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Have you visited one of the Stans?

As this plague continues, I keep looking for new places to consider to visit. I see FB posts from an international language teacher as she travels around parts of the world and her latest posting is in Uzbekistan. She photographs during organized school trips, but I am interested in visiting as a DIY solo trip. Uzbekistan may be the easiest as it seems to have a strong train route, but I am pretty open to any of the 'Stans' for hints of the Silk Road and Genghis Khan.
I would prefer something with enough of an infrastructure that I can comfortably (and safely - supposedly they are crazy drivers) get between major cities, and then add on some shorter trips to 'the country' for culture or birding trips.
Any words of wisdom to share?

Posted by
5985 posts

MariaF, assuming I'm not one of the Stans being considered, I thought I'd mention a couple of books by Erika Fatland, a Norwegian journalist who has traveled through this area, recently enough. "Sovietstan" and "The Border". She has great observation and writing skills. Plus she is a woman and has a more human perspective than a dry male historian.

Posted by
3789 posts

Thanks Stan...perhaps I should change the title to '-Stan'....but the current spelling adds a little levity to the day. (as my province has just entered a 4 week 'stay at home' order, levity and travel research helps).
Thanks for the recommendation. I have Sovietstan requested from the library as well, so glad for the recommendation. My creative brain doesn't retain dry historical facts, so I look forward to a 'human' perspective.
Thankfully library pick ups are allowed.

Posted by
18923 posts

I haven't been to that area but agree that it sounds fascinating. The Mir Corporation does guided tours there; perhaps a bit of information could be gleaned from its itineraries.

I don't know what your streaming options are in Canada, but here in the US there's a free service called "Tubi". It currently has fifteen episodes of a show called "The Silk Road". Each episode runs a bit under 30 minutes, probably including at least one commercial. I haven't watched any of the shows yet.

https://tubitv.com/series/4541/the-silk-road?start=true

Incidentally, Tubi has a very long list of movies and TV shows available--helpful for folks running out of things to watch as the pandemic drags on.

Posted by
2732 posts

Several years ago, Leyla@women-on-the-road.com went to one or more of the 'Stans' and did several reports on it. You might be able to look back in her archives or send an email to her. She even dealt with packing...I think a satellite phone was involved, plus an emergency GPS (again, my memory might be faulty on her packing). She is a retired UN journalist who has learned to be prepared and/or was traveling to an unusual area. She also runs Off Beat France and the French Minute on FB. Maybe this will help in your research, maybe not...

Posted by
3789 posts

Acraven. Thanks for the Tubi recommendation. I can get it in Canada as an app, but I tend to limit those types of add ons. However, I may be convinced to upload it just for those shows....or check YouTube for them.
I am at work, but if life is still restricted once retired late July, I may need to find additions to Netflix.
:-)

Posted by
3789 posts

@Wray, yes, Lela, I had forgotten she had done the Stans. I had read them with interest, though her posts since retirement are not my favorite any longer. She had a very intrepid travel history as a correspondent. I suspect that part of the world 'modernizes' pretty quickly, so perhaps a satellite phone won't be required. If I want to go that far off the grid, I most likely will do it with a tour.

MIR - I should mention I did look at them yesterday, but Cdn$ exchange makes them way off my budget, I am afraid. But could look further into their itineraries. It does feel like outside Uzbekistan it may be more logistically difficult to do without entrusting your life to kamikaze drivers.
Man in Seat61 mentions Advantour for purchasing train tickets, and I had seen their selection for tours - much more affordable as they are a local company, and 2-3 day or day tours are accessible from the cities I was looking at - at least for Uzbekistan.

Posted by
3789 posts

@Joel, yes, birding is always of interest. I hadn't gotten that far to looking for a book, but had looked at 'hotspots' in eBird. Thanks for remembering my not tourist(y) hobbies.

Posted by
16861 posts

I joined a great tour similar to this one in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan with Lyuba Tours (instrumental in Rick’s Bulgaria tour) https://lyubatours.com/page10948621.html and co-operated with SRM Travel (who guide Rick’s Turkey tours, no info currently on their Central Asia page). Tours require a minimum number of participants (or cash) to operate, so you can’t count on many departure options.

Uzbekistan, which has recently made it easier for Americans to visit without a lot of visa hassle, is more know for colorful tiled mosques, for instance, while only more modest buildings featured in the above tour.

