Travelling in Central Asia is like a fairytale. From the white peaks of the Kyrgyz mountains to the wild horses on the steppes of Kazakhstan. From the pearls of architecture in Uzbekistan to one of the world’s most closed countries of Turkmenistan and intriguing landscapes of Tajikistan. Central Asia lies off the beaten path for most of the tourists, but it intrigues and fascinates those adventurous ones. Here, I share with you my Central Asia travel guide and full Central Asia itinerary to help you plan your next backpacking trip to one of the world’s underrated regions.
CENTRAL ASIA TRAVEL
When I talk about my recent trip when I was travelling in Central Asia, I often get the question “what countries are in Central Asia”, and “Where exactly is it”? There is still not much information among western travelers about this part of the world. Well, when others miss out on the gorgeousness of those countries, we can enjoy the unique places hidden from the crowds.
You can travel through Central Asia in many ways and visit all, or only part of the “stans”. The “Stan countries” include Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. All Central Asian republics are different, and all are fascinating. The Central Asian itineraries vary from spending just a few weeks to a few months in the region. There is a lot to discover and the more time you have the better. Travelling the stans might not always be easy, and there are some things to know about Central Asia, that are helpful, but it is worth it.
CENTRAL ASIA ITINERARY
This Central Asia itinerary is very condensed and allows you to see the highlights of the region in a relatively short time. Obviously, more days would be recommended in each of the countries to be able to visit them properly, but unfortunately, this is not always possible. Some of us are trying hard to travel more with a 9-5 job and are limited with time. Hopefully, this itinerary will help you make the most of your time travelling Central Asia.
I took a trip to Central Asia this year and I covered a part of the silk road route. I managed to do some of the best things Central Asia has to offer, together with visiting quite remote places located entirely off the beaten path. But not any less fascinating.
Dive into the dazzling world of Central Asian countries.
Table of content
- Central Asia travel tips
- Backpacking Central Asia
- Safety in Central Asia
- Central Asia tours
- What countries to visit in Central Asia
- Best time to visit Central Asia
- Length of travel in Central Asia
- Point of entry and exit to Central Asia
- Visas for Central Asia
- Transport in Central Asia
- Money and prices in Central Asia
- Language in Central Asia
- Central Asia itinerary day per day, map of the route through Central Asia
- Central Asia itinerary per country
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CENTRAL ASIA TRAVEL TIPS AND TRIP DETAILS
Backpacking Central Asia
I was backpacking Central Asia, mostly on my own, with my boyfriend joining at the end. My travels are usually focused on budget backpacking, looking for unusual places and being close to local people. I prefer independent travel and also tend to value new experiences and things to do more than a relaxing time, and I am very active. Stan countries are perfect for that. Backpacking Central Asia is easy, cheap and probably the best way of exploring the region.
Safety in Central Asia
If you are concerned about Central Asia safety, you shouldn’t be. As a solo female traveller I felt safe in most of the places. However, as everywhere else, you need to be vigilant and cautious. Small pickpocket crime can happen anywhere and in touristy places, some of the locals might try to squeeze more money out of you than necessary. Those are just exceptions from the very nice rest.
Please, note that I haven’t been to Tajikistan or Turkmenistan yet, so cannot personally vouch for those countries. However, I’ve heard from other travellers that those countries are also generally safe.
Central Asia tours
If you don’t feel comfortable travelling in Central Asia on your own, you can look into some Central Asia tours, that are widely available. Viator offers some good looking tours, that you can check out:
- Kazakhstan 2 day tour to Charyn Canyon, Kolsai and Kaindy lakes – Check details here
- Son Kul Lake tour in Kyrgyzstan – Check details here
- Horse riding in Kyrgyzstan – Check details here
- 2 Days desert Yurt camp tour in Uzbekistan – Check details here
- 4 Days Pearls of Uzbekistan Tour – Check details here
What countries to visit in Central Asia
I managed to visit Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The region also covers Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Due to time limitations, the weather in the mountains and problems with visas to Turkmenistan I needed to exclude them from my Asian itinerary at the time.
Turkmenistan is one of the hardest countries to get to, as you either need to go there with a guide (which costs money) or apply for a transit visa. Transit visa only gives you 4-5 days in the country and can easily be rejected.
Best time to visit Central Asia
I visited the region in April/May 2019. While this is a perfect time to go to Uzbekistan with bearable temperatures, it’s not ideal for hiking conditions in Kyrgyzstan or mountainous regions of Kazakhstan. It is still possible to do some hikes in the lower parts of the mountains, or in the canyons, as well as visiting higher peaks with proper equipment. This is a quieter time in places, that can be popular with people otherwise.
