time for its Sunday animal market. With an early rise, we enjoyed the scene as old men in kalpaks (traditional Kyrgyz hats) bargain away for stubborn donkeys and fat-rumped sheep.

More reading: Kyrgyzstan: Women Can Do It and Kyrgyzstan: Best Tourist Sights and Landscapes

Altyn Arashan

Trekking to Ala Kul Lake - Kyrgyzstan
Trekking to Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

Hike around 4-5 hours from the town of Karakol to Altyn Arashan, a natural mountain hot spring. Stay for the night and you can spend as long as you’d like relaxing in pools of piping hot water. Feels sooooo good after a day of hiking. Stars up there are also amazing.

If you have more time, continue in the morning to Ala Kol Lake. Although we and our companion had to turn back because of a blizzard whiteout, other friends all had great things to say about the trek.

More reading: Kyrgyzstan: Best Tourist Sights and Landscapes

Lake Issyk Kul and Manzhyly

Breakfast Inside a Yurt - Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
A meal in a cozy Kyrgyz yurt.

Various subranges of the Tian Shan mountains surround both the southern and northern shores of Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest mountain lake. The point? You never have a bad view when you’re at Issyk Kul.

Hook up with CBT to spend a night at Manzhyly on the southern shore of the lake. Do some hiking, talk with a friendly shepherd, eat a wonderful homecooked Kyrgyz meal and sleep as soundly you ever have in the dark womb of a Kyrgyz mountain yurt.

More reading: A Perfect Day in Kyrgyzstan

Tajikistan

Pamiri Women with Buckets of Water - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
A group of women take a photo break in the Tajik Pamirs.

Unlike their neighbors, Tajiks are of Persian rather than Turkic origin. For this reason, Tajikistan features cultural, physical and culinary differences from the rest of Central Asia.

Pamir Highway Road Trip

Yamchun Fort  - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
12th century Yamchun Fort. An average view along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway.

Most of our time in Tajikistan was spent in the Pamir Mountains on the border with Afghanistan. We began our journey across the Pamir Highway in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, which we highly recommend for a view of Peak Lenin (7135 meters or 23406 feet) on the way to the border.

Make your way from the high desert outpost of Murghab through a series of mountainous roads with views of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan to Langar at the start of the lush Wakhan Valley. The local Pamiri people are renowned for being some of the friendliest people on earth; they will literally try to give you the shirt the back if you need it. Try to fit in a visit to Bibi Fatima hot springs (supposedly good for fertility) and the nearby ruined fortress. You’ll be peeking into Afghanistan across the river the whole way.

To visit the Pamir Mountains, you have to get a GBAO permit at the same time you apply for your visa. When we did this at the Tajik Embassy in Kyrgyzstan it was a rather easy process.

More reading: The Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley – People and Landscape, Stories and Highlights from the Pamir Mountains, Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley: Transport, Accommodation and Food

Tajik Air Over the Pamir Mountains

Tajik Airplane - Khorog, Tajikistan
Fly unpressurized in Tajik Air’s itty bitty lunchbox of a plane.

Easily the most frightening and stunning flight we’ve ever been on. In an unpressurized plane where person and bag has been weighed before takeoff, we flew through (not over, through) the on the way from Khorog in the Pamir Mountains to Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe.

Once you get to Dushanbe, we recommend spending time in the fresh markets – people are incredibly friendly and curious.

More reading and video: Badakhshani Express: Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air

Practical Advice for Planning a Trip to Central Asia

Planning a Central Asian itinerary

If you don’t have a few months to spend in the region, let your theme of choice (e.g, Silk Road, desert, mountains) guide you. Then, find a country (or two) that suits your needs. You can cross over from country to country by flight or land transport. For more ideas on where and what to do and see in Central Asia, read: Golden Camel Awards: Sights, People and Scenery

When to go

This region is great from springtime to fall, but best to be avoided in the wintertime unless you favor frigid and gray. We traveled through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in July/August. Although it was the hottest time of year (100+ F), the dry desert heat didn’t bother us. Mountain areas in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (e.g., Pamirs, Wakhan Valley, Tian Shan) can become numbingly cold as early as October.

Farmers Preparing for Winter - Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan
Autumn in Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley.

