Staying Connected on the Road: The Caucasus and Central Asia

Maintaining and updating a website while on the road in the Caucasus and Central Asia proved rather challenging. Internet availability and reliability in the region unfortunately has not yet begun to approach Southeast Asian standards.

Internet Shop - Tbilisi, Georgia
Internet cafe in Georgia.

Although there’s no shortage of internet cafes in capital cities throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia, almost none of them would allow us to hook up our laptop directly, leaving us stuck with video game and virus laden computers lacking sufficient memory. Reasonably-priced wifi (wireless internet) is hard to come by. Five-star hotels charging exorbitant hourly fees (over $15/hour in some cases) were typically the only wifi options available to us.

Staying connected becomes especially maddening when connections drag as you move away from the capital cities and government-sponsored internet censorship controls take over. With a little patience, perseverance and quality information, however, it is possible to stay connected and get some things accomplished without breaking the bank or sacrificing your sanity.

For casual readers and those seeking the exotic, we understand that this post may not provide an exhilarating reading experience. For those seeking to stay connected in the Caucasus and Central Asia, we hope you find it useful. We wish something like this was available to us before we made our way through the region.

For each location, we’ve provided information on where to find internet cafes and restaurants offering reliable free wifi, and how to buy SIM cards for your mobile phone.

GeorgiaTbilisi

  • Internet Cafés in Tbilisi charge 2-4 Lari per hour ($1.30 – $2.30). Unfortunately, internet connections and electricity are not particularly reliable. Our internet café of choice on Rustaveli Street north of Rustaveli metro station allowed us to connect our laptops directly. Look for the internet sign on the left side of the street just after the covered walkway. The internet cafe is up a dimly lit set of stairs. From what we could tell, it stays open all night for late night gamers.
  • Wifi in Tbilisi: Café Sans Souci had good wireless, ample plugs, and a nice atmosphere at Shavteli 13. Unfortunately, the second time we traveled through Tbilisi, the cafe had a most unfortunate run-in with a wrecking ball and was being demolished before our eyes. We heard it was going to be rebuilt. Nearby, Kala Cafe (8/10 Erekle II Street) is supposed to offer free wifi.
  • If you stay at Hotel Charm, Nino will let you use her computer or allow you to hook the LAN cable directly into your laptop.
  • Other information on Tbilisi internet cafes can be found here.
  • Mobile Phones in Georgia: We purchased a Magti SIM card from a street kiosk for 10 Georgian Lari/GEL ($7), including 5 GEL of credit. A few minutes later we were making phone calls and sending SMSs. SIM top-up cards were easy to find throughout the country. The quality of coverage was also impressive, running strong into the high Caucasus mountains of Svaneti.

ArmeniaYerevan

  • Internet Cafés in Yerevan: They are plentiful and charge 400-500 dram ($1.25-$160) per hour, making it easy to check email and do basic internet work. Unfortunately, directly connecting your laptop is anathema to the folks running them. The smoke-filled environments also shaved several days off our lives.
  • For free and friendly internet, try the wonderful Yerevan Tourism Center on Nalbandyan Street behind Republic Square. Not only is the internet free there, but it was the only place in the country that allowed us to connect our laptops directly. We felt a little silly doing work there as tourists milled about, but you gotta’ do what you gotta’ do.
  • Wifi in Yerevan: Hotels advertise wifi, but read the fine print; rates normally exceed $10/hour.
  • Mobile Phones in Armenia: An Armentel Go SIM card bought at a street-side kiosk for 1200 Dram ($4) will give you 800 in credit. SMS services need to be activated separately. Top-up cards are available just about everywhere, but the automated menu for recharging is only in Armenian. Ask an Armenian friend or a local on the street to help you to avoid extreme frustration.

AzerbaijanBaku

Graffiti Near Taza Bazaar - Baku, Azerbaijan
Baku street art. It’s a small world after all.
  • Internet Cafés in Baku are not on every corner, but are easy enough to find. Rates ranged from 0.80 to 2 Manat ($1-$2.50) per hour. Connecting a laptop directly is not understood and therefore prohibited.
  • Wifi in Baku: Aroma Café at 18 U. Hajibeyov Street serves an authentic espresso (or machiatto, if you like) and has speedy, reliable wifi to boot. The coffee is not cheap, but the wait staff doesn’t rush you, enabling a pleasant, lingering online working experience. Bonus: Watch the nouveau riche Russian blondes strut their stuff on their way to and from nearby boutiques.
  • Mobile Phones in Azerbaijan: We bought an Azercell SIM card for 5 Manat ($6), with 3 or 4 manat of credit included. Our Azerbaijani friend used his ID card to buy our Azercell SIM card. Otherwise, foreigners must purchase theirs from the Azercell head office in downtown Baku.

