Central Asia 2023

With Boštjan we started planning a trip to Central Asia in the summer. He already visited Kyrgyzstan before and wanted to do the Pamir highway. I had a wish of doing all 7 STANS (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) in one trip. But soon we had to leave out Pakistan and Afghanistan for security reasons and in the end Turkmenistan fell out because of visa rules. So we shorten the trip to 2 weeks. When we decided on the route we made it circular, because of the cheap flight to Bishkek (457 €). Below you can find details about the trip and links to individual days and events on the road.

Central Asia route
Central Asia route

Daily review – Central Asia

Transport – Central Asia

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On this trip moving around was a constant activity, we used airplanes, buses, vans, taxis (shared), public transport, and lots of walking. It was also the biggest part of our budget, 660 €.

Flight – Central Asia

Four flights (Ljubljana-Istnabul 2h, 1.300 km, Istanbul-Bishkek 5h, 3750 km and back) were 457 € by Turkish Airlines – good service. The airport in Ljubljana is small but nice. The first flight from Ljubljana was delayed and we missed the next flight. It meant one unplanned day in Istanbul, but at least it was in an interesting city. The airport in Istanbul is huge and to be on the safe side you should have 2 hours for a second flight. The airport in Bishkek is not nice, especially the arrival area.

In Kyrgyzstan, we should have taken flight Bishkek-Osh, but were too late for tickets and drove in a shared taxi for 11 hours instead of 1 hour, but at least we saved 20 €.

Train and metro – Central Asia

A train in Uzbekistan is a great option to move around the country. They have slow and fast trains (more than 200 km/h). But for fast trains tickets are sold out quickly, so try buying them a few days in front. We were buying tickets last minute so mostly slow trains for us. We used it on Adijan- Kokand (6 €, 1.5 h, 135 km), Samarkand-Bukhara (10 €, 2.5 h, 270 km), Bukhara-Tashkent (15 €, 7 h, 575 km) and Tashkent-Almaty (60 €, 17 h, 815 km)

Metro I used in Istanbul for one station. You need a public transport card with credit on it. One ride is 0.5 €. One kind person paid for me because I didn’t have a card. In Tashkent, you have a metro with nice mosaics on stations, but supposedly not allowed to take photos. You buy tickets at the counter, for 0.1 €. In Almaty there is also a metro, you buy tokens to enter stations for 0,2 €.

On the road – Central Asia

On the road, you can access all the corners on our trip. Some roads were not the best some were crowded but in the end, we always got to our next point. Gasoline is around 0.45 in Kazakhstan, 0.65 in Kyrgyzstan 0.75 in Tajikistan, and 0.85 € in Uzbekistan, and methane gas is half the price (they use it a lot). Tolls they paid for some roads (Bishkek-airport 0.2 €, Bishkek-Osh 0.5 €, Kujand-Dushanbe). In general public transport in cities is around 0.2 €, similar is 1 km in taxi/Yandex 0.2 €, shared taxi is 3-4 € per 100 km with an average speed around 60 km/h, bus/marshrutka would cost 2 € per 100 km with an average speed around 60 km/h.

Taxi (shared) – Central Asia

Taxi is a great option to get to your destination in cities when it is not rush hour but it will cost you more. Usually, during the night, it is the only option to get somewhere, for example, the airport. An equivalent is Yandex GO – their version of Uber.

In Istanbul ride from the hotel in Yeni Bosna to Sultanahmet was first (25 min, 22 km, 13 €). Next was a ride in Kokand to the station (10 min, 6 km, 1.5 € with tip), to the border (45 min, 45 km, 7.6 €), Samarakand to the station with Yandex GO (15 min, 6 km, 1.5 €), then Bukhara from/to the station (30 min, 15km, 3 € with tip), Almaty lake to the bus station (10 min, 10 km, 5 €), Tokmok-Burana both ways (1 h, 25 km, 7.7 €) and lastly Bishkek to the airport (30 min, 30 km, 7.2 € with tip).

A shared taxi is another option. You can get one close to the train/bus station or in the vicinity of bazaars. There will be parked cars with 4 to 6 seats for passengers. Drivers would be quite pushy to get their customers. Check prices up front so they won’t overcharge you too much. Also, try the seat in the car because you are going to be there for hours. For the front seat, you pay extra. When all seats are full you will be on your way. Most of them will be speeding, especially young drivers. On longer routes, you would stop for gas, toilet, and one meal.