Safety

We never felt unsafe in the three months we traveled through Central Asia and we were on every form of public and private transport available. Our guidebook made us fearful of police harassment and bribery, but we never once encountered this in three months. We were asked for our papers once, from a policeman in the Tashkent metro, whereupon we pretended not to speak Russian. He apologized and went on his way. If you must provide your passport, begin with a paper copy first.

Language in Central Asia

Each country in this region has their own language (e.g., Turkmen, Kyrgyz, etc.) that use either the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet. However, Russian is the lingua franca. Many young people are learning English, but don’t expect a lot of English speakers anywhere. Our suggestion is to learn your numbers and the Cyrillic alphabet (it really isn’t that hard) so you can read street and bus signs. Carry a dictionary in case you get stuck.

Visas and bureaucracy

The visa process is one of the biggest barriers to travel in Central Asia. Bureaucracy and cost can sap both your savings and patience. We arranged our visas independently as we traveled (i.e., Turkmenistan visa in Yerevan, Armenia, Uzbekistan visa in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kazakh and Kyrgyz visas in Uzbekistan, Tajik visa in Kyrgyzstan). If you are setting off from your home country, we would advise you to take care of them all ahead of time, if possible. For all the nitty gritty details read: Sex and the Central Asian Visa

Accommodation

Hotels and guest houses in Central Asia run the gamut from pleasant to appalling. In Kyrgyzstan, we used the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) program to book family homestays throughout the country. Uzbekistan also features guest houses for all budgets in the Silk Road cities. Tashkent can get expensive. In the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, the only place with proper hotels is Khorog. You’ll likely have to stay with families in the other areas (one of life’s greatest experiences). Accommodation in Kazakhstan can be shockingly expensive, and you may find yourself sleeping in a brothel if all are booked. For the best and worst of logistics across Central Asia, read: The Golden Camel Awards: Logistics

Transportation

Planning Travels on Jeep - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Planning our route along the Pamir Highway from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan.

Transportation in Central Asia is surprisingly good and accessible – buses, mashrutkas (minivans), trains and shared taxis run throughout the region, with the exception of along the Pamir Highway/GBAO. In general, shared taxis are a bit more expensive than buses or mashrutkas, but they are often the fastest way to get you to your destination. Hitchhiking is also common in some areas, and may be required along the Pamir Highway for those on a tight budget.

Food

You don’t come to Central Asia for the food. Expect to find a lot of mutton, which is best eaten piping hot before the fat can congeal on the roof of your mouth. Vegetarianism is not widely understood. For more details on what to expect from food across Central Asia, read: Golden Camel Awards: Food and Markets and Central Asian Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Inedible

Women Traveling in Central Asia

What’s it like traveling as a woman through Central Asia? These countries are Muslim, but of a more moderate, open and secular variety than you might find in parts of the Middle East. This combined with Soviet and Russian influence, can make Central Asia feel like the land of paradox.

Woman Tying Head Scarf - Tolkuchka Market, Azerbaijan
Audrey gets a helping hand with her scarf at Tolkuchka Bazaar – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

You will find village women in colorful headscarves, but you’ll also find city women wearing mini-skirts so mini that you might be wondering if someone ran out of fabric. Audrey always kept her legs and shoulders covered and wore a head scarf in a few parts of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, partly to fit in and partly to help with the fierce heat and sunshine. Local women absolutely loved this and Audrey and her headscarf became an attraction and a point of tea, conversation and connection. We met several solo female travelers in Central Asia and they felt the same.

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Any questions about traveling in Central Asia? Drop us a comment or send us an email and we’ll do our best to help.

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Want to get all this information and more in one easy PDF guide? Click through on the image below to buy and download our Ultimate Guide to Exploring Central Asia. Enjoy exploring this fascinating region!
Central Asia Guide

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m so happy you did this ’round up’ of central asia. Our experiences traveling through Kyrgyzstan really mirrored yours. Our CBT stays were some of the most memorable and wonderful of any travel, most notably the *very* cold August night we spent in a yurt in the Jai lo. (Summer pastures). I have a few dozen posts with photos and reflections on our trip there, 2 summers ago. http://ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com/search/label/kyrgyzstan

    I, too, wore a head scarf through most of the country. For sun/dust protection, and to feel less conspicuous, as well as to respect the local mores.

