Last Updated on November 12, 2022 by Audrey Scott
Travel in Central Asia, the little known and under-visited ‘stans along the Silk Road. What is there really to see and do? And is it safe to travel there? After spending over three months traveling overland through Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) we've answered these questions countless times.
Our Central Asia Travel Ultimate Guide and Resource provides an overview to the region for those unfamiliar. Then it offers an extensive recommendations on what to do and see in each of the countries in this fascinating region, as well as practical travel details to help you plan and book your trip.
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.
Although a visit to Southeast Asia kicked off our around-the-world journey, 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, Czech Republic 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.
Some of you may be thinking and many of you have asked: “Central Asia? Is there really anything to see and do there? What about safety?”
Yes, and yes. Now let's go!
Note: This post was originally published on May 6, 2011 and updated on November 6, 2018.
What to See and Do in Central Asia
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.
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.
Kyrgyzstan Travel Information
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 good community-based tourism (CBT) and DMO (Destination Management Organization) networks throughout the country that make it easy to get information in English, connect and interact with locals, book local tours, stay in yurts, and take mountain treks by foot or on horseback with local guides.
Additionally, Kyrgyzstan has visa-free travel for many nationalities, making it free from many of the bureaucratic headaches in the region.
Standing at a crossroads geographically, culturally and even culinarily, Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan has a multi-ethnic diversity that influences its people, food, markets, and general feel of the town. Only a few years ago, however, Karakol was seen only as a jumping off point for trekking in the nearby Tian Shan Mountains without much to do in the town itself except to visit the Dungan Mosque, Russian Orthodox Church and a cafe or two.
Much has changed recently in Karakol and its worth planning a few days there, whether you're heading into the mountains or not. The town — via Destination Karakol — is now engaging travelers in its multi-ethnic and crossroads cultural and culinary context through a series of immersive food, walking and cultural tours.
Disclosure: We helped Destination Karakol develop these tours as part of our tourism development advisory. So, we think they are pretty cool and think you will as well.
More reading: An Experiential Travel Guide to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: 25 Ideas to Get You Started
Karakol Animal Market
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.
Altyn Arashan Trek
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 due to it being late in the season, other friends all had great things to say about the trek.
Update: If you're interested in exploring other lesser known trails, take a look at this list of treks near Karakol. These trails were marked in 2017 and are included in the trekking map you can find at the Destination Karakol office.
If you're interested in outdoor activities and staying close to the mountains check out Jyrgalan village about 60 km from Karakol. Located in Jyrgalan valley the village offers the ideal jumping off point for trekking, horse back riding and mountain biking as you don't need to arrange transport to the trailhead; you can start straight from the village. And the village atmosphere and laid back nature is part of Jyrgalan's charm.
In addition, Jyrgalan has quite an interesting and inspirational transformational story — from dying former Soviet coal mining village to eco-tourism hub focused on adventure travel activities. This means that when you book a trekking tour, horseback riding trip, rent a mountain bike or stay at a family guesthouse your tourism money is staying in the community.
Recommended treks in Jyrgalan Valley: We've done the 3-day Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek and can highly recommend that trail. We've also heard good things about the 4-day Kesenkiya Loop. Here is a full list of day and multi-day treks in Jyrgalan Valley.
South Shore of Lake Issyk Kul and Manjyly
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.
Spend a night at Manzhyly yurt camp on the south shore of the lake. Do some hiking, talk with a friendly shepherd, eat a wonderful home-cooked Kyrgyz meal and sleep as soundly you ever have in the dark womb of a Kyrgyz mountain yurt.
If you really want to go into traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture you can also now take part in Salbuurun (traditional Kyrgyz hunting with a golden eagle and taigan hunting dog), yurt building, and shyrdak making (traditional Kyrgyz felt carpet) workshops and tours with CBT Bokonbaevo.
