Traveling to Central Asia is equal parts challenging and rewarding. This destination isn’t for tourists looking for a relaxing vacation. Rather, it’s a destination for devoted travelers who want to see the world, experience unique cultures, and have an adventure.
From the ancient Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan to the wild and rugged Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Central Asia is an area few people explore but really should be on every serious traveller’s bucket list.
Figure Out Your Visa Needs
Central Asia has five core countries and varying passport requirements for each. While people from the Western hemisphere typically don’t face challenges when getting visas, it’s important to understand the nuances of each place.
For example, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan do not require visas for stays up to 30 days for most Western countries. However, United States citizens require an electronic Visa to get into Uzbekistan, which should be applied for at least three days before the trip.
Turkmenistan has entirely different requirements. Travel visas are required to pass through Turkmenistan but are complicated to get and often rejected for no reason. Tourist visas are available with a formal invitation, which you can get by booking and paying for a group tour or attraction through a formal organization. You should start this process at least three months in advance.
See my individual country pages for more information on the visa process for each
Several routes throughout Central Asia require special permits to travel. Plan your trip down to each detail well in advance. Check your country’s government website for current travel restrictions. For UK residents, the FCO website provides the latest travel information.
Dangerous Border Areas
In recent years there has been sporadic fighting between some of the “Stans” and border points can be potential flashpoints. The Kyrgyz/Uzbek border saw violence as recently as May 2022. Check local media before crossing land borders.
It goes without saying that the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan should be avoided.
Generally speaking, the crossings between Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are safe for travellers. I have made these crossings many times without incident.
Be Careful in Nature
Many people venture to Central Asia to hike the beautiful mountain ranges. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are common destinations for avid hikers who want to experience the natural beauty in this part of the world. However, it’s important to understand the risks involved and prepare.
Take some time to research the local wildlife, so you know what to do if you encounter something dangerous. For example, the leopard gecko is a relatively calm creature that many Westerners keep as pets. The Caspian cobra, however, is one of the more dangerous species to inhabit the region. In the desert areas of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan always shake your clothes out for spiders and scorpions.
It’s also important to understand the dangers of traveling in the mountains as the weather can be unpredictable, even in summer. The winter temperature in Kazakhstan can drop as low as -30c, especially near the Russian border and capital, Nur-Sultan.
When going trekking, try not to go alone, and if you do, tell your hotel/hostel of your proposed route and when you expect to return. Ensure you pack plenty of layers, have a detailed map, and lots of water or ways to purify it.
Take a Bathroom Kit
While you’ll find a few Western toilets in high-end establishments in the cities, prepare for squat toilets everywhere else. These toilets are typically holes in the ground over which you squat to do your business. Toilet paper is a rarity in most bathrooms in Central Asia.
Consider packing a toilet kit for your adventures, including wipes, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. You’ll be glad you did.
Prepare for Different Customer Service
Don’t expect the “customer is king” service promoted in the Western Hemisphere. The service culture is much different in Central Asia. It’s common for your server to drop your food off and disappear. If you need anything extra or your check, it’s up to you to go find them. While it may feel rude and offputting, it’s just a cultural difference.
Learn Some Basic Russian
Central Asia is a diverse region with several different languages and subcultures. However, this former Soviet-ruled area still has a few cultural hangovers that make it unique.
One of which is that the unifying language across countries is Russian. Most people in Central Asia will speak Russian as well as their native language, however in parts of Uzbekistan you might struggle to find Russian speakers, and English is certainly no widely known in the region.
It’s also worth having the Google Translate app on your phone, as learning Russian is easier said than done.
Invest in a Data Plan
WiFi is unreliable at best in Central Asia and non-existent in some areas. Invest in a data plan for your phone or pick up a local SIM card when you arrive. You’ll need data for navigation and translation.
As many parts of Central Asia are underdeveloped, carrying cash is a must. While many establishments accept Visa (but not Mastercard), they’re often declined without explanation or reasoning. Furthermore, each country has a different currency.
It’s also recommended that you carry some US currency or Euros to exchange, just in case. Look for a currency exchange in a well-populated, busy area to avoid getting scammed. Don’t use the money exchanges at border crossings as you will get ripped off!
While public transportation is a great option for getting around the cities, you’ll likely need a taxi to get to some prime hiking spots.
While Central Asia is relatively safe, there are many taxi scams, especially in Uzbekistan. Negotiate a price before getting in and write it down, showing the drive that you have it. Keep your bags with you and consider using an app to stay safe. Yandex is a popular ride-sharing app in the region (Russian Uber).
Navigating through Central Asia takes patience and preparation. Keep these key considerations in mind as you plan your grand adventure.
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang, the tropical paradise of Sanya and Hong Kong.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.