    Now, reading this, I want to go back.

  2. says

    Wow – timing-wise, I don’t think this would work for us (we would likely be there in January), unless of course we go around the world TWICE, but would I ever love to!! This seems like such an unknown frontier, I can’t even imagine how incredible this would have been…thanks for sharing!!

  3. says

    epic post about what seems to be an epic region. i wish i was going there now just so i could put this guide to use! love the people photos. especially the kyrgyz sheperd. wow.

  4. says

    This is a part of the world I had (I’m almost sad to say) kind of written off – especially Turkmenistan since I have seen it described as being very similar to North Korea.

    However, this really makes it look like an awe inspiring, beautiful, and interestingly unique place. To me, the most interesting thing is the mix of middle eastern and asian culture that seems to come through the pictures (and of course Russian as you mentioned). This may be simplifying it a bit – but its certainly there!

    This really makes me think that I shouldnt be so quick to assume some parts of the world are “off limits” in some way.

  5. says

    I haven’t even considered a trip to Central Asia before but you photos and descriptions make it look very interesting. It must be nice to travel to an area that isn’t overrun by tourists.

  6. says

    This is so fantastic! I have been really wanting to visit Central Asia (particularly Uzbekistan) for quite awhile now, although I have no idea where the source of this fascination is. Sadly it’s not on the agenda for any time soon, but I’m definitely bookmarking this for later…

  7. says

    Three months traveling through Central Asia? What a wonderful opportunity to visit essentially an unspoiled part of the world that is beautiful by all accounts! Really enjoyed your photos and clear presentation about the foods, gas craters on fire, local customs, camels and camels and more camels, and the cemetery overview. Very interesting post, really liked it.
    “TheGourmetCoffeeGuy”

  8. says

    This is really useful and inspiring, thanks! Am pretty sure Central Asia is going to be my next big adventure (looking at those photos makes my jaw drop!), but there’s a lot of research to be done first!

  9. says

    @LJCohen: A late-summer yurt in Kyrgyzstan: so cold outside, so warm inside. CBT, yurt stays, Kyrgyz people, the landscape, unbelievably peaceful and cozy nights sleeping in yurts. An epic experience. Although we’re biased (we picked up more than a few Kyrgyz friends while in Kyrgyzstan), the country has a special place in our hearts.

    @Skott and Shawna: If you don’t manage to get there this go-round, catch it next time around. You could always try Uzbekistan in January. Not unbearably cold (hovering in and around freezing), but probably not the greatest. Why not go around the world twice? That’s what we’ve done, a few times :)

    @Sarah: We count ourselves very fortunate for the opportunity to visit this region, particularly when we did. There were so few tourists anywhere (except maybe Uzbekistan’s Silk Road sites). Our interactions with people were all the more special, enlightening for it.

    This region is photographically loaded. I hope we managed to do it a fraction of the visual justice it’s due.

    @Jamie: Thank you. An epic region, for sure. There’s a lot of history up and down those roads. And a lot of stories, some still hanging around, others unfortunately having died with the people who knew them.

    Your comment about Central Asian people really reminds me that we must redo our Central Asian people photo essay. Here it is in rough cut. There’s a slideshow link there, too:
    http://uncorneredmarket.com/photos/set/72157603625894842/page1/

    @Jerimi: The news makes Turkmenistan sound pretty far out. On one level, it is. On another level, it’s just full of really engaging, friendly people. I remember walking down the beach along the coast in Turkmenbashi and being invited (over and over again) to picnics with families drinking vodka and eating watermelon.

    From that standpoint, not quite North Korea. We were also supremely fortunate in our timing because our visit was only 6 months after the death of Turkmenbashi, so there was an unprecedented level of freedom (and pent up curiosity).

    Central Asia is very much a mix of Middle Eastern and Asian. Perhaps Turkic, Mongolian, and with the Tajiks, Persian. The fascinating thing is that as you make your way east, you can see the changes in physical features, until you reach Xinjiang Province in western China.

    Man, as I write this, I get chills. Really. This part of the world is a mind-bender in terms of its history and how it connects various parts of the Asian world (I’m thinking Russia, China and South Asia).