If your main focus is Kyrgyzstan hiking, Tajikistan trekking, and otherwise high-altitude walking anywhere else, focus more on the summer months. In winter, early spring and late autumn many passes are still covered in snow and the roads might be impassable.
Length of travel in Central Asia
I spent a total of 20 days in the region. I needed to use three days for work in Nursultan (Astana) in Kazakhstan. The rest I used purely for traveling. Below you will find my 3 weeks Central Asia itinerary. With the region so vast and diverse, the more time you have to spare the better.
Point of entry and exit to Central Asia
For me, it was Nursultan (Astana) in Kazakhstan. The point of entry was connected to my work trip. However, Nursultan is also a good starting point in Central Asia for people coming from Europe. It’s well connected with Europe through Poland and Russia. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that the city is located quite far away north from other points of interest in this itinerary.
If you want to focus mainly on the southern parts, you can try to enter the region through Almaty, Bishkek or Tashkent, which are located closer to the main places covered here and are also well connected to the west.
Another alternative if you come from Europe is to travel by land and a ferry through Azerbaijan.
Visas for Central Asia
As a European citizen, I had a 30-day visa-free entry to all three countries. Most nationalities have free visa entry to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan (which has recently relaxed its visa rules). Tajikistan requires easy-to-get e-visa. Turkmenistan is the only country in the region that still holds a strict visa regime and can reject the majority of applications.
Check the information about the visa requirements for Central Asia before departing. You can read the latest visa information for Central Asia on the official country website. For Central Asia visas for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, you can click on the blue links, for Kyrgyzstan you can check in the embassy in your own country.
Transport in Central Asia
To move between the countries and inside them, I used planes, trains, local buses (marshrutkas), shared taxis and cars.
You can travel Central Asia by train, as it would be the fastest (apart from flying) on the long distances. Trains work well in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, not so much in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. Trains are quite fast and comfortable. There are three classes to choose from and all are fine.
Marshrutkas are the minibuses that travel either on short or long distances. They are usually small and cramped but it’s the cheapest option to travel around in Central Asia and a great one to meet locals.
The very popular mean of transport in Central Asia. Shared taxis are the cars where you share places with other people. Their price is normally a bit higher than the marshrutkas, but they can get you to the destination faster, as they don’t need to wait to fill up a lot of empty spaces.
There are airports in most of the cities around Central Asia and it’s quite easy to fly in and out. However, the tickets often get fully booked and the prices of the flights are not so cheap. I flew with Uzbekistan airways and Air Astana, both were fine. The best place to looks for flights is through skyscanner.net or on the carrier websites.
Money and prices in Central Asia
Central Asia is mostly a cash-driven society. Especially in Uzbekistan, don’t expect to be able to pay by a card or even find an ATM working with a foreign card. I’ve walked for hours in the heat with no food trying to find one that was working and just ended up changing the USD dollars with a local, as I had no other choice.
Take cash in USD dollars to exchange later. The best place to do it is in the bank, as the black market is now illegal in Uzbekistan.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, ATMs are easier to find, especially in the big cities and some places also take cards.
VISA cards are more common to be accepted than Mastercards. I used my Revolut Mastercard in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with no problems.
Prices in Central Asia are very affordable, with Uzbekistan being the cheapest of all the countries that I visited. Kyrgyzstan is slightly cheaper than Kazakhstan.
Language in Central Asia
Each of the countries has their own language, but many people are bilingual, with Russian being their second language. Not all of them though. I’ve had multiple situations of friendly Uzbek ladies chatting away to me in their local dialects and having the fun of me not understanding a word 😉
Russian is definitely helpful, and I recommend learning at least the basics. Especially reading the Cyrillic alphabet, it will help you a lot. Some people also speak English, but most are more comfortable with Russian. I used this Lonely Planet Russian phrasebook & dictionary and found it very handy!
What to pack for Central Asia
A few things that I recommend bringing when you travel to Central Asia:
- Revolut card for fee-free ATM withdrawals (some of the local ATMs will still charge a small fee, but it’s not the bank fee). Order your card here.
- US dollars in cash (especially for Uzbekistan)
- Water filter, especially if you plan on hiking. I recommend SteriPen, that also filters viruses or LifeStraw. You can buy SteriPen here, LifeStraw here.
- Russian phrasebook & dictionary – I used the one from Lonely Planet and found it very helpful. Buy it here.
- Sunscreen, always. I love this 50+La Roche Posay.
