The steppes of Central Asia
The steppes of Central Asia

Journey: Central Asia 2009

In 2009 Comtourist made a one month journey through the Centrals Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Each of these former Soviet republics that once lay on the famous Silk Road boasts many cultural and historic and natural treasures. These countries were also heavily influenced by the Soviet Union with many leftovers that remind of the Soviet period. Our journey trough Central Asia was probably the most beautiful journey we have made so far.

Our initial plan was to visit all Central Asian countries (since it is our goal to visit all former Soviet republics) but this turned out to take to much time. We decided to skip Tajikistan for this trip and hike trough the beautiful Pamirs another time. Our final travel scheme started in Kazakhstan where we would travel from Astana trough the North East to Almaty. Next would be Kyrgyzstan were we planned to do some relaxing at Lake Issyk Kol and the Ala Archa mountain area before we would explore the capital Bishkek. From Bishkek we would fly to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, next to Khiva, the Aral Sea and then on to Turkmenistan. After three days in Turkmenistan we would go back to our final destination Tashkent via the famous Silk Road cities Bukhara and Samarkand. We had a month for this trip so a very tight schedule was needed to make it happen. Go to the Central Asia Photo page to see some of the photo’s we shot during our holiday.

Trying to cope with the Uzbek heath near the Khiva city walls

Typical Silk Road

Map of the route we travelled trough Central Asia in 2009

Our route trough Central Asia

Getting the visa

The first thing we had to arrange were the visa needed in all countries we would visit. Kazakhstan (1 week, €26) and Kyrgyzstan (2 weeks, €75) visa procedures are straight forward, no invitations are needed and embassy waiting times are reasonable. Arranging the visa for Uzbekistan (1 week, €60, letter of invitation) was another matter, a letter of invitation is required, which requires an employers declaration to obtain. A tourist visa for Turkmenistan (2 weeks, €41, organised tour) can only be obtained when booking an official guide for the period spend in the country. It is also possible to get a transit visa for three days which does not require an official guide. We had some weeks delay for our Turkmenistan visa as procedures were halted for fears of importing the swine flew. In the end we had all our visa arranged a day before we had our flight to Astana!

A visa is required to travel in Kazakhstan, it is not expensive

Kazakh visa

Always get an entry stamp on your visa when entering Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan

Kyrgyz visa

An Uzbekistan visa will take some time and administration to get

Uzbek visa

We almost could not get a Turkmenistan visa due to the Swine Flu

Turkmen visa

Travel arrangements

Not many operators fly from Europe to central Asia so we had to be creative to get some affordable flights. Flying Aeroflot was one option but long stopovers in Moscow were a great disadvantage here. We decided to fly to Astana with KD Avia a Russian airline operating from and flying via Kaliningrad. For the flight back we booked with Latvian budget airline airBaltic via Riga. We decided to hire a driver and guide for the week in Kazakhstan, this because we had to cover great distances in area’s were hardly any tourists come. We booked most of the transfers and hotels in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan ahead to avoid losing time making travel arrangements. Four days in Turkmenistan were totally arranged. Having most of the travel scheme fixed is less adventurous then just buying a plane ticket and takes away most of the flexibility but it would allow us to get the most out of a month in Central Asia!

Kazakhstan: land of the endless steppes

One of the big questions we faced planning our journey was what part of Kazakhstan we should see and how much time we could spend there. This enormous country has many beautiful areas like the Altai mountains, the Tien Shan mountains, Aksu-Jagably nature reserve, the Aral Sea, Lake Balkhash, its endless Kazakh Steppe in the North and much more. Our biggest wish was to visit Baikonour cosmodrome but this turned out to expensive and actually easier to realize from Russia. Finally we decided to travel from Astana to Almaty via the North East of the country. Astana the country’s new capital was everything we expected with bombastic government buildings, crazy architecture and many flashy monuments. From Astana we drove to Kurchatov the centre of the soviet nuclear programme and once the most secret city of the USSR. From Kurchatov we went over the steppe to Karkaralinsk and then Karaganda the centre of Stalin’s prison camps (the Karlag). From Karaganda we took the night train to Almaty probably the most modern and buzzing city of Central Asia. Photos: Kazakhstan

