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 and Georgia, and Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
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! Also included is Armenia & Georgia in a region known as the Caucasus.
» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info
Many thanks to Conor Meleady for kindly supplying part of this this information.
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), which 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.
Get your bearings... show/hide map
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.
As 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 and cities like Moscow are at times unbelievably so. 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.
Politics?! As the whole world wonders just what Putin is really up to - remember his policies and wider politics don't affect how real Russian will treat you and have nothing to do with your trip. Actually it is a better reason to go - to get the real story.
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$40-60 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.
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 with no black market. You will find numerous ATMs in big cities and lots of FX places in major tourist destinations.
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.
Behind 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.
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.
The Trans Siberian/Mongolian Railway:
Most 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.
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.
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.
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.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
The 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). 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.
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.
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.
Karabakh and the Azerbaijan question
People seem quite keen to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, probably quite simply because it is a recent conflict zone.
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.
Many thanks to Conor Meleady for supplying this summary and the great photos. The views and facts here are well-researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.
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.
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.
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.
Isn't Georgia dangerous?
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.
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.
Accommodation: 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-€20 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.
Hassle 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!
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: 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.
Most 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.
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.
Accommodation: 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.
Intro: 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.
Hiking in Central Asia:
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):
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.
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.
Community Based Tourism - CBT
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 tourist 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.
Hassle 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.
Miss at your peril: Uzbekistan's historic cities - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"
Churchill's 1939 assessment of Russia (how little changes)