The CIS: Russia, Central Asia & the Caucasus

A huge area. Russia (1/8th of the globe), the mainly empty ‘stans’. Most struggle to find on a map and few make it this way. The Caucasus are overlooked and easy to travel. Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are real gems.

Russia Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel advice, tips, info and summaries for:

Russia (the FSU/CIS), the Caucasus - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia;

&

Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

You will find Iran covered in the Middle/Near East section.

Less visited Although not a geographic term, 'the CIS' covers Central Asia, some of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Central Asia is covered here
, but this vast region takes many trips to update and more will follow soon as our Russian gets better!

* It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on.

The USSR, the CIS or FSU, all more or less encompass many of the same countries in different periods. The USSR or CCCP is of course the socialist state of the Soviet Union that collapsed in 1991.

The term FSU simply means 'Former Soviet Union' mean all countries previous part of it and the CIS, which is the more up-to-date term used here is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), whichMap of CIS replaced the USSR (the Baltic States, not covered here are excluded).

There is far too much history to be covered here and beside all countries in the CIS have a rich history much of which was 'forgotten' during what was the great social experiment of our time in which millions were forced to take part.



Add Many thanks to Conor Meleady and Malcolm for kindly supplying part of this information.

* Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

  • Intro: The stereotypical Russian landscapes maybe endless snowbound forests, log cabins set in rolling meadows interspersed by the odd brain-numbingly ugly constructivist city, statue of Lenin and 'hammer & sickle' murals. However, the most accessible sites in the country and those visited by most as their only destinations (and for good reason) are Moscow's Kremlin and St. Petersburg's waterfront palaces.

    Russia has come through some pretty tough times along with the biggest social experiment of humankind and is almost unrecognisable in places to 5, 10, 20 years ago. Many cities are busily re-gilding their onion dome churches and the legacy of the USSR has left much visible history and grand government buildings plus museums in most major towns. What really has changed are prices. Russia is not to be considered a cheap travel destination. Along with the remnants of foreigner pricing, archaic visa regulations and 'service-with-a-shrug', has come the inflation of a capitalist economy and (depending on the Rouble's strength) Moscow can be one of the most expensive cities in the world.

USSRAs a result most (that is almost all travellers) will limit travels in Russia to Moscow and its surrounding cities, St. Petersburg or the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian Express and the few cities with any interest along it: Irkutsk (with the geographically fascinating Lake Baikal), Ekaterinburg or last stop on the line, Vladivostok - all normally while waiting for transport somewhere else. Almost no one gets to the palm fringed beaches, snow-capped Urals or frozen northern cities - and for good reason. There are several problems that travellers to Russia face. The first is language, this is the only major region in the world where a main European language has not taken root and is far from commonly spoken.

Expect almost no English, French (or similar) away from big cultured cities  like St. Petersburg (with its foot in Europe). This makes the simple logistics of getting around and travelling cheaply a real pain and it also make life frustrating since you always sense you are missing a big part of Russia since behind the grim, miserable Soviet faces is a fantastically friendly and hospitable nation.

The second major issue is distance. The largest country on earth really doesn't have much to see given it's massive size and it's not really feasible to take in a city like Moscow and sights like Lake Baikal as you might with Paris and the Mediterranean beaches. This distance also makes life expensive and boring.

Russia is expensive - although the currency crisis of late 2014 / early 2015 has made travel so much cheaper. You'll never get the best deal, standards are low and foreigner pricing still lingers - make sure you have a healthy budget. The weather is also a factor and while beautiful (and crowed) in the summer, the winter is hard work unless properly prepared.

And lastly with a country this large and a history this interesting there is not a huge amount to stimulate. Moscow is a far less interesting city than you might imagine, St. Petersburg is highly impressive (but you have the sense of being in Europe more than Russia) and other major cities will inspire little once you have crossed off a few main sights, and natural attractions are on the whole tricky to access.

Still it can be a lot of fun being in Russia and such a big part of the world deserves at least a peep. From the grandeur of St. Petersburg's palace's to the endless trees passing the window of the fast becoming 'tourist train' of the trans-Siberian that everyone will want to say they have done, to some city miles from anywhere where it seems no one much wants to be.

St. Petersburg, tracking down Moscow's history and iconic sights, getting right off the tourist trail and the feeling of knowing you have done the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian, two of the world's longest (and dullest!) train journeys. Lake Baikal, Astrakhan and the Golden Ring cities.

Moscow's costs, language and sometimes bureaucratic barriers. Crowds during the summer in major attractions and the sometimes less than friendly Russians.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Needless to say the climate of Russia plays an important role in visiting. Temperatures of -20c are no fun for site seeing and even though Russia in the snow is fantastic with few crowds, it's best to realise that wind-chill and the odd extreme low temperature, make wandering round a city like St. Petersburg less than fun, but should not stop you taking the Trans-Siberian. This frigid image of winter applies for most of the country from about November to April and the damp cold of Moscow and St. Petersburg often makes them feel colder than deep (dry air) Siberia. Sochi on the Black Sea has the mildest winters and some of the warmest summer temperatures that can really rise. In Siberia for example during the summer it can be a surprisingly hot +35c. Add in the ticks and mosquitoes and you can see why Russians seem pissed off most of the time! Autumn is ideal for Siberia, though come October icy winds roll in. Early summer is ideal for Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  • Costs: About US$40-50 per day, in big cities and maybe more in Moscow and St. Petersburg if you want out of dorms or accommodation that is clean and nice. Entry fees for major attractions such as the Hermitage are foreigner priced and expensive. Elsewhere costs are substantially lower and rolling through Siberia on local trains and a bit of Russian to find the cheapest places to stay and you could technically half this if very determined. Many items like beer and public transport still remain great value, but Russia is far more expensive than other CIS states. Due to the dramatic fall in the Rouble in late 2014 Russia is now great value for money.

  • Money: From the 6 times greater black market rate in 1991 to the magic new Roubles in 1998 with 3 zeros missing, a lot has changed. The Rouble is now stable (give or take the odd currency crisis!) which has seen the currency slide (in 2014-2015, making travel much more affordable) with no black market. You will find numerous ATMs in big cities and lots of FX places in major tourist destinations.

  • Visa strategy: What a pain. And an expensive one at that. In past years the world has really opened up and most governments do everything they can to promote tourism with even the most backward countries now really relaxing visa regulations. Russia however, still seem intent on keeping a ridiculous Letter of Invitation (LOI) requirement in place. What that means is you need to get a LOI from somewhere you plan to stay in Russia or someone else who can issue them to get a visa. The reality of this is you simply use an agent who happily takes your 20-30USD, files some paperwork in Russia and e-mails you one sheet of paper with a reference to a hotel you will never stay at.

    Take this letter to a Russian embassy, part with more cash and you will have your visa. Unless you have a passport from another CIS state these rules are fairly universal. Headache and expensive as it is, the process is quite manageable and not difficult.

    A tourist visa allows stays of up to 30 days. A transit visa allows up to 10 days in transit if you're passing straight through Russia, but you aren't allowed to spend time in Moscow. Business visas are of course different and more expensive. Visas are only issued 90 days or less before your intended date of entry to Russia, so no need to apply before then. The longer you let the visa be issued the cheaper it will be, ideally, allow 2 weeks for the visa processing, but if you have less time than this, don't worry, you can get 'express' services.

This is really a hangover from Soviet times, when to get a visa you needed supporting documents. In theory, this must be a letter of invitation from your travel agency, or for independent travellers, an accommodation voucher from your hotel(s) covering every night you plan to spend in Russia. Of course this is ridiculous, so the reality is you go to an agency such as Real Russia or similar and they sell you the necessary visa support, which allows you to get a visa without any hotel bookings, so you can travel freely just as you would in any other country.

Russian LOI from www.russianvisaguide.comBehind the scenes, the agency usually has an arrangement with a local hotel, and a 'reservation' is made for you so they can legally issue the visa support, even though you don't pay for the hotel and everyone knows that you have no intention of ever using that reservation.

As the whole world wonders just what Putin is really up to - remember his policies and wider politics don't affect how real Russians will treat you and have nothing to do with your trip. Actually it is a better reason to go - to get the real story.

  • Typical tourist trail: St. Petersburg and/or Moscow.

  • Getting around: Buses are less comfortable than trains and are normally avoided by travellers who opt for the train which is the most sensible way to cover vast distances with good quality sleepers. Standards and choices are now excellent, but with the upgrades have come substantial price increases and getting around on a shoestring is not possible. Much of the past foreigner pricing has disappeared, but rules are hard to understand and buying a ticket can be daunting. As such most hostels in major cities and traveller destinations can help you out (for a small fee). There is loads of information in any guidebook to help you along.

