Planning Central Asia Overland Travel

Central Asia Overland Travel: What You Should Know

We had grand plans for the beginning of our round the world trip. We would travel across Central Asia overland from Istanbul to Xinjiang in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great. We had dreams of visiting the ancient cities and mosques of the Silk Road and trekking in the land of the snow leopards in the high Pamirs.

This wasn’t our first trip to Central Asia. In the summer of 2013, we attended our friends’ wedding in Kazakhstan and did two treks in Kyrgyzstan. But our Central Asia overland trip threw up a few more challenges than we anticipated. In the end, we didn’t make it all the way to China, and it wasn’t quite all overland. We saw some amazing sights, met a lot of interesting people, and went to a lot of remote locations that most people will never visit. We also experienced a lot of bumps on the road. For several reasons, we cut our trip short and bailed out to Bangkok.

Travel in Central Asia has more pitfalls than in many parts of the world – and some pleasant surprises. Here are some of the things we wish we had known when we were planning our trip.

You don’t have to do it all overland

Welcome to Murghab, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
The Pamir Highway at the entrance to Murghab.

When we started our Central Asia overland trip in Istanbul, we were determined to use land transportation only from there to China. We chose a two-day train journey from Turkey to Iran, a 4WD crossing of the Turkmenistan desert, and a series of trains and shared taxis across Uzbekistan. Our overland credentials were intact!

But when we got to Kyrgyzstan, we folded and took a short flight from Bishkek to Osh. At $35 per person on Manas Airlines, it was the same price as a shared taxi. We had already endured one ten-hour taxi drive across the mountains and really didn’t feel like repeating the experience. We were no longer true overlanders, but guess what? Nobody cared.

Uzbekistan is an underrated travel gem

Sleepy Khiva, UNESCO World Heritage city in Uzbekistan
Khiva, Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is recovering from a bad reputation among travelers. Granted, this reputation was deserved. In the early 2000s, travelers to Uzbekistan were routinely hassled by police and forced to cough up huge bribes. But the president/dictator of Uzbekistan has since put an end to that practice. Uzbekistan is a friendly country that’s easy to get around and a joy to travel in. We didn’t encounter any problems with officialdom, and the people of Uzbekistan are the friendliest in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan has the most atmospheric Silk Road sights of anywhere we went in Central Asia. The mud-brick city of Khiva in the east of the country was our favorite. Bukhara and Samarkand also have well-preserved Silk Road architecture.

We visited Uzbekistan at the sweet spot where a well-developed tourist infrastructure isn’t overwhelmed with hordes of tourists. Transportation and accommodation is generally easy to find and good value, entrance fees are reasonable, and there are few enough tourists for it to feel like an adventure. Go now!

We have a whole post about why you should visit Uzbekistan. Read it here.

Russian language skills are essential

Cafe friend. Samarkand
Conversation with our new friend in Samarkand was a little limited by the language barrier.

Laura had a little bit of background in Russian and brushed up before the trip. This was a good call because Russian, not English, is still the lingua franca for Central Asia. A few words of Russian open a lot of doors. But Russian is also a fiendishly difficult language, and Laura’s skills didn’t go far beyond basic conversation, reading signs, and on one memorable occasion, translating a verbal restaurant menu. Paul’s didn’t go beyond “beer” and “thank you!”

With more Russian, we could have had more rewarding interactions with local people, who are often eager to chat to tourists but don’t speak much English. If all else fails, vodka is a great way to bridge the language gap, as our new friend at the local restaurant in Samarkand demonstrated.

We would also have been able to communicate better with our guide on our trek to the Besh Kol Lakes in southern Kyrgyzstan. We didn’t feel very comfortable with the altitude and distances on this trek, mostly because we couldn’t communicate with our guide about how high we were, how far we had left to go, and where we were camping each night.

The weather is unreliable and extreme

Snow at Komsomolets, Inylchek Glacier, Kyrgyzstan
August snow at Camp Komsomolets on the South Inylchek Glacier in Kyrgysztan.

Central Asia is a land of extremes and the weather is no exception. In an extreme weather year like 2015, we shouldn’t have been surprised that the weather had such an impact on our trip.

It was hard to decide when to start and finish our Central Asia trip. We wanted to trek in the high mountains, and these areas don’t reliably melt out until late June or early July. But the lowlands of Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are scorching by May. There was no good way to visit all these places without sacrificing good conditions in one area or the other.

