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Russia[i] 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 and 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

Add Many thanks to Conor Meleady for kindly supplying this information.

The CIS?

? 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 which millions were forced to take part in.



* Russia

 * Get your bearings.. show/hide map

» Russia

As a result most (that is almost all travellers) will limit travels in Russia to Moscow and it's 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 cites 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 site like Lake Baikal as you might with Paris and the Mediterranean beaches. This distance also makes life expenses and boring. Russia is expensive and cities like Moscow are unbelievable. 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.

USSR 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 more the sense of being in Europe than Russia) and other major cities will inspire little once you have crossed off a few main sights, and natural attraction 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 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.

  • Highlights: 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.

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

 

  • 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 than. 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.

More about letters of invitation & visa support:

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.

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, 6.5days, 9289km, 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 cites and military installations, only attempted by the most intrepid of travellers. Today in both 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 sites/cites 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 cozy.

  • 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 it, 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.

 

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* The Caucasus

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

»Azerbaijan


» Armenia

  • 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 traveling 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).

    Yet 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 a tough lot.

    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 appeals 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.

  • GeorgiaHighlights: Views of mount 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.

  • Lowlights: 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. Whereas there peers in neighbouring countries have much more on offer.

  • 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.

Karabakh and the Azerbaijan question

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 countries' advisory website before you travel.

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» Georgia

  • Intro: 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.

    To 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.

  • GeorgiaHighlights: 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.

  • Lowlights: 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.

Add Many thanks to Conor Meleady for supplying this summary and the great photos. The views and facts here are well-research and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.

  • 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.

Hiking/Trekking

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.

Isn't Georgia dangerous?

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

With note stay 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.

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!

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*   Central Asia

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

» Kazakhstan

Most travellers that find themselves in Kazakhstan do so in Almaty in the far South of the country, the one time capital (now 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!

  • Getting around: Bues and/or trains connect major cites 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 traveling 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

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» Kyrgyzstan

  • Visa strategy: By far the easiest visa in the Stan's. 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 swimable. 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.

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):

  • Around Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) - the Terskey Alatau range rises up behind Karakol offering a taste of the spectacular Tian Shan. There a 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.

  • 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.


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 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 Flag
If 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!

Into China: The Torugart and Irkeshtam Pass

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. If 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-mans 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.

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» Uzbekistan

  • 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 one 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.

Kazakhstan MapIt 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, younger single travellers should also be prepared for periods of solitude if travelling for a long period of time in the country as foreign languages like English are not widely spoken, and it can get tiresome speaking in sign language with local people.

  • Visa strategy: Visas are required by just about all travellers and are by far more of a hassle and time-consuming to obtain than those of neighboring 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

  • 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).

  • Kazakhstan MapMoney: 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. 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 or travellers' cheques in USD or EUR (cash is most definitely better). Note that currencies from neighbouring currency 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. 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).

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





Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"

Churchill's 1939 assessment of Russia (how little changes)




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