- Hiking shoes if you plan to hike
- Waterproof/windproof jacket, especially if you plan to be on the higher altitudes
- Good sunglasses for the harsh sun and higher altitudes
- First aid kit
CENTRAL ASIA ITINERARY DAY PER DAY
1-3 – Nursultan, Kazakhstan (can be reduced to 1 day or skipped)
3-4 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan
4-5 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan
5-6 – Bukhara, Uzbekistan
6-7 – Khiva, Uzbekistan
8 – Qalas, the desert castles, Uzbekistan
9 – Bishkek and transfer to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
9-13 -Karakol and around, Kyrgyzstan
13-14- Bokonboaveo, Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan
15 – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
16-20 – Almaty, Charyn Canyon, Lake Kaindy, Kazakhstan
CENTRAL ASIA MAP – MY CENTRAL ASIA BACKPACKING ROUTE
CENTRAL ASIA ITINERARY PER COUNTRY
KAZAKHSTAN CENTRAL ASIA ITINERARY
I started my Central Asia trip in the capital of Kazakhstan, Nursultan (previously named Astana). It has just changed its name a few days before my arrival).
I spent several days working and visiting Nursultan at the same time. Since I was initially on a business visa, I needed to leave the country if I wanted to travel on my own. The only way of doing it in a timely manner was by flying out. I flew to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and started the trip from there.
Alternatively, to go south instead of flying to Uzbekistan, you can go by train to Almaty and make the itinerary in the reverse direction. Another option would be to get to Shymkent in the south of Kazakhstan, visit the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve and then go by public transport to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Since my return flight back to Europe was also from Nursultan, I needed to finish the trip there. Before flying out, I spent some time in south Kazakhstan.
Where to stay in Nursultan:
Astana Marriott Hotel – I stayed there 4 nights for work and I can definitely recommend it. It’s located just next to Khan Shatyr (the shopping center that looks like a massive tent), and within a short walk to the city center and several restaurants. It also offers a spa, swimming pool, and a rooftop bar. Check prices and availability here.
The main city of south Kazakhstan is Almaty. It used to be the capital of the country and you can see it in its size and development. The city itself is very green and surrounded by the mountains. Full of good cafés (such a difference after drinking instant coffee in other parts of Central Asia), chic bars and restaurants, it’s a buzzing place perfect for chilling in for a few days.
In the proximity to Almaty lies Ile-Alatau National Park with glaciers and lakes. The place popular with locals and travelers alike is a Big Almaty Lake. If you have time, it’s also worth to go to Shymbulak ski resort and Medeo ice rink.
Where to stay in Almaty:
Hotel Tahar – located in the typical post-Soviet block of flats, it doesn’t look like a hotel from the outside. We stayed there twice, as we thought it was a good value for the price for both of us. Nearby, you can find cheap local eatery for breakfast (and not only). Also, a Georgian restaurant on the street next door is great. Check prices and availability here.
South of Kazakhstan
You can take a few days to travel in the south of Kazakhstan. We rented a car (you can check rental prices through rental cars or message some local companies) and we drove around for 2 days. The main points that we visited were the Charyn Canyon, village Saty and Lake Kaindy. Not far from there also lie the beautiful Kolsai Lakes, but we didn’t have time for them.
Where to stay in Saty:
Guest House Arcabay-Karligash – family-run guest house with home-made food that guests love. All the meals are included and the owners can also arrange transport to Kaindy Lake, Kolsai Lakes and back to Almaty. Check prices and availability here.
Days spent in Kazakhstan
4 days + 3 days in Nursultan for work
Places visited in Kazakhstan
Nursultan, Almaty, Big Almaty Lake, Charyn Canyon, Kaindy Lake with sunken forest, Saty.
What to add with more time
Kolsai Lakes, Altyn Emel National park, Aksu-Zhabagly Reserve, Turkestan, Chundza hot springs
There are several border crossings between Kazakhstan and neighboring countries. The main border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is the one on the way between Almaty and Bishkek. In the summer months, there is also another crossing opened that connects the east part of the country through Karkara Valley. However, the road closed in winter, spring, and autumn, so make sure you check the opening times before you decide to travel there.
The main border crossing in the south of Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan is Zhibek Zholy. You would need to take it if you travel from Shymkent to Tashkent.
Total cost in Kazakhstan (excluding Nursultan and flights)
For 2 people for 4 days: 69906 tenge (185 USD). This equals to 35 000 tenge or 92 USD per person.
UZBEKISTAN CENTRAL ASIA ITINERARY
Silk Road travel
In Uzbekistan, I decided to visit the main cities located on the ancient Silk Road route. This is the country that is famous for the places that must be put on the silk road itinerary.
