From the comfy armchairs of most himes in the world, Central Asia seems like a wild beast of a place, but really, it is safe, and more specifically it is full of friendly people, interesting cultures, beautiful landscapes and chance for incredible experiences.
For the purposes of this fact sheet, we have included Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran because people who are travelling Central Asia normally head to these countries as well. A section of the Silk Route if you will.
We had a generally amazing time riding from Georgia to Iran and north to Kyrgyzstan as part of our Central Asian leg of our travels in 2013.
The following FAQ is designed to debunk any travel myths and perceptions which may or may not exist around the world, possibly in armchair comfort. It will also provide you with lots of the information we wish we'd've known before we arrived!
Is it safe?
In six months from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, we have not experienced any theft, accidents, arguments or felt particularly threatened at any time. Although, perhaps women travelling alone or with their partner should look out for the unfaithful men we encountered in Georgia (more below).
Which country houses the most dangerous drivers?
Three countries stand out:
Iran has 'stupid' drivers (although not stupid people!) Head checks are rare; the 'might is right' rule is widely applied and another guideline is that you only have to worry about what is in front of you. The number of times we saw 'nearly accidents' was insane! Iranians also drive fast, sometimes drive on the wrong side of the road and are happiest reversing – they do it everywhere.
Georgia has dangerous often drunk drivers who are however, mostly courteous towards cyclists. They will overtake with space at the most inappropriate times, but rather than that being a problem for you, it is mostly a problem for the oncoming drivers!
Kyrgyzstan has flat-out dangerous drivers. They pass at proximity and at high speeds. This is because they can; the road surface is commonly smooth and predictable unlike a lot of the region. The worst and most frequently occurring road rage we experienced (since we left Australia, actually) was in the north-east region of Kyrgyzstan near Issy-Kul lake. HERE (coming soon) are some methods used to combat dangerous and aggressive drivers.
Do you have to bribe the police?
We have never paid a bribe. Policemen sometimes ask for money at checkpoints, but we generally play 'dumb tourist' for these situations. You should beware of some of the police tricks, such as taking your passport “for inspection” and asking for money in exchange its return. The Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is notorious for this!
When is the best time to travel?
Most of the region becomes warm and dry in April and is hottest in July. By the middle of October it starts to get cooler and wetter. Temperatures given are the average maximum for each month from large cities. If you are cycling at 1500m elevation and above, mid-June through to mid-August is undoubtedly the best time to be around.
We prefer bicycle touring dry between 20-30 degrees – you can expect Central Asia to be like this during the following months:
Georgia/Tbilisi: May/June (23-27 degrees celcius) or September/October (26-20 degrees celcius)
Armenia/Yerevan: April/May (20-24 degrees celcius) or September/October (29-21 degrees celcius)
Azerbaijan/Lankaran: May/June (21-26 degrees celcius) or September/October (23-18 degrees celcius)
Iran/Tehran: April/May (22-28 degrees celcius) or September/October (31-24 degrees celcius)
Turkmenistan/Ashgabat: April/May (21-23 degrees celcius) or September/October (30-22 degrees celcius)
Uzbekistan/Samarkand: April/May (20-26 degrees celcius) or September/October (28-21 degrees celcius)
Tajikistan/Dushanbe: April/May (24-27 degrees celcius) or September/October (30-25 degrees celcius) Note: The Pamir Highway is best tackled in June/July/August.
Kyrgyzstan/Bishkek: April/May (21-26 degrees celcius) or September/October (26-20 degrees celcius) Note: The Kyrgyz mountains are best tackled in June/July/August.
Kazakhstan/Almaty: May/June (22-26 degrees celcius) or August/September (29-23 degrees celcius)
If you are cycling the whole region, your route timing should be centred around the extreme climate areas such as Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan (the cold comes early in the mountains) and Iran/Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan (unbelievably hot in June or July)!
Which country is the best to tour by bicycle?
Our favourite country for the cycling was Kyrgyzstan: the mountainous terrain is splendid, the roads are often good quality and the people are wonderful. We didn't get to Tajikistan/Pamir however, a favourite for many other riders in the region for its less travelled roads.
