I travelled across Central Asia in the summer of 2012. This was part of a 66-day trip that started in Mongolia and ended in Georgia. The Central Asian leg of the journey was 34 days and I visited 3 countries: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. All three were different from one another. In this post I briefly describe my experience in each country.
Kyrgyzstan is naturally beautiful. It is separated from China by the snow-capped Tian Shan mountain range, and the view from the airplane from Mongolia was breathtaking. In the east part of the country there is Lake Issyk Kul, a popular hiking destination.
The capital Bishkek is a green city laid out in a grid pattern with Soviet-style buildings. Some Kyrgyz women are gorgeous: they have Central Asian eyes and Russian fairness. I stayed at Sabyrbek’s Guesthouse, which was a rundown house in the embassy neighbourhood. The house had lots of quirky features such as a gazebo, a yurt, and bunk beds like shelves. Sabyrbek’s father was a famous writer in the Soviet times so he had enjoyed a privileged life.
In the South I visited Arslanbob, a hilltop village, where there was a walnut forest. The house I stayed at had a topchan, a wooden platform to sit on, with a fabulous view of the valley.
I also visited Osh, the second city, located in the South. This was a more conservative city, one of the centres of the rise of radical Islam in the Fergana Valley. One interesting person I met was a Hungarian-Canadian girl who had converted to Islam and was working for an Islamic NGO.
I travelled from Bishkek to Osh by shared taxi. Along the way I had kymyz, horse milk, and saw nomads living in yurts. The landscape in parts was surreal, as in this unedited picture.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is architecturally the most stunning. Three of the main Silk Road towns are in Uzbekistan: Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. These towns have numerous madrassas, mosques, bazaars. Khiva, the smallest of the three, is a walled town and was my favourite. Below are pictures from Khiva (top one) and Samarkand (bottom two).
The capital Tashkent is modern, and attractive in a different way: it has long wide boulevards, in the centre streets are deserted, and on every corner there are policemen. Police search your bags before entering the Sovietic metro stations. They stop you in the street to check your passport. At every guesthouse you have to get a paper confirming your stay and these too may be checked. It may sound cumbersome but I found this quite entertaining.
The highlight from my time in Tashkent though was the Gulnara guesthouse and its courtyard (below), where I met many travellers with cool stories.
In Uzbekistan ATMs rarely worked, so you had to take US dollars or Euros with you. When I was there $1 was 2800 Uzbek Som, and the largest note was 1000 Uzbek Som. So I needed a bag to carry my cash. To give you an idea, a meal for two people in a nice restaurant could cost 65,000 Uzbek Som, so you would have to pay with sixty-five 1000 Uzbek Som notes!
In the West end of the country is Moynaq, which used to be a fishing town by the Aral Sea, before the sea dried up after the Soviets diverted its waters to be used in cotton farming. You can read more about that desolated town in this post.
Kazakhstan is huge and to see this country properly you need several months. I visited Almaty, the business capital; Shymkent; and the Aksu-Zhabagly national park.
Almaty is a westernised city with modern cafes, restaurants, and even a Marks & Spencer. There are many Russians. It is wealthy thanks to oil revenue, and therefore expensive. It is surrounded by mountains. It seemed like it would be a nice place to live but probably due to the high prices there were barely any travellers.
The 16-hour train journey from Almaty to Shymkent took me through a deserty and dull landscape. The train stations along the way showed signs of neglect, and ladies were selling snacks from old prams. My best memory from sleepy Shymkent was the tasty Uzbek plov.
At Aksu-Zhabagly I stayed in a guesthouse run by a Dutch-Kazakh couple, living an idyllic life with their two beautiful kids. I went on a hike in the mountains, witnessed the horse-riding skills of Kazakhs, and had a dish called beshparmak (five fingers), made of horse meat and fat — in Kazakhstan it is the fat of the horse rather than the meat that is more precious!
— One of the interesting things in Central Asia is that I met a lot of long-term travellers. And by long-term I mean people travelling for several months and years. I met cyclists cycling from Belgium to China; from Sweden to Singapore; from China to the UK. Most of them were hard-core cyclists who could cycle up to 150km-a-day, day after day.
— I also met several parties doing the Mongol Rally.
— One of the reasons for the shortage of short-term travellers is that, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, Western passport holders have to obtain visas in advance, and the process can take time and effort.
— Curiously the biggest portion of travellers in that region was French.
— In all three countries they speak Turkic languages. Uzbek is the closest one to Turkish, but still the two languages are not mutually understandable. However, thanks to Turkish television series, many people had picked up a degree of Turkish.