16 February 2018.
For intrepid travellers seeking a spectacularly under-the-radar corner of the world, Central Asia provides the perfect opportunity.
In a region where east and west collide, curious smiles abound, extraordinary Silk Road empires glisten amidst the desert and rugged mountain peaks lie in wait, it’s a place fit for any type of traveller – the history enthusiasts and the adventurers.
Though we had been lead to believe that independent travel in Central Asia would be somewhat of a challenge, with a mix of bureaucracy, bribes and pointless bag checks a frustrating part of the daily agenda, we thankfully found this to be the rare exception.
Things are slowly changing here.
Of course, there was still the odd ridiculous situation that sent our eyes rolling, but travel in Central Asia is far from the arduous experience it is sometimes made out to be.
If you’re considering a trip to this underrated region, this beginners guide covers the practical side of Central Asia travel, including how to get around, where to stay, which visas you’ll need, and when to go!
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The most common form of transport found in Central Asia, marshrutka, are minivans that act either as transport within cities or for medium-distance travel (3 to 5 hours) between destinations. They’re often the cheapest form of transport to get around. In Kyrgyzstan, marshrutka will be your go-to mode of transport for both long and short distance trips, while in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, you’ll generally only travel this way for shorter distances.
In many ways, we found this to be the local’s transport of choice. Taxis often gather around a central location, such as the marketplace or bus station, and leave when full for a single destination. In general, shared taxis cost slightly more than a marshrutka and are used for shorter distance trips, but in places like Kyrgyzstan, 12-hour taxi rides are not uncommon.
Considering most people in Central Asia drive like loons, we found train travel to be the most comfortable (and least stressful) of the transport options, as well as a great chance to interact with locals who will happily force feed you until you can eat no more. There are typically three classes – business or first class, kupe (2nd class) and platzkartny (3rd class). We generally opted for kupe which is around half the price of first class and includes a sleeper in a compartment of four, whereas platzkartny tends to be seating room only. Trains run only in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and are perfect for long-distance travel.
Though not all that common, large buses do travel along some routes and are generally comfortable. If trains are sold out, this is another good option for long-distance travel.
We’re certainly not hardcore enough to use bicycles as our go-to mode of transport but this is an exceedingly popular way to travel through Central Asia. There was one week in Dushanbe where we were literally the only people at our hostel not cycling or motorbiking through the region.
Bad roads and sometimes tricky logistics mean getting around in Central Asia can take a whole lot longer than it ought to. Group tours that cover many of the region’s highlights in a short space of time can be a decent option for those wanting to cover a lot of ground but without the time to linger too long or lose hours making convoluted travel plans.
Other key operators include Dragoman which specialises in overland adventures along the Silk Road; Kalpak Travel which has an extensive list of tours in the region; and Indy Guide which customises tours for each traveller with local expert guides.
Stringent visa requirements are one of the reasons Central Asia has remained under the radar as a travel destination for quite so long. These days though, the relaxing of visa requirements is only making it easier to visit.
Most nations can visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan visa-free, while Tajikistan requires a no-fuss e-visa. The visa for Uzbekistan generally a Letter of Invitation and a visit to the embassy, though this is set to change later in 2018. Turkmenistan is the only country still maintaining strict conditions of entry with around a 50% refusal rate for visa applications.
For more details on applying for visas in the region, see our mini guide to visas for Central Asia.
Whether you’re seeking a cosy guesthouse in the mountains, a traditional yurt in the countryside, or a luxurious five-star base in the city, you’ll find accommodation options in Central Asia to suit every budget.
Outside of major cities, high-end luxuries and standard backpacker hostels quickly disappear, replaced by basic but comfortable guesthouses, homestays and in the more remote regions, yurts. Hosts are almost always incredibly warm and welcoming and traditional meals are often included.
In general, booking in advance is not necessary, though if you’re travelling in the high season, some popular destinations where accommodation is limited can fill up fast.
Already know your itinerary? Start searching for accommodation now!
Food often plays a big part in our day-to-day travels. In fact, Freya will routinely plan entire days around finding places that offer up unique dishes to try. And, well, there’s a reason why Central Asian cuisine isn’t exactly sought-after elsewhere in the world.