    Nothing is totally off-limits, I suppose. Let’s just say that everyday media portrayal just makes it seem so.

    @Michael: Not overrun by tourists, full of curiosity and loaded with visuals that we travelers are not even accustomed to seeing. In other words, there’s very little cliche in Central Asia (aside from the statues of Lenin, perhaps).

    @Stephanie: Uzbekistan equates with the Silk Road, maybe? Also, the name Uzbekistan, just for its pronunciation conjures up something exotic and far out, tucked away. It kinda is.

    @Tim: Thanks, Tim. Although the process of writing a post like this is time-intensive, we hope it’s helpful and engaging for readers. Aside from helping people to travel to Central Asia, we’d like to think we’re helping to chip away at some prejudices and stereotypes along the way. Putting a human face on a place seems to help.

    @megan: Glad you enjoyed it. There’s a lot of research and there’s certain to be a bureaucratic headache or two on the ground, but it’s worth it.

  10. says

    Excellent post Daniel. We are really going to make a go of this region. We have lots of time, so we can take advantage of each country. I can imagine the visas being the toughest barrier. We would like to take care of these in our home country, but that won’t be an option. Looks like we will have to get our hands dirty on this one… Thanks for the link, I’m certain it will be a valuable resource (already bookmarked).

  11. says

    Amazing trip with pictures to tell…just found you through twitter. Reminds me of my trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan 20 years ago- amazing, looks the same. Great post. Safe trip!

  12. says

    @Pete: Getting your hands dirty in Central Asia — there’s almost no avoiding it. Have fun planning and going and give us a shout if you have questions.

    @Claudia: Great to see you here. Gotta love Twitter. Now the ‘Stans 20 years ago — that must have been something else. I’d be especially curious about Kazakhstan under the surface. I feel like we saw it when it was a bit awash with oil wealth.

  13. says

    wow, what a timely article, at least for me. I’ve been planning to go to the ‘Stans awhile back but never managed to sort out any visa. Yes the red tape seems horrendous. Definitely in my list

  14. says

    Great read, guys! I’ve always wanted to visit the ‘Stans! I was curious, how affordable is the region for your typical budget traveller? Is it possible to travel on a daily budget of around $50?

  15. says

    @Amer: Keep it on the list, and let us know when you decide to dive in.

    @Tom: In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan definitely. In Tajikistan, yes also, but the biggest exception in Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan is transport/jeep costs along the Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley corridor, which you can help to reduce by sharing. In Kazakhstan, accommodation is expensive in the cities. Turkmenistan is tricky. I believe the Turkmen visa regime still recognizes a split: 1) transit visa, 5 days only, you can do your own thing and keep it within budget or 2) tourist visa, but a tour is required, and costs are beyond $50/day.

  16. Thomas says

    Great read! I will be in Central Asia for almost 8 weeks this fall (2011). I only have my visas for Kazakhstan ans Uzbekistan. The Uzbekistan visa is next and I will Get my Tajik visa in Tashkent. After reading about your travel experiences I am more anxious to to go.

  17. says

    Love the landscapes! I have never been particularly drawn to Central Asia but I’m now rethinking. Perhaps it’s time to re-shift my travel priorities.

  18. says

    A great post! I think a lot of people miss out on such a fantastic and unique travel experience because of bureaucracy or how the media portrays the region or maybe its just not that well known. I’m definitely biased as well, but if traveling through all five ‘Stans seems too daunting, then Kyrgyzstan is definitely the one to choose, if for no reason other than that you can get 1-month tourist visas in the airport now (don’t listen to the embassy in DC, they don’t know their own visa policy).

    Also, I’m HUGE advocate for traveling in KG in the off-season. I’ve been living in Bishkek for 10 months now and most of that was in the winter months so I had no choice but to make the best of winter travel. There are tons of little, picturesque villages only a few hours’ drive from Bishkek, there’s hiking, skiing (SO many ski hills within an hour of Bishkek), horseback riding, or a whole lot of drinking tea, eating plov and meeting wonderful people. It’s a unique experience.

    So, seriously, COME TO KYRGYZSTAN! Issyk-Kul is just starting to warm up, Kyrgyz babies are absolutely adorable, and you can crash on my couch if you’re in Bishkek!

