Updated: Mar 31, 2019
Central Asia: Emerging Budget Destination
A trip to Central Asia is a trip which, just over twenty years ago, was nigh-on impossible; out of reach and unknown in one of the most obscure areas beyond the Iron Curtain, the area was surrounded by mystery and very little-known. Then in December 1991, five new countries appeared on the map, much to the world’s surprise, with the break-up of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. None had had independence from Russia previously for more than a few months. Through the majority of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the region suffered economic collapse, conflict, corruption and extreme hardship, and barely became more open to travellers. Today, gradually, the picture is changing and the area has become safer and more conducive to exploration – though often still far from easy. Over a six-week period in late summer 2013, I visited three of these countries for the first time – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – to find out how the region is developing. A four and a half thousand kilometer road trip from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Tashkent in Uzbekistan – the long way round by public transport (where it existed) through Tajikistan’s High Pamir and Fan mountains and to the deserts and ‘Silk Road’ of Uzbekistan – took me through some of the most spectacular high-altitude scenery in the world and to some of the most ancient cities in all of Asia, as I discovered a fascinating region in a state of flux.
The first problem on planning a trip to Central Asia is: How to do it? When you look at the map of this region in the heart of Asia which most people fly over on the way to China, India or the Far East, the borders comprise a bizarre jigsaw-puzzle which appear to have been drawn by a four-year old child squiggling for fun. In fact, these borders are the result of sober reflection by Stalin, whose policy in the region from the 1930’s onwards was to divide and conquer, thereby eliminating political dissent. The result of this today is several isolated enclaves within the region, displaced populations which can sometimes cause political flare-ups and a lot of frustrating bureaucracy. This makes travel to the region complicated, and you have to consider carefully where to start and finish your journey without crossing multiple borders (visas are required for all the countries except Kyrgyzstan), and to further complicate the situation, several borders are subject to closure, temporarily or permanently, depending on which way the political wind is blowing. I decided early on to eliminate Turkmenistan from my plans: a desert country dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia, it requires several weeks and much patience to receive a visa, and once you’re there you need to be accompanied by an official guide, despite the death in 2006 of autocratic leader Niyazov. Also, because of time constraints, Kazakhstan was left out – it being the 9th largest country in the world in terms of land area – and surprisingly despite its size containing relatively little of tourist interest. Thus, we had three countries to travel in six weeks – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – in that order, with two weeks apiece.
Choosing to arrive in Kyrgyzstan proved a
good decision: excellent connections to the airport in Bishkek enabled an inexpensive budget flight from Europe with Air Pegasus, and the lack of any visa hassle (they were abolished in 2011) means that arrival is remarkably easy and stress-free. The country is currently going through a transitional period: alone amongst the Stans, it has done away with visa restrictions for all EU countries and several others, as it tries to open up trade, tourist and political links with the West. Trying to forge a new identity as a viable tourist destination, it has dubbed itself ‘the Switzerland of Central Asia’, which is not as inaccurate as it sounds; land-locked, mountainous and slightly aloof from the countries around it, it contains plenty for those with a passion for the outdoors especially.
It may lack the banks, extreme wealth and cuckoo clocks, but it also lacks the stifling conformity and love of rules of Switzerland, and of all the Stans, appears to have some hope of genuine democracy. Loathed, discredited president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in April 2010, a revolution which Putin described as ‘the beginning of the Arab Spring’. Although several changes have followed, democracy is definitely a key-word here, and people are more apt to discuss politics than elsewhere in the region. The feeling is that Bishkek is taking a lead and showing a possible route for the rest of the region to break away from post-Soviet autocracy and corruption; some political commentators have referred to it as a beacon of hope. Neighboring Kazakhstan has never held an election considered free or fair, whilst Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are among the most repressive countries in the world with ex-Communists in power since the day of independence. The latter recently banned a satirical film about a tyrannical dictator and has one of the worst human rights records anywhere.
Bishkek - a relaxing introduction
Bishkek itself is a surprisingly relaxing city, and pleasant to wander round; designed to a grid-pattern by the Russians, babbling brooks run down its streets and the huge massif of the Kyrgyz Central Alatau range loom in the background, while the city’s many parks and trees often make you feel as if you have inadvertently taken a wrong turning into the countryside. Our homestay in the middle of the city had a yurt in the garden, further enforcing this impression. It's a city which has a very country feel to it somehow.
Reminders of the country’s recent past remain: Lenin stands proudly behind the city’s History Museum (moved from the front after 1991 but revealingly not dispatched entirely as in many other ex-Soviet countries) while the Museum itself somewhat glorifies its Soviet past with a whole floor given over to Soviet artifacts and iconography. Clearly it is not a nation which harbours any great bitterness towards its Soviet past. In fact, talking to people across the region, especially the older generation, you often get a feeling of nostalgia for the past and an impression that things were ‘better in the old days’; not surprising, given the economic hardship, large-scale unemployment and political turmoil that has followed the Soviet break-up. Walking around the sight-free streets of Bishkek makes you feel quite relaxed, and it's a gentle introduction to Central Asia. Police presence seems fairly minimal, and the country's reputation for relative liberalism in this part of the world feels fair. People appear to be relaxed, friendly and quite open, if rarely able to speak English. A little Russian goes a very long way here, and I was grateful for my smattering to help get through daily exchanges.
To Lake Issykkul
Travelling to the mountains in Kyrgyzstan is almost obligatory, and once you’ve spent a few days in the relaxing but sight-free streets of Bishkek, you are more than ready to see them. The first stop for most is Lake Issykkul, (‘Hot Lake’ in Kyrgyz), the second-largest Alpine lake in the world at 1607m, the deepest in Central Asia (668m), and strangely freeze-resistant due to slight salinity and geo-thermal activity. Although 118 rivers and streams flow in, mystifyingly, none flow out. It is one of Central Asia’s most beautiful natural sights.
