Travel as lifestyle. Travel as adventure.
Today, I'm pleased to share with you a guest post by a person who has made travel his lifestyle and has tips for the more adventurous solo traveler – those who want to travel Central Asia.
Nick is one half of the traveling couple over at Goats On The Road. I know, he's a non-solo traveler, but the knowledge he offers delivers solid information on how to travel Central Asia that I just can't give you. So, in the interest of providing as much valuable travel information as possible, here's Nick's post. You can follow him on Twitter @goatsontheroad and on Facebook.
Central Asia is fast becoming the next frontier of travel. Hushed whispers are making their way outside of these once secluded borders as more and more travelers are beginning to explore this enchanting post-Soviet region. But, despite the increasing number of solo travelers, backpackers and tour groups to the area, Central Asia still isn't the easiest place in the world to travel. There are quite a few things that you should know before you plan your trip here. This article will help you to tick all of the boxes and get all of your affairs in order before strapping on your backpack and exploring one of the least visited places on Earth.
Solo Travelers, Groups And Couples Will Find These Tips Useful For Traveling Central Asia
1. Know Where You're Going: This is such an undiscovered land that many people don't know what countries are included. Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from the Wakhan Valley in the south to Russia in the north. It is comprised of the 5 Stan republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (Note: Some texts include Afghanistan as part of Central Asia)
2. Get Your Visas In Order: As a group of former Soviet republics, Central Asia comes with a dizzying array of bureaucracy for travelers to navigate. Depending on which passport you hold, you'll need to obtain visas for at least 4 of the 5 countries listed above. If you're from the United States, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Federal Republic of Germany, France, Italy, Malaysia, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Korea and Japan, starting from 15 July 2014 and ending 15 July 2015, you can now enter visa-free for a total of 15 days. Any longer than that and you'll need a visa.
Kyrgyzstan offers visa-free travel for more than 40 countries. If your country doesn't make the visa-free cut for Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, you'll need to obtain the visas from embassies in your home country, or from neighbouring countries on your travels. Keep in mind that many of these visas require invitation letters, which will have to be paid for and ordered before you go to the embassy to pick up your visa. Talk to Stan Tours for help with all of your visa needs.
3. Procure The Appropriate Permits: As if hunting around for invitation letters and completing paperwork for visas wasn't enough, you'll also need permits to enter certain regions of Central Asia. If you plan to travel along the Pamir Highway for instance (highly recommended), you'll need to procure a secondary GBAO permit from the embassy where you obtain your tourist visa. These permits are often included in the cost of the visa but you MUST ask for them as they won't be automatically processed for you.
4. Plan Your Route: You may be one of those spontaneous travelers who likes to do everything on a whim, and that's great, but Central Asia doesn't allow this type of impromptu transit. You'll have to state entrance and exit dates on many of your visa applications so you'll need to know exactly when you'll be arriving and departing from each country. The good thing is that the dates you write down don't have to be exact so give yourself a few extra days on either end just in case. If you plan on being in Tajikistan for three weeks, write down four weeks on your visa form, leaving yourself a couple of days leeway on each end of the journey. You never know what kind of issues you may run into while traveling in Central Asia so it's best to give yourself some room for error!
5. Budget Your Trip: No matter where you go in the world, it's good to know how much you plan to spend in each country. Central Asia is of good value, but it's not the cheapest place in the world to travel. Expect to spend around $40 / person / day for most of your trip. You'll spend more on tours and in major city centers. Note For Solo Travelers: Most homestays have a flat rate per person, so you'll get a private room for the same price as a shared one!
6. Know Where Your Money Will Be Coming From: Believe it or not, you won't have access to ATMs for much of your trip through Central Asia. You'll need to carry large sums of US dollars, a Visa Card, a MasterCard, a debit card and local currency. Most of the time you'll be exchanging your US dollars on the black market to get the best possible rate so prepare to have thousands of dollars on you at all times. There are some ATMs in the region, but they are few and far between and they give a horrible exchange rate, so don't rely on them.