Posted by
12396 posts

Uzbekistan sounds fascinating and has been on my "A" list for a lot of years.

Interesting that Wizzair flies direct, Budapest to Nur-Sultan, the Capital of Kazakhstan. Flights start at about $100. Wizzair also flies Budapest to Baku, Azerbaijan for about $100.

Posted by
3789 posts

How's the fishing in Uzbekistan, James E?
I see that 'a good time to visit' is Spring or Fall (September to November). That is tempting for a 'run away after retirement' trip and with a November birthday, it's kind of fun to celebrate it somewhere else...or at least not celebrate it, but at least be somewhere else.

I received some feedback from elsewhere and it seems that Kazakhstan has good train service...but not so much Kyrgyzstan.
I was reading an interesting article - by Leyla, as mentioned above - about the Nomadic Games that run every 2 years. They started in Kyrgyzstan, but for 2020 were to be held in Turkey. Slated for 2021, but I can't find dates. They may not post the details until 6 months prior, so they may still happen. That would be something to behold.

Posted by
3789 posts

@acraven, this isn't available through Tubi in Canada, but I can actually stream it from my library. There are so many online untapped resources in that institution.....

Posted by
418 posts

I've visited two of the Stans - Kyrgyz and Kazakh. Fascinating places, both of them, quite DIYable. Nomadic games are awesome!

I've found https://againstthecompass.com/ blogposts on Stans to be accurate and engaging, with some good travel tips. One annoying thing about the site is gazillions of ads, but still a good resource once you get thru those.

Posted by
3789 posts

@PerilsofP. Thanks for the recommendation and glad to have a couple of more countries to consider. I'll read the blogs.

Posted by
12396 posts

MariaF, surprisingly there is a tiny corner of the country near Tashkent with mountains forests, trout filled river and streams, and even skiing in the winter. Thats part of why its been on my "A" list Well, that and Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. It would be a trip of a life time.

Posted by
3789 posts

@James E, Fergana Valley? Looks lovely...and it is 'birdy' so in a plan.

Posted by
1357 posts

Just back from hiking and camping in W Colorado so just seeing this thread.

Here is a link that has my post from a few years ago about our visit to Uzbekistan.
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/general-europe/been-to-uzbekistan

Our trip was Tashkent-Khiva-Bhukhara-Samarkhand-Dushanbe-Pamir Highway (Tajikistan) - to Osh in Krygystan. Then flew to Bishkek since we didn't want another 10-12 hr taxi ride. Also took a side trip, via air, to Almaty (Kazakhstan) which had just made it easier for Americans to visit without a visa. Did not go to Turkmenistan due to difficulty getting a visa.

Send me a PM if you have specific questions.

Posted by
3789 posts

Thanks Arnold. Canadian here, so different visa requirements, but I'll be sure to check on those and read the link thread at lunch.
It was meant to be considered as a 'yeah, I can finally travel' Autumn 2 weeker, but as always, seems to be worth expanding into something more extended. A trial flight booking has me gulping, however, even for just Uzbek. Very pricey.

Posted by
140 posts

Kyrgyzstan might have been our favourite vacation of all time.

We did two days in Bishkek (you can see most of it in that time) and a side trip to Burana Tower (Silk Road site), then took a mashrutka--a public mini-bus--to Karakol. From there you can do a ton of things--various hiking trips (day and multi-day), visits to Seven Bulls or Fairy Tale Canyon, hanging on the beach at Issyk-Kul lake, horseback tours, etc. Then we headed to Song Kul to stay in a yurt for a few days; you have the choice of "luxury" yurt camps or staying with a family. From there we headed to the National Horse Games at Kyzyl-Oi, which is hands down one of the coolest experiences we have ever had. Then it was back to Bishkek. We sadly did not make it to Osh.

For travel within Kyrgyzstan, you have four main options: Hire a driver for the duration, rent a car, take "public transport," (the mashrutkas), or operate on the "for a price everyone is a taxi" theory, which is surprisingly effective and not as expensive as one might think. However, travel from place to place takes time. We had very little trouble arranging travel from place to place, even to and from obscure Kyzyl-Oi, but getting from one destination to the next was always a long process. Plenty exciting and beautiful in and of itself, but long.