While we found the big cities, such as Almaty and Dushanbe, to have a fantastic selection of restaurants and cafes (read more about them here), weeks spent in the countryside eating the same meal repeatedly quickly got old. Uzbekistan was the wonderful exception, with fresh and creative salads and numerous veggie options making up the bulk of many menus.
These dishes were some of our favourites:
Shivit oshi. A speciality of the Khiva region of Uzbekistan, this dish combines dill infused noodles with a tasty vegetable (or meat) stew.
Pumpkin samsa. A rare find compared to the ubiquitous meat variety, we could never say no to these pastries stuffed with spiced pumpkin.
Shashlyk. A firm local favourite across the region, shashlyk is marinated or spiced flame-grilled skewers with your choice of meat, vegetable and sometimes fish.
Ashlyanfu. This noodle salad served cold with a tomato vinaigrette is far more appealing than it may sound. Ubiquitous in the rambling lanes of Kyrgyzstan’s Karakol market, this dish descends from the Dungan community, a Muslim minority ethnic group originating from China.
The historically nomadic culture of the region means meat and grain are a staple of almost every meal. Firm vegetarians, vegans, or those with a gluten intolerance, may struggle somewhat travelling here long term, particularly in less developed areas. In some remote regions, our hosts were quick to ask whether we ate meat, which we do, though as the meat tends to be cooked within a communal dish, we got the distinct impression that for those that said no, they simply would have picked out the pieces.
Other staples of the region include:
Plov. The universal dish of Central Asia, plov is a fried rice concoction most often containing lamb and full bulbs of garlic. More imaginative varieties include fragrant spices, raisins and chickpeas.
Beshbamark. A popular dish in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan of hot tomato soup with noodles, vegetables and meat – traditionally horse is used, though it is also served with lamb and beef.
Manti. Steamed meat dumplings served with a sour cream sauce. Some varieties also contain pumpkin.
Laghman. A tasty noodle dish with capsicum and meat. Served either fried or boiled.
Nan and Chai. Bread and tea – The essential accompaniments to any Central Asian meal. Pots of tea, either green or black, are enjoyed slowly and profusely, sometimes with the addition of fruit jam for a touch of sweetness. A delicious wheel of fresh bread is always eaten alongside the main dish.
In this vast land of chiselled peaks and rolling steppe, it’s not always easy to determine the best time to visit Central Asia.
During the summer, the lowland cities swelter while the mountains remain wonderfully cool. In the winter, the spectacular high-altitude trails are smothered in snow, while in spring and autumn the urban hubs assume a pleasant temperature for exploration.
Our trip lasted from mid-July to late October where we moved from the scorching cities of Kazakhstan to the temperate Kyrgyz and Tajik mountains and caught the tail end of autumn in Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities. All in all, we felt this was a perfect way to make the trip.
If you’re travelling long-term, bare in mind that the harsh winters make many mountain regions virtually impassable and downright dangerous to explore independently. If your perfect trip includes hiking in the magnificent Tien Shan or roadtripping the Pamir Highway, these experiences are best completed in the warmer months.
If the ancient Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan will instead be the focus of your trip, spring and autumn are prime times to visit when temperatures are bearable and crowds minimal.
From our research before the trip, we expected money to be far more problematic than it was.
ATMs are widespread in all major cities, some delivering both USD and the local currency. Low withdrawal limits in some areas are something to watch out for, especially if your bank charges a withdrawal fee.
ATMs accepting VISA cards were far more common and in more remote areas, you may struggle to find a machine that accepts Mastercard at all.
The currency inflation in Uzbekistan ($1 equals 8,000 som) means you’ll often wind up carrying several enormous wads of cash. Rather than using the ATM we found it much easier to simply exchange USD at the bank ($100 at a time) which are more likely to give you higher bills, though generally 5,000 and 1,000 som notes are the norm.
We’d definitely recommend travelling with a reserve of USD in hard cash, just in case.
In terms of budget, backpacking in Central Asia is very affordable with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan generally being cheaper than Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
According to Google, when it comes to travel in Central Asia, safety is one of the biggest concerns. As a destination that has flown for so long under the radar and is so often associated with the other ‘Stans, this is entirely understandable. However, by taking the standard precautions, we actually felt much safer travelling in Central Asia than many other places we’ve set foot.