Bayterek Tower, the symbol of Astana the new Kazakh capital

The Bayterek tower in Astana

Taking a break during our journey through the Kazakh steppes

Kazakhstan’s endless steppe’s

Soviet architecture of the World War II memorial in Panfilov Park

World war 2 memorial in Almaty

Kyrgyzstan: a lake, a mountain, a museum and an Air Force base

We had decided that Kyrgyzstan should provide some nature, leisure and relaxation in our travel schedule. So we hiked two days in the beautiful Ala Archa mountains and shared a BBQ with the friendly Kyrgyz. Then we spend two days on the beach in a resort on Lake Issyk Kul. The capital Bishkek is one of the most interesting cities of Central Asia, little has changed here since the Soviet era. The absolute highlight of Bishkek is the Lenin museum that hasn’t changed a bid over the last thirty years! The final treat in Kyrgyzstan was Manas International Airport that functions as the main US Air Force base for the war on terror in Afghanistan at the same time. Photos: Kyrgyzstan

Large boulders around Ala Archa River that came down from the mountains are excellent for some climbing and other fun

Ala Archa’s great nature

The Lenin museum in Bishkek

KC-135 Stratotankers are used to refuel allied fighter and bomber aircraft during missions above Afghanistan

Manas Air Force base

Uzbekistan: treasures of the Silk Road

Just the name of cities like Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand (should) make the heart of any history enthusiast beat faster. Far away oriental places conquered by Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, explored by Marco Pole and pictured in many classic novels. Uzbekistan with its extensive historical and cultural heritage is the pearl of Central Asia and was the country where we would spend most of our time during the trip. We started in the capital Tashkent, flew to the ancient Silk Road city Khiva and from there undertook an expedition to the Aral Sea. Next up were four days in Turkmenistan ending in Merv from where we drove to Uzbekistan’s holiest city Bukhara and then the most famous Silk Road city Samarkand. We had to pass eight checkpoints but finally made it back to Tashkent, the final destination of our journey. Photos: Uzbekistan

Abandoned fishing ship rusting away in the old Moynaq harbour

A ship in the Moynaq desert

Beautiful white corridors Inside the 16th century Kalon Mosque

Inside Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque

The front entrance of the Tilla Kari Medressa on Registan square

Tilla Kari Medressa in Samarkand

Turkmenistan: land of the golden man

Turkmenistan was firmly heading our "crazy countries to visit" ranking so anticipation was running high when we crossed the Uzbek/Turkmen border. There is certainly no shortage of crazy dictators in Central Asia, or any other former Soviet republic for that matter, but Turkmenistan has always been the unrivalled champion in this league! And how did it go down..? Well, in a way Turkmenbashi country lived up to it’s reputation with big golden statue’s of the deceased leader and policemen on every steer corner of Ashgabat. On the other hand is Turkmenistan very similar to any other Central Asian country with friendly people, lots of shaslick, moderate Islam and corrupt politicians. Most striking was that the Turkmen macho men actually came closest to golden boy Borat Sagdiyev! We entered Turkmenistan via the Kojell border close to Dashogus, our guide and driver picked us up here and we started in the ancient city Koyne Urgench. We flew from Dashogus to Ashgabat the next they from where we drove to Merv a couple of day’s later. From there it was back to Uzbekistan trough the Karakum dessert. Photos: Turkmenistan

The ancient Kho-rezmshah II Arslan mausoleum in Konye Urgench

Arlan II mausoleum in Konye Urgench

Former Turkmenistan president Turkmenbasy shining in the sun

Turkmenbasy statue in Ashgabat

A window of Kyz Kala fortress in the ancient Turkmen city of Merv

Kyz Kala fortress in Merv