Travelling In Central Asia

Travelling in Central Asia

Types of Girl about the Globes (GatG) – Budget GatG, Cultural GatG, History GatG, Nature GatG, Sightseeing GatG, Spiritual GatG

Central Asia was once part of the ancient Silk Road and is now popular for Silk Road travel with an increased interest in this historic period. The Silk Road is an ancient trade route, linking China with the West where goods were transported between Europe and China. Silk went westward, and wools, gold, and silver travelled east.

This region also formed part of former Soviet Union and still has Soviet statues within its capital cities. It is full of history, beautiful mountains and masouleums and is a cheap region to explore. The countries are also known for their dictatorships so visiting this part of the world is definitely an education.

This article includes a summary of each country, the must-sees and how to get around. Read the relevant section or scroll down for the whole article.

Contents

Travelling in Central Asia

Travelling in Central Asia

This area is commonly referred to as “The 5 Stans.” If you choose to visit the Stans independently you may feel a bit lonely as this region doesn’t see many travellers. Knowing a bit of Russian will help you to get by.

Krygyzstan is one of the friendliest in Central Asia and as women were independent in the Soviet Union, you won’t find yourself hassled here but you could find yourself getting overcharged for goods in Uzbekistan.

I travelled to this region in October 2018 and spent nearly three weeks here in total, starting and ending in Almaty. I flew in and out of Almaty. My time here was definitely an education and I recommend travelling here if you enjoy rustic travelling.

I have listed the countries below with what to do in each one, how to get around and how to travel from each country. I hope this helps if you are planning your Central Asia travel.

What countries are in Central Asia?

Kazakhstan – Ancient Kazakh nomads, mountains, glaciers, rock canyons.

Kyrgyzstan – Alpine lake, Tien Shan Mountains, walnut forests, Osh Bazaar.

Tajikistan – Pamir Highway, Mountains, Buzhashi (a Central Asian sport).

Turkmenistan – The Gate of Hell (Darvaza gas crater), desert, UNESCO cities.

Uzbekistan – Ancient cities, mausoleums, The Registan, The Silk Road.

Travelling in Central Asia

Planning Your Central Asia Travel

Kazakhstan – 3 stars

Kazakhstan is the largest of the Central Asian states and is relatively poor and underdeveloped but is home to welcoming locals, the oldest nature reserve, and Buddhist rock carvings. Flying into Almaty is just stunning with the mountains surrounding the city. The people here are friendly and welcoming and even offered me Russian vodka and food on my day tour.

If you’ve never heard of Kazakhstan, then maybe you remember the film, Borat, in which Sacha Baron Cohen played a fictional character from the country? The reality of the country is very different from the movie. Take Astana for example; this futuristic-style capital with a panoramic Baiterek Tower resembles a mini Dubai.

Distances in Kazakstan are vast although there are buses, trains and mini-buses for the bigger cities. Almaty is the closest city to the Kryrgystan border and has a bus connection to Bishkek, the capital city. Getting around Almaty is easy and cheap with trolley buses. You just pay the driver 150 Kazakhstani tenge as you board the bus.

Taxis are metered and sometimes the metre is on their mobile phone. Take an official taxi when you leave the airport and don’t pay any more than $10. Similar to Mongolia anyone can be a taxi so get your accommodation to book you one as they will give you the number plate of the car.

Kazakhstan is really interesting and Almaty has lots of monuments and statues to see. The country is cheap and feels very safe for solos. The only downside is that tours are only available on the weekends so make sure you pre-book before you arrive. I took a tour which was in Russian but it was a great way to get to Charyn Canyon. Websites generally have a contact page where you have to leave your phone number so ask your accommodation to book for you or better still, book a group tour to see this country instead.

Check availability, prices and tour itineraries for Kazakhstan

Must-sees in Kazakhstan

  • Kok Tope gondola
  • Panfilov Park
  • Charyn Canyon (the country’s rival to the Grand Canyon),
  • The Nur Astana Mosque
  • Bayterek Tower and Ak Orda Palace
  • Buddhist rock carvings at Tamgaly Tas
  • Bayanaul National Park
  • Take the cable car in Almaty
  • Kolsai Lakes
  • Kaindy Lake’s sunken forest

Kazakhstan to Tajikistan

Getting around this region can be a bit tricky so from Almaty it was easier to take a flight to Tajikistan. My flight cost £84 with Air Astana and took two hours to Dushanbe. Find flights through Skyscanner.

