Central Asia - tips
|In short||Spanning from the dry and dusty
plains to the highest mountains on earth outside the Himalaya-Karakoram, this must be the
least visited part of the continent. Central Asia is very much an adventurers desination.
The people are still corrupted by the lazy, authoritative Soviet mentality. However, while the officials are a bit stiff, the common people are generally friendly and western tourists are so rare that you're likely to get a very friendly treatment. Just not from the guys behind the counters - they are "professionally rude".
|Highlights||For the ancient culture, Uzbekistan
is very much the heartland of Central Asia. Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand, the old capital
of the Muslim ruler Timur, are all great - in particular Bukhara as the surrounding town
is less modern and (apart from the floods of tourists) more pleasant than in Samarkand. In particular, check out the
Ulugbekh Medressa, the Kalon Minaret and the Labi Hausz pool where the locals gather
around sunset to smoke a shisha and drink tea. Sadly, time has changed since
I was there the first time (in 2000), and these days the locals are
outnumbered by French tour groups. In the winter, you'll have it all to
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are both great for unspoilt trekking and beutiful people, and in particular the Tajik Pamir Highway from Osh to Khorog is a true adventure. Curiously, this cold and barren 4,000 meter road is open all year round, although best from June to September.
In Kasakhstan, a major asset is the enormous distances. This, the ninth largest country in the world, is just BIG, and it takes forever to get from A to B. Still, Almaty (former Alma Ata) is quite pleasant, and so is the historically important Turkestan with its important Ahmed Yassawi Mausoleum.
Turkmenistan is the least visited country in the region, basically due to the fact that they don't like tourists and don't give away visas without official invitations. Silly place, and it doesn't get less silly by a visit to Ashgabat, in which the late President Niyazov has set a kind of world record in making statues in his own honour. Less flambouyant and much more interesting is the amazing Tolguchka Market a few miles to the north.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most extreme ecological disaster can bee seen at the Aral Sea (Moynaq, Uzbekistan, and Aralsk, Kazakhstan). The Aral is a true example of senseless Soviet planning, without the slightest thought of the consequences. Indeed a strange place.
plus slide show on the Silk Road.
|Places to avoid||The concrete monsters built during
the Soviet days.
Also try to stay clear of the police (anywhere!) who might want to see your passport and your money - just to check for counterfeit dollars, of course, and seconds later your wallet is confiscated. National security, helped by salaries of 10-20 USD a month, make tourists very attractive targets, although things have generally improved since 2000.
A final "warning" should concern the effect of mass tourism. In particular in Uzbekistan, people have discovered the blessings of tour groups, and even individual tourists are seen upon as a milk cow. Everywhere, you may get over-charged, regardless if you order a beer or just buy a chocolate bar. In a restaurant, prices may increase on anything if you haven't specifically asked the price, and frequently you get pestered by kids asking for candy or money. I still wonder which stupid tourists deliberately turn the local kids into beggars. Not good, not good!
|Seasons||As Afghanistan, avoid the icy winters and the blazingly hot summers. April-May and September-October are likely to be the best. I was there in between June and August - hot!|
|Do's and don'ts||Central Asia is very easygoing with
respect to Islam. They drink more vodka than tea, so you'll get yourself a lot of respect
and a few friends if you can propose a toast in Russian. Expect to get severly drunk, as
your liver is not likely to be able to cope with the same amounts of booze as the locals.
Comparatively easy for woman travelers, very much unlike the countries south of the borders.
|Visa||By far, THE biggest
headache for anyone going to Central Asia (but not Kaukasus). Everyone needs a visa but,
according to the hopeless Soviet legacy, this can only be obtained through an official
invitation from a government approved agency. 17 years after the collapse of the
Berlin Wall, they still treat every Westerner as a potential spy, but still chose to
accept invited spies.
Fortunately, things are slowly changing, and Kyrgyzstan appears to have understood that the cumbersome invitation system is not exactly good for the tourism. Another improvement is a Japanese going to Uzbekistan who gets a free multi-entry visa without an invitation. Hurray!
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are quite easy, however, it may depend a lot on the embassy in question. I can recommend the Tajik Berlin Embassy who even give you the GBAO permit with no extra fuss - and for free.
Kazakhstan is changing slowly, but for the time being (Nov.08), most EU citizens don't need an invitation. In any case, check it out yourself before leaving home, as getting the visas is an expensive and time-consuming process designed to keep any nosy foreigner out of Central Asia, and, certainly, once you get there, it's quite hard to change the route due to all the stupid dates and requirements on the visas. I'm quite convinced that Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf" after having spent a few months trying to get a Turkmen transit visa without an invitation.
Still, once you get into Central Asia, getting the other visas is a bit easier, and in particular Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is a good place to get them (but hard to get to!). Almost all the other embasies are in the same building and it used to be the only place where you could get a Tajik visa without an invitation, however, just getting to Turkmenistan is a major problem :-(
|Value for money||Not that fantastic, in particular compared to
the colourful gems of Iran and Afghanistan. As a foreigner, you are expeced to stay
certain touristy hotels and doing Uzbekistan for less than 30 USD is a
feat. If you like a bit of comfort, count on 50/day, while the mountains of Tajikistan and
Kyrgyzstan can be done fairly cheap if you bring a tent.
However, even in the rigid Uzbekistan, things are getting better, and during the eight years in between my two visits, a bunch of nice and friendly home-stays and B & B's have popped up making it much cheaper to travel in the region.
|Others||Teach yourself a bit of Russian, to participate in the local hospitality and to cope with the potentially corrupt border police, and bring a strong liver if you intend to join the almost inevitable vodka parties.|