TurkmenistanAshgabat

Turkmenbashi Watches in Internet Cafe - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Big brother watching at an internet cafe in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
  • Internet Cafés in Turkmenistan: A visit to Turkmenistan for internet access is not recommended. However, internet is available and we expect the presence of internet cafés to grow, particularly in Ashgabat. Outside of Ashgabat, be prepared for frustration. Internet is technically available at post offices around the country, but waiting forty minutes to open an email may just drive you insane.
  • Internet Cafés in Ashgabat: The internet café around the corner from Four Points Alkatin hotel (near the old circus) was relatively fast and even allowed us to access the BBC website. Rates are around $5-$6 per hour. Bring your passport along, as all internet users must be logged.

UzbekistanNukus, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent

Unfortunately, internet controls seem to be growing instead of shrinking. If you happen to be armed with a list of proxy servers, it’s still possible to get around online.

  • Internet Cafés in Tashkent: To our surprise, Tashkent has a strong network of wifi cafes (see them listed at www.wi-fi.uz). Our favorite places included Café Bourgeois on Rustaveli Street (not far from Hotel Orzu). The service there includes good lattes, sweet smiles and no pressure. Similarly, the Korean restaurant at the corner of Rustaveli and Glinka Streets provides a good experience. During the day, they’ll even give you your own private Tatami-style room to enjoy your bibimbap while you surf.
  • Internet Cafés in Nukus: Give it a try if you like. After 20 minutes, you might be able to see your inbox. As for viewing your messages, forget it. It’s even worse than having no connection at all.
  • Internet Cafés in Samarkand and Bukhara: Better than Nukus, but not quite Tashkent speeds. The closer you get to Tashkent, the better the internet connectivity. Easy to find in the main tourist areas for around 2000 som ($1.50) per hour.
  • Mobile Phones and SIM cards in Uzbekistan: Given the Uzbek penchant for censoring the airwaves, we expected to provide passport details to buy a SIM card, if we would even be allowed to buy one at all. No worries. We just chose a provider (Beeline) and a telephone number, handed our money over (about $7, $5 of which was credit) and off we went. Beeline does not allow you to send SMS messages abroad and some people had trouble contacting us from European numbers. It’s not perfect, but it’s sufficient for calling local numbers.

KazakhstanAlmaty

  • Internet Cafés and Wifi in Almaty: We were fortunate enough to stay with a friend who had ADSL in his apartment, but the Il Patio pizza and sushi chain restaurants all seem to offer free wifi.

KyrgyzstanBishkek, Karakol, Kochkor

Mobile Phone Cookies - Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Highly connected cookies at the Osh market, Kyrgyzstan.
  • Internet Cafés in Bishkek: The yellow and black “Bee” internet cafes are pretty reliable and stay open late. We used the one around the corner near the post office. The cost is normally under $1 per hour.
  • Wifi in Bishkek: Several cafes and restaurants advertise wifi for around $6-$10 per hour.
  • Internet Cafés in Karakol: Beware of the internet cafes that charge by bandwidth (based on how much you surf and download). This is a very expensive method to discover what bandwidth hogs basic services like Flickr and Gmail can be.
  • Internet Cafés in Kochkor: If you have serious internet business, take a shared taxi to Balykchy and check out “HARD” internet café.
  • Mobile Phones and SIM Cards in Kyrgyzstan: We bought a Bitel SIM card for around $6. It served us well for in-country SMS messages and phone calls. You can recharge with a top-up card or go to one of the thousands of kiosks charging the number through a computer terminal. Some kiosks charge a small commission while others are free. Remarkably convenient.

Tajikistan – Dushanbe and Khorog

  • Internet Cafés in Dushanbe: There are several internet cafés on Rudaki Street, Dushanbe’s main drag. Speeds were OK, but aging computers tended to behave strangely. Cost is around $1 per hour.
  • Internet cafés in Khorog: The Khorog (the regional capital of the Pamirs) main post office features a decent internet café. Computers are a bit old, but they do the job. One machine even had a University of Virginia (Audrey’s alma mater) asset tag bar code on it. We tried to imagine the computer’s journey from a donation pile in Charlottesville, Virginia to an internet cafe in Khorog, Tajikistan. Another lesson in long journeys across small worlds.
  • Mobile Phones and SIM Cards in Tajikistan: We purchased a Beeline SIM card in Khorog for around $8 ($5 of credit included). The SIM card didn’t work at first, but a Beeline shop in Dushanbe managed to sort out the problem for us. After that, our Beeline SIM card worked fine for in-country calls and SMS messages.

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