Travelling in Central Asia

Tajikistan – 2 stars

Tajikistan borders Afghanistan and is known for its mountains and snow-capped peaks. This country oozes nature and the main attraction is the Pamir Highway, a road trip through the Pamir Mountains near the Kyrgyzstan border. Tajikistan offers incredible nature and hiking and is perfect for the nature and adventurous GatG. It does have high altitudes though so be prepared if you suffer from altitude sickness.

Lenin Peak is also a mecca for climbers and those looking to hike and camp in the mountains. Dushanbe is the country’s capital. It’s definitely worth spending at least 2 nights here (if not three) to walk around.

Dushanbe, the capital is surprisingly beautiful with monuments and parks amongst tree-lined avenues. It’s an interesting mix of Soviet and modern architecture. And it’s so incredibly clean. Just walking around the city you’ll see women sweeping the parks.

People are really welcoming and drivers even stop their cars to allow you to cross the road. If people do look at you it’s out of curiosity as there aren’t used to many tourists. As lovely as this country is, it is one of the most difficult to get around. Although people come here for the Pamir Mountains, public transport is virtually non-existent so you need a car.

Most people book car rental (either self-drive or with a driver) which can be pricey. Depending on where you are staying the capital city is walkable. The taxis are also good here compared to the rest of the region and cheap, starting at 10,000 increasing by 1,000 for every 3 km.

Check availability, prices and tour itineraries for Tajikistan

Must-sees in Tajikistan

  • The Pamir Mountains
  • Kuk Gumbaz Mosque in Istaravshan (an example of Timurid architecture)
  • Iskanderkul Lake
  • The UNESCO site of Sarazm
  • Bibi Fatima Hot Springs
  • Fort Qahqaha

Tajikistan to Uzbekistan

From Dushanbe bus station you can take a shared or private taxi to the Uzbekistan border for approximately $25 (for a private taxi). Just go to the bus station and wait for a taxi to sill up.

Travelling In Central Asia

Uzbekistan – 4 stars

If you only had time to visit one country in the region then this country is the one. Uzbekistan tourism means that the country has good infrastructure and is the most geared up for tourism. Compared to the other Stans, Uzbekistan travel is the easiest in the region and it also had the best food especially for vegetarians (you can find salads here).

Uzbekistan was once a core destination for the ancient Silk Road and has many preserved monuments from this era. Many of the beautiful mausoleums are now Islamic schools. Bukhara is one of the holiest places on Earth. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with many beautiful mosques and shrines to see. Visit the Ark of Bukhara, an ancient fortress, or watch artists mastering their crafts in the trading domes as you feel as though you have stepped back in time. If you don’t get a chance to visit the city of Khiva with its historical palace, minaret and Kuhha Ark then Bukhara is a great alternative.

One of the most magnificent attractions in Uzbekistan is the Registan, a stunning piece of Islamic architecture located in Samarkand. There are so many stunning pieces of architecture to see here from Bibi-Khanym Mosque, to Shah-i-Zinda, and Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. You could easily spend three days in the city just walking around.

Tashkent is the capital city with parks, fountains and monuments. Independence Square is located in the centre of the city and is a good place to begin exploring. See the symbol of Mother-Motherland and walk from Independence monument to the colonnade. Browse around Alay Bazaar, one of Tashkent’s oldest bazaars or explore the hustle and bustle of Chorus Market before seeing the beautiful Teleshayakh Mosque. The city has a good metro system to get around.

Uzbekistan is definitely to easiest to travel through. There are high-speed trains on the main routes such as Bukhara to Samarkand. Buy your ticket at the train station beforehand to ensure that you have a seat. If you do hire a car, be prepared for security checks along the roads in Uzbekistan but this is definitely the best country in terms of infrastructure to visit here.

