Traveling in Central Asia
President we could call a dictator, desert, mountain, forest, silk road, nomads, yurts, highway almost empty… Welcome to Central Asia, this area not so well-known by people in general, which includes Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Honestly, do you personally know many people who explored Central Asia ? I’m not sure…
Even though this part of the world slowly attracts more and more people the “mainstream” doesn’t know much about Central Asia, and is usually not attracted by the “Stans”. No beaches, no popular tourist attractions on a global scale… So… Why should you go there? What is it like? The locals? Landscapes? The day-to-day life? Here are a few observations and some answers after visiting the area.
The locals in Central Asia
This is the first point because just meeting the locals is a good reason to come visit this part of the world. In Central Asia, they’re extremely welcoming and happy to see tourists visiting their countries. In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, I was invited several times at people’s places to have tea. By people I met a few minutes before! There’s a good feeling and “Come to my place, we’re gonna have some tea and I’m gonna introduce you to my family!“. I’m telling you, you need to have time because having tea with them will take at least one hour and half…
In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, I was invited to a big buffet, with two people from my hostel. Invited by a group of locals, passing by our hostel and playing different instruments. We thought it was for a wedding. Nope, the circumcision of their little baby… Even in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, people greet you in the street. They don’t propose having tea at their place, since they cannot host tourists, but still!
Something I found interesting. Central Asia is a melting pot between Russia, Asia and Middle East. You can see it in the culture, the food, but also how they look like. Muslim countries but they drink vodka. Slanting blue eyes and red-headed. Locals looking like Chinese people but only speaking Russian. A bit confusing at first, but very interesting to see.
With no mass tourism, interactions with the locals are more authentic, and there are way less scams and tourist traps (compared to Thailand for instance). It’s time to go there! Actually you’ll see groups of Indian guys in Uzbekistan, going there “for women and alcohol“. Anyway, you’ll be completely immersed if you decide to horse ride along Song Kul. You’ll sleep in yurts like the local nomads there, you’ll eat like them, and you’ll quickly notice that communicating with them won’t be easy because they don’t speak English. While we’re at it…
English won’t be very useful in Central Asia
This is something people told me before, and indeed I could note this once I was there. The locals don’t speak English. Or they speak broken English. Very few know how to speak proper English. Usually, we tend to think that only the older generations don’t speak English, and that there’s no problem with the young ones. Nope, even the youth can’t speak English! Don’t forget we are in the ex-USSR! The USA, and eveything linked to it (including the language), was systematically rejected!
Therefore you need to get ready. Either you speak Russian, and you’ll have absolutely no problems there. Or you learn at least the basics. Having a great deal of ability with languages, apart from a few words, I didn’t know anything about the Russian language. But after a few weeks in Central Asia (especially from Bishkek), I started to understand it, making basic sentences, and I was able to read a bit the Cyrillic alphabet (I forgot since then, I don’t practice!). A Russian girl told me “So funny, when I speak Russian with someone, your eyes are wide open, completely focused on listening to what we say, just like babies!” Hell yeah, I try to understand and to learn! Just like babies!
Amazing landscapes in Central Asia
Amazing landscapes and at the same time sooo different. As I said earlier, we’re at a crossroads of the world. You have the Karakum desert and in the middle of it Darvaza, also called the gates of hell. We also have a route at very high altitude with breathtaking landscapes, the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. 500-600 years old mosques in Bukhara and Samarkand. And if you don’t want to be too disoriented, you can still go to Almaty, Kazakhstan, clearly a Western city in Central Asia. There’s also the Altai mountains, the Tian Shan mountains, the Kolsai National Park in Kazakhstan, Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan…
We can only appreciate the cultural wealth of the area, inherited from the silk road, that ancient network of trade routes connecting Europe and Asia. Today, the legacy of the silk road is still here. Markets and bazaars a bit everywhere in Central Asia, selling everything. Spices, fruits, clothes, house wares… Markets and bazaars are also part of the landscape in Central Asia. Must see : Osh bazaar in Kyrgyzstan, Almaty bazaar in Kazakhstan, the Afghan market if you can make it in Khorog/Ishkashim, Tajikistan, the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand…
Safety in Central Asia
“Don’t go to Uzbekistan, it’s dangerous!“, said someone I know. That person doesn’t travel much and has never been there… What I noticed since I started traveling, when people don’t know much about a place or an area of the world, they label it as dangerous, without doing any research beforehand. Lemme reassure you guys, Central Asia is a safe place, you can go there without any problems. Still, don’t forget to get a travel insurance before going there, you never know!