  19. Hayley Patterson says

    This is going to seem totally weird, but I have to say that I have always been fascinated by Central Asia for the reasons that others mentioned – the rich history, that aura of “romanticism”, the bureaucracy, the unflattering media portrayals, the fact that it’s “in the middle of nowhere”, etc. After reading this website, I was even more interested in traveling through these countries. Unfortunately I am only 17 years old! LOL. So, the trip is pretty much out of the question for me in the near future, but this website has definitely opened my eyes.

    Even the visa process seemed more reassuring to me after reading this website. I will definitely have to keep this trip in mind. Thank you so much for sharing!

  20. says

    Great post, awesome pictures, and thorough reading on the ‘stans. I have always regarded the ‘stans as mysterious and off-beat (who actually goes there?!..you do!), a destination to be traveled, but probably never will. You sure have shed some light on this area of the world and I definitely feel as if it’s a little less mysterious now! (Although still somewhat shrouded in the vague-how can it not be with a spelling like “kyrgys..oh whatever.) ;)

  21. says

    @Hayley: Thank you so much for stopping by and for your comment. It really made my day. 17 and interested in Central Asia, that is fantastic! And it’s not weird at all — to us at least — that you would be drawn into this region of the world. When you get the chance — you’ll make it happen — go.

    @Claire: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. The ‘Stans are definitely offbeat, and once you’ve gone, a little less mysterious, but all the more fascinating.

    As for the spelling of Kyrgyzstan, it will always puzzle. After all, a “z” followed by and “s” — who does that?!

  22. says

    @Sonya: Thanks. Central Asia and mountain photography is pretty easy pickins’. As you head east, you’ve got the Tian Shan mountains in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountains — including the Pamirs (which are 2nd/3rd only to the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas) which roll right into Tajikistan. You’ve got more as you head into Xinjiang, China and the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan. No shortage of mountains in those parts.

  23. Laura says

    Sounds incredible. When were you there (year and time of year?) if you don’t mind my asking.
    Thanks for sharing.

  24. says

    @Laura: Central Asia was definitely unique. As for the time of year to travel Central Asia, we began in July (in Turkmenistan, it was hot) and slowly made our way east. In late October (in Tajikistan, it was cold) we exited to Kashgar, China.

  25. Mary Nolan says

    Really interested in doing the Silk Road and great to read about your experiences. Have investigated a tour starting in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Mary, Ashgabat that sounds good. Myself and my husband are in our early sixties (but young and active!)and have done a fair bit of travelling – Trans Siberian last year – but have never even met anyone who has been to Central Asia, so a bit nervous. Thought it might be easier to have it arranged? Thinking of Late Sept./early October. Also, heard that air travel is a bit dodgy in the stans? Think we’ll just do it!!!

  26. says

    @Mary: You’ve picked a great itinerary for your trip! And late September/early October would be great weather – not so hot (it was 45 degrees C when we were in Ashgabat in July!), but before the temperatures really drop. For the route that you’re looking at, you could do it all by land (bus & train & jeep). We did take a flight from Mary to Ashgabat, which was fine. But, the Kyrgyz & Tajik Air flights we took were a little higher on the anxiety counter.

    Although Central Asia may sound a little “wild,” it’s a rather friendly region to travel through. However, I can completely understand wanting a little help with making arrangements in advance, especially if you don’t speak Russian. We used StanTours for our Turkmen tour and were happy with their service (also used them for visa support in Uzbekistan). They might also be able to help with Uzbekistan as well. Although we haven’t taken this tour ourselves, I feel confident in recommending the G Adventures Uzbekistan Discovery (http://www.gadventures.com/trips/uzbekistan-discovered/AUUK/2012/).
    G Adventures is one of our main partners and we have taken tours with them in Iran, Japan, Tanzania, Antarctica and Bali and have been happy with the small group size and style of travel.

    If you have other questions about traveling in this region, just let us know!

