One of my lifelong dreams has been to backpack in Central Asia, on routes that ancient caravans took along the Silk Road, travelling along paths carved through desolate deserts, vast grasslands, and soaring mountains, places where the Western civilizations met the Eastern.
I have been planning and preparing for this trip for a number of years, and finally have saved up enough time and resources to go there this summer. I hope two months would be sufficient to explore this region.
Central Asia was situated at the confluence of major cultures for centuries: Chinese to the East, Indian to the South and Persian to the West. This crossroads position has intensified the conflict between tribalism and traditionalism and modernization as analysed in some academic journals.
Once part of the mighty USSR, borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan were drawn on a map after the Soviets collapsed. Afghanistan is sometimes included in the region due to its geopolitical location, although it was never part of the Soviet states.
The region has some of the oldest ruins from the Silk Route era, in addition to stunning natural beauty. The Steppe grasslands cover most of the northern areas, deserts span the west, tall snow-clad mountains on the eastern edges and lush green valleys in the middle. Some nomadic tribes and settlements exist to this day.
I want to devote sufficient time to hiking and the outdoors, and also check out cultural and architectural sights. Large cities include Almaty, Samarkand, Tashkent, etc, and should be interesting to spend some time in.
Himalayas in Sikkim.
My favourite thing to do before trips that are several weeks long is to read and research. I really enjoy knowing about the place, its history and culture before going there. I believe my experience becomes richer and I am able to better appreciate what I see.
I expect to begin my journey from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan in August, which would lend itself very nicely to some high altitude hiking in the Tien Shan mountains that border China. Passing through Osh and crossing some high altitude passes, I would then cross into Tajikistan and travel on the famous Pamir highway which is known to be one of the most scenic journeys in the world. Skirting along the northern border of Afghanistan, the road ends in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The journey this far is all about the outdoors and beautiful mountains.
Crossing into Uzbekistan near the end of August is suppose to be a good time to be there because the place isn’t unbearably hot, but who knows. Uzbekistan is full of cultural sights – Tashkent, Samarqand, Bukhara, Urgench, Nukus, etc. preserve some of the best legacies of the Silk Route era. I’m also keen on going up to the receding Aral sea to see the graveyard of ships.
My final two weeks will be in southern Kazakhstan, checking out Turkistan, Shymkent and Almaty, the former capital of this country.
That’ll have to suffice for this trip, since getting into Turkmenistan is kindof annoying, so I might have to defer that to another trip that includes Iran and Azerbaijan. The north/northeastern part of Kazakhstan could easily be part of another trip that covers western China and Mongolia. Afghanistan would have to be its own trip given its security restrictions.
I booked an open jaw flight since I wanted to visit India “on the way” as my mom put it (it really isn’t anywhere near). Star alliance was the logical choice and Lufthansa provided a nifty route for my itinerary.
There are limited choices when it comes to big airlines connecting the region. Lufthansa flies to Almaty, Astana, and Ashgabat, while Austrian flies to Astana alone. Turkish airline connects the smaller cities of Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Tashkent. Other than that, there is not much Star Alliance action happening out of Europe. KLM serves Astana as well. To go to India on the other hand is very easy, and many companies such as United, Air India, Jet Airways besides the ones mentioned above have plenty of connectivity.
Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal visa regime in the region and is the only country that allows Canadians (and many other citizens) to obtain visa on arrival. For others, you need to apply in advance. For Uzbekistan, there is an additional requirement of a Letter of Intent, which is basically a scam that involves “booking a tour” with government authorized tour agents. Turkmenistan – forget about it. The only way to visit that whimsical country is on a 5-day transit visa, which, I understand is plenty of time. Afghanistan now has a tourist visa process (there wasn’t one when I checked few years ago).
Now to my favourite topic! I am a language geek and I enjoy learning languages. This region is a complex mosaic of ethnicity and languages and quite challenging, but fortunately I’m ahead of the game, and so is my partner.
Russian is the lingua franca of the region since most countries are still heavily influenced by Russia. I decided to study Russian back in 2008 when I travelled to Russia and now I’m in the process of refreshing it. I’m surprised that it’s coming back quickly.
Turkish is another useful language since most languages, Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Turkmen are Turkic languages and are somewhat intelligible. One of the best advice I’d give anyone interested in travelling to Turkey is to study Turkish, which I did in 2012 so I am hoping it yields some limited advantages.
Tajik is the only language I don’t know anything about since it’s close to Persian, except a few words that may have crept into Urdu.
That’s my trip, lets start packing!