DistancesMost travellers will be familiar with at least the name 'Trans-Siberian Railway' and most will have romantic notions about it. A trip through Russia in the fullest sense, 6.5 days, 9289 km, two continents and seven time zones. Despite endless taiga and titanic rivers the entire journey is not massively spectacular and any excitement inside the train depends on your luck in cabin mates.

For years, the Trans-Siberian was a mysterious voyage past closed cities  and military installations, only attempted by the most intrepid of travellers. Today in Asia, Russia and on the internet it is very easy to set up a trip and organise tickets. You could argue it is too touristy or boring or it is not even the world's longest train ride or that there are many more exciting and authentic train journeys around the world and CIS, but it is a trip every traveller will want to do.

-The trans-Siberian route and sights: An interesting link and point of interest, this joint project of Google and the Russian Railways lets you take a trip along the famous route and see Baikal, Khekhtsirsky range, Barguzin mountains, Yenisei river and many other places from the comfort of your own home.

  • Logistics: Firstly it is worth noting that the term 'Trans-Siberian' doesn't refer to a single train and is not the most popular route. In short the Trans-Siberian links Moscow and Vladivostok and is taken in full by few travellers.

    The Trans-Mongolian, is however the trip most undertaken by travellers and commonly associated with the term 'trans-Siberian railroad'. It links Moscow with Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and on to Beijing. And lastly there is the Trans-Manchurian that loops Manchuria en route to Beijing. If you want to connect with Japan, it's quite easy by ferry from Vladivostok.

    Most buy a ticket for the entire trip, but it is much more worthwhile to travel point-to-point, although there are few very exciting sights/cities  along the route. Equally in addition to the 'famous' Trans train there are many other shorter inter-city trains along the route. However remember that Trans-Siberian trains are 'reservation obligatory' which means every time you step on board you must have a confirmed sleeping-berth reservation for that specific journey, on that specific train, on that specific date - you cannot hop on and off trains spontaneously without a reservation. You can arrange all the tickets and reservations before you go or simply book again in each city or take normal inter-city trains.

    The railway runs all year round, but May to September are easily the peak months for foreign tourists, since it has the warmest weather and the longest hours of daylight. However this is the time of year the train books up fastest and when you will have the least authentic experience. The winter is tough in Russia and makes the logistics of stopping off harder, but the landscape is amazing and the trains are well heated and cosy.

    • Toilets/washing: Each sleeping-car has at least two western-style toilets and a washroom with sinks. These stay fairly clean, but how clean depends on both the provodniks (attendants) and the passengers. There are no showers on Trans-Siberian trains, with the two exceptions being on the Trans-Mongolian Moscow-Beijing train, where there is a shower hose in the small washroom by the deluxe 1st class, 2-berth compartments and on the Moscow-Irkutsk 'Baikal train', where there is a shower that you have to pay for in car 7, but this will probably change.

      What normally happens is passengers spend an age in the bathroom each morning/day grooming with water from the sink.

  • What to do on a train for so long? This is what most people ask and the real answer is nothing - eat, drink, talk and look out of the window. It is about taking it easy and doing something for the sake of it. Most backpackers can't seem to put down their 'Trans-Siberian Handbook' - crossing off dull sights. Sometimes the people on board and on the platforms are really interesting (the Moscow-Mongolia-Beijing route is arguably the most interesting because of both the people on board and the sights and scenery on the way), but at other times the train is full of Ozzie backpackers playing cards.

    Food is not a problem as you'll find plenty of vendors on platforms and the restaurant car is pretty good and reasonable in price. It is worth noting that unlimited boiling water is available free of charge from the samovar at the end of each coach, so if you have a mug/spoon you can make snacks for yourself, like the odd cup noodle. All trains stop at stations every few hours for between 5 and 20 minutes, enough time to get off the train, stretch your legs, take photos and buy something.

  • Costs: like anything in Russia it is not going to be cheap, but the price depends on many factors such as where you buy the ticket, the time of year, how far you are going, what class and if you are a Russian or a foreigner. Any guidebook can take you through all the issues affecting cost and all the various potential starting points. However in summary the absolute cheapest way is to arrange the ticket in person in Russia or China - but this takes time and effort few are willing to put in, plus it is very likely you won't get a ticket for immediate departure.

  • Recommended/Typical stop-offs: Despite the vast area, few cities (notably in eastern and central Russia) along the route are very attractive or interesting. Many have imposing main streets and few fairly dull museums and perhaps an area of older wooden houses. Worthy of note and main stops are: Ekaterinburg where the Tsar's family was murdered, Novosibirsk a monster city of concrete in true Russian style, Krasnoyarsk with a limited old town and hilltop church in the Urals, Irkutsk on Lake Baikal, plus Ulan Ude near-by. And of course at the end/start of the line Vladivostok or Yaroslavl (and other golden ring cities).

    It would be hard to say there are any real hidden gems, but if you want away from other tourists and to find something smaller and more Russian you might stop in: Cita, a military/industrial town; Birobidzhan, a small capital of a Jewish Autonomous region with signs in Hebrew; Nerchinsk, a old gold mining town; Tyumen which is Siberia's oldest city and finally the old town of Perm.

  • Guide book: Lonely Planet or Rough Guide

  • Media: Very little available in print in the English language, but you will be able to find the odd specialist shop and copy of The Economist or Time - although harder the further away you get from Moscow. Cinemas/TV will always show films dubbed in Russian.

  • People vibe: Mainly North American and Northern European.

    • Locals: It is very easy to take a dislike to Russians, they look and act grumpy and nyet (no) is normally the only response you get. A little more charm is filtering in as Soviet-style unhelpfulness fades to economic powerhouse. However, at a deeper level Russians are unfailingly hospitable and big hearted. They love to have fun, be spontaneous and drink. If you don't drink - learn, never fill your own glass and always toast before drinking. 10 years ago making friends was effortless, now it is much, much harder and to meet and indeed see the real Russia/Russians you need to head away from tourist hubs. For this approach you will ideally need some Russian language skills.

    • Other travellers: Fine, typical bunch of western Europeans and North Americans.

  • Tourist factor: 9/10 (St. Petersburg in summer) - 1/10 (Omsk, or similar in winter)

  • Accommodation: In major tourist stops you will find a selection of hostels and guesthouses aimed at travellers. Where there were once only small apartment tenant's taking in 'guests', enterprising Russians have turned many a section of an apartment block or crappy hotel into a 'hostel'. However most are limited to almost all dorms (no or very few private rooms) and in true Soviet tradition they are often high in price, low in quality, but the staff will normally speak English and they are good information points. Away from the very main stream destinations where hostels exist, a few okay value guesthouses can be found, but the further off the trail you go the more you are limited to poor value concrete high rise 'traditional' Soviet accommodation. Of course if not on a tight budget there are loads more choices.

    • Average cost: US$30-60 for a double, (sometimes not far off for a dorm) and much more if you are unlucky and unable to locate somewhere that is not just geared to business travellers.

  • Communications: You will find a few internet places, but they are not massively common.

  • Language: English may be the lingua franca of the world and essential for travel, but the CIS remains one of only a few world domains where English just doesn't cut it (others being French West Africa and Spanish Latin America) and where a little effort to get a grasp of the language is a great investment. If heading off the beaten track take at least a phrase book and although speaking Russian well is really tough, a few phrases will help massively

  • Food: Far, far from the shortages in the early 1990s there is many a restaurant that you might want to get a loan from the bank before ordering in. Most food remains very western and hot dogs, plus other fast food is most common. A stolovaya is the native cheap eat place and quite daunting for non-Russian speakers. These however are not easy to locate and are disappearing from smarter areas. You will find many small supermarkets (the state owned gastronom being the cheapest) and this is certainly a place that anyone keen to save money would want to self-cater to some extent, be that cooking in a shitty hostel kitchen or just making a quick sandwich on the go.

    • Vegetarians: Fine, but as you would expect, not ideal, still drinking seems more important.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Very limited

    • Women alone: Clearly sexism exists, but harassment is pretty rare.

    * Rating: 5.5/10 - great to see, but cost, distances, travel difficulties without Russian and lack stimulation can leave you feeling flat.

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* Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

  • Azerbaijan BakuThe least visited of the Caucuses, flush with oil money also the most expensive (stiff/expensive visa requirements). Baku, the undisputed hub, is modern city with a lovely (small and maybe over restored) old town and long sea-front promenade. It is full of jazz bars and high-class shops in some parts and very normal in other parts.

    Leaving Baku on a day trip, for which you will need your own [hire] car or to charter a taxi for the day (at not an insignificant cost), you can easily access world class cave paintings or check out some of the stranger sights along the Caspian Sea - with mud volcanoes and natural gas flares lighting the night sky awaiting you. Other than that the Caspian Sea shore line is without note, lined with ugly towns and oil/gas industry infrastructure.