If you need Western amenities, this is not the place, but if sleeping in a yurt and spending time with a nomad family who speaks no English and is busy tending their horses seems like your thing, then Kyrgyzstan cannot be beat. The hiking is some of the most amazing I have ever done. You can get around Bishkek and Karakol easily, and the entire country is very safe. Even the "everyone is a taxi" drivers were quite safe. It's also clean; you may be using an outhouse at the yurt camp, but there will be hand sanitiser and toilet paper. There is no litter. This is hands down the most hospitable country in which we have ever traveled, and the Kyrgyz people, while shy and reserved, will bend over backwards for visitors. The nature is also beyond amazing.

If you can plan to attend the games in Kyzyl Oi, you will not be sorry. It's super interactive. They do a yurt raising, local song and dance presentations, invite people up to present song or dance from their home countries or to join their dances, let you ride their horses, and provide a fantastic meal. You can race to untie the baby's legs in the first steps ceremony, join a tourists vs. locals tug of war, dance around a bonfire, and party it up with some rock music in an impromptu outdoor disco. There is also a presentation of all the national horse games--the horse being an instrumental part of Kyrgyz culture. We went swimming in the mountain stream during the afternoon break.

I cannot say enough good things about Kyrgyzstan for anyone with a healthy sense of adventure and am happy to give more details or answer questions.

Posted by
3789 posts

@howlinmad, Thanks for your extensive recommendation for Kyrgyzstan. It's much as I have read about the area. I will admit, my interest may have been misplaced, but I was considering this as a retirement from a Covid Lab environment trip...so age and energy doesn't have me planning any hikes or trying to chat up the locals at a home stay. When I am tired, my introversion is predominate. The games sound pretty interesting, however. Were they the 2018 World Nomad Games? Unfortunately, they are in Turkey this year instead of Kyrgyzstan...but dates and details are difficult to come by. I have a location though :-) First, I need my second vaccination, then retirement, then Canada's blessing to be allowed back into the country without giving up my first born or complicated quarantine plans.
Thanks again for taking the time to fill me in. There is always next year :-)

Posted by
140 posts

No, not the Nomad games. Those are different. It's basically a group of horsemen coming in and competing against each other in their national games. They add in an element of explanation and show for the tourists as well as expanding the entire festival to be more tourist friendly, but it was an event without tourists first.

It is a great place for introverts, as it's a nation full of them who also face a language barrier, and you can visit Kyrgyzstan without the rougher edges. There are Western hotels in Bishkek and Karakol (I recommend Memo's in Karakol), plenty of easy "hikes," etc. Burana was a "typical" day trip to a historic site, we did a lovely sunset cruise on Issyk Kul (there were locals on the beach or on jet skis), and even tours where you can get to hiking vantage points by vehicle (not normal cars, though). Fairy Tale Canyon and Seven Bulls were neither physically demanding nor way out there in terms of amenities. The luxury yurt camps have toilets (that empty into outhouse holes, but you wouldn't necessarily know it). Driving through Too Ashuu Pass is stunning.

If you want to do it with a bit less adventure, you can hire a private driver. Costs are still reasonable. Don't let the adventure of it scare you; you will find English speakers and when you don't, you will find people who will bend over backwards to find a translator. You will find modern amenities in many parts of Bishkek. You will find places of solitude. You will find nature. You will find a people who will leave you alone if you want it.

It's not for super timid or for the first time abroad. There will be minor glitches. But it will be some time before they get vaccinated, so I would say it might have to wait a year or so. But once the world is up and running, it's truly special. And from those people we met along the way who had been in the other Stans (minus Turkmenistan, which is a bit different in terms of politics and ability to travel), they all had fantastic experiences and rave reviews. Keep Central Asia on your list!

Posted by
3789 posts

@HowlinMad, thanks for the further details. You are hooked, for sure. I am a birder, so nature and some hikes are of interest. I suspect a driver and car would work for that sort of thing. I know the 'toilet diverted to somewhere else', but out house could do. I think Uzbekistan offers good DIY as the train is so reasonably set up, and maybe in a year I'll be back to being keen to manage those shared micro buses. I commuted in them in Tanzania during a volunteer stint a few years back. Not my first rodeo in developing countries, but maybe too much for a first visit after a grueling Covid schedule. Interesting that they still do some demonstrations and horse riding. That would interest me and make it more appealing to add Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan for a longer trip.
Safe travels.