More reading: A Perfect Day in Kyrgyzstan and Issyk-Kul South Shore Experiential Travel Guide
Song Kul Lake
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 Ramadan Experience at Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan was considered a midpoint along one of the main Silk Road East-West arteries and it has been a crossroads trading center for millennia. In fact, the city is estimated at over 3,000 years old and Jayma Bazaar, still the city's biggest market, has been operating in that same place for over 2,000 years. Trade and migration over the centuries helped evolve Osh into the culturally diverse urban center you see today, one that is home to more than 80 ethnicities.
Many travelers come through Osh on their way to/from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or China as the city is in close proximity to these border crossings. That was how we first visited Osh over ten years ago as we were en route to the Pamir Highway and Tajikistan.
More recently, however, we've had the opportunity to spend more time in Osh and its laid back, hospitable, and multi-cultural feel has made it one of our favorite cities in Kyrgyzstan. It's worth spending a few days walking its streets and engaging with friendly locals. Not to mention, its food scene is considered one of the best in the country.
Because it's a big city and spread out, Osh can be hard to get your head around and really understand well. Fortunately, in the last few years a series of walking and food-related tours have been created to help travelers connect better with the city's unique history, culture and cuisine. Disclosure: We worked with the founder, Atabek, as part of our tourism development consulting in Osh. So, we think they are pretty cool and think you will as well.
More reading: An Experiential Travel Guide to Osh, Kyrgyzstan: 20 Ideas to Get You Started
Pamir-Alay Mountains (Southern Kyrgyzstan)
It's hard not to be blown away by the beauty of the Pamir-Alay Mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan — no matter whether you are on a road trip along the Pamir Highway or if you are immersing yourself into the mountains with a bit of trekking.
We'd recommend stopping off for a few days in the Alay Region, perhaps using Sary Mogul as a base, and go on one of the newly marked day or multi-day treks in the area. Many of these treks have views of snow-covered Peak Lenin at 7,134 meters / 23,406 feet, which is truly stunning. And, you often have the opportunity to meet shepherds and their families living in yurts along the trail. Special.
Our favorite treks in the Alay Mountain area include the multi-day Heights of Alay Trek (four or six days) or the Koshkol Lakes day trek. You can find a full list of treks and information on guided treks and tours.
More reading: Trekking in the Alay Mountains, Kyrgyzstan: The Ultimate Guide
Uzbekistan Travel Information
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 and make it easy to get around independently.
For additional stories, experiences, and information, check out all of our articles about travel in Uzbekistan.
Classic Silk Road Cities: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva
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.
More reading: A Real Peek at Uzbekistan's Silk Road: A Reflective Scavenger Hunt
Nukus and Moynaq
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
Turkmenistan Travel Information
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.
For additional stories, experiences, and information, check out all of our articles about traveling in Turkmenistan.
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.
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. It's definitely 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
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
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
Kazakhstan Travel Information
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.
For additional stories and experiences, check out our catalog of articles from our travels in Kazakhstan.
Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia
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)
Tajikistan Travel Information
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.
For additional stories, experiences, and information on traveling in Tajikistan, check out all of our articles about traveling in Tajikistan.
Pamir Highway Road Trip
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 off their 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 must apply for a GBAO permit at the same time you apply for your visa. It's now available online as an e-visa these days which simplifies the process greatly.
More reading: Pamir Mountains: A Beginner's Guide
Tajik Air Over the Pamir Mountains
Among the most frightening and stunning flight we’ve ever experienced. In an unpressurized plane where person and bag has been weighed before takeoff, we flew through (not over, through) the Pamir Mountains on the way from Khorog, Tajikistan to the country's capital city of Dushanbe.
Once you arrive in Dushanbe, we recommend spending time in the city's fresh markets where people are incredibly friendly and curious.
More reading and video: Badakhshani Express: Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air
Central Asia Travel Itinerary
If you don’t have a few months to spend in the region, let your theme of choice (e.g, Silk Road cities, desert, mountain adventures and trekking) guide you. Or, combine a few together like a bit of history in Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan paired with some trekking our nomadic culture in Kyrgyzstan.
Then, find a country (or two or three) 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. You can also see the (mostly) overland route we took from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan on the Google Map below.