    Getting into Baku is easy by air, getting away by land means you are either going South to Iran or North to Georgia (both of which are easy land crossings). To the West the border to Armenia is closed and is technically an active war zone. Going East there is the notorious ferry to Turkmenistan (we'd recommend you fly unless a completist - see more infomation in Turkmenistan summary).

    To the North there are a few small villages set in hills and beautiful rolling countryside that are are fairly well geared to tourists. Since this is Azerbaijan and not Tuscany, you will have them pretty much to yourself to enjoy black tea and whatever the sweet delicacy of the region is. All in all there is not much to see, but some nice hikes. Sheki (capital of the former Nukha Khanate) is most accessible and the perfect stopping point between Baku and Georgina. Quba - or Gaba (and surrounding villages) in the North East have more interesting scenery are harder to reach and don't make a natural stop on the way to/from Georgina. However for trekking have the edge.

    There is little not to like about Azerbaijan (away from the ugly Caspian Sea shoreline), but also not much to get excited about. Given the visa hassle and being slightly poorer value for money than neighbours, given the choice or with limited resources [time/money], Georgia, Eastern Turkey or NorthWestern Iran is more worth your time and effort.

I sort of agree that "there is little not to like about Azerbaijan (away from the ugly Caspian Sea shoreline), but also not much to get excited about." Yes, if you are short on time stick to Georgia (or Eastern Turkey), but then again, the mountains of Azerbaijan are worth exploring (because of the absence of other tourists) and the village of Xinaliq and the area around Laza are one of my favorite places in the Caucasus. - Thomas

  • Intro: This little known country is where overlanding routes through Europe and the CIS often come to an end. By virtue of pervious wars, disputed territory with Azerbaijan to the East and a diplomatic spat with Turkey to the South (over 'recognition' of the Armenia Genocide a century earlier) overland access is limited. Those travelling overland must come from the North (Georgia - see below) and return the same way. For this reason perhaps, Armenia sees far less tourists than Georgia (that can be easily accessed from Turkey) and Azerbaijan (a dirty word to many Armenians).

    GeorgiaYet the country offers almost as much as its Caucasian neighbours in the way of remote churches, wine growing, great food and friendly, smart locals. On paper at least, Armenia is fascinating - the world's oldest Christian country and a claimed decent from Noah's grandson. Spread across the world, Armenians have had it tough.

    Yerevan is a welcoming place (by CIS standards) with a few good (one great) hostels that organise 'traveller friendly' tours to parts of the country that without your own transportation are tough to get to. Leaving Yerevan heading perhaps to Lake Sevan, the Khor Virap monastery, the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh or Dilijan is pretty simple and distances are not short. However, on the whole, as fascinating as the country is, there is little to really occupy your time other than non-descript Soviet style towns and the odd (remote) ancient church. Although there are many other sights of a random nature to be discovered, it is fair to say that there is more to see and do, with a better tourist infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Yerevan (which, after Tbilisi may disappoint) with its breathtaking views of Mount Ararat (pictured) and near-by churches/monasteries is well worth while a few days. Plus a few days to see a couple of other sights around the country (perhaps on a tour organised by one of the hostels in Yerevan) would not be a waste of time. However, over and above this - unless you are very long on time and money - resources would be perhaps better spent else where in the Caucasus or in Eastern Turkey/Iran.

Views of Mount Ararat (pictured) from Yerevan and nearby churches and monasteries.
Being a little bit off the beaten track and spending time with locals. Finding out more about the country's rich history and tragic past.

Away from the capital (regardless of what the LP says) towns are dull, generally lacking in accommodation and with little to see and do. Dilijan, Vanadzor and Sevan being perfect examples. Their peers in neighbouring countries have much more on offer.

  • Visa strategy: Unlike Georgia, most visitors require a visa, but it is not expensive and can be bought either at most borders/international airport or on-line (and printed) before hand.

  • Typical tourist trail: Yerevan and surrounding areas on daytrips and back-to or onward to Georgia with stops at at Dilijan or Sevan.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: As with Turkey and the rest of the region - both extremes from freezing to boiling. However, now power problems are consigned to history, a visit in the winter is possible.

  • Getting around: Buses run to most places and private mini-vans (marshrutny) and shared taxis to where buses don't. The system is pretty easy to figure out once someone helps you to be in the right bus/taxi station. To get to churches and tourist attractions you will probably have to hire a taxi on your own or join one of the tours (such as the ones the Envoy Hostel in Yerevan organises).

    A train runs from Yerevan to Gyumri, but is little use unless you want to take it all the way to Tbilisi (overnight).

  • Tourist factor: Pretty limited and the better hostel accommodation can get booked out during in the summer months by religious or volunteer groups.

  • Guide Book: The LP ‘Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan’ has an okay Armenia section, but it does tend in true LP style to overrate many attractions for want of 'selling' the country as a destination. However there is little other choice. Bradt does have some Armenia coverage, but it is a similar quality in a country where a lot has changed fast.

  • Communications: Plenty of internet in Yerevan, with Wi-Fi in hostels and some cafes. Outside Yerevan, internet is slow and a struggle to track down.

People seem quite keen to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, probably quite simply because it is a recent conflict zone.

This disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the result of a 1989 war and is the cause of on-going hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is also the hottest topic (along with Turkeys Genocide denial) in Armenia. A de facto independent state, what you read about Karabakh will depend mainly on who has written it. Thousands have been displaced and killed. Minor armed conflicts (and deaths) still break the current ceasefire from time to time - this is one of the world's 'hot zones' and parts are heavily landmines.

Still with a permit - easy to get hold of in Yerevan - access is pretty simple and the region is not totally void of 'normal' attractions, such as ancient churches. Although these attractions are of limited 'real' interest, many travellers are clearly attracted by the 'quasi'-danger and excitement.

Obviously: check the current situation and your country's advisory website before you travel.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Some Armenians can be infectiously enthusiastic about their country and overly friendly, however unless off the beaten track, it is hard to say locals are as welcoming and friendly as Georgia. Certainly the homestays are not a patch on their equivalents in Georgia.

    • Other travellers: As per Georgia (summarised below), but in far reduced numbers. Normally Canadians, Australian/New Zealand and a few Europeans who can be bothered to make it this far (where Europe runs out).

  • Accommodation: Like in Georgia, cheap accommodation (and often any accommodation) means staying in someone's home where pricing is per person and normally includes a meal or two. Yerevan has several hostels include the Envoy hostel, which despite average rooms and facilities does a great job to help travellers with friendly English speaking staff, well organised tours (which really are a must in order to see many parts of the country quickly, cheaply and without your own car) and various events - recommended and an example that hopefully can be followed throughout the rest of the CIS.

    • Hot water: Not an issue, but many buildings are not really appropriately built for the coldest parts of winter or the hottest time of summer.

    • Average cost: About 50-60USD for a pretty basic double in Yerevan (even in a hostel or homestays!), dorms are a little cheaper. Outside the capital prices drop, but accommodation is surprisingly expensive and a shock to many.

    * Rating: 5/10

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  • GeorgiaIntro: Famous as the birthplace of Stalin, where Jason came looking for a Golden Fleece, and as one of the earliest Christian nations. Until recently, little else was known of this former Soviet Republic. All that changed with the ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2004, which brought pro-West President Sakaashvili to power, and then the war over South Ossetia in August 2008. However, such dramatic events tend to cloud the reality of this most beautiful of countries – as a travel destination, Georgia is hard to beat.

    It's small (Ireland sized), but with incredible variety in landscapes, with the towering and mysterious Caucasus Mountains in the north, vineyards, sub-tropical forests and even patches of semi-desert in the lowlands – the scenery is never less than dramatic. It's cheap by European standards. The people are incredibly hospitable and passionate, with a real passion for life. The food isn't bad, the drink is great, and although other travellers can certainly be found in a couple of busy locations, getting off the beaten track is as easy as it is rewarding.

RecommendedTo top it all off, the weird old Soviet influence and atmosphere still lingers, despite the country's new Western orientation, providing that culture shock and even hint of danger (but nothing more) that makes travelling worth while.

The mountains, especially Svaneti and Tusheti, and the valleys leading off from the military highway on the way to Kazbegi – walking in pristine fairy-tale valleys, experiencing random vodka-fuelled Georgian hospitality. Wine-tasting in Kakheti (Signagi region). The character of Tbilisi, and the weirdness of Batumi.

Language barrier can be tiresome, although more and more young people speak English. The lack of Western-style facilities outside Tbilisi might put off some travellers. Long Marshrutka rides are rarely comfortable.



