A Beginner’s Guide to Central Asia Travel: Discover the Silk Road
Updated March 2020 A Beginner’s Guide to Central Asia Travel was originally written in February 2019
For travelers looking for something different, this mostly unspoiled region will surely deliver. Personally, if I was only allowed to travel one region of the world for the rest of my life Central Asia would be my choice.
Central Asia is a region where east meets west, snow-capped mountains beg to be explored, where Silk Road empires conquered, claimed, razed, and repeated, ancient architectural gems dot barren desert landscapes, nomadic families still move their yurt camps from jailoo to valley and back again, and evidence in historical human movement is present from ancient languages still spoken, cuisine and cultural traditions.
Before I arrived in Central Asia I thought it’d be a one-and-done trip. My trip of a lifetime, a place that would prove difficult to travel. I left knowing I’d be back, what I didn’t realize then was that it would be every year.
I thought bureaucracy would test my patience (although it killed it in Xinjiang), visa debacles would ruin my plans (it sorta did in Turkmenistan), bribes would break the bank (not as often as you’d think), that I’d just like Tajikistan (not fall head over heels for it) and food poisoning would plague my ambitions (it’s only slowed me down a couple of times at best). These concerns have proven to be more the minority than the norm.
Things are quickly changing in Central Asia. Tourism is opening up (except maybe in Turkmenistan and Xinjiang), visa acquisition is becoming easier and easier with relaxed schemes (except Turkmenistan and Afghanistan), more foreigners are visiting and community-based tourism is exploding.
If you’re considering making your first venture to travel Central Asia this first-timer’s guide will help to share practical information and to answer common questions about Central Asia travel. This guide includes information on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and additionally, information on Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, and Xinjiang (Western China).
The bane of most Central Asian travel plans existence. For many years the rigorous visa policies, a carryover from (most of) Central Asia’s Soviet years, kept all but the most intrepid travelers away. But things are changing— visa policies are loosening, visa on arrival and e-visas are becoming more common.
A couple of countries still remain a pain-in-the-arse with stringent visa policies, but overall the region is opening its doors.
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan are offering e-visas now to many nationalities, and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are offering visa-free travel to more nationalities than ever before. Meanwhile, most nationalities will still need to obtain full-blown visas prior to travel in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Xinjiang (China).
Learn more about visas in my Quick Guide to Central Asia Visas
The sheer number of languages and dialects spoken in this region is mind-boggling. The good news is: In Post-Soviet Central Asia Russian is still widely spoken and understood.
If you are headed to Post-Soviet (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan) I recommend learning some basic Russian phrases. It also doesn’t hurt to learn a few basics in each local language as well.
A great pocket-sized book to pick up before you travel Central Asia is the Central Asia Phrasebook by Lonely Planet.
Kazakhstan: Kazakh and Russian are the official languages. Kazakh is a Turkic language.
Kyrgyzstan: Official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language with similarities to Kazakh, however, Kyrgyz is typically written in the Cyrillic Alphabet.
Tajikistan: Tajik is the official language in Tajikistan, but Russian is still used and understood. Tajik is a dialect of the Farsi spoken in Iran and the Dari spoken in Afghanistan, but the main difference is that Tajik is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Tajikistan has a plethora of languages and dialects spoken within it, including Wakhi, Shughni, Yagnobi (ancient Sogdian), Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Yazgulyam, Ishkashimi, Parya, and more.
Turkmenistan: Turkmen is the official language but Russian is still widely used. Turkmen is a Turkic language, officially written in a Latin script but Cyrillic is still commonly used.
Uzbekistan: Uzbek is yet another Turkic language and is closely related to the Uyghur language.
Since 1992 it has been written in the Latin script. Russian is still widely used and understood. In the desolate region of Karakalpakstan, Karakalpak is spoken as well which has ties with Uzbek and Kazakh.
Xinjiang: Uyghur and Mandarin Chinese are official languages in the Xinjiang Province of China. Uyghur is the language spoken by the Uyghur people historically, though the Chinese government has launched a campaign recently banning the use of Uyghur in schools and even detaining and sending those using the language publicly or showing interest in it into labor camps. Uyghur is a Turkic language and is written in an Arabic script.
Afghanistan: The two official languages of Afghanistan are Dari and Pashto. Dari, which is a dialect of the Farsi spoken in Iran is the most widely spoken of the two in the country. Dari is written in modified Persian-Arabic, while Pashto is written in Arabic script.
Pakistan: Urdu and English are the official languages of Pakistan, however, there are over 60 languages spoken in the country. I’ve included Northern Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in this guide). Languages spoken in northern Pakistan include Shina, Burushaski, Khowar, Wakhi, Balti. Pashto, Hindko, Saraiki, and Kohistani.
