The Central Asia countries are often grouped together as 'Stans. While this does not entirely do them justice, many have a similar history and a somewhat comparable culture.
I just spent three weeks in Central Asia and have traveled there before. I have excluded Afghanistan and Pakistan from this guide; they both have a security profile that makes them off-limits for now unless you invest in your own personal security considerably while on the ground.
What you can expect in the 'Stans - Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan
Most countries in the region intentionally keep a low profile which almost takes them off the global map. The governments are autocratic and would rather see the countries closed up so they can go about their own business (although exceptions apply).
Travel is usually very affordable
in the region and transport options such as trains and taxis are rustic but efficient. Transport and food costs less than one-fifth of the prices we are used to and the quality of the food can be excellent.
Hotels like the Hyatt Dushanbe
cost roughly the same as in the US but feel more luxurious. Cheap hotels can usually be had for around $50 when booked the day before arrival.
The region is solidly Russian-speaking
but with English making big inroads. In Tajikistan, the local language is beginning to replace Russian entirely.
All these countries have their own long-standing autocratic governments
which restrict freedom, but surprisingly they have a lot of popular support.
Central Asia features a continental climate with long, hot, dry summers and short, cold winters; Kazakhstan's Astana
is the exception in the region, with very cold, long winters and short, hot summers.
What you can expect in the 'Stans - Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a great business hub. Both major cities Astana
have everything modern cities need, with top-notch infrastructures and educated city dwellers.
The Kazakhstan economy is generally open and local and international chains compete for attention.
The country is an emerging airline hub for Air Astana
and both Almaty and Astana show the beginnings of more diverse food scenes, with more ethnic food, coffee culture and craft beers
Kazakhstan has a considerable revenue from oil and is the richest of all the Central Asian countries. It's also a close ally of Russia and the Russian culture is very strong here (to the point where it becomes almost interchangeable with Russia).
What you can expect in the 'Stans - Tajikistan
Tajikistan (or TJ) is a tightly controlled police state
. The government has a firm grip on anything that happens in the capital of Dushanbe
and entrepreneurship is not encouraged.
Dushanbe is just 250 miles from the Afghan capital of Kabul and many citizens could easily disappear in a crowd in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the ever-growing conflicts of Afghanistan have not spilled over to Tajikistan.
Tajik is the most popular option of conversing here and Russian is discouraged. Most ethnic Russians left the country during the civil war between 1992 and 1997.
Entry visas are now easy, with a quick process and just $35 to pay when you arrive at the airport.
What you can expect in the 'Stans - Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan was a very positive surprise during my recent visit. The country is another police state
that flirts daily with Soviet-style bureaucracy. However, the people, food and the culture easily make up for those hurdles.
To enter Uzbekistan you require a visa issued by a consulate ($160+ for US passport holders). Uzbekistan has so many extra restrictions for travelers like mandatory registrations and a money exchange regime gone crazy that would drive me mad in any other country, but they didn't here.
It starts with the people, who are not just friendly, but also usually knowledgeable and speak good Russian (my Russian improved markedly during this trip). Nevertheless, Russian is not required in most instances.
Tashkent and Samarkand
are clean, well-designed cities with lots of green spaces that would make any Singaporean city planner jealous. It's safe at any time to roam their streets and there is little craziness from beggars or people trying to sell you stuff. These cities are just so orderly and comfortable, which is a pretty rare experience!
Uzbekistan also comes with a high quality national cuisine. Even the better restaurants are still cheap and serve mind-blowing food options at prices that even Indonesia
would find hard to beat.
feels more like Jerusalem
, with its modern parts that blend well with the historic sites that are kept in perfect condition. Entrance fees are low and I never felt treated like a tourist - more a visitor. At one point we walked up to pay our respects to the late President Karimov with numerous others and the stern-looking security folks waived us through ahead of the crowd - they could not have been any friendlier.
What you can expect in the 'Stans - Kyrgyzstan
This country is the most open politically and has a very friendly policy towards America (and Russia surprisingly). Until 2014, Kyrgyzstan had been home to a major American Air Force Base for more than a decade.
All developed country visitors (including from America) get a 365-day stay permit on arrival stamped into their passports!
The capital Bishkek
is an interesting city for a few days and the country provides access to a lot of national parks that have barely been touched.
The country is very cheap and the currency is free-floating. Entrepreneurship is encouraged at every opportunity and Kyrgyzstan is adding hundreds of English speakers every day.
What you can expect in the 'Stans - Turkmenistan
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Picture courtesy of DanielW
We wrote about the curious case of Turkmenistan
before and it remains an enigma for most of us. It starts with a visa process which has to be completed in person.
The visa denial rate is 87% but it's just $30 to apply.
Group tours give you a better chance of getting your visa approved but they aren't cheap and provide fewer possibilities for adventure.
Travelers report that Turkmenistan is similar to Tajikistan and that it's hard to follow your own path with all the restrictions. The government tries to keep it that way.