 

  • Visa strategy: Not needed for most Western passport holders, who get a free entry stamp on arrival at any entry point. Australian and New Zealand citizens need a visa, which is available at the airport or at road crossings (but not rail) for about €30.

  • Typical tourist trail: Enter from Turkey at Batumi, on to Tbilisi with day trips to Gori (for the Stalin Museum) and Davit Gareja (old Monastery), up to Kazbegi and back, and then on to Armenia or Azerbaijan.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Extremes – freezing in winter, Tbilisi and the lowlands are baking hot at the height of the summer. In the mountains things are cooler, and summer is the perfect time to wander the Caucasus. Note that access to Tusheti is limited to the summer months as the road is impassable for the rest of the year. It may not open until July.

  • Getting around: Meet the ‘Marshrutka’, and learn to love it! These Soviet minibuses cover all the major routes, and connect most of the mountain towns (with the exception of Tusheti). They are typically dark, crowded, and uncomfortable, and often in poor condition. On the plus side, they’re cheap, fast, and go everywhere.

    There are trains running West/East connecting Batumi with Tbilisi, and also from Tbilisi to Armenia. Normal buses, slightly more expensive than Marshrutkas, also travel the main highways. In the mountains, you may need to hire an old Soviet ‘Niva’ 4wd - they can be decent value if you can find 3 other travellers to share with, and are the only way to travel between Mestia and Ushguli in Svaneti (apart from walking), and to get to Tusheti (except standing in the back of a truck).

    In Tbilisi, there is a very useful and efficient Metro system connecting the main bus and marshrutka stations, the train station, the main hostel neighbourhood (‘Marijanishvili’), and the centre (‘Rustaveli’). Taxis are cheap and the drivers generally honest.

  • Tourist factor: In Tbilisi and Kazbegi, you’ll really notice the tourist crowds in the summer months. This may also be true of Svaneti and even a remote, but compact place like Tusheti at the height of the summer. But often you'll find yourself the only foreigner in sight, and even in crowded Kazbegi, it's not difficult to wander off away from the crowds. 5/10

  • Guide Book: GeorgiaThe LP ‘Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan’ has a decent Georgia section, although limited. The Bradt ‘Georgia’ guide has far more detail. However, the most important book to get, if you’re planning on doing any walking in the mountains, is Peter Nasmyth's 'Walking in the Caucasus', covering all the popular, and many obscure, walks all over the country. With this book, you'll be the envy of all the other travellers you meet, and won't need to bother hiring a guide on any of the routes detailed.

  • Communications: Outside Tbilisi, internet can be slow, although it's readily available outside the mountain regions. You may find internet in Kazbegi, and even in Mestia if you ask your family. SIM cards for your mobile are cheap, easy to use, and a good way to keep in contact with home.

  • Health: Georgian food, coupled with excessive alcohol consumption, does not make for a healthy lifestyle. No other major issues.

Georgia

The highlight of any trip to Georgia is walking in the Caucasus Mountains. Heading north from Tbilisi, Kutaisi or Telavi over the mountain passes brings you to a region of high pastures and green meadow valleys, backed by pristine forest and snow-capped peaks. Kazbegi is the most accessible, being only 3 hours drive from Tbilisi. Svaneti is probably the most beautiful, and takes a long days journey from Tbilisi or Batumi. Tusheti and the Shatili area are the least developed and wildest areas. Bring a tent and stove if you’re planning on multi-day treks, although there are often villages along the trails, where someone may be able to give you a bed for the night. In Tusheti, where the Christian influence is minimal, some old Pagan practices still endure.

Get a copy of Peter Nasmyth's ‘Walking in the Caucsus’, put on your hiking boots, and set off. There are many, many walks, ranging from easy day-hikes to 2 week treks. The most popular areas are the Kazbegi and Svaneti regions. More remote, off-the-beaten-track walks would take in Tusheti, the area around Shatili, and Borjomi region in the lesser Caucasus. One example of a fairly popular multi-trek would be the walk from Tusheti to Kazbegi, via Shatili, crossing some of the highest passes in Georgia.

Due to the Russian 'invasion' in 2008, the world became quite familiar with certain Georgian place names and regions and unfortunately the country picked up a reputation for being particularly dangerous that unfortunately has certainly put many travellers off visiting.

Concerning staying away from Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the war in August 2008 was the culmination of years of tensions over these disputed regions, tensions that remain. It's unlikely you’ll be granted permission to enter from Georgia anyway, although some travellers do report being granted special permits.

Away from these two regions, there are no major dangers in Georgia. Svaneti used to have a bad reputation for banditry, but this has largely ended since a major police operation in 2004, and the region is now as safe as anywhere else.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Despite some Soviet style welcomes in the cities, Georgians are generally an incredibly hospitable and welcoming people, with a terrific sense of humour and fun. In the mountains, be prepared for random vodka and wine sessions. Most Georgians can speak Russian without any difficulties, and more young people are learning English. Learning a few words of basic Georgian will be much appreciated – particularly important is ‘Gaumarjos!’ (Cheers!).

    • Other travellers: Lots of  Russians (whom have started to return after recent tensions) Eastern Europeans (mainly Poles, Czechs and Hungarians, Ukrainians but also Slovaks, travellers from the Baltics, and even the Balkans), a few Israelis, and a scattering from Western Europe, North America and Australian/New Zealand. Generally a more mature bunch than you find in certain parts of Asia – the major places to meet other travellers are in the Tbilisi hostels, and Kazbegi.

  • GeorgiaAccommodation: Cheap accommodation in Georgia means staying in someone's home. In the mountains, the price per night will include one or two hearty meals. In Tbilisi, the homestays have evolved almost to the standard of European style youth hostels, and the dorms can be very crowded in the peak summer months.

    • Hot water: Can be a problem in the mountains. Your new family may have to boil water over a fire for you.

    • Average cost: All quoted per person - mountain homestays in Svaneti/Kazbegi €10-€25 including meals. €30-€40 in Tusheti. In Tbilisi, a dorm bed will cost €10-€15, while a hotel room will be around €35-€50.

  • Food: Travellers are divided over Georgian cuisine. It's certainly hearty and filling, and in homestays, the portions can be huge and never-ending. The two main dishes you’ll come across are 'Khachapuri' (a bread and cheese combo that comes in dozens of variations), and 'Khinkali' (meat or veg filled dumplings). Many tire of these two quickly – there are international restaurants in Tbilisi but few elsewhere. In homestays you’ll be served variations on the two above, plus meaty stews, pasta, soup, etc. You certainly won't go hungry.

    • Vegetarians: Should be ok – many dishes contain no meat at all.

  • WineHassle and annoyance factor: None of the scams or hassle of say, India and Morocco, or even the less visited Asian countries. The main annoyance can be over-enthusiastic vodka toasting.

    • Women alone: Similar to Eastern Europe, no major hassles – there is certainly a ‘macho’ element to the culture, but women play a major role in all walks of life in Georgia, and dress rather provocatively in Tbilisi. The more remote the region, the more traditional the attitudes.

  • Local poisons for the body: There is a significant drinking culture in Georgia which may or may not be a legacy of Russian/Soviet rule. As a tourist it can be difficult to avoid it. And why would you want to?! Your best bet is to throw yourself into it. In the mountains, vodka or wine toasts are unavoidable. If you can't continue, make your excuses as politely as possible. There is certain etiquette to toasting, which can be a far more formal procedure than in other cultures.

    Georgian wine is very good – it is produced in Kakheti in eastern Georgia, where a great day can be spent wine-tasting at different breweries. Your homestay in Telavi or Signagi should be able to arrange it for you. Watch out for the almost toxic ‘Cha-cha’ in Kakheti and Tusheti – locals like a toast before breakfast!

    * Rating: 7/10

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* Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

  • DistancesIntro: Probably the most amazing thing about Kazakhstan is that a country this big (the 9th largest) can have so little of traveller interest, be so impractical to travel within and be so expensive (compared to its peers). Whatever the mystic surrounding the name and claim to fame that 'Borat' brought with it, Kazakhstan, although having some of the more cosmopolitan cities in the region is mainly grass, scrub and ragged steppe-landscape.

    Kazakhstan MapMost travellers that find themselves in Kazakhstan do so in Almaty in the far south of the country, the one-time capital (now the capital is Astana in the wind swept centre of the country), which is a likable city with excellent transport connections, good food, green parks and mountain vistas with nearby skiing. Although it is no Moscow and it (along side Astana) lacks any reasonably priced accommodation and with nothing much to do, budget travellers on a shoestring need to be aware and hot foot it the three hours by car (or 2-3 days by foot over the mountains) to Kyrgyzstan. Those who do aim to explore the rest of the country find Soviet cities buried in concrete and isolation and Silk Road cities with little remaining antiquity. It is around Almaty where the main attractions lie, but none which put anything in friendlier, cheaper Kyrgyzstan to shame.