Our guidebook had us believing we’d be patted down and searched by every police officer we passed, but the reality is this only rarely happens these days. Don’t carry more money on you than you think you’ll need, keep an eye on your bags in busy marketplaces and on public transport and be aware of your surroundings when going out at night.
In Central Asia though, we didn’t feel we needed to be particularly vigilant about watching our personal possessions or wary of succumbing to the next scam, rather it was the drivers that had us worried.
We’ve mentioned it a number of times in our guides, but in case you missed it, people in Central Asia drive like maniacs. At first, we thought we were just being paranoid, but after seeing car wreckages strewn alongside the road in some parts and having a driver fall asleep behind the wheel, we knew we had every reason to be concerned. Excessive speeding and overtaking on blind corners are standard practice.
Ultimately though, if you want to travel here, there really isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.
We took the train at every possible opportunity, yelled at drivers to slow down when we felt it necessary and sat as far toward the back of the bus as we could. Other than that, we had to force ourselves to be distracted, looking anywhere but through the windshield.
We decided early on that we could either spend hours uselessly stressing with every erratic swerve and dangerous attempt to overtake, or we could save our nerves and simply look away. Ignorance is bliss and all that.
Kamikaze drivers aside, altitude and temperamental weather in the mountains are probably the next biggest risk. For any hiking expedition, plan an appropriate acclimatisation regime, even if you’re only setting out for a few days, always check the weather and bring appropriate gear for any eventuality. Our 3-day hike in the Tien Shan went from glorious sunshine to a snowstorm in a matter of hours. Don’t be caught out!
For the complete list of all the things you should pack for your Silk Road trip, whether you’re here for the mountains or the cities, check out our ultimate packing guide for Central Asia.
But, a few key essentials include:
A Steripen. We bought one specifically for this trip and it quickly became one of the most used things in our backpacks. Particularly if you’ll be spending a lot of time in the mountains, this compact and easy-to-use device is an excellent option for purifying your water, just don’t forget the batteries.
A Guide Book. Online information and wifi can be a little patchy so we’d recommend taking a hard copy guide as well. While Lonely Planet’s current Central Asia Travel Guide is slightly out of date, it’s still the most comprehensive all-in-one guide for the region. If your trip isn’t for a while though, the new edition is due out soon! The Bradt Travel Guides which are country-specific also come highly recommended.
A Decent Camera. Between the dazzling sights of the ancient Silk Road and the majestic mountain peaks, you’ll want to have a decent camera that can do this spectacular region justice as well as stand up against the sometimes temperamental weather. Our favourite combination is this weather-sealed Olympus body with this versatile zoom lens.
Toilet paper. Seriously! Away from the cities, many guesthouses don’t supply their own, and if they do, it tends to be about as cottony soft as sandpaper.
High-Quality Outdoor Gear. If you’ve come to Central Asia in search of adventure, proper outdoor gear is essential. Along with warm underlayers for high altitudes (merino wool is our favourite for this!), solid waterproof boots (like these) and a durable, weatherproof jacket (like this) are key.
To be honest, we really struggled with the language barrier in Central Asia.
While in Latin America, a crash course in Spanish was enough to send us on our way with a decent understanding of the basics and a solid foundation to get by and build on, trying to decipher a new alphabet, the Russian language and the smorgasbords of local dialects left us completely bamboozled.
Bilingualism is the norm (Russian and their local tongue), though impressively, most locals are able to speak three or more languages and dialects. English is widely spoken in major cities, especially among young people, but in the countryside, don’t expect it at all.
Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is something that will help you greatly on your trip as it’s used everywhere from menus to street signs to bus destinations. It can seem a little overwhelming at first, but with some practice, you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
A solid foundation in Russian will be very useful as it is used through Central Asia, but it’s not strictly essential. Aside from a few key phrases and plenty of charades, we tended to fall back on using a Russian translation app as the level of discussion quickly went over our heads. We also found this Russian for beginners audiobook, Get Talking Russian in 10 Days, a useful starting point. New to Audible? Sign up for a free 30-day trial and receive a complimentary credit for your first book.
If it’s any consolation, we found the locals in Central Asia to be so wonderfully friendly that even if we didn’t understand, they’d tend to continue chatting animatedly with us like we did anyway.