Check availability, prices and tour itineraries for Uzbekistan

Travelling In Central Asia

Must-Sees in Uzbekistan

  • The Registan. Samarkhand
  • Amir Temur Museum in Tashkent
  • The Fergana Valley
  • The minaret of Islam Hodja in Kiva (you can climb to the top too!)
  • Ark Fortress in Bukhara
  • See petroglyphs at the Nurata Mountains
  • Kyzylkum Desert
  • Gulkam Canyon
  • A Silk Factory in Margilan (Yodgorlik Silk Factory is recommended)

Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan

I took the train from Tashkent to Andijan which cost £12 and took 6 hours. From Andijan there are taxis to the Kyrgyzstan border where you can take a local bus the other side to the city of Osh for 10 Som (it takes an hour).

Travelling In Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan – 2 stars

Kyrgyzstan may not have the mausoleums and stunning architecture that Uzbekistan offers but what it does have is stunning nature. The country is dominated by the Tian Shan mountains which are also part of the old trading route, and the capital city, Bishkek is one of the greenest cities within the region.

Kyrgyzstan is known for hiking and has been described as the “Switzerland of Central Asia,” because of its untouched nature and lakes.

Its capital, Bishkek has less than one million people and several museums, as well as former Soviet monuments and a Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution. There are over 20 parks to explore including Oak Park with interesting sculptures.

The Victory Monument is one of the most stunning in Bishkek. It represent a yurt with a sculpture of mother with a cup in her hands, standing under tunduk near the eternal flame, awaiting the return of her husband and sons from war. Away from the capital is Ala Archa gorge where you can hike and camp overnight. Near the border with Uzbekistan is the old city of Osh, an important city during the Silk Road with a vibrant bazaar.

The people here are friendly and welcoming and you won’t encounter any stares but it can be difficult to get around. There is hardly any public transport in Kyrgyzstan so you need to either hire a car or a private driver get around. You can fly from Osh To Bishkek really cheaply on an internal flight from just $25.

Check availability, prices and tour itineraries for Kyrgyzstan

Must-Sees in Kyrgyzstan

  • Osh
  • Ala Archa National Park
  • Issyk Kul Lake
  • Tash Rabat

Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan

From Bishkek I took a minibus from the bus terminal across the border to Kazakhstan. It took approximately 5 hours back to Almaty and cost 400 Som (take bus number 5).

Travelling In Central Asia

Photo by Yang Jing on Unsplash

Turkmenistan – 1 star

Turkmenistan still remains a bit of an enigma. Turkmenistan is the most difficult to enter with the government rejecting visas. If you get accepted for a visa you may only have 5 days to see all of it (on a transit visa). You can take a cargo boat from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan if you are travelling from Baku. Turkmenistan is famously known for The Gate of Hell (Darvaza gas crater), desert, and UNESCO cities.

The country doesn’t seem to be very open to tourism and due to the strict visa requirements I wasn’t able to visit here. I would definitely consider a group tour for this country. The other four countries are definitely easier to visit independently as they are either visa-free or require an eVisa.

Must-sees in Turkmenistan

  • Darvaza Gas Crater 
  • Fossilised dinosaur tracks
  • Yangi-Kala Canyon.

Check availability, prices and tour itineraries for Turkmenistan

Solo Travel in Kyrgyzstan

Best Central Asia Tours & Silk Road Tours

There is a reason that solos tend to take a group tour here. Backpacking Central Asia, travelling overland and trying to see more than one country can be challenging. Although I travelled to this region independently it took a lot of planning including looking into group tours before I decided to take the plunge.

This area can be a bit challenging to travel around independently if you don’t hire a car so if you get the chance, take a Silk Road Tour to learn more about this fascinating region. All of the following tour companies have been recommended by our Girls about the Globe Facebook community and come with our solo female-friendly guarantee.

Travelling In Central Asia

G Adventures Central Asia

G Adventures is a responsible tour company which mainly caters towards budget travellers. Most tours have an average of 10 people and there is no upper age limit. Once you book your trip you pay extra for any excursions you want to do when you’re there. I’ve listed the best tours starting from 10 days to 23 days.

Highlights of Uzbekistan: 10 Days

This ‘Stan’ definitely has the most sights to see and if you only have time to visit one, I recommend Uzbekistan. You only need a week and a half to see this fascinating country. See the awe-inspiring mausoleums in ancient Bukhara, the Registan in Samarkand and the Tomb of the Prophet Daniel. Experience a trip to the desert to see the remains of Alexander the Great and spend the evening in a traditional yurt (ger) whilst listening to Kazakh song.

