The Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan still remain largely undiscovered by the backpacker crowd – but probably not for long!
On a recent visit to these beguiling countries, I only met a handful of travellers on the road. We were an eclectic crowd too – ranging from USA, Argentina, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, UK, South Korea and Japan.
The lack of tourism makes for an adventure as you go off the beaten path – straying away from the tourist crowds of neighbouring South East Asia – and discovering beautiful mountains, turquoise lakes, stark desert landscapes, breathtaking architecture and cultural highlights.
But there’s many things you should know before you travel Central Asia ranging from money, food, language and the horror that awaits you in public toilets!
A little bit of Russian goes a long way
While each Central Asian country has their own unique language and dialects, Russian is widely understood.
While you will get by ok with English (and innovative mime games), Russian will help you better avoid getting ripped off by taxi drivers for example.
And better yet, hello and thank you in Russian or the local language will elicit smiles. Hey, you’re trying!
Google Translate will also come in handy – download the Russian file to your phone so you have it handy without any data. All the people I met understood Russian – and I often had whole conversations via Google Translate.
Don’t speak Russian? You better be good at charades
Many times during my stay in the Central As countries, I spent a good amount of time playing mime games. My most common mime game related to where I was from. This part of the world isn’t so familiar with Australia – so often I had to say kangaroo and pretend I was hopping like a kangaroo for them to get it. Some of them still didn’t – so I instantly became American. Everyone knew America.
You’ll find many menus in restaurants are written in Cyrillic so you literally have no idea sometimes when you sit down to eat. Most of the time I just pointed to the table next me indicating I’d have what they were having. I ate a lot of plov, dumplings and meat. I still don’t know if I was eating beef or horse.
Public toilets can be scary
The majority of public toilets will be squat toilets – and they can vary greatly in cleanliness.
In bus stations and even airports you’ll mostly come across squat toilets. Be prepared for toilets that are either a hole cut in concrete or wooden slats. It often may be best to go to the toilet outside – it will be a lot cleaner.
There may even be squat toilets in airports – but there might be a disabled toilet available which will be a Western toilet.
In places like Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan and across the guesthouses in Tajikistan, you’ll probably find the squat toilets are located a short walk away outside the living areas.
Where ever you go in Central Asia – make sure you ALWAYS have some toilet paper on you.
Bring toilet paper from home
You may want to consider bringing a roll or two of toilet paper from home. Toilet paper in Central Asia is like using sandpaper. You will appreciate that soft three-ply toilet paper so much more on your return home after visiting Central Asia.
Exchange US Dollars or Euros
US Dollars and Euros can easily be exchanged for local currencies in Central Asia.
However, it varies from country to country where you can exchange money.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, exchange offices are everywhere and you’ll easily find them in the city centre. US Dollars are best.
Both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have ATMs too but don’t rely on them as some ATMs don’t accept foreign cards. Mastercard holders will particularly experience issues. Visa is best in the Stans.
In Kyrgyzstan, the most reliable ATM is attached to Demir Bank. Their ATMs dispense both Kyrgyzstan Som and US Dollars.
In Tajikistan, you’ll likely have a driver to traverse the country and they will except US Dollars. Enter Tajikistan with enough US Dollars for your entire stay.
Ditto in Uzbekistan. Fortunately, the black market for money has been wiped out and now banks exchange money at the rate of the day. US dollars are best, but Euros are also accepted.
In Uzbekistan, you can only change money in banks and you will need pristine notes. Notes that are marked or torn will likely not be accepted. If you’re already travelling in the Stans before Uzbekistan, withdraw US Dollars from a Demir Bank ATM in Bishkek or Osh as they dispense brand new bills.
Be prepared to bring enough cash for your entire stay in Uzbekistan as ATMs are often empty of cash, especially coming into the weekend. Some ATMs don’t work at all, and some ATMs have a maximum withdrawal limit of $100 USD.
During my stay in Uzbekistan, I was unable to get any ATMs in banks to work but some ATMs in luxury hotels worked. My tip is go to Hotel Asia in Bukhara.
It’s a cash economy
Central Asian countries are cash economies. You’ll be hard put to find places that accept credit cards in Central Asia so be prepared to bring in enough US Dollars or Euros for your entire stay – or hope your cards work in the ATMs.
Getting around is easier than you think
You might think that because of their location and language barriers, the Stan countries will be hard to navigate without a tour. The good news is that I found it quite easy to travel Central Asia.
You might want to warm up with more touristy locations such as Georgia to get used to how things work with the marshrutkas (mini buses) – but seasoned travellers will find Central Asia quite easy.
As long as you know where you want to head to – just stay the name of the location at bus stations and you’ll be quickly hustled to find the marshrutka headed in your direction.