    Although whatever your impression of Kazakhstan, never share anything even slightly negative with a Kazakh - since they are fiercely proud!

    • Highlights: Almaty and the mountains along the Kyrgyz border.

    • Lowlights: Climate, distances and getting around. Plus lack of cheap beds and lack of anything really!

  • Visa strategy: A visa for Kazakhstan is now relatively easy and no invitation letter is needed for most. Visas on arrival are starting to happen for some nationalities, but as with all CIS countries, visas are not cheap. A transit visa is the cheaper option. It should be noted that if you travel from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) by land on the fastest and most direct route (other way is via Osh or airplane) you transit a part of Kazakhstan and thus would need a double entry visa for this part of a Central Asian grand tour. The country is experimenting with visa free entry for some developed countries with the aim to boast tourism.

  • Getting around: Buses and/or trains connect major cities  and for shorter trips shared taxis and mini-buses are common. Which a country this size as you would expect journeys are long and not always fun, which means a good air-network is in place, although it is far from excellent value

  • Costs: Kazakhstan is not a cheap country mainly because of years of high inflation and the lack of cheap accommodation. Other travel items are reasonable but much of the country is run down with prices run up.

  • Money: There are plenty of ATMs in major cities and USD and EURO cash change at every turn.

  • Guide book: Lonely Planet, Central Asia always popular. Bradt another better more detailed option.

  • Tourist factor: Kazakhstan has little tourist appeal and you won't see many tourists, rather business travellers.

C E-mailed comment: There is plenty of stuff to see in Kazakhstan (as with every other country it depends on what you are interested in), but since the tourist industry is hardly developed here (which I recognize as one of the best things with the Stans) you need to invest some time into research before you go. In general when travelling in the CIS you should try to acquire basic knowledge about the Soviet-period and the history before you arrive. You should also try to obtain a certain understanding of Central Asian way of living before you come, so the fact that luxury hotels won't come at 10 USD cost will be less shocking. On the other hand, you will be amazed by the friendliness and tolerance of the average central-Asian. They will invite you home and offer you more consideration, hospitality and food than any hotel can. Without at most basic Russian vocabulary, everything gets more complicated, though, but it won't take much time learning enough to get you around. It's well worth it, as Central Asia certainly is one of the few places that still offers something truly different, which is why I travel here. - Sian O'Hara

  • People vibe: You will be forgiven for wondering what a typical Kazakh looks like, with seemly half the population looking ethically Slavic (Russia) and the other hard with tanned skin, Asian features looking like they might have walked of the Tibeten plateau. Of course ethnic Kazkhs will have Asian features and those with Slavic features and overly Asian features have relocated to Kazakhstan normally through repression in their own native countries.

    • Locals: If you know a little Russian Kazakhs are friendly enough, but being closer to Russia shows and through typical traveller contact you will find far more friendly Tajiks, Uzbez and notably Kygrizts.

    • Other travellers: Few and far between, most you will meet have some connection (business) to Kazakhstan or will be touring the region with a stop in Almaty.

  • Kazakhstan MapAccommodation: Kazakhstan suffers a serve shortage of cheap accommodation and in major towns such as Almaty and Astana what is available at the lower end is clearly aimed at business travellers and is priced at a level similar to Europe/North America. A boom in hotel building has definitely been centred at the top end. Some cities have cheap dorms (komnaty otdykha or rest room) these are normally at the train station or nearby and are not very traveller friendly. If you are staying less than 12 hours in the room or checking in late and out early always ask for a discount for 'pol-sutki'.

  • Communications: You will find plenty of internet cafes in Almaty and Astana and other towns with a student population, but connections are not always great and places are not easy to find (typically Kazakh businesses like to hide themselves away). You can make international calls at the 'call offices' signed 'Peregovorny Punkt' or from street phones. Or much cheaper with a calling card (such as Luxtelcom card or Nursat-i-card), but not from a public phone where they don't work. Almost everyone has a mobile phone and buying your own pay-as-you-go SIM card is the best bet if you plan to make and receive calls with regularity.

  • Food: In Astana and notably Almaty you will find the most international cuisine and best choice in the region, but at a price. For the rest it is typical Russian/international(fast food)/Kazakh food which suffers slightly from the Russian problem of either when cheap, too basic and daunting or when better and more user friendly being pretty expensive in restaurants. A notable exception are set business lunch menus you can find in many city restaurants where you get a soap, salad, main course and dessert for reasonable price (know as biznes lanch or kompleksny obed) You will find some Asian dishes, plenty of Plov and in the north Russian dishes. All national dishes as elsewhere in the region lend heavily on meat with horse meet being a particular favourite.

    • Vegetarians: Not the best, but you will survive, especially in Almaty or Astana and with salads/bread.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: None

    • Women alone: No real problem, but some Russian would be a big help.

    * Rating:4/10

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  • Kazakhstan MapIntro: Kyrgyzstan is without a doubt the highlight of Central Asia and one of a continually dwindling number of countries which could still be considered as little known traveller gems. Apart from being the most friendly and accessible Central Asian nation, it is also the most compact and accessible, but at the same time is remote and spectacular. As with the rest of the region, those expecting anything akin to South East Asia or South America in terms of traveller geared infrastructure, will be very disappointed, but adventurers will be in paradise with spectacular high altitude lakes, 6000m mountains and highland grasslands dotted with yurts and wild nomads happy to greet you. Accommodation is cheap, visas easy, there is no authoritarian government or hassle and the people are among the worlds most hospitable.

    It should be noted that the infrastructure will mean you will need to take it slowly and trying to get anywhere fast will leave you frustrated. Equally to get to some of the less visited areas, public transport is almost non-existent (believe it or not there is no public (bus) transport between the country's two main cities ), but shared taxis can get you many places - for the rest, like in Tajikistan you will have to splash out for a private car. Also worth remembering that almost 90% of the country is mountainous with scraggy valleys, gorges, ice-blue lakes and a fierce winter covering most of it in deep snow. Gorgeous pastures and breathtaking hikes are not so great when covered in five meters of snow!

    Remote, yet accessible with a budding cottage tourism industry, Kyrgyzstan stands out in Central Asia and indeed as one of the world's highlights.

    • Highlights: Yurt dotted grass lands, Lake Issyk-kul - walking in nearby mountains. Getting a little off the beaten track and taking in the amazing scenery at every turn that remains unspoilt. And of course the famed Kyrgyz hospitality.

    • Lowlights: Limited public transport and a requirement to have time on your side. Although a lot of the country is accessible it is only at certain times of the year with much hassle getting to some (read: most) locations.

  • Visa strategy: By far the easiest visa in the Stans. Kyrgyz embassies issue 30day tourist visas and cheaper transit visas (both with fixed dates) without an invitation letter to most developed nation nationals and will issue visas at the international airport. Visa extensions are also easy and fast in Karakol, Osh, Naryn or Bishkek.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Kyrgyzstan's attractions are essentially its mountains and lakes which become VERY hard to reach during the winter. Despite the blasting heat in the Fergana valley and neighbouring Uzbekistan you might be on your way to/from, summer (early to mid) is the best time to visit. For Issyk Kul this is peak season with high prices and crowds, but the only time the water is swimmable. Summer is also the season for the thousands of yurts that pop up around the country and the best time to see/experience what makes the country famous. Autumn is okay for hill walks, but you will see a dusting of snow on hills and can forget about any serious hikes.

  • Guide book: Bradt produce a very comprehensive Kyrgyzstan guide with ample details on hiking and off-the-beaten track destinations, but most settle for a basic, but adequate chapter in the Lonely Planet: Central Asia.

  • Getting around: Transportation is more time consuming than problematic and does depend on seasons. This is after all a country where there is no bus or train service between the two major cities (Bishkek and Osh). Lack of public buses (which do serve Issyk-kul and Karakol relatively well) is made up by a good network of shared taxis that at the right time have frequent departures and are good value.

    If you are looking to go somewhere more interesting your only option might be to negotiate the hire of one of these taxis for a day or two. This can be difficult without basic Russian and also fairly expensive, normally worked on a per km basis. The various tourist information offices can help you getting transport and so can a few of the traveller geared guesthouses. If short on time or looking to get somewhere well off the beaten track where a 4x4 might be needed, the cost will be similar to hire, fuel and self-drive in Western Europe and not in keeping with otherwise bargain basement daily costs.

Without any doubt for those adventurous enough and with the time to spare, Central Asia is one of the world's best trekking destinations. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular are the créme de la créme. For all trekking you will need a tour and/or your own gear (there are no Nepal style teahouses here, but you can rent kit in Karakol and Bishkek (of course it won't be the world's best kit)). Such tours are easiest found in Kyrgyzstan and certainly the cheapest. Traveller friendly guesthouse in Karakol and the CBT (see accommodation) are good starting points.