7. Beware Of Scams: Central Asia is actually very safe but there are a few petty crimes that you'll encounter while traveling there. The most notable scams are when exchanging money on the black market. Tourists often feel as if they're doing something illegal so they rush to complete the transaction. DON'T make this mistake! Take your time, count all of the bills and make sure you're getting the current exchange rate. With such high inflation, you'll be dealing with huge stacks of money, especially in Uzbekistan where the exchange rate is around 2800 soms to the dollar. Note for solo travelers: Try to exchange your money at the local market with lots of people around. You are less likely to be taken advantage of if you're in public!
Most other scams will happen when traveling in Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway where corrupt border guards may try to charge you random fees for crossing checkpoints. Just know what fees are applicable and pay no more. If you're in a jam, consider threatening to call your embassy.
8. Decide On Land Border Crossings And Checkpoints: There are many areas in Central Asia where tourists simply cannot go. Always check the current situation and make sure that the borders and checkpoints that you plan to cross are open to foreigners. Most home stays and guest houses will know exactly where you can and can't go. Don't be afraid to ask the owners.
Note: To apply for your Turkmenistan Visa, you will need to know which borders you plan to enter and exit the country from. Once you’ve decided, those border crossings will be stamped on your passport and you will not be able to change your mind and use different crossings.
9. Know The Current Political Situation: There have been some conflicts in the region in the past and some areas are still volatile. Particularly the Fergana Vally between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and some parts of the Pamir Highway can be unpredictable. Make sure you ask around and be aware of the current situation wherever you plan to go.
10. Understand The Transportation: For the most part, you will be traveling Central Asia by shared taxi. These are just local cars, but they're a fast, efficient and comfortable way to get around, and you should have no problem figuring out how to get from point A to point B. There are shared taxi stands in every major city and town where you will find the taxi that you want to take, and then you'll have to wait for it to fill up. You will likely be charged an escalated tourist price if you don't already know the local fee, so ask your hotel or guest house what the price should be before setting off. Note for solo travelers: Shared taxis are easy to find when you're not in a group. You'll almost always be able to squeeze into a departing car!
11. Learn A Little Language: There are dozens of languages spoken throughout the region, but luckily Russian works as a unifying tongue for most areas in Central Asia. Pick up a Russian Phrasebook and try to learn a few key sentences, your trip will be better for it.
12. Get Ready For Some Amazing Home Stays! One of the best parts of traveling through this region is having the opportunity to spend time in local families' homes. This is incredibly easy to do thanks to community based projects like CBT, Shepard's Life and Meta, which manage a huge network of beautiful home stays throughout the area. Sleep in your own room, enjoy delicious home cooked meals with your host families and learn about the local culture and way of life. Home stays are a huge bonus of traveling here.
13. Study Up On Your History: From the days of Genghis Khan, the Mongol conquerer, to the Soviet take over, the events that have happened in Central Asia throughout history have shaped this region and its people. Conversations often revolve around past kings, presidents, heroes and soldiers so it's best to know a bit of history. Your guide book will have a good summary of past and current events, and Wikipedia also has some useful information. If you're not much of a reader, don't worry, you'll learn a lot about Central Asia's compelling past as you travel through this historical region.
14. Try To Hit Up Some Festivals! There are some amazing festivals and events that go on in Central Asia. Try to make it to some of them as they will enrich your travels and better your understanding of the local culture. The most notable festival is Nawruz, the Persian New Year around March, 22nd of each year. Nawruz is celebrated throughout the region. Buzkashi is not a festival, but it's a common game in the Stan countries where horse mounted players try to throw a goat carcass into a goal to score points. Very strange but extremely entertaining.
15. Don't Miss The Highlights: With so many amazing countries, it's no wonder that there are many highlights that you shouldn't miss along the way. The mountain fringed capital of Almaty in Kazakhstan, the warm high altitude lake of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan, the rough and rugged Pamir Highway in Tajikistan and the opulent silk road cities of Uzbekistan are just some of the main sights that you should be sure to see in your travels. You won't be able to see everything, but you can certainly pick a few things that you don't want to miss and be sure to see them while you're there.
What are you waiting for?
When you first start planning your trip to Central Asia you may feel overwhelmed by the visas, paperwork and permits, but once you've got an understanding of how things work in the region, you'll be ready to experience the adventure of a lifetime. Get your hiking shoes and your trekking poles ready and prepare for a cultural experience like no other. This is Central Asia, the final frontier of travel.
Visit Goats On The Road for more information about traveling to Central Asia!