Best Time To Visit
The best time to travel Central Asia is largely dependent on what areas you want to visit and what activities you’d like to take part in.
If planning to trek in the high mountains of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, or Northern Pakistan then July-September are going to be the best months. For desert and lower-lying areas such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, the Ferghana Valley, mainland Afghanistan and much of Xinjiang spring and fall months (April, May, September, October) will be the most comfortable months to visit in.
Winter sports enthusiasts wanting to get in a little downhill action on their trip should visit in January and February to the ski resorts and lifts in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan or trek in and ski down in Tajikistan and Bamyan Province in Afghanistan.
Marshrutka & Shared Taxi
Marshrutka and shared taxi are the most common and usually easiest way to get between places traveling Central Asia. They usually do not have schedules and depart when full from a designated place in the town or city (many times near a bazaar). The best way to find out where the marshrutka or shared taxi you need to be on is leaving from is to ask locals or staff at your accommodation.
Trains can be a comfortable way to travel in Central Asia, and the least nerve-wracking (driving in Central Asia is a bit crazy). Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have the best network of railways in the Central Asian countries.
Not a very common form of transportation in Central Asia, but it can be a comfortable alternative to shared taxis where available.
Often you will cross paths with cyclists on a giant Silk Road adventure, especially on Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway— a huge bucket list route for many cycling enthusiasts.
Hitchhiking is fairly common in Central Asia, with the exception of Afghanistan and extremely remote areas. Do note that drivers will typically expect a little money from hitchers as pretty much anyone with a car in Central Asia seconds as a taxi driver.
For those with time constraints, organized tours can be a great way to optimize your Central Asia trip. Those not wanting to deal with logistics and language barriers will likely get more enjoyment out of group or private tours.
A good place to shop tours whether its a group tour or a private trip you’re looking to organize is Kalpak Travel. If you mention the promo code Nicki-Kalpak2017 you’ll get 5% off your booking.
I have traveled and written extensively on Tajikistan, and have crossed paths with several of the owners of Tajik travel companies. You can find a list of Tajik tour operators here.
Once you start heading off to smaller towns options dwindle and offerings are extremely basic. If headed to the mountains you can expect to find homestays at very most, otherwise yurt camps or plan to bring your own tent.
Start shopping Central Asia accommodation
If you’re scratching your head wondering what Central Asia cuisine is, you’re not alone. Central Asia (not including Afghanistan, Pakistan or Xinjiang) is not a region known for its gastronomy, and there’s ample reason for this– it’s not the most exciting the world has to offer.
In general food in Central Asia is a tad bland, meat-centric, and fairly unimaginative. Food is more of a means of survival and not exactly the healthiest of all. With that said there are some good dishes out there and chefs hither and thither that can work a typically bland Central Asian dish into something delicious.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Xinjiang are total exceptions to the blandness of Central Asia, food in these three areas is a food lover’s dream come true. There are dishes that are typically only found in certain countries or regions of countries that you can read more about in my country-specific guides.
Vegetarians will have difficulties at times and vegans will really struggle with Central Asian cuisine. It’s not impossible either (I have traveled with both a vegan and a vegetarian at times in my Central Asia travels and they both survived).
Just try to plan ahead and learn how to communicate your dietary needs in the local language and/or Russian. I also recommend getting a copy of the Vegan Passport, a multilingual vegan phrasebook (it includes several Central Asian languages) to help you communicate your needs. People throughout Central Asia are learning about vegetarian and vegan diets and many times will be happy to try to help accommodate your needs.
Here are some commonly found foods throughout the region:
Plov: A rice dish fried in mutton fat and often includes mutton, onion, carrots, chickpeas and sometimes raisins
Laghman: A personal favorite, a somewhat soupy dish served with meat and noodles and vegetables. Laghman can vary greatly from one cook to another.
Manti: Little noodle dumplings stuffed most often with minced meat and onions. My favorite? Potato manti and pumpkin manti.
Shashlyk: Meat skewers, that we would call shish-kabobs in the west.
Samsa: Similar to an Indian samosa, these deep fried packets are usually filled with minced meat and onions.
Non: No meal is complete in this part of the world without bread, bread is life after all.
Chai: A hot glass of chai will accompany nearly every meal in Central Asia. Many times hosts will excitedly refill your cup over and over even if you plead no more. Tip: If you are finished with chai simply swill down the remainder in your glass and flip your cup upside down– this is the universal no more chai sign.