We started our trip in Iran in late May, when the weather was already getting hot. By the time we entered Turkmenistan in mid-June, it was scorching as predicted. The thermometer read 54 degrees C one afternoon in Ashgabat. Uzbekistan was searingly hot during our visit in late June. The heat wave continued until the middle of July in Kyrgyzstan.

But on July 17, 2015, the weather changed. A low-pressure system moved in over the Pamirs and stayed put. It rained during most our trek to the Besh Kol lakes in the Pamir-Alay of Kyrgyzstan. We spent the evenings huddled in our tent reading our guidebook to Southeast Asia and wondering if we had made a mistake by coming to Central Asia.

The weather stayed gloomy with occasional breaks as we set out on the Pamir Highway to Tajikistan. Then we found out that a perfect storm of weather events had cut off access to part of the highway. The extreme heat wave earlier in the summer caused excessive glacial melt that, combined with heavy rains, caused a flood that destroyed a village and turned 3km of the Pamir Highway into a lake. There was a detour available for this part of the route, so it didn’t affect our plans, but it cast some uncertainty on the trip. Would there be more floods or landslides? What if we got blocked? Indeed, there were more landslides in the Pamirs that we barely missed.

By the time we finished our Pamir trip, we had had enough of Central Asian weather. We had planned to continue to Xinjiang in northwest China and explore the fabled Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Turfan. Laura salivated over photos of Lake Karakul high on the Karakorum Highway. But the weather forecast in the Karakorums was solidly wet and gray, and the forecast in the desert cities was for the heat wave to continue. We decided that the weather gods were sending us a message, and booked a one-way flight to Bangkok.

We should have learned this lesson on our trek on the Inylchek Glacier two years earlier. Unseasonable snowstorms stranded us at 4200m Khan Tengri base camp for three days and we almost missed our friends’ wedding.

The takeaway? Keep in mind that the weather is fickle and prone to extremes.

You don’t need to use an expensive tour company for the Pamir Highway

Pamir Rearview
On the Pamir Highway

Planning our Pamir Highway trip was hard. There is very little public transportation, and anyway, we wanted private transportation so that we could make side trips and photo stops. We needed to find a 4WD and driver to take us from Osh to Khorog. There are a number of high-end tour companies that offer Pamir Highway packages costing $2000 and up. We made contact with several companies and were dismayed at the quoted prices. Fortunately, we found the Osh Guesthouse that arranges 4WD transport for backpackers. Our trip cost around $1200 with them.

We later learned that the Biy Ordo Guesthouse in Osh is another popular place for travelers to arrange Pamir Highway transport.

Central Asia has a harsh beauty

Bulunkul, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
The high, remote village of Bulunkul in Tajikistan.

There’s nothing pleasant or inviting about the scenery of Central Asia. The landscape comes in extremes, from flat endless desert to impenetrable mountain ranges. Everything about the land screams “get out.” That’s why, when the clouds clear over the mountain or the desert heat subsides at dusk, the beauty of the landscape is truly astounding. Take the village of Bulunkul in the Pamirs of Tajikistan. It’s one of the most remote villages, in the harshest landscape, that we’ve visited. Our homestay hosts were the friendliest of anywhere on the Pamir Highway. Isolation must breed cooperation.

There aren’t many places to chill out

Sierra Coffee, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Sierra Coffee in Bishkek, our place to relax with espresso

Every country on the backpacker trail has a beach or mountain town to drop your bags and spend a few days doing nothing but staring at the ocean or mountains during the day and drinking beer at a travelers’ bar at night. Think the Thai islands or Goa. There’s nowhere like that in Central Asia. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. The best respite from the travel grind that we found was Sierra Coffee in Bishkek. We didn’t find a place to fully unwind until we flew to Indonesia and spent a week in the Gili Islands.

Guidebooks to Central Asia are next to useless

Seasoned backpackers all know that Lonely Planet is no longer the bible of independent travel. But for Central Asia, the guidebooks really failed us. We carried the Lonely Planet Central Asia and the Bradt Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With the possible exception of the Bradt Uzbekistan, the guidebooks had inaccurate or out-of-date information, confusing directions, and just a general lack of helpful information. The Bradt Tajikistan was the worst. We don’t see how it could possibly be helpful to anyone except well-off expats looking for a restaurant recommendation in Dushanbe.

