Later this year I will be returning to Central Asia for the second time – the first now being 8 years ago (and it doesn’t feel that long ago to be sure). This time I will take in three countries, as I did last time. This time it will be Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Last time it was Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Actually this time I will be stopping in Kazakhstan too, just for a one-night layover as my flights from Hong Kong to the Tajik capital Dushanbe do not match up. And I can’t wait!
This will mean I’ll have visited all five of the ex-Soviet states that make up ‘Central Asia’. Some count Afghanistan as a Central Asian country, that’s by the by. But Central Asia is such a myriad of contrasts, and it is relatively untravelled too, which is part of the reason I loved my first time there and I am sure I will the second time around.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both still seem to have a fair Russian influence. Whilst Kazakhstan is a little similar to Mongolia in many aspects, it’s got a fair portion of the country which excels in ‘flatness’ – steppes – it also has a fair portion of the population who are Russian or are partly Russian. Dostoyevsky was actually exiled to the northern town of Semey, where I visited his house. Almaty has a thriving arts scene (as does Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital) and parks abound. Then you have the modern capital of Astana, which is like a city from a science fiction novel.
As you head further south to the borders with Kyrgyzstan, there are a few mountains. Almaty is in fact surround by mountains, and they are really beautiful. Kazakhstan has a pretty good rail service for getting around, but you can also take shared taxis or minibuses which are the most common ways of getting around, especially if you’re heading south into Kyrgyzstan.
In fact, Bishkek is only 3 hours or less away from Almaty in the back of a squashy mini-bus. Again, Russian/Soviet influence is clear in the layout, feel and design of Bishkek. In fact, their museum still features more than a nod to Lenin and the socialist leaders of the past. The parks are full of table tennis tables and fountains. It’s smaller than Almaty, but just as pleasant.
The mountains in Kyrgyzstan are amazing, and it can really feel like you’re in Europe at times with the greenery, the trees and all. The towns are far more ramshackle and you wonder how they survive the winter.
The Uzbekistan (which I’m merely passing through this time) is a lot like Iran, except now you don’t need a visa and they are not on the brink of war. The madrassas and Islamic architecture in Uzbekistan is amazing. It’s a completely different climate – hot, a lot of desert, and the capital Tashkent is spread out and quite grand. With a LOT of fountains. Fountains are very popular in Central Asia.
Transport in Uzbekistan includes a high speed train (a Talgo from Europe I think) which it didn’t have when I was there last. Actually, in Kazakhstan there’s a Talgo from Astana to Almaty. Doesn’t reach the maximum speeds but is still pretty impressive.
The people of Central Asia are very warm and friendly no matter what their background. Drinking in a cabin in the mountains with no electricity in Kyrgyzstan was a highlight. Although it will surprise no-one that in no way could keep up! I made a lot of friends in Kazakhstan, especially Semey. I was driven around by a group of students I had just met. It was great!
Whilst I enjoyed the food, I still had to be careful. Shashlik is a favourite and it’s great tucker, however if I picked the wrong sauce I would regret it later. I positively love the Russian cafes with a bunch of choices for a couple of bucks. Perogi, borscht, chicken, so much choice. I would go to these places all the time if I could!
The only downside is that some places – Astana in particular – it was hard to get a decent room at a decent price. Uzbekistan has some wonderful accommodation though, B&B for under $30 most places although Tashkent is tricky. Kyrgyzstan I stayed at very cheap places, which weren’t amazing but also were pretty decent. So amend that – accommodation is really hard in Kazakhstan (unless you pay for it). I was fortunate to have someone (who’s now moved) to stay with in Almaty, otherwise the only cheap place I could find at the time was the dorms in the railway station!
Central Asia is a highly rewarding place to travel, as you can see – I loved it! Maybe you will too! Thanks for reading, and May the Journey Never End!