Check itinerary, prices and dates: Highlights of Uzbekistan

Central Asia – Best of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: 14 Days

If you have two weeks then this tour is ideal. Starting in Bishkek and ending in Tashkent you spend a 12 day packed itinerary horse riding through valleys, trekking through Jeti-Oguz, and staying overnight in a yurt (ger). You get to experience the hospitality and home-cooked traditional meals on this cultural tour that travels through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

Check itinerary, prices and dates: Best of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Multi-Stan Adventure – Bishkek to Tashkent: 23 days

This adventure is perfect for seeing 4 of the ‘Stans.’ Starting in Bishkek you travel through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan staying in yers (gers), hiking, horse riding, taking part in traditional craft workshops and indulging in local cuisine. Explore the sunken forest, learn about this region in the museums and meet on the locals on this multi-Stan adventure that gives you the best of the region.

Check itinerary, prices and dates: Multi Stan Adventure

Solo Travel in Kyrgyzstan

Burana Tower

Intrepid Travel Silk Road Tour

Intrepid Travel is similar to G Adventures with an average of 12 people on each tour. Over 50% of people who book their trips are solo travellers. They tend to use hotels instead of hostels and have a more comfortable style of accommodation hence the trips can appear a bit more than G Adventures. With both tour companies you share a room with someone of the same gender or you can pay extra for your own room. I’ve chosen the best tours for travelling in Central Asia ranging from 14 days to an epic 32 days covering multi-countries.

Kazakhstan Adventure: 14 Days

If you only have two weeks, this Kazakhstan Adventure shows you the highlights of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Starting in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, you visit the Nur-Astana Mosque and Palace of Peace & Reconciliation before moving onto the desert steppe at Baikonur. Experience a Central Asian overnight sleeper train, visit Burial Mounds and stay in simple guesthouses where you can interact with the locals. This tour includes breathtaking landscapes, canyons and waterfalls, all in two weeks!

Check itinerary, prices and dates: Kazakhstan Adventure

Central Asia Explorer: 17 Days

This Central Asia Explorer is perfect for exploring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. If you are planning to visit Central Asia I definitely recommend including Uzbekistan in your itinerary. Seeing the Registan in Samarkhand is one of the regions’ must-sees as well as the Ark Fortress and the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, one of Central Asia’s oldest buildings. The tour finishes in Tashkent and also includes a ceramics workshop and a visit to a Women’s Felt Co-operative. It’s ideal for the adventurous GatG who wants to see a lot in one trip.

Check itinerary, prices and dates: Central Asia Explorer

The Great Silk Road: 32 Days

This Silk Road tour has to be the ultimate Silk Road tour. Starting in Beijing this epic journey follows the route of the ancient Silk Road and takes you through China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. See the UNESCO rainbow-coloured site of Zhangye, the Hanyangling Mausoleum in Xian, and Silk Road must-sees in Samarkand and Central Asia. It’s a great way to travel through this region just be prepared for long journeys and rough terrain.

Check itinerary, prices and dates: The Great Silk Road

Solo Travel in Kyrgyzstan

Ala Archa Gorge

Travel Insurance for Central Asia

The Stans are an interesting region to explore but I definitely recommend taking travel insurance, especially if you are suffer from altitude sickness or are planning to trek or cycle here.

I recommend True Traveller for UK and European residents, and World Nomads for U.S. and worldwide citizens. Both companies allow you to buy insurance when you are already on the road, and offer different plans depending on your needs including additional adventure cover.

Check insurance cover and prices for True Traveller

Travelling In Central Asia

My Verdict

Is Central Asia good for solos? I was accompanied by a friend for this trip so I wasn’t solo but I met an amazing solo traveller who had navigated this region alone for her tips. Central Asia takes a lot of planning and as an experienced traveller I would have still found parts of this region challenging. Uzbekistan is the easiest for solos but if you want to see more than one country I recommend taking a tour due to the language barrier and lack of public transport.

Travelling In Central Asia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.