You’ll be travelling just like a local in Central Asia – squished into the back of a marshrutka with no air-conditioning. But you’ll get where you want to go for a very cheap price.
You’ll find enough people speak English – most taxi drivers had a basic understanding of English or at least understand “how much” and will then type a figure on their phone and you can bargain that way. All the staff at the hostels I stayed at spoke good English.
The mobile app Maps.me is also invaluable for traversing Central Asia. Once you download the map, you can use it offline. You’ll find most of the hostels and main sights are marked on Maps.me
You can get around by marshrutka
In most ex-Soviet countries, marshrutkas (mini buses) are often the most cheap and efficient way to get around.
In Kazakhstan, the best way to get between the city of Almaty to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s capital) is via a six-hour marshrutka.
Marshrutkas are relied on by locals to get around Kyrgyzstan – and they’re also great for backpackers. Marshrutkas ply the Bishkek to Karakol route – leaving when they are full. You can also reach popular destinations such as Kochkor, Naryn and Osh by marshrutka.
In Uzbekistan, marshrutkas are available but they are actually the least efficient way to get around. Train or shared taxi are the best methods of transportation here.
Train travel is possible
An alternative to marshrutkas is trains in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Trains are modern and air-conditioned in Uzbekistan and are a faster way to travel than by road.
Sleeper trains are available for long distances such as Khiva to Tashkent, and through Kazakhstan.
And you’ll probably end up in shared taxis
Much to my frustration on my meagre backpacker budget, you will probably find yourself needing to take taxis to get around at times.
Bus and train stations in the Stan countries are often located more than 3km outside of the centre – and a taxi is the only option if you have heavy bags.
Also, more remote locations such as the popular Song Kul (Song Lake) can only be reached by a shared taxi – unless you want to hike or horseride in. You’ll find many tourists are plying the same route as you in Kyrgyzstan, so get a group together to share the cost.
In Uzbekistan, shared taxis are recommended over marshrutkas. The shared taxis work the same as the marshrutkas in that they leave when they are full. The shared taxis depart far more regularly than marshrutkas and are well used by locals.
You’ll never look at rice the same way again
You’ll find many of the same traditional meals all throughout the Stan countries.
Plov (rice cooked in animal fat and served with vegetables) is a staple in Central Asia and you’ll find it everywhere. Dumplings (manta) filled with horse or yak meat (depending on which country you’re in) will also feature on every menu.
After only three weeks in Central Asia, I could even look at plov – but it was delicious at the beginning.
To have a bit more variety, you can also try dishes like lagman – meat and noodles in a broth.
Be prepared for lots of meat (and it won’t always be beef or chicken)
You’ll find yourself eating a lot of horse or yak meat in Central Asia.
I was eating yak meat for days in Tajikistan thinking it was horse – but yeah, they eat yak there!
You’ll find horse meat in dishes like plov, manta and soups in Kyrgyzstan – and yak meat in those same dishes in Tajikistan.
Central Asia is incredibly diverse
One thing that surprised me about Central Asia is the diversity between each of the countries. Landscapes in Central Asia range from green mountains and lakes in Kyrgyzstan to the stark desert landscapes of Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan’s pancake flat steppe.
You might be surprised to find that the major cities of Tashkent, Bishkek and Almaty are modern and offer all the conveniences of a major city such as supermarkets, malls and a metro system.
Kyrgyzstan is mostly about the trekking and staying in the yurt camps on lake shores, while Tajikistan attracts backpackers for the incredible mountain scenery along the Pamir Highway.
Kazakhstan is a cultural experience as well as a trekking and skiing destination, and Uzbekistan is renowned for its incredible architecture.
Women will get asked if they have a husband
In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, tradition dictates that women are married at 18 in rural areas.
For this reason, any female traveller that looks over 18 and is not wearing a wedding ring will likely get asked if they have a husband.
And it’s not just men asking – I was repeatedly asked by women and even children if I had a husband and they pointed at my bare ring finger.
Female travellers – be prepared to be asked by border guards, taxi drivers, waiters, fellow bus passengers and almost any locals you come in contact with if you have a husband. I was in Kyrgyzstan for less than two minutes before I was asked if I had a husband. A fake wedding ring could be a good investment – although you still will probably be asked why you aren’t travelling with your husband.
Central Asia is safe to visit
One of the top questions I get about travelling in Central Asia is by far “Is it safe?” And the answer is yes. I was mostly travelling solo through Central Asia and never felt unsafe.
While you will probably get stared at a lot because there’s still not a lot of foreigners coming to this part of the world – most people are just curious and will only stare. The braver ones will approach you and want to know where you are from – and may even want a selfie.
Most travellers you met in Central Asia are also solo so it wasn’t long before I had a travel buddy on most legs of my trip.
