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