One thing is for sure, the best season is June to September, with high altitude being only possible in July or August (although lower areas can be roasting during these months). Most trekking is permit free unless close to the Chinese border (although that is more serious mountaineering ground than hiking). The best, most popular and easiest areas would be (in no particular order):

  • Around Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) - the Terskey Alatau range rises up behind Karakol offering a taste of the spectacular Tian Shan. There are loads of options from a few days to over a week, with alpine lakes/meadows and high passes.

  • From Almaty to Issyk Kul Lake (Kyrgyzstan). A three to five day walk over the mountains that lie to the South of Almaty to beautiful Issyk Kul (where you will need to find somewhere to get your passport stamped).

  • Anywhere immediately south of Bishkek.

  • The Fann Mountains (Tajikistan). The Fannsky Gory although located within Tajikistan are actually better accessed from Uzbekistan (Samarkand). This is the best of the best for many, although its location on a border means you must have a Tajik visa and a double entry Uzbek one. It is also tricky to arrange everything yourself and is certainly not for casual hikers.

  • Money: You will find banks and ATMs (some of which dispense USDs) in at least the three major towns of: Karakol, Osh and Bishkek. If heading to Uzbekistan and you find an ATM that dishes out USD notes (there is one in Osh) - stock up.

  • Costs: Kyrgyzstan is notably cheaper than Kazakhstan and similar to Uzbekistan. It is the difference in accommodation costs that you notice most over Kazakhstan. However despite probably being the cheapest country in the region getting places can be an issue with public/shared transport only running to major towns. Getting more into the wilderness or anywhere in a hurry will need hiring your own transport and that will be expensive.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: You will find Kyrgyz all over Central Asia and they are without a doubt the friendliest, most welcoming and open to foreigners of all the Central Asian nationalities.

    • Other travellers: More and more travellers have started to discover Kyrgyzstan, most of those you meet will be older than the typical backpacker and from central Europe or North America.

  • Tourist factor: Not something you have to worry about just yet! Although there is a steady stream of travellers, they are far from 'youth backpackers' in the traditional sense, rather those going to hike, climb or mountain bike.

  • Accommodation: Within cities, Soviet style hotels dominate the choices, although some traveller geared mid-range places are starting to open up geared at adventure tour groups, and generally you can find smaller family owned guesthouses which have become the most popular traveller choice since many help with travel arrangements.

    Outside of urban areas homestays are the best (usually only) option. Many of these are operated by the CBT program - see below.

    CBT, which stands for Community Based Tourism, is the innovation of several grass-roots organisations and is cheap and well organised. These make accessing Kyrgyz culture and getting in with the locals ridiculously easy. The CBT and others offer a network of transport plus guides (if you need them) and families willing to have guests in a village, summer meadow settlement or Yurt.

    All accommodation includes breakfast and you can always find other meals; the standard is fine. Rates per night are cheap, so is (generally) horse hire. Drivers to get to the places are also not too expensive, however vehicle hire, which is normally priced per km and will depend on the current price of fuel, can be expensive if going far.

    You'll find CBT or similar agencies in most towns (Arslanbob, Bishkek, Jalal-Abad, Karakol, Kochkor, Naryn), track a office down and they will give you the choices and prices (in English!). Pay-up and all is arranged. This is the easiest and best way to stay in a Yurt and/or ride a horse on a spectacular summer pasture or elsewhere in the country.

    The CBT can also arrange numerous other tours, but having numbers on your side is always important to keep the price per head to an affordable level.

    Kyrgyz FlagIf you find yourself in a Yurt or better still sleeping the night in one, look up at the sky through the hole in the roof and the image on the national flag will look familiar!

The Torugart pass which is a main crossing point between Northern Asia (China: Kashgar) and Central Asia (Naryn and beyond), is well-known in traveller circles. One for being somewhat of an elite destination and two for its unpredictability as a border post.

It is quite simply the Chinese that make it so unpredictable and such a pain. Although this might (hopefully) change, China classifies the pass as a 'Class 2' region/crossing - which basically means there are special regulations for foreigners. Whether this is for security reasons or just to milk travellers you can figure out for yourself. In practical terms, you are not allowed on any public transport which covers the route and need to make private arrangements - essentially making sure all travel within China is in pre-arranged private transport. If coming from Kyrgyzstan the border officials often want confirmation of onward transport in China (which normally comes from Kashgar).

The Torugart is normally snow free from May to September and is theoretically open all year (unlike the KKH into Southern Asia and the near-by Irkeshtam). You need to cross when customs are open, and as per above have transport ready on the Chinese side. Note, there is a no-man's land between Kyrgyzstan and China which you are not allowed to walk, therefore you will need transport across it, which only drivers with a special permit can provide. Normally the Chinese border post lets the Kyrgyz side know when your transport is ready so you can cross.

Basically all this boils down to the fact that either coming from or going to China you need a tour/agency. Firstly to provide a car, secondly to get across the no-mans land and thirdly to get everything arranged on the Chinese side (although you normally pay the Chinese driver separately when across the border). If you are by yourself this will be very expensive. If you can get a group of four or so together it will still be expensive, but at least much more affordable. In Kyrgyzstan the best info comes from the CBT and other agencies and in China (Kashgar) from John's Information Cafe and the Caravan Cafe, where you will always see notes from people looking to share the cost of transport.

Although the Torugart holds all the fame, the Irkeshtam pass which opened in May 2002 to international traffic is much easier and cheaper. This trip you can arrange out of Osh (Osh guesthouse has a regular summer car, or there is a bus you can take). On the Chinese side you can take a shared taxi to Kashgar. The road is sealed and unlike the Torugart there are no permits or bullshit. It is also massively cheaper.

  • Communications: There are a few internet places in Karakol, Osh and Bishkek, but aside from Bishkek these need really hunting out. Normally the slightly more upmarket backpacker geared accommodation option will have good-ish internet.

  • Food: In main towns there are always a few places where you can get something a little familiar and Bishkek has several cafe/restaurants clearly aimed at travellers/ex-pats. Away from major towns at yurt stays you will be catered for and families are normally mindful of western sensitivity to items like sheep's heads/eyes. Fish can be found if near a lake. Aside from this, anywhere with a population or through traffic normally has some terrible looking fast food, plov or seasonal products/specialties on offer (horse milk being found everywhere at certain times of the year).

    • Vegetarians: At face value, not perfect for vegetarians, but you can make do if not over sensitive.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: None of any note.

    • Women alone: Common sense rules apply, but no stand out issues.

  • Local poisons for the body: Like all Central Asians, Kyrgyz are big drinkers, but time and chance will dictate if you are exposed to a real booze up.

    * Rating: 8/10

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Turkmenistan Map Turkmenistan has to be one of the most unknown countries in the world.

The place gets something like five times fewer travellers than North Korea! Once part of the Soviet Union, and a huge natural gas producer, it remained relatively closed off after the breakup.

It is like no other country you may have visited and one that currently has no interest in attracting visitors, so getting in and around is not easy. You will enjoy time there, but perhaps won't jump at the chance to go back.

Ashgabat (the capital) and its architecture - with the Guinness book of records entry for the most marble buildings and the world's biggest importer of Italian marble. Big wide beautiful streets with amazing buildings and monuments everywhere you look. The education ministry is shaped like a book, the gas ministry is shaped like a lighter. Huge monument to independence with a statue of the old President Turkmenbashi on top. It used to turn to face the sun.

The Darvaza gas craters in the Karakum desert - 'Gateway to hell'. There are many stories of how they got there but the main one is the USSR was drilling for gas in the 1960's and the ground collapsed and now the main one is about 80 meters across. It was lit on fire and has burned ever since so is a huge burning crater in the middle of the desert.

There are many ancient silk road sites but get to many is problematic and not are as spectacular as the best that Uzbekistan has to offer. The main one is Mary.

Visa requirements and the cost involved in securing the visa, restricted travel and/or having to rush though on a transit visa.

  • VisaVisa strategy: Independent travel is possible by visiting without a group tour, but you will still need to arrange through an agency a guide to stay with you the whole time. His/Her salary, hotel and travel costs you will need to cover. Otherwise you need to take the transit visa route which will be much easier to arrange, but will require visas for exit/entry countries in your passport and a fast (sometimes restrictive) route through the country. This is the most common way the country is visited.

    Depending on how you travel you may be responsible for your own registartion, even when staying at hotels.

    Travel permits are required for many border regions. You do not need a travel permit for Ashgabat, Merv, Turkmenabat and Balkanabat (normal destinations).