If you are hesitant to travel independently because of the logistical arrangements required, or you prefer to travel with a small group and local guide, check out the new G Adventures Central Asia tour that covers many of the same sites mentioned above. We've taken more than a dozen tours with G Adventures. We can recommend their style of tours, and we also commend how they invest in the local communities and work with local partners where they operate.
Map of our Route Through Central Asia
We began our journey in Central Asia by taking a boat across the Caspian Sea into Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan and crossed into China from Kyrgyzstan over the Torugart Pass just over three months later. You can see the route we took in our three-month journey across Central Asia in the Google MyMap below.
Since then, we've traveled extensively in Kyrgyzstan on a tourism development project. Despite the relatively significant amount of time and depth of our travel in this region, a long list of places we'd like to visit “next time” in Central Asia remains.
When to Travel to Central Asia
This region is great from springtime to fall, albeit it is a bit hot in the cities and lower elevation areas in the summer. In general, you'll probably want to avoid traveling in Central Asia in the winter unless you are targeting a specific outdoor activity, favor extreme winter adventure in the mountains or generally enjoy cold temperatures and gray skies.
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., Pamir Mountains, Wakhan Valley, Tian Shan) can become numbingly cold as early as October. If you travel in the mountains during this time (and even as early as late August or September), be prepared to dress warmly at night, and in removable layers during the day.
Is Central Asia Safe to Visit?
Yes, it is currently safe to travel in Central Asia. We never felt unsafe during the three months we traveled through Central Asia independently. Note that we were on every form of public and private transport available. And, we traveled on a budget.
At the time, our guidebook made us fearful of police harassment and bribery, but we never once encountered this. 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 or laminated copy first (read this for more passport safety tips). Regardless, safety precautions and current event awareness is important while traveling in Central Asia, especially as you select which destinations you'll visit.
Languages Spoken in Central Asia
Each country in the Central Asia region has their own language (e.g., Turkmen, Kyrgyz, etc.). Most of them use the Cyrillic alphabet, but some are changing over to the Latin alphabet. However, Russian is the lingua franca throughout the region. Many young people are learning English, but don’t expect a lot of English speakers anywhere.
Our suggestion is to learn the your numbers in Russian and Cyrillic alphabet (it really isn't that hard) so you can read street and bus signs. Carry a dictionary or download a translation app on your smartphone in case you get stuck.
Central Asia Visas
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., a Turkmenistan visa in Yerevan, Armenia, an Uzbek visa in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kazakh and Kyrgyz visas in Uzbekistan, a Tajik visa in Kyrgyzstan).
Fortunately, the visa application process has become simplified for most Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan now offers a visa-free regime for 60 nationalities (and an e-visa process for the rest). Kazakhstan is visa-free for 45 nationalities. Tajikistan now has visa-upon-arrival at Dushanbe Airport as well as an e-visa and GBAO permit process, both of which allow 45 days of travel in the country. From February 2019, Uzbekistan is visa-free for travelers from 45 countries (unfortunately, the United States is not one of them…yet) and has a simplified e-visa program for other travelers.
Turkmenistan's visa regime is still as rigid as ever and usually require sponsorship and a Letter of Invitation from an authorized tour to get a tourist visa.
If you are setting off from your home country we advise you to arrange all of your visas ahead of time, if possible.
For all the nitty gritty details of our said headaches, read: Sex and the Central Asian Visa.
Central Asia 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. Many of these homestays are now also available for direct booking on Booking.com and there is a wide range now of accommodation in the towns and cities for all budgets and styles.
Uzbekistan also features guest houses for all budgets, particularly in the major Silk Road cities. It's worth noting that Tashkent hotels 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 Pamir Mountain areas (one of life's greatest experiences). Accommodation in Kazakhstan, especially Almaty, can be shockingly expensive, and you may find yourself sleeping in a brothel if everything else is booked.
For the best and worst of logistics across Central Asia, read: The Golden Camel Awards: Logistics
Central Asia Transportation
Public transportation in Central Asia is surprisingly good, accessible and inexpensive – 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.