  27. Luke says

    Hi, my father and I are interested in traveling to central Asia for 3-4 weeks, most likely in may. We were considering visiting Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan (Ashbagat to Bishkek); however I know that 3-4 may be a bit of a rush. Does this sound like a reasonable trip for the time of year and amount of time? Our interest is in the history, culture and adventure. However, our uncertainly is mostly in logistics? is it easy to get city to city? is booking accommodations difficult? These are the main concerns I have regarding this trip. Any thoughts you might have to share would be greatly appreciated.

  28. says

    @Luke: You’ve got a great itinerary ahead of you, but 3-4 weeks may be a bit tight. Transport in Uzbekistan between Tashkent – Samarkand – Bukhara is pretty straightforward and efficient by train. If you want to go further afield (i.e., to Khiva or Nukus) it’s a bit more tricky with buses and shared taxis. Accommodation is easiest to find in Uzbekistan as it has the most tourist infrastructure. In Kyrgyzstan, shared taxis and buses are easy to find and get you around quickly. There’s a great organization called Community Based Tourism that will help you find homestays (if that’s interesting to you), local guides and other help. As for Turkmenistan, we got around mostly through our tour’s transport so I’m not as familiar with local transport options.

  29. Mary Nolan says

    Hi Audrey, Thanks so much for your info and also your emails. We didn’t get to go in Sept/Oct this year but are now looking at May next year. Have checked out the Gap website you recommended and it certainly looks interesting. Travelled with Gap already in Vietnam and they were great. Have got another itinerary from http://www.visit-uzbekistan.com. – Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Have you heard of this company – would like to know if you recommend them. Have just looked at your photos again – they are wonderful and I really want to go!

  30. says

    @Mary: So glad that our advice has been useful in your planning and our photos are keeping you inspired to spend time in this region. We have not heard of Visit Uzbekistan, but that doesn’t mean that they are not good. One idea is to post this on the Lonely Planet Thorntree for Uzbekistan to see if anyone has first-hand experience with the company. We used StanTours for our tour through Turkmenistan and were really happy with our guide and service. I believe they also have tours in Uzbekistan as well. That is another option to get a comparison. Good luck!!

  31. says

    Wonderful to see such enthusiasm for the region. As the current editor-in-chief of Open Central Asia magazine I can only echo the thoughts ad encourage people to go and visit and meet the incredible people of Central Asia. We provide further information via our magazine at ocamagazine.com which will complement the work here.

    My recent book, Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road journey also portrays Central Asia not as a faraway place filled with madmen but a place of great history and culture that needs more people to experience just what an incredible place it is.

  32. says

    @Nick: Great to hear from you. Yes, let’s hope Central Asia gets the attention it deserves. We carry many memorable stories with us from the region. It also holds a special place for us because we associate it with the beginning of our journey.

  33. Thomas Allen says

    In October, 2011 I hitched a ride at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border crossing with Tajikistan soldiers driving a caravan of Russian-built trucks full of coal. We drove the Pamir Highway to Murghob. It was a memorable journey.

  34. Mary Nolan says

    Hi Audrey, Thanks for your reply to my questions about Central Asia some time ago. Can now report that my self and my husband are just back from an amazing trip in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Wonderful friendly people and so safe – never felt in any danger. We visited Taskent, Khiva, Mary, Merv, Ashgabat, Bukhara and Samarkand. The architecture just stunning – everything so exotic – amazing archaeological sites in Turkmenistan and Ashgabat (the white marble city) so completely over the top but a sight to see. People everywhere so frinedly and helpful. Have such great memories and reading the blog again I just want to back and see more of the Stans. I think people thought we were a bit mad going there and were not really very encouraging but they obviously know nothing about this great part of the world and any fears I had were completely unfounded (including air travel)! Just wonderful.

  35. says

    @Thomas: That sounds like quite a memorable journey. That border area is just stunning, and you probably have quite a few stories to share from the soldiers you hitched a ride with to Murghab!

    @Mary: Thank you so much for returning and letting us know how your trip went! I’m so glad that you had such an amazing trip. This region really does surprise, doesn’t it? We still have such good memories of the people and hospitality from across the region. All fears we had before we went also quickly vanished. Let us know if you need help or ideas for visiting other countries in the area (e.g., Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan)!