One sad result, however, of Soviet (and post-Soviet) environmental disregard is an almost-total lack of fish in the lake due to over-fishing and the introduction of alien species in the 1960’s, so no boats grace the lake, and very few birds live here. The main resort, Cholpon-Ata, is a glitzy, crowded place with bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes lining its shores, attracting the nouveau-riche of the region, especially from nearby Kazakhstan (Alamaty is only three hour’s drive). The nearby low-key resort of Tamchy is preferable for those seeking something a bit more peaceful, and from here one can get fantastic views over the Central Tian Shan range bordering China, towering to over 7000m in the south.
China looms, physically and psychologically, over this small country; the economic power-house of Asia is a huge investor in the region and many projects are undertaken by Chinese companies, much to the chagrin of Russia. This region has traditionally attracted a lot of Chinese, especially from the repressed Dungan (Chinese Muslim) community from western China.
Karakol, a town on the eastern shores of the lake, contains some interesting Dungan architecture, in particular a mosque which looks for all the world like a Buddhist Temple, constructed entirely of wood and built without nails. The lake’s southern shore is far less populated, and arguably more beautiful. In tiny Tosor it is possible to stay in a remote yurt camp on the lake’s shores with stunning views of the nearby mountains. One great aspect of travel in this country is a Community-based tourism (CBT) project, a government-led initiative which puts independent travelers in touch with locals. You can be put up in home stays for $10-$20 a night full board, thereby ensuring your money goes straight into local pockets. In addition, you can be put in touch with local guides who will show you the region’s many mountain attractions.
Everybody Yurts - Sometimes
Camping in a yurt here is an experiencenot to be missed; these igloo-shaped constructions made of felt and canvas are surprisingly cosy and spacious inside, decorated with colourful local carpets and thick blankets. A night in one of these is a quintessential Kyrgyz experience. Central Kyrgyzstan contains the remote, spectacular Lake Song-Kul (higher, smaller, colder and more remote than Issyk-Kol), and it’s well worth exploring the spectacular jayloos (high mountain pastures) for which this country is famed. The mountains are mostly bare, and deforested, which has the advantage of allowing you to explore easily without getting lost, and also meaning you don’t necessarily have to search out old Russian army maps of the region. They are remote and sometimes isolated though, so thorough preparation is necessary for longer treks. A town base like Kochkor is fine here but better are remote and beautiful Sussamyr or Kyzyl Oy.
CBT home stays exist throughout the country, and many travelers take advantage of them in this region particularly where hotels are scarce; the independent, back-packing travel scene is starting to flourish in the country, and such projects really do seem to be making a difference. Most home stays are comfortable, clean and friendly, and also supply the best home-cooked food you will find, although it is most likely to be shorpo (mutton with potato soup), plov (rice with mutton) or laghman (noodles with beef); cuisine is not a valid reason to travel to Central Asia, and can get quite repetitive. Vegetarians especially must beware that options are limited. Despite a lack of top-quality food and hot water, and occasionally running water, the hospitality of the locals makes travel here a genuine pleasure. People are not used to tourists and they show a keen interest – sometimes manifesting itself in impromptu invitations to down vodka shots with locals, so a sturdy stomach is a pre-requisite.
A lack of public transport in the region – no trains exist and bus services are often patchy at best – is made up for by the ease of hitching. Flagging down cars is not a problem, and establishing a price up-front for your journey is recommended to avoid misunderstanding. The practice of over-charging foreigners is thankfully relatively rare and not extreme. Travelling is time-consuming though - numerous mountain passes and single-track roads, combined with a general lack of buses, can slow you down. The trip from Bishkek to Osh, the second city, is extremely arduous, via several precipitous mountain passes and serpentine roads, taking twelve hours or more for a 500km journey. Driving, whilst not as bad as in many Asian countries, tends to be a bit devil-may-care. I gladly alighted from a particularly white-knuckle ride on this route involving a few near-misses. My journey to Osh was happily broken up by a visit to the beautiful mountain town of Arslanbob, famed for having the largest walnut forest in Central Asia and also another place with a fantastic CBT centre and numerous hiking opportunities.
On to Osh
Osh is useful mainly as a base from which to launch yourself into either China or Tajikistan’s High Pamir – the latter route being the one I had plotted. The city lies in the lowland Fergana Valley, the most heavily-populated region of Central Asia and also the centre of much unrest in recent history, including a massacre of 400 people in 2010 during riots following the ousting of President Bakiyev. Simmering tensions remain today and there is a slight air of menace here unlike anywhere else in the country. The town itself, though having ancient roots, is a plain commercial centre with little architectural interest to detain the visitor, although the bustling bazaar is huge and one of the most fun to discover in all Central
Asia, crammed with everything from spices and piles of fruit and vegetables to ripped-off watches and electronics. I stocked up on supplies and dollars for my mind was now focused on the next challenge: Tajikistan – a remote country in a remote region.
My two weeks in Kyrgyzstan had been both immensely enjoyable and physically tiring but my overall impression was overwhelmingly positive. The opportunities for tourism here are only beginning to be realized, and visitors to the country at this time will be rewarded for their sense of adventure not just by the incredible friendliness of the people, but by a travelling experience that is rare these days: one totally unsullied by commercialism and in which
you really feel you are travelling sustainably. For those willing to endure a bit of hardship along the way, there are great rewards. That is something to be treasured in these times of mass-tourism, it appears this obscure nation really can show the way forward in this historically-troubled region. If the Central Asian republics are to forge a new identity once the ex-Communist generation finally fades away – and they must – this country is at least trying to show how it can be done.
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