Central Asian Food
Most don't set off to travel Central Asia for the food. However, the selection, variety and quality of traveler food options in the region has increased over the last few years.
For more details on what to expect from food across Central Asia, read our Central Asia Food and Markets Guide and our deeper dive on Central Asian Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Inedible.
Vegetarianism is not widely understood so it's useful to have a vegetarian useful phrases translation card with you to avoid misunderstandings.
Traveling as a Woman in Central Asia
What is it like traveling as a woman through Central Asia? The Central Asian 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. This paradox can positively impact a woman's travel experience in Central Asia.
How? 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 areas 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. In places like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, headscarves are more an exception than a rule. We met several solo female travelers in Central Asia and their experiences echoed similar themes.
Central Asia Guidebooks and Reading
- Central Asia Lonely Planet Guide: Although the section on security and harassment in this guidebook freaked us out a bit before our trip, we found the city maps, historical background, and general information about logistics useful.
- The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia: Great historical context on the geo-political Great Game played by the Russian and British Empires to control routes and access to trade and goods in India and the East.
- Central Asia Phrasebook: If you don't have some Russian language skills under your belt, it might be useful to have a phrasebook like this to navigate public transport, accommodation, food and more.
Any questions about traveling in Central Asia? Leave a comment below and we'll do our best to help.
89 thoughts on “Central Asia Travel: The Ultimate Guide and Resource”
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.
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.
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!!
This is incredible, you been to places that most of the people I know haven’t visit yet. Love the photos and the deserts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
@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.
@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.
Absolutely stunning pics!
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!
@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.
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).
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
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?
@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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.) 😉
@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?!
Excellent beginner’s guide to Central Asia! I particularly love the gorgeous mountain photography.
@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.
@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.
Sounds incredible. When were you there (year and time of year?) if you don’t mind my asking.
Thanks for sharing.
I loved all of these photos. The camel is great! Thanks so much for hosting!
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!!!
@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!
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.
@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.
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!
@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!!
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.
@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.
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.
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.
@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)!
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
@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.
when did u travel thru central asia n how much did the whole trip cost u (everything included).
@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.
Great read, thanks for sharing.
Central Asia has long been on our list.
@Giles: Glad you enjoyed this and that Central Asia has long been on your list. It’s a really fascinating part of the world – still one of our favorite regions.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Love your entries on Central Asia. I am planning to cover the main 4 countries in September. You think its feasible?
To cover four countries in a month would be a bit tight, especially if you are relying on public transport (e.g., buses, shared taxis, trains) to get around. If you have any flexibility I’d add an additional few weeks. Otherwise, perhaps cut out one of the countries (e.g., Kazakhstan) so that you have more time to spend in the other places and get to enjoy the landscapes, cities and more.
Excellent! I lived in Ganchi, Northern Tajikistan (Ferghana Valey) for eight months and was astounded by the environment every day. The people are always friendly and helpful, particularly in the less traveled areas. It’s a tough place to live and yet they smile through all their difficulties.
From the Pamir in the east, to Penjikent in the west, to Khojand in the north, it’s a fabled place of jagged mountains and arid steppe.
Your blog does it justice. Your photos are true. Thanks.
Peter, thanks for your kind comment and sharing your experiences in this area. We only saw a small percentage of Tajikistan and the Pamirs, so we’d love to be able to return and explore more of this region.
Wow, such a wonderful insight on the region! And the pictures are amazing!
I’m planing a similar 3 months trip this summer, mostly traveling solo. Right now, I’m hesitating between a trip around the 5 Central Asian countries, or a trip from Mongolia to Tadjikistan, through Kazakhstan and Kirghizistan. Can’t quite make my mind up, though I feel that I’d be saving some money and dealing with less bureaucratic issues with the second plan…
At the end of your article, you mentioned meeting some women traveling solo in Central Asia. Were there a lot of them doing the trip? And do you know how they felt about their trip, especially safety wise? Thanks for any info you might have on that, and good luck with future trips!