  36. says

    Thank you for sharing, Daniel. Interesting reading and excellent photos. Pretty sure travelling Stans in central asia and caucasus is a long and wonderful journey. Did you use a tour operator? How would you rate hotel accommodation and transportation comparing with US/EU standards? If this is not a secret what was the overall cost? Thanks in advanced

  37. says

    @Cat: We did most of our travel through Central Asia independently and on public transportation without a tour operator. The only part that needed a tour was Turkmenistan because of the visa regulations. We used Stantours for this.

    Public transport standards varied from one country to the next. For example, the trains in Uzbekistan were really great. The Mashrutkas in Kyrgyzstan, although not always the most comfortable, were very efficient and fast. We didn’t really stay in proper hotels as they were above our budget – usually we stayed in simple guesthouses, hostels or homestays (e.g., $15-$25/night). We don’t have a total cost for the entire three months we spent in the region, but on average it was around $40-$50/day for the two of us if you take into consideration activities, food, accommodation and transport.

  38. junaid says

    hey there,
    when did u travel thru central asia n how much did the whole trip cost u (everything included).
    cheers

  39. says

    @junaid: We visited Central Asia in 2007, so it’s been a while. Difficult to say how much the whole trip cost, but I would venture that we spent about $30/person a day, but that’s all inclusive: accommodation, food, transport and visas. Probably a bit more expensive. The other thing to note is that (and this depends on which country you come from) visa rules and regulations and visa costs vary. Also, the costs for each country are quite different. Because travel in Turkmenistan required a tour, that was probably the consistently most expensive country in Central Asia, with Kazakhstan being a close second, especially if you happen to visit the big cities where accommodation is not cheap. Uzbekistan was fairly inexpensive relatively speaking, as was Kyrgyzstan. The least expensive area was the Pamirs, however transportation getting there is quite expensive because it typically requires a jeep and driver (if you have time, you can hitchhike). In general, Tajikistan was not terribly expensive, either — probably in the middle of the others. I realize this is not terribly exact, but I hope it helps.

  40. RICHARD MERLIN says

    Hi,thanks for your great site. I haven’t read through all the articles yet, but will do in next few weeks. I am planning on going through this region next year, (2015) leaving my home in Bulgaria on my 70th birthday April 10th. I will spend time in Turkey, to get visas, visit some old sites, before going through the Caucasian countries, then along the Caspian coast in Iran. If possible through to Herat & Bamiyan, west to Mary (Merv). On through the Stans,then by train to Novosibirsk and on to Lake Baikal for a 2 weeks. Down to Ulaan Baator in time for the Naadam festival (12 & 13th July), then head west overland to re-enter Russia, and back to Almaty

    • says

      Sounds like a terrific trip. The former Soviet Union (specifically Central Asia and The Caucasus) remains some of our best travel memories and stories to date. Hope you have a great time. Any more questions, let us know.

  41. Traveler says

    Hi. I am planning to overland from Xian to Istanbul either in March – June or Aug. – November. I like weather that is dry, not too hot and not too cold. I would like to see lots of cultural activities taking place. I would also like to participate in active adventures. Which timeframe would you recommend? Thanks so much.

    • says

      So you’re doing the Silk Road. We did something similar (by accident, really) from Tbilisi, Georgia to Beijing.

      If you would like to avoid hot, then you’re probably best avoiding Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etc. in the summer months, especially late summer months. If you went August – November, you’d still have some hot weather in August and September and you’d begin approaching some areas in winter. As such, I believe March – June would offer the best weather for your itinerary and a general positive progression of weather.

  42. Spechts says

    Thank you so much for this travel guide!!
    As we travelled Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan this year, we can’t wait to continue with the ‘Stans’ next year!
    Your guide is a great help in the planning!
    Have you been back to Central Asia since 2007?

    Thank you again!

    • says

      Hi Spechts. You are welcome! Am so glad our guide helped.

      Although we are in touch with plenty of people throughout the Central Asia, Caucasus and former Soviet region, we have not been back since. However, we are considering it.

      We’ll be interested to keep in touch and hear about your travel through the ‘Stans. A fascinating part of the world.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] A Beginners Guide to Central Asia – An impressively thorough guide to the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. As you may guess, visas and bureaucracy are something to deal with but the other rumors you may have heard about the region are not that true; at least in the experience of these authors. This is worth a read and a bookmark for reference when you plan your trip! [...]

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