Posted by
140 posts

One thing I would add: I would imagine the mountains of Kyrgyzstan are different from the deserts of Uzbekistan in terms of birds you would see; I know nothing about birds or what you want to see, and I would figure you would see a lot of cool things in either place, but just something for the back of your mind. I would also look into the demos of falconry--they didn't coincide with our dates, but they had some really cool looking things about hunting with eagles that were probably similar to the horse thing--actual local events that have expanded to have a demo / tourist-friendly element to them. I would imagine Uzbekistan has stuff like that as well. I know friends who taught in Uzbekistan went to a game of Kok Boru (one of the horse games), too.

I think regardless of where you end up you are in for a treat!

Posted by
53 posts

Spent 2 weeks in Uzbekistan in 2012. I visited Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Truly an amazing experience. Yes, Uzbekistan is well served by rail between the main cities. I was a bit lucky in that at the time, rail service between Bukhara and Urgench (Khiva) was haphazard, if available at all. The only alternative was an 8 hour drive through the desert, but luckily I managed to get a train that even the locals didn't seem to know about.

The sights were absolutely amazing. If they were in Europe, there would be huge lineups to enter them, but I had them all to myself. The food is a bit hit or miss, but that isn't why you go there. When I went, you needed to go through hoops to get a tourist visa (which I suppose is why I appreciated it more!) but I believe pre-Covid, most Westerners could stay 30 days without a visa. It was a great experience and I'd gladly recommend it.

Posted by
3789 posts

Thanks for the positive perspective GregW. I hear the food has improved in 10 years. I sure hope so. I have gluten issues. 😄

Posted by
2 posts

@MariaF

I've visited three of the 'stans on two trips. The first was Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on a short trip in winter a few years ago. I only saw Almaty and Bishkek, as the weather was bad and time was limited, but I did manage to get into the mountains just outside Almaty - there is a ski resort connected by cable car from the outskirts of the city, and it is supposed to be good for hiking in warmer months. There were lots of tours advertised to nearby lakes, but nothing was running at that time of year. I enjoyed walking around Almaty, even though it was below freezing the whole time. I then took a marshrutka (minibus) over the border to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, about four hours away. The weather was really terrible in Bishkek, so I was unfortunately stuck in the city the whole time, and it isn't the most interesting capital. I also found the police in Kyrgyzstan an issue, as they stopped me three times for various reasons, trying to get a bribe. In Kazakhstan, I had no problems with this at all, but it did leave me with a negative impression of Kyrgyzstan. It hasn't put me off from going back though, as I'd love to get out of the capital and explore the rest of the country one day.

The second trip was in August 2019, and I spent two weeks in Uzbekistan (Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand). Uzbekistan was very easy to travel around on my own, with a good train network - there is a flashy high speed train between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, and it was being extended north to Khiva as well I think. Tickets were very easy to organize, done through the guesthouses I stayed in. All four cities were great, really beautiful architecture, but I think my favourite was Khiva. The only issue I had was getting money. There are ATMs which accept some foreign bank cards, but they were hard to find and often didn't work or have any money in them, even at the airport! Take some cash, and stock up in Tashkent where most of the working ATMs are. I saw the big four tourist hotspots, but the country has a lot more to offer, so I'm already planning a return trip.

I'm from the UK, and entry requirements were relaxed for us in all three countries in the last few years. I started and ended both trips in Istanbul, as there are plenty of flights to Central Asia from there (Turkish Airlines, Pegasus and Uzbekistan Airways).

The weather is quite extreme. My job limits when I can travel, and I'm restricted to January or summer, neither time ideal for Central Asia. In winter it was quite miserable, so I don't really recommend it unless you plan to ski or really want to see a lot of fog and snow. In summer, the heat was unbearable, over 40 degrees Celcius every day.

Posted by
3789 posts

@maykal, thanks for your trip reports. Sounds like an interesting time. Retirement is a few weeks away, which means I am not limited to the severe weather period to travel. I get enough of these in Ottawa, Canada. I was hoping October-ish but given the possibility of a 4th wave in areas if Europe, it may be another year before heading there. It is all very discouraging, but not surprising. Your post did get me excited to think about it again, however. Thanks.

Posted by
16 posts

Just back from Uzbekistan. Highly recommended, especially for those who love heat, tombs, gold, white cars, and basil.

Posted by
3789 posts

@rperez, thanks for the recommendations. White cars and basil....added to my list.