I am not the biggest fan of the cities – I prefer outdoor adventure and off the beaten path travel. Luckily, the silk road cities in Uzbekistan, that I visited were really interesting. Even though they were sometimes crowded, it was mainly with local tourists from the region. This added to the fascinating and colorful vibe of those places. In Uzbekistan, I mainly used trains as transport and shared local taxis. I was travelling as a solo female in Uzbekistan.
I started my trip to Uzbekistan from Tashkent. I was quite tired, so I didn’t manage to see much of the city, but if you have time, spend at least half a day there and make sure to see some of the Soviet architecture, like the famous Uzbekistan hotel. A trip to the beautifully decorated Tashkent metro stations is also worth a go.
Where to stay in Tashkent:
Sunrise Caravan Hotel – I stayed there for one night after arrival. Location is central. The interior was really nice and wooden, with a clean bathroom and a comfortable bed with a curtain in a mixed dormitory room. Simple breakfast was included. They also offer private rooms. Check prices and availability here.
Tashkent Amir Khan Hostel – nice hostel, located close to the airport (I walked for my flight). I stayed in a female-only dormitory room and it was clean and comfortable. Plugs and curtains for each bed. Clean bathroom. Breakfast included. The staff were really nice and offered me a takeaway breakfast with no additional charge as I was leaving early for my morning flight. Check prices and availability here.
From Tashkent, I took a train to Samarkand, where I spent 1,5 day. The city has a busier vibe from other places in Uzbekistan, and the most famous landmark is Registan.
I managed to see everything on the first day after arrival, so during the second day, I was mainly walking around, talking to people, eating, drinking tea and wandering the streets. I would say that one full day there would be enough, but do not miss sunrise and sunset in Registan!
Where to stay in Samarkand:
B&B Emir – nice hostel, located close to Gur Emir complex and a short walk away from Registan. Traditional wooden interior, rooftop (it wasn’t fully ready when I was there though) and clean rooms. Breakfast wasn’t included, but there are plenty of places in the city where you can get food. Check prices and availability here.
After Samarkand, I visited Bukhara. Bukhara was much quieter than Samarkand, with the very distinctive old town. Again, I managed to see most of the places during the half a day in the old part of the city, so I wandered out of the city walls and explored other landmarks.
Where to stay in Bukhara:
Bukhara Rumi hotel – I stayed there for two night in a mixed dormitory room. There were bunk beds with curtains, which was nice. The building is rather old and has a courtyard inside. The toilet was a basic one. We had a good and very big breakfast, unfortunately, the owner didn’t want to give me anything for takeaway as I was checking out before breakfast was served. The wifi was working mainly in the common area. The location was good enough, but further from the tourist attractions. It was ok for a few nights. Check prices and availability here.
For nice hotels with a bit higher price range, Hotel Malika Bukhara with their spa center is a good choice. I wanted to stay in a beautifully decorated Boutique Hotel Minzifa that has traditional Uzbek architecture, but it was fully booked. It gets quite popular, so make sure to book in advance. Check prices and availability here.
My last city in Uzbekistan was Khiva. The old town there is still surrounded by the city wall and felt more touristy, as inside the walls you can mainly see the visitors. The mud walls of the buildings and walking off the main paths, as well as waking up for the sunrise on the city walls added more magic to my stay there.
Where to stay in Khiva:
Khiva Meros B&B – family-run hotel with rooftop terrace and wonderfully decorated ceilings. It’s located within the Old Khiva walls, perfect for peaceful strolls amongst the historical buildings and offering great sunset and sunrise views. It gets very popular and it’s hard to get a room, so be quick with booking. Check prices and availability here.
Desert Qalas of Karakalpakstan
I finished my trip in Uzbekistan with a day trip to the desert castles – qalas. I was looking forward to this part of the trip, as it sounded very unusual to me. The ruined castles located in the middle of the desert were empty and we could visit the walls in peace. It was a very interesting experience, that I can definitely recommend. The landscape reminded me a little bit of intriguing rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan in the Middle East.
I returned to Tashkent by flight from Urgench (the bigger town near Khiva) and moved from there to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
Days spent in Uzbekistan
Places visited in Uzbekistan
Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Desert Qalas (castles)
What to add with more time in Uzbekistan
Nukus, Monyaq, Aral Sea
Border crossing with Kazakhstan on the east part of the country is through Zhibek Zholy.
To get to Kyrgyzstan from Tashkent, you can go through Kazakhstan border crossing Zhibek Zholy, through Shymkent and back to Bishkek. Or you can go through the Fergana Valley in direction to Osh. Both options require at least 2 additional days for travel.