You’ll get a huge wad of cash in Uzbekistan
They don’t have coins in Uzbekistan and bill denominations start low – which means even $100 is a huge wad of cash that won’t fit in your wallet.
I used a zippered pouch to carry my cash in Uzbekistan – the only place out of the 88 countries I’ve visited to date where this has been necessary.
The people are really nice
The people are very nice and while they may not speak any English – they are very hospitable people.
When I was trying to figure out the trains in Uzbekistan, I remember people trying to help me find the right carriage even though they didn’t speak a word of English and I spoke no Russian or Uzbek.
At restaurants, you’ll find the waiters very attentive – they always seemed happy to have tourists come in and try the local food.
You’ll find some great hostels
Some of my favourite hostels during my 9-month trip around the world were located in Central Asia.
Like anywhere in the world, standards vary – but it’s easy to find a good hostel. Read the reviews on Booking.com or Hostel World, check out blogs (my favourites are Caravanistan, Goats on the Road and Lost with Purpose), or go by word of mouth from other travellers.
Most dorm beds will set you back around $8-10 USD a night.
Highly recommended hostels I found in the Stan countries includes Duet Hostel in Kyrgyzstan and Art Hostel in Uzbekistan.
At Duet Hostel, you can choose to stay in a dorm or a yurt – and they offer tons of information about local hikes. Art Hostel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan offers an amazing buffet breakfast, pool, air conditioning and the dorms and common areas are large and comfortable.
Wifi can be patchy – or non-existent
Don’t expect high speed wifi in the Stan countries. Wifi can be patchy and slow and there’s many places where you won’t have it at all – such as guesthouses along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan and at Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan.
The best wifi you will have on your trips will be in the major cities such as Tashkent, Bishkek, and Almaty.
Russian saunas are a thing
I never knew there was a thing such as having a shower in a Russian sauna. And it’s actually pretty good. In Tajikistan, you would find Russian saunas in guesthouses. You would fill up a bucket with a mix of hot and cold water in a heated room, and then pour it over yourself. It was actually super relaxing.
But there’s also traditional showers in all the hostels I went to across the Stan countries and they always offered hot water.
Test your bargaining skills with taxi drivers
Taxi drivers are the devil in Central Asian countries and will try to rip you off more often than not.
Know what you should pay when you arrive – particularly at airports. In my experience, most taxi drivers quoted at least double (sometimes triple) what the price should be at the airport.
Almaty Airport is notoriously bad for scam taxi drivers who will try anything to get your business (if you have your bag on a trolley they will try and take it and lead it to their taxi). Buses drive regularly into the city here – so you don’t need to take a taxi or you can get the Tourist Information Stand to book you a taxi.
Do not even give the taxi drivers who bombard you at airports the time of day. If you have to take a taxi, head to the official taxi stand but there are often buses or marshrutkas that ply the route from the airport to the city centre or main bus station.
Make sure you agree on a price before you get near a taxi (and confirm it when you get in the taxi) before you set off.
If you do end up in a taxi, you may find that the drivers take you to the taxi, then leave to scout for more passengers to fill up the car. This is common at Bishkek Airport.
Internal flights can be cheap
Sometimes the most efficient (and far less painful) way to get across the Central Asian countries is by plane – and the flights can be cheap to boot.
For example, going by plane is a popular option to go between Khiva and Tashkent in Uzbekistan rather than taking the overnight train, and many locals fly between Osh and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan rather than taking the gruelling 13-hour marshrutka along winding mountain roads.
Air Manas operates flights in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan Airways operates flights in Uzbekistan. You can book flights online.
There’s high security in some countries
You’ll find that security seems unusually high in Uzbekistan. For instance, there’s guards at metro stations and they may search your bags – particularly if you have large bags.
You also have to show your passport and go through a screening area to enter the airport in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. You have to do the same process at the train stations in Uzbekistan – and sometimes show your train ticket.
Pay attention to the seasons
It’s critical you do your research on weather conditions when you plan to visit Central Asia. Because of Central Asia’s diversity, the best time to go to Kyrgyzstan is not the best time to go to Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan experiences temperatures of 45 degrees in July so it’s best to avoid going here then. But if hiking is your jam, July and August are the best times to visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This is when the weather is most stable (although you may still experience thunderstorms in the high mountains) – and when there will be the least snow around on the high passes.
Be prepared for all weather conditions
Travelling through Central Asia through June and July, I experienced all types of weather conditions ranging from 45 degrees in Uzbekistan to freezing cold temperatures on the shores of Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan. At least it never snowed though – but some mountain passes were still covered in too much snow in June.
Especially if you’re hiking, make sure you bring a warm jacket and pants, rainjacket, dry bags and a backpack raincover.