Glad you enjoyed this piece and it’s useful for your upcoming trip. Both options you mention would be great — you’ll have great experiences either way. Visas for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan can be a pain, but they are both fascinating countries. We haven’t been yet to Mongolia, but we’ve heard great things about it.
We did meet solo female travelers during our travels through Central Asia. Our trip there was several years ago so I imagine there would be even more today. At the time of our trip we didn’t hear a lot of complaints of harassment of safety issues, but it’s always wise to be alert and not wander around alone at night. I found that finding other women, especially grandmothers, was great as they served as guardian angels.
Good luck with your decision and in planning your trip!
I just wanted to know how you rented the cars around your trip, and how you planned the travels around central asia in cars without flying. would you recommend going by yourself? If not why? Thanks
We didn’t rent any cars on our trip through Central Asia, but instead used public transport (buses, trains) and also used shared taxis. This last option usually meant going to a bus station and finding a car going in the direction where we wanted to go. When there were enough people to fill the car, the car would then go. This was usually a bit faster than buses, but slightly more expensive (usually worth the extra price).
I’d definitely recommend traveling on your own. We met quite a few solo travelers during our trip and they didn’t have any additional problems. In fact, many had some great stories 🙂
I loved your post! I’m a young female interested in traveling alone to the Stans next year. I would of course want to find a guide for the Pamirmountains and more rural areas. I was wondering what your overall impression of the region was. Did you have any particular safety concerns? I have talked to a few people and gotten mixed reviews so far.
While I can’t speak to traveling through the ‘Stans alone as I traveled with Dan the whole time, I do feel like the region is quite safe for solo female travelers. You may get some attention traveling as a single woman, but I found that I was often adopted by grandmothers or other women if I began to get unwanted attention from a man on the bus or someone who had been drinking too much. We did meet a few solo female travelers during our trip and I’ve heard of others since then. Of course, I’d recommend not wandering around at night or going out to clubs on your own. But these are basic safety concerns you’d find in most places. Hope this info helps!
Great post! This has literally been the only post that has been useful in planning my trip along the Silk Road, Thank you!
I had a question on transportation. Where did you find the information and booking information for transport within countries and between countries? I have friends who have rented cars and drove through all of these countries with the car, but it is a bit too much driving for me as a solo female traveler. I was hoping to find a way between and within countries via public transport or tour groups.
Please let me know! Thank you so much for your help and article!
Glad to hear that this post has been useful for your upcoming Silk Road adventure! As for transport, we did carry a Central Asia Lonely Planet, but as things changed frequently we found that the most accurate information was when we got to a place — i.e., we’d ask at our hotel/homestay. There are lots of public transport options, so don’t worry about finding ways to get around inside countries and between countries. In much of Central Asia, there is a “shared taxi” culture which means that you can go to the bus station and ask people for where there are taxis/cars going to a certain city/area. Then, you find a car with a driver and essentially wait until it fills up with enough passengers. While sometimes more expensive than a bus, the shared taxis are usually a bit faster.
Also, don’t miss the trains in Uzbekistan!
Thank you so much for putting this together. I am trying to plan my next trip with a friend of mine and AM on the fence as to whether to go to Central Asia for the same reasons you mentioned As I want something new and off the beaten path but also didn’t want to find myself in the middle of a field with absolutely nothing to do
Central Asia is still considered “off the beaten path” even though we are hearing it come up more and more in travel circles. So, you may want to visit sooner rather than later 🙂
And don’t worry about being stuck with nothing to do…even just catching the bus from one place to another is an adventure there 🙂
I’ve never been to any of these places—talk about true bucket list travels!
My wife and I are looking at a very quick trip to the region in September (7 days total). Fly into Almaty and then drive through Kazakhstan down to Karakol and along the southern tip of Issyk Kul to Bishkek and back to Almaty. Is this even feasible / recommended as an independent traveler or would it be more beneficial to hire a guide to take us due to time constraints and thus use local expertise to see as much as possible in such a short period of time?