Means of transport
Trains, shared taxis, planes
Total Uzbekistan cost
For 5 days per person travelling solo: 1,321,209 som (154 USD)
KYRGYZSTAN CENTRAL ASIA ITINERARY
During my time in Kyrgyzstan, I focused on the northern part of the country. There are many things to do in Kyrgyzstan, especially if you like hiking and outdoor adventure. This is the country with some of the most beautiful Central Asia mountains. You can explore the numerous trails on foot or horses for weeks and even months.
Located on the eastern part of the Issyk-Kul lake, around 150 km from the Chinese border, Karakol is a city surrounded by mountains. One of the best spots for trekking in Kyrgyzstan with interesting culture and variety of places around to choose from. I’ve stayed there for a few nights, taking trips around into the outdoors.
Where to stay in Karakol:
Green Yard Hotel – family-run hotel with delicious home-made food, immediately stole my heart. The tranquility of the area, mountain views and the everywhere greenery made for a wonderful stay. Rooms are clean and sleek, colorful pictures of the region decorate the walls. Green Yard Hotel is famous for its breakfasts, and there is no surprise why – I could easily eat them several times a day, every day. And the tea (chai) with a selection of homemade jams and cakes! You got to try it. Check prices and availability here.
I also wanted to discover places located more off the beaten path in Kyrgyzstan. One of them was a hidden Sary-Jaz valley with the half-abandoned soviet city surrounded by the 7000+ meters high mountains of Tian Shan. This was a highlight of my trip to Kyrgyzstan.
Some of the other hidden places in Kyrgyzstan, that I could visit were canyons on the south shore of Issyk Kul lake. I had a chance to explore the region around Karakol and discover those unknown areas, thanks to Visit Karakol company, who invited me on a trip and my great travel guide, Ibraim. This local outdoor adventure company specializes in tours to off the beaten path places and takes people to the most beautiful parts of Kyrgyzstan.
After visiting the east part of Kyrgyzstan, with Karakol and Jyrgalan Valley, I was joined by Alex and we spent some time in the south shore of Issyk-Kul lake in Bokonbaevo. We stayed in a traditional yurt camp by the lake, from where we also organized a horse riding in the mountains. Amazing experience and very strongly connected to the local culture.
Where to stay in Issyk-Kul Lake:
Jurten Camp Almaluu – we stayed near Bokonboaveo, but still out of the city, by the lake in the traditional yurt camp. We had our own yurt with a fireplace and cozy mattresses. The food was served in the big common yurt and was delicious. The yurt camp also organizes the activities and we went horse trekking in the nearby area with them. The bathrooms were located outside, as well as showers, but there was hot water and everything was clean. Check prices and availability here.
After that, we were hosted in Bishkek by the local family of one of Alex’s friends, who treated us like the kings. The hospitality of the local Kyrgyz people is outstanding.
Bishkek is the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. Contrary to what you can see on the internet, I actually like Bishkek and I think there is a lot to do there. The city is surrounded by mountains and it’s very easy to get to the national park straight from the city center.
Where to stay in Bishkek:
In Bishkek, we stayed with a local family, but some of the recommended hotels in Bishkek are:
Days spent in Kyrgyzstan
Places visited in Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek, Karakol, Sary-Jaz valley, Jyrgylan valley, Issyk-Kul lake, Bokonboaveo, Canyons – Skazka canyon, Canyon of Forgotten rivers, Mars canyon
What to add with more time
Spend more time in the mountainous areas, visit Song Kul lake and lakes in the region, go on a road trip to the south via Pamir highway, visit more known places like Alakol, Altyn Arashan, Jeti Oguz, Burana tower
The easiest way to get from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan is by marshrutka (local bus) from Bishkek to Almaty. It takes 5 hours and goes through the main border crossing.
In the summer the Karkara Valley crossing is also open, that makes for a shortcut when coming from Karakol area into Kazakhstan.
The main crossing with Uzbekistan is through the Fergana Valley.
Total cost in Kyrgyzstan
The total cost of my trip to Kyrgyzstan is hard to estimate since part of my tour was in collaboration with Visit Karakol, and during other days we were hosted by the local family. I will try to write a post about the general prices for items in Kyrgyzstan to help you with estimates (spoiler alert – it’s not expensive! A little bit more expensive than Uzbekistan, but cheaper than Kazakhstan).
Read more about Central Asia:
Would you use this plan for Central Asia trip? Would you like to add any places? What is your Central Asia itinerary? Let me know in the comments!
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