    Transit visas only allow you to travel along the main roads on your way to the next country on your itinerary.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Locals are interesting, however few speak any English. The ones that do are friendly, but untrusting of outsiders (as the culture dictates) - a hang over from the USSR.

      Getting on the wrong side of the police or any official is the big no-no. There is no arguing! Even guides will be worried about them. Make sure you know if you can take photos of a building before you do. Note, police are not always in uniform.

    • Other travellers: Mostly overlanders driving their own vehicles on transit through the country or are part of an overland tour group. But you won't see many other travellers at all

  • Tourist factor: 3/10

    It is not touristy at all. And getting off the beaten track is only allowed if your visa allows it. Outside of Ashgabat the population is thin in a country of wide open [desert] spaces. There is not much of anything, so finding yourself with no one around is easy.

  • Accommodation and Internet: Hotels are a reasonable standard. Internet is controlled and slow.

  • Typical tourist trail: Most come to or from Iran to Uzbekistan, taking in Ashgabat the the desert and out/in at the border next to Konya-Urgench. It is possible to enter by air or from Azerbaijan by ferry (and travel east across the country to Ashgabat - a tough journey). Many go east to Mary and then thru into Uzbekistan from there.

  • Hot/Cold, Wet and Dry: It gets very hot in Turkmenistan, esp in the desert. July and August is extremely hot and dry and winter can get cold with snow in the north. It is the hottest country in central asia. Best time to go is either side of summer. April to June or September to November.

  • Money: Cash is king. Take all you need in cash. The exchange rate is fixed. You can change at currency exchange places in Ashgabat and most towns.

  • Costs: Similar to Azerbjan, super cheap in places, but can get expensive to Europe standards in others. The cost of your whole trip will be most influnced by the structure of your visa.

    Hotels are expensive - about US$60 a night for a double. Rumour has it all hotel rooms are bugged! Food and drink is not to expensive. A meal and a beer is about $12. Fuel as you would expect is very cheap, about 20c a litre for diesel. Gas is almost free!

  • Getting around:
    Air - Internal flights make life much easier and are possible on Turkmenistan Airlines daily to Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi and Dashoguz. Flights are amazing value, but sometimes subject to foreigner pricing and tour agencies will often charge high premiums. If you can get hold of the subsidised fares you are crazy to go overland. As with Iran, flying around the country is the best option and great value.

    Train - There are rail connections through out the country, but they are slow and uncomfortable. Go with bus, or better still fly. The train to/from Turkmenbashi is well known (not in a good way).
    Bus - Decent services connect most cities, but if you want to get to out of the way attraction you need to be on a tour or have your own transport.

For many whom don't want to (or can't) transit via Iran, the ferry to Baku is an appealing option. In reality it is anything other than appealing. Much discussed in traveller circles and a badge of honour, the crossing is across the Caspian Sea from/to Baku, Azerbaijan, from/to the port of Turkmenbashi in Western Turkmenistan.

Approach this route with care for a number of reasons.

Firstly Turkmenbashi is a long way from Ashgabat and the rest of the country's attractions.

Secondly, these 'ferries' are in fact cargo ships that take on some passengers incidental to their primary function. You probably won't get much food or water and sleeping plus other facilities are lacking in comfort (to say the least).

Crossing can be rough and normally is.

It is also the case that ships arriving at Turkmenbashi often wait days in order to find a place to berth, so you can hear stories of travelers spending a good deal of time waiting offshore (with low food/water and a visa about to expire!). If entering Turkmenistan by boat are discouraged from using transit visas. Moreover, be prepared for your journey.

Many thanks to Malcolm for supplying this summary.

  • Food: Some good, cheap food

    • Vegetarians: You will find something, but like in the rest of Central Asia the concept is not well understood.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: None, although truly independent travels can run into issues with police and those looking for bribes. You do need to be unlucky and really somewhere off the main-drag to have a problem in this respect.

* Rating: 4/10

Many thanks to Malcolm.
If you want an easy country to travel in or even and easy Central Asian country - Turkmenistan is not a good choice. Pick Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. If you are in love with getting where few do, and don't want to see many other travellers - this is your place! Ashgabat, in particular is as a capital like no where else on earth.

It is not easy to travel without transport here, I would go on an organised trip with a guide and you will get a lot more out of it. People are untrusting of locals so will not jump at the chance to help you.

Tourist country 3/10 - Closed off different country 8/10.

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  • Intro: If your primary interest in Central Asia is in the cities and not the landscape, Uzbekistan, the hub of Central Asia, holds the big tourist draw cards of the region and the most evocative place names. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are three places that anyone with any interest in Islamic architecture, the Silk Roads or, indeed, history in general will want to see; these names conjure up the magic of the region, and Uzbekistan is regarded as the heart of Central Asia. With the big draw cards does, however, come the highest concentration of tourist in the region (although tourist numbers are, in any case, still not high, as Central Asia is one of the least touristed areas of the world) and one of the only places in the region in which you will often see western and Japanese faces (although a lot of the western-looking people you see will, in fact, be Russians who have lived in the region since Soviet times). Nevertheless no visit to the region would be complete without a photo opportunity at the Registan in Samarkand dubbed 'Central Asia's Taj Mahal'.

    It is, however, worth noting that, other than the big three of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (which are set in barren landscapes) there is little of great obvious interest to the average traveller, with the vast Kyzylkum desert in the central region of the country and the agricultural bowl that is the Fergana valley in the east swallowing up nondescript cities that may-or-may-not be listed on your visa. Nevertheless, for especially adventurous or interested travellers, there are other places worth visiting, for example, the Aral Sea in the north (or at least one half of what is left), which has a fascinating story, but is not easy (under-statement) for any casual travellers to catch a glimpse of. It is located in the Republic of Karakalpakstan (a semi-autonomous region within Uzbekistan), which isn't much fun, but has, in its capital Nukus, a museum with an excellent collection of avant-garde Russian and Soviet art of the early 20th century, which is a treasure worth seeking out, if only for the sheer difference from what you will see during the rest of your travels in the country. For people who are attracted to bleak and barren landscapes, the 2-day drive by jeep to see the Aral Sea is just for you, although you may have to pay as much as US$300 to get there and endure the company of a driver who speaks every language under the sun except the one that you (as an English-speaker) speak.

UzbekistanIt is worth mentioning that aside from running into unexpected crowds in relatively small and over-'resorted' towns like Khiva, Uzbekistan has several other downsides when compared to some of its neighbours. First, summer temperatures are almost furnace-like, making winter travel far more comfortable, and, secondly, anyone with any basic knowledge of current affairs will know that Uzbekistan is somewhat of an overzealous police state where checks are fairly common by less than friendly police and military.

Equally, visa/travel regulations are fairly strict and, while still a hospitable people, Uzbeks are on the whole far less friendly than some of their neighbours. The travel situation does, however, relax every year and travel now can be almost free of hassle when on the beaten track (whereas five to ten years back it was almost guaranteed you'd get some hassle somewhere), but things can still turn sour for the adventurous who stray far from the main travel routes since encounters with police can be nerve-rackingly unpredictable.

As Uzbekistan is firmly off the beaten track, single travellers should also be prepared for periods of solitude if travelling for a long period of time [away from the obvious tourist trail of Samarkand-Bukhara-Kivain] as foreign languages like English are not widely spoken, and it can get tiresome speaking in sign language with locals.

  • Highlights: Samarkand , Bukhara, Khiva and the Aral Sea. Interesting people, history, culture and landscape. Delicious bread and fruits and interesting bazaars.

  • Lowlights: Not as bad as some guidebooks like to make out, but police hassle is an issue, as are visa regulations, the summer heat and up-scale tours in main tourist destinations in a corner of the world you might expect to be quiet. Such a concentration of older and more 'well-heeled' tourists in places like Samarkand and Khiva has, in turn, rather unfortunately created a few less-than-honest vendors that you would never find else where in the region. The currency/money situation is always changing but has been a hassle for travellers since day one and will probably continue to be so. Corruption is also, unfortunately, a major issue, whether you encounter it when paying for a first class train ticket and receiving a second class one, or trying to buy a mobile phone SIM and being quoted a price 4 times higher than it should be.

Visa

Visas are required by just about all travellers and are by far more of a hassle and time-consuming to obtain than those of neighbouring countries (except Turkmenistan, which gives a whole new meaning to the term "visa hell") but getting them is far from impossible or overly difficult. The magic ingredient is a letter of invitation (LOI). With an LOI you should have no problem getting a visa but may have to go to the trouble of sending your passport to an embassy in another country because Uzbek embassies are not present in many countries. Rules do change fairly frequently, as does the state of Uzbekistan's relations with the EU and USA, and many nationalities do not now 'technically' require an LOI but, if you are applying outside your home nation, you will most probably be asked for one, even if you are on the list of countries (which keeps changing) whose nationals do not need one. Getting an LOI from a company like Stantour is easy (a simple Google search will reveal many more options), but won't be free, adding to the costs you will have to incur even before travelling, e.g. an already astronomical visa fee. Visas can be issued on the road and Almaty (Kazakhstan) is the best place to get one if you are in a hurry.