The biggest issue tourists were facing was when you had to exchange money at the black market in Uzbekistan. Locals didn’t hesitate to take huge commissions after each transaction, and tourists realized it afterwards. Because they rushed to complete the transaction, feeling as if they were doing something illegal, and carrying big stacks of money.
But it’s over now. There’s no black market anymore. In the whole area, I had no problems at all. Even in Turkmenistan, very secluded country with a totalitarian regime, nothing wrong happened. And with all the police and military presence, odds to have problems are very low. Anyway, it’s very complicated to get in the country…
I met many solo female travelers in Central Asia, especially in Tashkent, and in Uzbekistan in general. But also in Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. They had no problems at all, the locals don’t even really pay attention to them. Ladies, I’m telling you, you can go there by yourself!
Visas in Central Asia
The downside of Central Asia, the visas. The area tends to be more open now to tourism, but it’s still complicated. If there’s one country you probably won’t be able to visit, this is Turkmenistan. Getting a Turkmenistan visa is very hard, their visa is date-specific, and you can only stay there for a few days. Rules often change, but regarding Uzbekistan, the visa is also date-specific. You have to sort out everything beforehand, and make sure you’ll be able to visit the country during the validity dates of your visa. Applying for the Tajikistan visa is easier, you can do it online. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are more open, most western countries can go there visa-free. Central Asia is still a conundrum regarding visas, and trust me, Central Asia’s red tape is long and a real pain the ass!
Accommodation in Central Asia
Finding a place to sleep in Central Asia is easy, especially in Uzbekistan, where tourism seems to be more developed than in the other countries. And it is very cheap! And guess who are the Westerners going the most to Uzbekistan? The frenchies! Yep, we love to travel, and we try to go to all the different parts of the world. Anyway, finding accommodation is not hard, you can see by yourself on Booking, Agoda, Hostelworld… But it will be expensive in Turkmenistan, and if you go to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, you’ll notice guesthouses are quite expensive for what you’ll be getting (no internet, power cuts…).
Food in Central Asia
An area where I gained weight (lost it since then!). Because we eat well in Central Asia. We eat well, and we eat a lot! Options are limited when it comes to food, but it’s really good. Plov (rice, meat, vegetables) is by far the most popular dish there, but also lagman (soup), manty (dumplings) and shashlik (kebab) are quite popular. They also eat a lot of fruits, especially watermelon. Generally speaking, they eat healthy food. But still, you have to pay attention, travelers’ diarrhea hits many tourists in Central Asia.
Being black in Central Asia
Number of black people met in Turkmenistan : 0
Number of black people met in Uzbekistan : 1 (from Washington, USA)
Number of black people met in Kazakhstan : 3, two of them were together (from Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana).
Number of black people met in Kyrgyzstan : 1 (didn’t talk to him!)
Number of black people met in Tajikistan : 0
There are few tourists in general in Central Asia, but you get my point, there’s even less black people there, actually there’s almost no black people at all! I didn’t see any black girls there! Not even one! Everytime I was visiting a new country, I was able to count how many black people I ran into! As a consequence? I was a superstar! “Atkuda?” (wrong spelling!) is one of the first phrases I learned in Russian, it means “Where are you from?“. I kept hearing it. All day, everyday! And also “Kakvas avu?” (written phonetically…). It means “What’s your name?”
I talk about it on the different articles I wrote about Central Asia, but people kept asking for pictures with me! They thought I was from the US, or from Africa. They also thought I was a football player or an actor, on holidays. The pictures kept going, also the “Hello!“, the horn blasts, the invitations to have tea, girls hitting on me in Almaty, the friendly hugs… From locals, cops, firefighters, bus drivers, the security at the Registan in Samarkand… A customs officer asked me “I’m taking a video with my phone. Can you please say that you’re a big fan of the Real Madrid and that you hate the FC Barcelona? My friends are gonna love it, and I’ll tease my buddies who support Barcelona!” That’s how I crossed the border 😀 Nothing more, they didn’t even search through my bag!
They always ask friendly and cordially. Many backpackers asked me if it didn’t annoy me, being constantly called out for pictures. Honestly no, I’ve never been annoyed by the pictures all the time. But sometimes I avoided places with many people, especially those days where I had many things to do, places to visit… Because I knew people would ask for pictures, and it would slow me down.
I think you understand now, you can go to Central Asia safely. You’ll have a good time there and everything is cheap. If you go on holidays for two or three weeks, I recommend you to visit either Uzbekistan only, or Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, or Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But you can skip Turkmenistan because of the visa, unless you reaaally wanna go there. To help you make a decision, get a travel guide. If you’re long-term traveling, you can visit all of those countries, you probably won’t regret it…
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