The Stans – are a group of five countries namely Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. They were a part of Soviet Russia and even after separating from it post 1991, one can still see a lot of life in the Russian frame of mind – be in thinking, food, drinking or buildings. But at the same time there are contrasts in the very same things – they have a quite distinct thinking in each of the countries, food is very special and has unique flavors that vary city to city, and architecture goes back way before the Russians came to power. In fact, each of the countries are so distinct from each other its only for the sake of convenience for the less skillful traveller that they are grouped together as Stans!
Inspiration : I would name two major reasons why I travelled to Stans – History and Mountains! Uzbekistan has within itself three of the greatest (if not the best) cities of the ancient Silk Route trade and the connection of Mughals coming to India from Uzbekistan also brings in a lot of similarity in food, dressing and even vocabulary. It is as if travelling back in time tracing our roots back in history itself. These three cities have bore witness to the two greatest conquerors ever to have existed in history – Alexander and Genghis Khan! The marks of more than two millenia of travel and promise of beauty beyond description that drew these men, drew me in as well.
As for the mountains, there are famous ranges of Pamir which form a circular knot and are entirely within the boundaries of Tajikistan, 7000m+ high peaks of Tien Shan and a multitude of alpine lakes that dot across the seemingly endless grasslands of Kyrgyzstan.
The M41 highway which was a marvel of Russian engineering made this region accessible for travel and is famously knows as the Pamir highway – a road which skirts inches away from Panj river that forms the natural border of Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Hindu Kush ranges continuously tantalised us with the same views that it did when men walked across it for the first time and perished in huge numbers.
Now lets get down to details of my trip.
Visas : Each of these countries have different visas rules and they keep on changing all the time. Within the time I planned the trip and applied for visa, one of they country (Kyrgyzstan) became e-visa and things changed completely. Hence I would advice you to recheck things whenever you are planning your trip through them. I will give the details for each at the time of writing:
- Uzbekistan – The visa is a two part thing, one is a Letter of invite (LOI) that needs to be sourced from an agent sitting in Uzbekistan who can vouch for you and get an approval from Ministry of foreign affairs (MFA). Needless to say that they would ask you to book tour with them (and say that it is mandatory for Indians!) and so on. It is not! I was able to find a no tour-deal attached offer with Top-Chan hostel (check their page for more details). Once the letter is sourced, it would mention where you can obtain the sticker visa of Uzbek. It is not necessary to get this in India, you can get it even on the road while travelling like we did, in Azerbaijan of all places. The visa cost to be paid at the embassy might vary and the list of documents as well. I think we paid 45 euros per person in Azerbaijan, and only our letter of invite was enough there and no other docs needed. But in India, they might ask for flights and hotel bookings also.
- Tajikistan – its e-visa for everyone (link). Just fill the form online, make the payment and your visa will be arriving by mail in 2-3 working days. The e-visa is valid even for land border entries and we managed to cross from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan using the land border entry.
- Kyrgyzstan – when we applied and got it, the rule was similar to Uzbekistan visa regime (LOI and sticker visa from embassy). By Sep’17 the rule changed and now Kyrgyzstan is also e-visa (link) At the time of writing, this e-visa is not valid only for entry by Bishkek or Osh airport and from Ak-dzol checkpoint (between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan). If you want to enter from land border via Tajikistan like we did, then I would recommend sourcing LOI from here and then getting it done at an embassy of your choosing. We got ours at Tehran embassy. The letter of invite takes 10-15 working days sometimes so better to start the application process much earlier in time if you plan it like we did.
- Kazakhstan – same LOI + visa from embassy approach. But there is way to work around this if you just want to visit for 5 days you can take a transit visa which works best if you are flying into Kazakhstan from a long distance flight and then take another one to Uzbekistan few days later. It just costs 20USD and take 2-3 days from the embassy.
- Turkmenistan – Visas are only issued through an authorised agency which would automatically mean purchasing a quite expensive tour package with them. The only cheaper way around this is a 5 day transit-visa which can be take if you are travelling overland from Iran and onward to Uzbek or vice versa. For better details on this check out Carvanistan, specially their forums which are a treasure trove of information from travellers over visa reports and itineraries. I could not visit Turkmenistan as the month I was planning for had some National games going on due to which the Ministry was not issuing any transit visas at all.
Flights : The Stans remain a difficult place to fly-in to. Best connections in my opinion would be on Istanbul – Bishkek or Delhi-Bishkek route (via Pegasus airlines) or Air Astana flights to Almaty are plenty. Uzbekistan Airways also has direct flights from Delhi and one way flights can be purchased from them after you have explained your trip (if you are planning for multiple countries like us). Arya Enterprises in Delhi is their booking agent, you will have to go through them to book your flights.
Transport : The internal transport between each country varies
- Uzbekistan – we flew into Tashkent from Almaty and then took a train to reach Khiva. From there the next travels to Bukhara and then to Samarkand were by shared taxis that can arranged through the hotel or there are even fixed locations within the city where these shared taxis depart from. One can also use the train but they take more time than the taxis. There are flights as well internally but it is better to book them once you are within the country as exchange rates are pretty sketchy online.