It is well worth noting that, although visas (not transit visas) are, in theory, valid for the whole country, your visa will still list places you specify on your LOI and visa application, and it is not unheard of for travellers to be sent back from sensitive or off-the-beaten-track destinations not listed on their visas. So, have a look at a map and guidebook before filling in the application but if you don't have time to do that (and you really should) we can recommended that you include at least the following destinations on your LOI and visa application: Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, Urgench/Khiva (main cities/destinations), Shakhrisabz (if you want a day trip from Samarkand), Angren (if going for the Tashkent-Fergana mountain route), Termez (Afghan border), Munyak/Nukus (for the Aral Sea) and Fergana (for the Fergana valley)

Remember that names like 'Andijon' (as an example or anywhere else with a recent 'incident' can be pretty sensitive and probably worth leaving off a visa/LOI application.

We note that requirements are changing, and now quite a couple of nationalities don't need an LOI for their visas any more (German for example (applied in Dushanbe)). The only thing is, that you might have to wait a little longer (five days) for your visa instead of one. For every nationality (and place of application) things can be different.

  • Costs: US$30-50 gets you comfortable accommodation and good food and should cover the cost of a shared taxi from, e.g. Tashkent to Fergana, but accommodation is moving upmarket in towns with main tourist sites and there is foreigner-pricing at many tourist attractions. More comfortable/faster travel in shared taxis will eat funds, as will air travel (although both remain reasonably good value).

  • Uzbekistan CymMoney: Money is somewhat of a nightmare in Uzbekistan. The Cym (pronounced som) has changed a number of times and currently will have you juggling zeros whilst being weighed down with huge wads of paper (although the 5000 note introduced in 2013 helps, but that is still only ~US$2). At the time of writing, no dual black market exchange rate existed and the country's only ATMs were in Tashkent, in up-market hotels (Visa and Cirrus network) and a few banks (only Cirrus network). These ATMs were often out of cash and dispensed only small amounts making them close to useless.

    Take cash in USD or EUR (USD is most definitely better). Note that currencies from neighbouring countries can rarely be exchanged in Uzbekistan and that getting good rates of exchange for Uzbek Cym left over at the end of your journey will be difficult. Travellers cheques can be met with mystery, but you should be able to change them somewhere in the country.

    Cash advances on a credit or debit card in the main cities is possible for a commission. The procedure is a bit of a hassle in banks but is much easier in an upmarket hotel in the likes of Samarkand or Bukhara. Also worth noting is that ATMs in Osh and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) dispense high value USD notes if you need to stock up before crossing the border and that hotels and taxi drivers in Uzbekistan are usually very happy to accept payment in USD (although notes in less than pristine condition may not be accepted).

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Large areas of Uzbekistan are desert. Summer is long, HOT and dry. Spring is mild and a little rainy. Winter is quite short but tricky with some snow and freezing temperatures. However summer is the toughest with temperatures from June to August hitting 32C and above. You might see 40C at the worse and mid-July to end-August is tough especially if you plan to use public transport and cheap hotels. Winter is not so great in neighbouring countries but in Uzbekistan it is cool, pretty dry, but most importantly you have the place to yourself.

  • Dangers: Not dangers worth highlighting, but you will constantly be warned of meeting bad apple police/military.

  • Getting around: Good roads connect major cities, as does an excellent rail and air network, although the most useful routes can fill up and are not useful for the spontaneous or those wanting departures that suit them. Most travellers and all tourist groups will use the air or rail network at least once to make a big hop (say Bukhara or Urgench to Tashkent) and for this reason, and because the local population do use the air and rail network intensively, you do need to book ahead. Shared mini-buses (known locally as marshrutkas) and buses ply the roads, but faster by far, and more comfortable, are shared taxis, in which you can easily buy an extra seat (each taxi normally carries four passengers with the driver) to make yourself even more comfortable if riding at the back, and which even come with the sometimes more-than-welcome bonus of a seat belt and a conversation in a language you can't understand.

  • Guide book: Lonely Planet's Central Asia or Bradt's Uzbekistan. A great book, not worth much as a practical guide for bus routes and the likes, but providing excellent description of the land and people supplemented with beautiful pictures is Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand, published by Odyssey Publications.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: While not unfriendly, Uzbeks can seem a lot less friendly than in some neighbouring countries and in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are very use to tourists.

    • Other travellers: At main attractions, expect many Japanese, German, French, Israelis etc., plus a splattering of the typical backpackers who have strayed a little of the banana pancake/Great Wall trail. You can also expect that almost all the other travellers you see will be in groups and will be old (average age of about 55).

  • Tourist factor: Summer is high season and even though you might feel miles from anywhere, during the peak seasons you will see a good few foreign faces at major highlights. The most touristy in the region, by a long way, with many tour groups. 8/10 in Khiva (it's a tiny city, meaning that it is impossible not to notice the presence of tourists), 6/10 in the Registan in Samarkand and 4/10 in the other main tourist spots in the city, 6/10 in the main tourist spots in Bukhara and 2/10 in the rest of the country.

  • Accommodation: A wide range is available, from comfortable B&B's at about US$10 a night to extremely comfortable local chain hotels at about US40 a night, to the international luxury chains like the Intercontinental at their usual international rates. Uzbekistan has some pretty good private guesthouses and the closest to traveller style guesthouse you'll find in the region. The best are found in Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand (i.e. where most travellers and tour groups head to). You will also find plenty of big decaying hotels where you may or may not get a deal on more and more up-scale guesthouse catering for tour group. In all of the above on world-wide standards you might find prices a little higher than you expect.

    • Average cost: US$20-40

  • Communications: You'll find internet places no problem if you look for them, but outside Tashkent and other major centres connection speeds can be amazingly slow. To call getting a local SIM card that you can insert into your phone is recommended. It should cost around US$7. If it costs much more than this, someone is trying to cheat you.

  • Food: For the most part most cheap good food is cooked outside eateries and restaurants and you will smell the smoke before you see them. What will be cooking will be shashlyk (meat roasted on skewers over hot coals) is a national staple and is accompanied with bread commonly known by the Russian name lepyoshka. Typically the bread is flat with a raised rim, but it varies from region to region. You will normally always find tomato, onion and cucumber salads as side dishes.

    The staples are fantastic: If you like bread, you'll leave Uzbekistan a few pounds heavier because of all the Non you have eaten, and also very delicious are the fresh fruits, shashlik (like a kebab), manty (dumplings) and laghman (noodle soup). Lack of variety is the only major complaint but, if you fancy a change, Tashkent is good for the usual international fare (Lebanese, Italian, etc).

    Plov is found everywhere in central Asia, but nowhere more so than in its home. Plov being basically meat (mutton or lamb with plenty of fat) in rice. However it is normally only found in big servings rather than small meals for one. Nonetheless if you want to try something very Central Asian, with the one exception of horse milk, you can't get more authentic than Plov in Uzbekistan which is close to region for the Uzebeks. It is delicious but, unfortunately, usually extremely greasy.

    • Vegetarians: As with the whole of this region being a vegetarian is not overly easy, but as always not impossible. Fish does exist and so does plentiful bread that can be complimented with common tomato and cucumber salads you will find in most restaurants. In short if you don't mind sticking to cold meals and won't miss hot food, the salads, fruit and bread will keep you happy.

  • Kazakhstan MapHassle and annoyance factor: With the very minor exception of the big tourist hotspots hassle from beggars and vendors is almost zero. However much is written and spoken with regards to hassle from the state (one of the world's nastiest dictatorships) in terms of overzealous police and military. It's difficult to write objectively about hassle travellers might experience from police or military for three reasons. One, many of the scare stories and worst reports are now consigned to history when travellers were far less common in the country and the current situation is a shadow of formerly. Two, problems very much depends on how far you go off the beaten track and (third and last) it is down to luck. For the average traveller there is little to worry about, but it can happen that you are stopped and questioned (and 'fined' [read extorted]) by police. Both police and military certainly seem to give the local population much hassle and you are wise to avoid both where ever you can. Note the Tashkent metro has a bad reputation, but in summary hassle is low.

    • Women alone: Clearly sexism exists and is uncommon, but harassment is pretty rare. Although traditional attitudes towards women are pretty conservative, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union and the people are used to women acting independently.

    * Rating:7/10

Thumbs up Miss at your peril: Uzbekistan's historic cities - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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