What is the road quality like?
We found sealed roads to be generally quite good in Iran and Kyrgyzstan, with an all time low in Turkmenistan! In general, roads are passable at best.
How much are basic hotels across Central Asia?
The most expensive countries for hotels were Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where $40 USD for a double room was common. Hostels were sometimes even more expensive!
Georgia and Kyrgyzstan were around $20 USD for a double room.
In Iran, we found hotels were the region's cheapest. We stayed in clean double rooms for $5-$15 USD regularly.
In Kyrgyzstan, guest houses and yurt camps are common in areas frequented by tourists. They are often around $7-$10 USD per person including breakfast for dorm rooms / yurts. Many of these locations allow you to set up your tent at a reduced rate.
Can you easily wild camp in Central Asia?
Most of the time it is not a problem. Even if people do find you, they're more often excited than bothered. We recommend hiding as well as you can, as drunk people stumbling into your camp at night have been known to be a problem in Central Asia.
Is it easy to hitch hike in Central Asia?
We got lifts with our loaded touring tandem when we needed and the truck drivers we got to know were incredibly kind and generous. We were never asked to pay and never waited more than a few minutes! We heave heard that if a driver was going to ask for payment, it would be in Kyrgyzstan because it is common for people to sell seats in their car/truck for a lower rate than a local bus – to make some money on the side.
What are the people like?
Friendly, kind, inquisitive, beautiful, inviting, hospitable, generous.
Which countries did you find most friendly?
In terms of hospitality, Iran, Turkmenistan, and the less-touristic areas of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are a step above the rest. Every day, people will ask you where you are from and whether you like their country.
You will often be invited to join people for local dining, drinking tea or even to stay the night at their family home. Sometimes people will present you with food, water and even gifts while you cycle along!
In any of these countries you can ask to camp in yards/fields or ask for water. We haven't been knocked back more than one time in one hundred!
The people in Iran are different from the rest: they are much more forward and will inquisitively come up to you in the street to ask for your phone number or email usually in exchange for theirs. They have a lot of questions for you and will reward you for your time. Some cyclists find being constantly stopped throughout the day annoying – we find it fortifying and incredible that so many people take time to meet you.
If I get invited to stay with someone, should I bring a gift?
Yes. In most places, a gift on arrival is an important ritual in hosting. We have given away all kinds of things, but the most universal gift we've found is a nice box of chocolates. Who doesn't like chocolate?!
Which country is the worst for female travellers?
We found the men in Georgia to be the most disgusting. Constant ogling, staring, sexual gestures and inappropriate touching. Men even tried to pull moves on Kat, despite knowing we are married, WHILE I WAS THERE! Interestingly, there was a noticeable difference in the way men treated Kat on the Turkish or Azeri sides of the Georgian border. Other women we've spoken to have had truly positive experiences in Georgia – usually while travelling in larger groups, so it is possible that we just had a bad run. You can read our trip diary from Georgia HERE to gain more of an insight.
We never really had problems with men in any other country in Central Asia.
Women may also feel a bit out of place in Iran; being covered up and in occasional circumstances where, due to cultural reasons, men do not acknowledge/address you and instead talk to any male you might be travelling with.
I'm a girl, how should I dress in Iran?
You can read Kat's post on Dressing for Iran HERE (coming soon).
Are there any areas where locals try to make you pay them for things that should be free, such as tap water or wild camping?
We have only been asked to pay for camping or water in areas frequented by tourists near Issy-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan. We believe it could be because there is a home stay culture there and locals feel like they deserve a slice of the pie.
What food should you look out for?
We particularly enjoyed:
- The bread in EVERY country in Central Asia! Especially 'barbari' bread in Iran and Tandir-cooked bread in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
- Georgian manti (dumplings) are incredibly delicious (especially with mushroom), rolled eggplant pieces with walnut paste and pomegranate seeds and Katchapuri Azeruli (an open boat of bread with butter, cheese, egg and salt).
- Homemade biscuits in Georgia.
- Lavangi chicken (a walnut paste filling) in southern Azerbaijan.