You’ll be covering a lot of ground in a short time, but it should be feasible to do independently if you are flexible. Note that driving times are often much longer than you expect, so planning stops along the way is a good idea. As your trip will be in September the back mountain road between Almaty and Karakol should be clear (it is covered with snow for much of the year) so that helps.
With this amount of time, however, you won’t really be able to do any big treks. There are day trips outside of Karakol and Southern Shore, but if you want to escape into the mountains you won’t really be able to do that. We recently spent some time in Karakol and the Southern Shore of Issyk-Kul and the local communities are beginning to improve their activities and options. A few ideas for you:
– Karakol — dinner at a Dungan family and/or cooking course or food/market tour (or explore food & culinary scene on your own). Send a message to the Destination Karakol FB page for more details, tell them we sent you 🙂
– Day trek or horse riding to the mountains outside of Karakol (e.g., Altyn Arashan).
– Southern Shore: Jedi Oguz or Sazka (red rock canyons – cool landscapes)
– Southern Shore: Stay in a yurt camp, perhaps take a crafts course or go crafts shopping at “Altyn Oimok” (Golden Thimble) Art Center in Bakonbaevo, see an eagle hunting demonstration (outside Bakonbaevo). yurt building
Good luck and enjoy your trip!
Great post! This info is super helpful for planning a Central Asia trip.
One question from a solo woman — I’ve read some less-than-fantastic things about creepy CBT homestay hosts in Kyrgyzstan. Any suggestions for avoiding that situation? How much choice do you have? And do you see any other travelers’ reviews of your hosts when you organize the homestay?
Carrie, glad you found this post helpful! That’s really unfortunate that you’ve read about creepy CBT homestay hosts in Kyrgyzstan. We’ve always stayed with families so haven’t encountered that (and, we’re a couple). Usually, CBT makes homestay suggestions based on your budget and style of accommodation (e.g., yurt stay vs. guest house). However, I think it would be possible to request from CBT a host that is a mother or at a minimum, a family (i.e., not solo man).
I don’t believe that CBT has an online review system, but some of the CBT homestays are also on Booking.com so you could cross-check there to see other traveler reviews. Several of the areas covered by CBT have newly developed Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) — Karakol, Bakonbaevo/South Shore, Osh, Jyrgalan –that are trying to support tourism development in the area. So if you do have any bad and creepy experiences like this with accommodation please let these organizations know (most have FB pages) so that they can take action against this.
Central Asia seems like an astonishing place to explore and there are plenty of great destinations which are definitely worth visiting, Daniel. Would you recommend Central Asia as a good road trip destination?
Central Asia is definitely that, a remarkable place to visit and experience. As our experiences traveling overland through all of Central Asia indicate, the road has an appeal. We’ve encountered Mongol Rally participants, overlanders driving an Ambassador from India to Europe, and advocate-travelers driving an Aston Martin from Japan to the U.K. to highlight road safety. Central Asia draws its share of road trippers. That said, it requires a bit of context, pre-thought and planning than other more traditional road trips.
Really Informative Post!! Central Asia is a beautiful land of mountains, rivers, lakes and deserts. At the same time modern cities like Almaty, Tashkent, Astana, Bishkek and Samarkand are a tourist place with absolute modern infrastructure and amenities. In recent times tourists flow in Central Asian countries have increased substantially. There are so many wonderful places in Central Asia which you can visit on your trip.
LOVED this post, these places look like such beautiful hidden gems! I just added them to my bucket list and starting to plan my own adventure there! When did you embark on this?
I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and I’m a pretty smart cookie. Would you recommend this trip for a solo traveler? Or did you come across any guided trips that aren’t crazy expensive? Like G Adventures!
Thanks so much!
Krista, we traveled in this region first in 2007 and then again in 2016-2018. I would definitely recommend this trip to a solo traveler as this region is quite safe and there’s a good tourism infrastructure with public transport and accommodation. We’ve met many solo female travelers who have had a good experience in Central Asia. Of course, stay aware and take the same precautions as you would take anywhere else (e.g., don’t wander around cities in the middle of the night, etc.). However, we do recommend G Adventures tours in Central Asia as they provide all the logistics – transport, accommodation, guide, translation, activities – but you still have freedom and independence to have time to yourself to explore as you like. We’ve had great experiences with G Adventures tours in other countries. Their guides (CEOs) provide so much context and information that really improves the experience. If you take one of their tours, let us know!