First was Bishkek-Osh (11h, 700 km, 21 €), Osh-Sary Tash (3h, 185 km, 6.3 €), Khujand-Dushanbe (5h, 300 km, 13 €), Dushanbe-Uzbek border/Panjakent (4h, 250 km, 13 €), Uzbek border-Samarkand (1h, 50 km, 4 €),

Bus (marshrutka) – Central Asia

Bus is the most common option in general but in Central Asia, there would be marshutkas – minibuses covering all kinds of different destinations. These vans turned into buses would be less comfortable, slower, and crowded but cheaper. The bus we used in Dushanbe (0.2 €), Almaty (0.5 € for one ride in cash-double price), and between Almaty-Bishkek (5 h, 250 km, 5 €). Also tried trolleybus (bus on electricity) in Dushanbe (0.3 €) and Bishkek (0.1 €).

Marshutkas we used: Airport-Bishkek (45 min, 30 km, 0.3 €), Sary Tash-Osh (3h, 185 km, 4.2 €), Osh (15 min, 5 km, 0.15 €), Osh-Andijan (3h, 75 km, 1.3 €), border-Konibodom (20 min, 10 km, 0.8 km), Konibodom-Khujand (90 min, 80 km, 1.3 €), Khujand (15 min, 5 km, 0.3 €), Bishkek-Tokmok (75 min, 75 km, 0.8 €).

Car – Central Asia

My sister drove us to the airport in Ljubljana and 2 weeks later picked us up. This saved us 50 € for a taxi or 6 € and 3 hours for the bus. When we tried to get to Almaty Big Lake we hitchhiked and one lady in a nice jeep drove us a few km but still, we didn’t get to the lake.

Walking – Central Asia

On this trip, I walked more than 150 km, 10 km on average per day. It is the best option to explore the city. After long rides, it is good to stretch your legs and do something healthy. The most challenging was a hike on 3100 meters above sea level or a vertical climb on Burana Tower. It was more or less enjoyable. Maybe the last days after being sick were tiring.

Accommodation – Central Asia

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We used low-budget options but we were as well in a 5-star hotel.

  • Gorrion Hotel Istanbul – it was a 5-star hotel, we got it because of a missed flight for free (usually more than 100 €), the location Yeni Bosna is close to Ataturk airport and far from the center, the equipment was average, the food – good breakfast and basic lunch, service was helpful (opened shop in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes, ordered taxi)
  • Manas Airport Bishkek – we slept at the airport 3 hours until the buses were driving to the city, it was loud, and not comfortable on the bench but it was free
  • TES Hotel Osh – they had a few shared rooms with bunk beds, great reviews but they were bad in my opinion, rooms were basic, not too clean, the service was not too helpful, good breakfast, for 9 €
  • Akun Sary Tash – only option outside season, I liked it, nice service in English, a good room just for two of us, good bathroom (hot water, toilet), two big meals, WiFi, all that at 3100 meters above sea level for 18 € (not cheap).
  • Kokand City Hotel – not bad location, equipment mixed from old to new, breakfast ok, low ceiling in bathroom, service helpful, single room 22 €
  • City hostel Dušanbe – kind stuff, room just for two of us, good breakfast, ok location, 8 € bed
  • Hostel Muborak Samarkand – nice room just for two of us, good breakfast, good location, kind staff, stayed 2 nights, 1 bunk bed per night was 12 €
  • Hostel NAVO Bukhara – great location, I was alone in the room, minus was a cold shower, the owner played some music for us, shared some fruit, tried to talk, ordered a taxi, 12 €
  • ART hostel Tashkent – room just for two of us, great breakfast, ok staff, 20 $ per person per night
  • Sleeping on train Tashkent Almaty, 4 beds in compartment, 58 €
  • AQ capsule hotel Almaty – new, ok location, staff kind but basic English, free laundry, 20 € for a single basic room
  • Meeting place hostel Bishkek – ok location, hard to find, new, helpful staff, full dorm rooms, stayed 2 nights, bunk bed per night, 9 €

Food and drinks – Central Asia

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This landlocked region has been influenced by many cultures (east China/Mongolia, north Russia, south India, west Persia). To put it briefly their diet is meat, soups, bread, rice, dairy products, marmalade, and tea. But let us try to explain it in more detail.