The best sources of travel information are fellow travelers and Caravanistan, a site we can’t recommend highly enough. Steven and Saule have a treasure trove of up-to-date information about border crossings, road status, visas, embassies, and inspirational articles. The forums are a great place to get advice and find travel buddies to share costs. We met up with Yolanda, our travel partner on the Pamir Highway, here.

We’d also like to give a shout out to Far West China. This Xinjiang travel site is run by Josh Summers, an American living in Urumqi. He has also written a Xinjiang guidebook that we found to be much more detailed and useful than the Lonely Planet. Even though we never made it to Xinjiang, we used his website and book extensively for planning and inspiration. The future of guidebooks might lie with this kind of narrowly focused, self-published book written by destination experts.

Trekking is challenging and expensive, but rewarding

Sunset at the Holy Lake, Kol Mazar, Kyrgyzstan
Kol Mazar (Holy Lake) in Kyrgyzstan.

The Tien Shan, Pamir and Fann mountain ranges of Central Asia are among the world’s most majestic and beautiful. You can hike along glaciers to the foot of 7000m peaks, enjoy a bird’s-eye view of dazzling blue lakes, and trek through endlessly rolling green jailoos (mountain pastures).

Trekking in Central Asia presents a number of challenges that don’t exist in more touristy trekking areas like Nepal. In Nepal, most treks are teahouse treks with clearly marked trails and lodges every few kilometers. Teahouse treks don’t exist in Central Asia, so you need to be self-sufficient.

It is a good idea to hire a guide for most treks since trails are either poorly marked or nonexistent. This tends to be expensive, even more so if you take a porter. In Kyrgyzstan, the network of community-based tourism (CBT) offices is the best bet for providing guides, porters, and information. Just be aware that not all CBT offices are equally experienced and professional, and don’t expect your guide to do much more than know the way and speak some English. We can recommend the CBTs in Karakol and Arslanbob. The Sary Mogul CBT had less experienced staff with limited English.

Guides may not be as professional, knowledgeable, or dependable as you would like. In 2013, we did the Inylchek Glacier trek in Kyrgyzstan, eight days of walking on challenging glacial terrain to Khan Tengri base camp. The guide that our tour company, Kan-Tengri Tours, provided, was a saintly young schoolteacher from a nearby village with no mountain skills, gear, or knowledge of the route. We got into a scary situation when he didn’t know the way through the jumbled glacier. We were able to get directions from the tent camp managers along the way, but the experience showed us that you must keep your wits about you and take responsibility for your own safety: your guide might not have the skills or experience to take care of you.

The trekking industry in Tajikistan is less developed and presents more logistical challenges. We ended up not trekking in Tajikistan, partly because of the weather, partly because many access roads were washed out, and partly because of the expense. You may have no other option than to hire a 4WD for hundreds of dollars to get to and from the trailhead. Other travelers raved about the Bartang Valley trek in the Pamirs and the Seven Lakes loop in the Fann Mountains, but we didn’t get there. Reason to plan a return trip!

The biggest advantage of trekking in Central Asia is that it is largely unspoiled and you have a good chance of having the scenery to yourself. We did the beautiful four-day, three-night Holy Lakes trek in Kyrgyzstan during the high season and were the only tourists at each camping spot.

Central Asia has great tourism potential, but it isn’t quite there yet.

Lenin Peak Base Camp. Kyrgyzstan
Lenin Peak base camp in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Central Asia has it all: jagged mountain ranges, desert oases, cities of shimmering domes, and endless plains under a huge sky. But getting into these places takes more effort than in more touristed regions like Southeast Asia or India. Ease of travel varies by country: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are fairly well set up for tourism, Turkmenistan requires you to take expensive tours, and Tajikistan still has a long way to go. English isn’t widely spoken, transportation can be tricky, and there aren’t enough tourists for there to be competing organizations to bring prices down. Transportation can be rough and slow. And let’s not even mention the dismal food options.

Travel in Central Asia is not for the faint of heart, but it has a lot to offer hardy travelers. You can live the magic of the Silk Road, hike to dazzling mountain lakes, and meet people who still aren’t jaded by mass tourism. Many places in the region still give you a sense of adventure. After all the ups and downs of our trip, we’re not sure if we were tough enough to get the most out of Central Asia, but we’re glad we made the effort to explore this enigmatic part of the world.

Have you been to Central Asia? What would you tell other travelers planning an overland trip? Let us know in the comments!