- Tajikistan – one can reach Dushanbe to Khorog (a 14 hour ride) by share transport minibuses but from there to travel on the Pamir highway a 4X4 vehicle is needed. To arrange this either find people to pool up for the ride or arrange one for yourself beforehand. We wanted to keep this as packed plan as possible with several side-trips as well, hence we hired a driver with 4X4 Land cruiser from Dushanbe all the way to Bishkek for 17 days straight. This is definitely costly but allows one to be more flexible, make infinite stops along the way and also change plans as needed.
- Kyrgyzstan – the same driver and 4×4 took us across the border from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan and we did a 10 days trip there as well, before ending in Bishkek.
- Kazakhstan – we only stayed in Almaty and pretty much walked around the city. There are minivans running around that run on fixed routes also and also city bus. We did one day-trip to Charyn canyon which was through a group trip arranged through the hostel we stayed at. One can take cheap flights/overnight train to reach Astana if they decide to venture further.
Money Exchange: Although there are ATMs in almost all of the Stans, I would recommend carrying USD/Euros because a) It is quite handy to find a money exchange and, b) the value of the local currency fluctuates a lot so you might get more value of your USDs than by just using a debit/credit card to withdraw. Since they are all very less touristy destinations (except maybe Uzbekistan where there are tons of exchange shops/banks in the three silk road towns) it is better to exchange more amount for the road, specially if you are heading for Pamirs or deeper inside Kyrgyzstan. People are more willing to take payment in local currency than USDs and you can get better deals also.
Day by Day Itinerary : This is my day-by-day itinerary plan as I went along. Please understand that this is by no means the most ideal plan, as there could have been several more day trips, side trips, towns, sights, valleys included. We just tried to make most of the time we had. Since we flew in from Tehran (Iran) to Almaty (Kazakhstan), I am keeping that as the starting point.
Day 0 – flew into Almaty, reached hostel from airport and night stay at Hostel Nomads GH
Day 1 – roaming around Almaty city on own
Day 2 – daytrip to Charyn canyon on a minbus, arranged through the hostel
Day 3 – some more roaming around the city. Could have visited Big Almaty lake but weather wasn’t good that day, night stay
Day 4 – morning flight to Tashkent, taxi to hostel. got some money converted and booked train ticket to Urgench (rail head for Khiva which is 15 kms away). stay at Top-Chan Hostel
Day 5 – roaming in Tashkent on own
Day 6 – half day in Tashkent, evening catching train to Urgench, night in train.
Day 7 – reached Urgench by noon. bargained a taxi to drop us to the hotel in Khiva. half day roaming around in Old Town Khiva on own, night stay at Alibek B&B
Day 8 – whole day roaming around in Old Town Khiva on own
Day 9 – day trip to three of the mud castles around Khiva
Day 10 – shared taxi to Bukhara, it took 6 hours, reached hostel and stayed. Evening just roamed around the old town quarter a bit. stayed at Rumi hostel
Day 11 & 12 – whole day roaming around in Old Town of Bukhara on own
Day 13 – morning shared taxi ride to Samarkand, took 3 hours. checked into hostel. Evening visited Bibi Khamnum mosque. stayed at Abdu Bahodir 2 hotel
Day 14 & 15 – roamed around the entire sites in Samarkand on own
Day 16 – took an entire taxi for Tajikistan border (since we were three people now and had lots of luggage). We started at 7am and reached there by 2pm. The Uzbekistan border side checked all the luggage, mobiles and laptops for illegal videos etc, and any other contraband stuff. Promptly we were stamped out. Then we walked the 1 km stretch of no man’s land between the two countries and reach the Tajikistan border checkpoint. There only our e-visas were checked one by one, biometrics taken and we were stamped in without much hassle. We came out on the other side, exchanged our left over Uzbek currency into Tajik soms (albeit at a poor rate that one can expect at the border, but we had no other option) and in that money managed to agree a taxi driver to drop us to our hostel in Dushanbe after some haggling around. We reached our hostel in Dushanbe around 7pm, so roughly 12 hours long trip it was. stayed at Latifa hostel
Day 17 – We had pre-arranged for a 4WD Land Cruiser with a driver for the next part of our road trip across Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Day 18 – Dushanbe to Qalai Kum drive
Day 19 – Qalai Kum to a village inside Bartang Valley
Day 20 – some more driving inside Bartang Valley and then drive to Khorog
Day 21 – Khorog to Langar
Day 22 – Langar to Alichur via Bulunkul
Day 23 – Alichur to Murgab while making a sidetrip to Dzurkul
Day 24 – Murgab to Sary-Tash, crossing the Tajik-Kyrgyz border at Kyzyl-Art pass
Day 25 – Sary-Tash to base of Peak Lenin, and then drive to Osh
Day 26 – Osh to Arslanbob village
Day 27 – Arslanbob village to Toktogul
Day 28 – Toktogul to Kyzyl-Oi village
Day 29 – Kyzyl-Oi village to Kochkor
Day 30 – daytrip to visit Song-kul lake and back to Kochkor
Day 31 – Kochkor to Tamga
Day 32 – Tamga to Karakol
Day 33 – Karakol to Cholpon-Ata
Day 34 – Cholpon-Ata to Bishkek. stay at Friends guest house/hostel
Day 35 to 37 – free days in Bishkek
Day 38 – flight back to India
P.S. most of the above places where stay is not mentioned, we stayed at local resident homestays which we enquired for when we reached a particular town/village.