Meat – Central Asia

Meat is part of most meals in this region. As they are Muslims that is usually lamb, then beef, and in some cases horse meat. Meat would be found at breakfast as sausages, in soups (bone with meat, meatballs, sausages, pieces, …), in dumplings (manti), as a main dish. You can find there also shwarma/kebab or wrap-lavash with chicken or beef. If I had to point one dish that would be SHASHLIK – shish kebab on skewer (1.5-3 € piece) prepared over heated coals, on the side you get chopped onion seasoned with vinegar and Dili. The best one was lamb (also ribs) we ordered in Anis on the road between Khujand and Dushanbe.

Soup – Central Asia

They prepare many kinds of soups. Let us mention a few, Langman – noodle soup with meat and vegetables, Shurpa/Chorba – soup with meat on bone-3.5 €, Chichvara – soup with meat dumplings (pelmeni)-3 €, soup with meatballs, … I prefer Chichvara.

Bread – Central Asia

Bread is the staple ingredient in their cuisine. They bake it in a tandoor oven. The most famous is round bread Naan with a pressed center. Next is Samsa – a pastry filled with meat. One can clearly see here the influence of India.

Rice – Central Asia

Rice is used as the main side dish, potatoes are not common here. The most famous meal with rice is Pilav/Pilov/Plov/Palau/… It is rice cooked with lamb meat and vegetables (onion, carrots, …). This tasty meal you should try while traveling in this region. This is typical Turkish influence.

Dairy products – Central Asia

You can find here many different dairy products, from basic milk, cheese (Kashk), cream, yogurt to fermented mere milk (Kumis)

Fruits – Central Asia

Besides fresh fruits (strawberries, melons, pomegranates, apples, grapes) they prepare different marmalades, jams, and compotes from fruit. They were too sweet for my taste but it is a must on each breakfast. Also cheek peas and walnuts ar common.

Tea – Central Asia

Tea is the basic drink in this region. You can choose between black and green options. You will get a kettle of hot tea and a cup without a handle. In most cases, you get it free with the meal. But you can order it extra and sometimes just one cup (0.25 €). We usually took green without any sugar. But this much tea I haven’t drunk in 1 year.

Fast food – Central Asia

On the road, we also tried some international fast food. The typical kebab was 2-4 €. Wrap and chicken wings were 3.5 €. Udon noodles were 2 €. Lebanese meze was 9 €.

Alcohol and cigarettes – Central Asia

Even if they are Muslims you can find alcoholic drinks in most places. A beer can be ordered for 1.5 € in a bar, up to 2.5 € for kraft. As for hard liquor, they have mostly Vodka (Russian influence). We tried brandy, 2 €.

Cigarettes are cheap, around 1.5 € but too strong for me. Once I found Marlboro for 15 € in Tashkent?

Sights – Central Asia

Gur-e-Amir, mausoleum of ruler Timur, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Gur-e-Amir, mausoleum of ruler Timur, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Central Asia is a landlocked area, where on the east side you have high mountains and on the west side it goes down into the desert. The most common tourist activity in the East is hiking, sleeping in tents (yurts), and horseback riding. I had done similar things in Mongolia and Boštjan was already in Kyrgyzstan. We planned to do the Pamir highway but we arrived just at Sary Tash (3100 meters), did a hike, and returned because of border problems. While we moved around we were over 2000 meters 6x more times. Last time in the suburbs of Almaty.

The next big thing to find here are cities by the Silk Road. Here you can find great old towns built between the 7th and 14th centuries with caravanserai, baths, medrese (schools), mosques, mausoleums, forts, … They have distinct architecture featuring high minarets, domes, portals, and yellow bricks with blue tiles, and ornaments in geometric proportions.

Capital cities are also not to be missed. Here you have big main roads, extensive parks, monuments to important historical figures, large flag poles, …

Budget – Central Asia

Just to say this trip was very cheap, a bit over 900 € for 2 weeks all included (Boštaj spent that much, I spent 100 € more: 60 € baklava, taxi in Istanbul 25 €, souvenirs 10 €, cigarettes 5€). Half were flight tickets, 457 € Turkish Airlines. All of the other transportation costs were 200 € (bus, train, taxi, metro), accommodation was 150 €, food and drinks 130, misc 100. It was very affordable and we chose low-cost options most of the time and also for 3 nights, we didn’t pay for accommodation.

The average cost per day was 70 € all included, but if we deduct the flight it was 40 € (30 € Boštjan). That would mean 13 € for transport, 10 € for accommodation, 9 € for food and drinks, and 7 € for other expenses (entrance, souvenirs, cigarettes, …).

As for countries, Tajikistan would be the cheapest, then Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan was the most expensive but had the cheapest gas.

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