- Ku-ku and Eggplant/walnut paste/pomegranate in Iran.
- Tah-dig (crispy rice) and tah-chin (eggy rice) in Iran.
- Falafel in the southern cities of Iran (Esfahan and Shiraz).
- Iranian ice cream is sticky and delicious, you must try saffron and milk/banana.
- Potato somsa in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
- Lagman noodles and Plov in Uzbekistan.
- Dymdilma (vegetables and meat cooked slowly in a big wok) in any home in Kyrgyzstan.
- Tandir cooked bread-somsa (onion/meat) in specialty restaurants in Kyrgyzstan.
We didn't enjoy:
- Kymyz (horse) salty cheese balls and fizzy, fermented, slightly alcoholic horse milk in Kyrgyzstan
- The animal fat and offal inside soups in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
- Bubbly dough (fizzy yoghurt drink) in Iran
Do people throw rocks at you?
We haven't had any incident with children or adults throwing rocks at us in Central Asia.
Are the visas hard to obtain?
Yes and no. You can get everywhere if you plan ahead. Some countries require a letter of invitation (LOI) for your nationality (Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for Australians). Tour companies in Central Asia will charge you $40-$50 USD to give you a government-approved number. The best company we dealt with for LOIs was Stan Tours. Our Iran LOI took a really long time (two months) through Let'sGoIran, so we'd advise against them.
There are also countries such as China and Kazakhstan which seem to change their rules overnight regarding tourist visas and requirements, which can be a nightmare. Check out Caravanistan for the most recent visa information.
Which countries are easiest to get a visa?
Georgia will most likely give you a one year visa on arrival. Kyrgyzstan will give you two months on arrival.
Did you have problems at border crossings?
Our detailed visa and border crossing information can be read HERE.
Most border crossings were over in one hour or less with no trouble at all. The longest border crossings were entering Iran and Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan took us over six hours of waiting to get processed – not ideal on a five day transit visa!
What is this 'registration' in Uzbekistan?
Registration is a paper slip which hotels provide to verify that you stayed with them. The rules for registration are generally unclear, but two lines of thought exist:
- You need registration once every three days you are in Uzbekistan (most common information floating around).
- You need registration if you stay somewhere MORE than three days (the German embassy told this to our friend while we were in Tashkent).
We've heard that when you cross land borders to other countries you are almost never asked for registration. This rings true for us, but not for others. When you fly out there is more chance of a registration check. We've heard of people paying large fines or been purposely held up so that they missed their flight because of insufficient registration, but this could just be here-say…
We were given a tough time once at a police checkpoint regarding registration, but we think the officers were just after a bribe, which never came to fruition. Remember to play dumb!
Our advice is to get a number of registrations – better safe than sorry.
Where are the people the most beautiful?
Ah, in the eye of the beholder. Us Alleykat beholders believe that Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and southern Kyrgyz folk are among the most beautiful in the world!
How do you pronounce Kyrgyzstan?!
I love history, where should I visit?
Iran and Uzbekistan are the historical highlights for Central Asia.
Especially Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz in Iran, and Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
What language should I learn for Central Asia?
Russian is handy in every Central Asian country except Iran, where Farsi is spoken. A solid suite of Russian sentences will have you travelling smoothly!
How should I greet people?
A handshake is often all that is required to start a good relationship with a local. “Hello” and “how are you?” in the local language are very much appreciated too.
Should I pay a tip at restaurants?
Most restaurants will add 10-15% to the bill at the end for a tip, so it is not necessary. Run an eye down the bill to feel secure, but you'll usually be happy!
Do you have any videos on Central Asia?
We in fact have a whole series of them:
Click HERE for Georgia
Click HERE for Azerbaijan
Click HERE for Iran
Click HERE for Turkmenistan
Click HERE for Uzbekistan
Don't forget to read our stories from the road!
Click HERE for Georgia
Click HERE for Azerbaijan
Click HERE for Iran Part One
Click HERE for Iran Part Two
Click HERE for Iran Part Three
Click HERE for Turkmenistan
If you have any more questions about Central Asia, leave a comment below (or email us) and we'll answer them the best we can.