Where To Go In Central Asia
Money In Central Asia
ATMs and money exchangers can be found in major cities throughout Central Asia, though smaller towns may be a challenge. Do check exchange rates prior to your Central Asia travel as currencies are known to fluctuate dramatically over here.
If planning to carry in cash, the US dollar seems to be the preferred currency for exchanging. In some countries, like Tajikistan and Afghanistan, it’s sometimes the preferred currency for payments (especially large for larger purchases).
It’s worth noting that the black market is no more in Central Asia, Uzbekistan being the last country to abolish its currency black market.
Central Asia Packing List
- Water Purifier– I personally use the Katadyn water filter. Tap water is not safe to drink in much of Central Asia.
- External battery pack– Perfect for keeping things charged on long journeys.
- Headlamp– Perfect for camping, dark streets, and the occasional power outage.
- Camera— Don’t miss out on bringing your memories back home with you.
- Sunscreen– Sometimes difficult to find in the region. Sun is very powerful, especially at high altitudes.
- Toilet Paper
- Prescription & Over the counter medications
Recommend Gear For Trekking
- Inreach Explorer+– GPS & SOS beacon, great for remote hiking in Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
- Solar charger– Keep those electronics charged in remote areas.
- Backpack– I recommend the Osprey Ariel 65L backpack for women.
- Daypack– My personal favorite is the Osprey Daylite Plus.
- Hydration Pack— Have water available without having to reach for a water bottle.
- 3 Season tent– I use the MSR NX Hubba-Hubba 1 man tent and love it! I also use a Mountainsmith Morrison Evo 2 tent when I’m traveling with others.
- Sleeping bag– Useful for trekkers & cyclists. I use a Nemo sleeping bag cold rated to 20ºF/-7ºC.
- Hiking Boots– My personal favorite is the La Sportiva Nucleo High GTX hiking boot.
- Lightweight cooking camp set– Prepare your own meals on the go.
- Trekking Poles– Great for steep slopes.
- Mosquito Repellant– Recommended in the summertime.
- I recommend Bradt’s Guidebooks to help you plan an in-depth visit to Central Asia. They have updated editions for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
- Central Asia by Lonely Planet. Great to have on hand or phone on the road, though don’t treat it as a Bible. Central Asia Phrasebook by Lonely Planet is a great pocket-sized book with basic phrases and translations for the plethora of languages spoken in the region.
Safety In Central Asia
Central Asia safety is one of the most commonly searched topics about the region on google. I’m going to break this into two sections: Post-Soviet Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and the remainder of Central Asia, for simplicity’s sake.
Post-Soviet Central Asia
In general, the core of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) is a safe destination to visit. After spending several months in these countries I can honestly say I’ve never felt in danger or concerned for my safety in any of them. With that said, things do on rare occasions happen here.
The most recent: in June 2018 there was a terrorist attack in Tajikistan that left 4 dead and 2 injured foreign cyclists.
Tensions do at times build up with fighting in the Fergana Valley (last notable was in 2012). These events are not the norm. The standard precautions are typically enough to ensure safety in these countries.
The biggest risks and dangers you will face are chaotic driving, altitude illness, and food poisoning.
Northern Pakistan, especially Gilgit-Baltistan is reasonably safe to visit. Occasional things have happened (such as the 2013 Tahreek e Taliban attack on climbers at Nanga Prabat base camp that left 9 dead). At times sectarian violence against Shia Muslims does break out in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Not all of Afghanistan is at war as you would be lead to believe by western media. The Wakhan Corridor for instance has remained untouched by war and terrorism and is realistically the only safe place to visit in the country.
Travel in mainland Afghanistan is a much dicier prospect with some areas being *safer* (in terms of Afghanistan) to visit and others essentially off-limits. For visits to mainland Afghanistan, I highly recommend an experienced and knowledgeable guide such and Noor, Sakhi, and the team at Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan.
Travel in Afghanistan does come with big risks, however, there are measures that can be taken to reduce them.
In general, Xinjiang is a safe place for travelers, however, there is turmoil there at the moment and many places are closed to foreigners. In the past, there have been a handful of terrorist attacks carried out in Xinjiang by radicalized people, but this is not a regular occurrence.
Since early 2017 the Chinese government has been effectively kidnapping Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang (after sending in mass numbers of Han Chinese to take the Uyghur down from being the majority population in the area) that show interest in Uyghur culture, practice their religion or use their language out in the open and placing them in “re-education” camps.
There are speculations that these camps are forcing people held in them to hard labor, and some that they are first taking to camps and then transferring them to full on Chinese prisons. Many are never seen or heard from again.
Need More Central Asia Travel Info?
Check out my country guides and itineraries below, or ask your Central Asia travel questions in the comments!