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My 7 Best Tips for Solo Female Travel in Central Asia
Updated March 2020, 7 Tips For Solo Female Travel In Central Asia was originally written in November 2019
Travel in Central Asia is gaining popularity with each and every year. A frequently asked question I receive about my travels regards solo female travel in Central Asia. I have actually traveled each of the ‘stans solo at different points in time. I’ve hitchhiked, trekked, taken shared taxis and camped compeltely alone in Central Asia, with only a small number of incidents. After several trips to the region here are my top tips on solo female travel in Central Asia.
Tip #1: Modest Dress Is Best, But Don’t Sweat It
Dressing more conservatively is wise for any female traveler in Central Asia. This doesn’t mean you have to completely batten down the hatches unless you’re heading to Afghanistan– then do. In post-Soviet Central Asia that I’m covering in this post (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) it’s generally safe to wear western-style clothing. To dodge harassment I 100% recommend avoiding any low-cut tops or skirt and shorts above the knee. Also, note that it is not required or necessary to wear a headscarf unless you enter a mosque or holy site. A great general outfit choice that covers all the bases would be longer top or tunic paired with trousers or leggings. Long breathable-fabric dresses are great if you’re visiting cities and lower-lying areas in the scorching-hot summer months. If you’re headed to trek in the mountains you’ll want clothing that can be layered, as well as a warm jacket and sturdy hiking boots.
Tip #2: Be Merry-d
“Are you married?”
“Where’s your husband?”
“Do you have children?”
All commonly asked questions within the first seconds of meeting someone new in Central Asia. I get it, women tend to marry younger here than in the likes of the US, Canada, and Europe and women are expected to want and have children. So naturally, marriage and children are common topics of discussion. But there comes a time when it’s just easier to say you do have a husband even if you don’t: When prying men ask.
Having a husband (real or otherwise) helps to curb male advances. Sometimes these questions are asked just out of general curiosity and politeness, but sometimes they come with an ulterior motive. Women traveling independently in Central Asia aren’t unheard of, but local women tend to travel with their husband or family most commonly, friends less commonly.
Tip #3: Don’t Be Afraid To Be Assertive
No means no, and don’t be afraid to exercise this. If a man is bothering you or making you uncomfortable, be assertive. Chances are he’ll take the cue and leave you alone.
Tip #4: Make A Scene
If you are groped, touched inappropriately, cat-called, etc., make a scene. Especially if you’re in a city or town or any crowded area. People will come to your rescue. The only time this doesn’t work is if you’re somewhere remote, like the mountains of Tajikistan.
Tip #5: Learn Some Self Defense
For the first time in all my travels in Central Asia, I finally was attacked by a man. As mentioned above, it happened in the mountains of Tajikistan. Strangely enough, it was the one time my husband did join me to travel in Central Asia. But, he wasn’t around at the time, not even within earshot. The man in question shoved me down and was trying to pin me. Unluckily for him, my parents made me take Tae Kwon Do lessons as a kid. Had I not been able to wrestle him off of me with self-defense techniques I had under my belt, I may have been raped.
Whilst I had found that the techniques of Tae Kwon Do proved to be invaluable to my safety at this terrifying time, other people may decide to go down another route. Many of my friends have recently decided to check out sites like Alloutdoor.com in the hopes that they can find the best firearm that they can use for self-defense, as they have said that they’d feel more protected if they knew they had a firearm on their person. And that’s fair enough – if they’d feel safer by doing this, then that is what they should do. For me, it was Tae Kwon Do and it really helped to save my life, and I’m so grateful that my parents made me take lessons as a young child.
I have spent a large amount of time in Central Asia. While things like this can and do happen, it’s not the norm so don’t let one of my bad experiences put you off from the region– this could have happened anywhere. However, if you are a victim of sexual assault, violent crime (robbery or anything else) it’s advised to report it to your embassy and to local police (though police in Central Asia have a reputation for solving nothing).
Tip #6: If You’re Ever Uncomfortable, Look For Other Women
Women in Central Asia generally are quick to take any other fellow female under their wing. Whether in a busy bazaar, on the street or in a remote village you’re almost guaranteed to have heaps of positive interactions with other women. But sometimes a guy is making you uncomfortable whether you feel you’re being followed, he tries touching you, etc., look for other women– they’ll likely chase him off.
Tip #7: Stock Up On Period Supplies Before Leaving Home If Traveling Remote
It’s not that you can’t find feminine hygiene products in Central Asia– you can. Especially in larger cities and capitals, you’ll likely be able to find anything you need. But if you plan to visit more remote areas and smaller towns and villages finding tampons can prove tricky. I recommend bringing your own stash from home if you plan to spend most of your trip in remote and away from cities, or better yet: switch to a Diva Cup.
Other General Tips For Traveling Central Asia
- Learn a few phrases in Russian and any of the local languages of countries you plan to visit. I also recommend learning to reach the Cyrillic alphabet to aid in reading signs, menus, and more. The Central Asia Phrasebook by Lonely Planet can prove helpful.
- Figure out which countries you may need to apply for visas or e-visas for before leaving home. Check out my post on Central Asian visas to learn more.
- Apply for any necessary permits, or know where to get them once you arrive. Many border areas are sensitive in this region and may require a special permit to visit (and I’m not talking about border crossings). The most common permit needed by travelers is the GBAO permit required for travelers taking on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, which can be easily applied for at the same time as you apply for your e-visa.
- Research any border crossings you plan to use and verify that they are open and are open to foreigners. Several border crossings in Central Asia are bilateral, meaning only passport holders from the two countries sharing that border can use that particular crossing. Due to border disputes and other random beefs Central Asian nations seem to have, some border crossings are closed altogether.
- Figure out your budget and plan accordingly. Central Asia can be a great budget travel destination, but costs can add up if you plan to hire private transport, take guided tours, or if you need more upscale accommodations.
- Know the exchange rates prior to entering an exchange kiosk or trading on the street with a money changer. This is one of the most common ways people get scammed. Make sure and count your money afterward too.
- Pack any medications you take regularly or may need. Getting sick in Central Asia is pretty common, so having Imodium, Ibuprofen and a broad-spectrum antibiotic is wise. I recommend packing a small first aid kit too.
- Be careful about where you take photos and always ask people permission before photographing them. Sensitive areas, military installations, police, and military officers and checkpoints are generally off-limits for photography (though I have had times where officers had requested I take their photo). Its always best practice to ask before photographing anyone, especially women and children, though you may find that people will come up to you and ask you to take their photo.
- If you don’t want to travel alone in Central Asia you can always search the forums at Caravanistan to look for other travelers looking to join forces, or join an organized tour offered by one of many local tour operators. Another great way to meet other travelers to trip-share with is by staying at homestays, guesthouses, and hostels.
- Keep an open mind. Cultures and views on certain topics in Central Asia can differ greatly from yours at home. There are good ways to approach and even discuss these differences, and then there are downright disrespectful ways. I recently attended a press trip with a wretched travel blogger, who constantly offended, belittled, berated, and disrespected our organizers, local staff, and the people and cultures of the two countries we visited. How this person considers themself a traveler, let alone a travel writer about it is beyond me.
- 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.
Have Questions About Women’s Travel In Central Asia?
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