What an interesting part of the world. The desert mountain landscape reminds me of the Tibetan plateau. Almaty is also quite the cosmopolitan city!
Much of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are high desert so I can see that reminding you of the Tibetan plateau. Very beautiful!
And yes, Almaty is quite modern and cosmopolitan! I’ve heard Astana is as well, but we’ve yet to visit.
Almaty is a very livable city. Astana was half-built when I visited in 2015 and not the type of city I would want to spend much time in. However, many of the new buildings are a riot. I caught the rather expensive overnight sleeper (the bar takes up one whole car) from Almaty and flew back on Beck Air for about 30 dollars. As we discovered, the highly recommended National Museum (?) is closed on Mondays.
Very pleased to find your blog. It looks great.
I cycled through Central Asia in 2015 during a cycle ride from Tokyo to London. Thoroughly enjoyed the four countries in CA I visited and would recommend them to everyone. However, be prepared to see a lot of roadkill. I saw (and photographed) so much CA roadkill that I deiced to put together a photo book.
Wow, a photo book of Central Asia roadkill! That’s quite a niche. From all the time we’ve spent on roads there I can imagine how much you saw during your bicycle ride.
You can order a copy of the book at this link. 100 yen per book sold is being donated to the WWF (not the wrestling).
I live in chicago, but will be in St Petersburg and Moscow in early May, On my way back home I want to detour into CA and was thinking of Kyrgystan. I have been in Bhutan 4 times, Nepal, much of India, Myanmar, etc so I have experience in “non-five star” travel. I have not traveled to CA so this is a wide open experience and I am looking for some help in the logistic of where to go this time of year and how best to get there. I will have about 2 wks before I need to be back in the US. Any suggestions of where to start?
Early May might be a bit early for some of the longer hikes in Kyrgyzstan as the mountain passes will still be snow-covered. But, you could probably do some of the lower, shorter hikes in South Shore and around Karakol at that time. You could pair a week in Kyrgyzstan (mountains, outdoor activities) with a weak in Uzbekistan (Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand) so that you get a good combination of history, culture, nature and food. Enjoy!
Great post! My wife and I are planning a trip this summer and the info you provided will be really helpful.
Glad to hear it, Luke! Enjoy your trip in Central Asia. We’ll look forward to any insights you have upon your return.
I loved this post. My husband and I are in the early (very early) planning stages of doing an overland trip along the silk road focusing on central Asia. I was wondering if you camped at all along this 3 month trip and if you had your own vehicle–I saw you mentioned public transportation, but didn’t know if you had used a vehicle or known someone who has.
Sunnie, sounds like you have a fabulous overland trip ahead of you! The only camping we did during our 3-month trip through the region and subsequent trips was up in the mountains during treks. However, we did meet a few overlanders from the Mongol Rally and also bicyclists who traveled through the region and camped quite often. Some would still stayed at guest houses or parked there from time to time so that they could use water, electricity and other services. Good luck with your planning!
Great blog full of invaluable info. We are planning a self drive trip through the region over many months and was wondering if you are aware of any companies or places where we could hire 4×4 dual cab Land Cruisers (or similar vehicle), ideally with roof top tents, capable of getting us into the very remote mountainous areas. Ive been unable to find anything is eastern europe or central asia yet.
Glad you found this article useful for your upcoming trip. We personally have not done a self-drive trip ourselves and are mostly familiar with options in Kyrgyzstan. I don’t think you’ll be able to find something with a roof top tent, but you should be able to find a 4×4 to get you into remove mountainous areas. Two places to look at 4×4 rentals would be Visit Alay (they offer cars from Bishkek and Osh) and Iron Horse (in Bishkek, but they also do delivery to other places in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan).
We’d be curious to find out how your experience is renting a car for a self-drive trip so please let us know.