Let’s cut right to the chase – I haven’t met a single American traveler since I arrived in Central Asia about a month ago. Not on the overnight trains in Kazakhstan, not hiking in Kyrgyzstan, not on the Caravanistan forums I’ve been digging through for the rest of my travels in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan.
Hello, fellow Americans…where are you?!
As an American myself, I can understand some of the anxieties associated with traveling in this region. We aren’t taught much about it in school – except for the occasional brainwashing that every country ending in “Stan” is bad – and our media coverage of the region is sparse at best. Most Americans can’t even point out a single one of the Central Asian countries on a world map, and the ones who can often marvel at how far away the region seems from our own shores.
We also don’t get much exposure to this region in our everyday lives. Back in the United States, we don’t often see Kazakh restaurants or Uzbek snack bars. The Kyrgyz Embassy in Washington DC lies in a quiet neighborhood near Rock Creek Park. I’ll be totally thrilled the next time I see a bowl of ashlanfu in an American food market, or someone wearing a kalpak on the DC metro.
Despite the lack of Americans here, I believe that Central Asia is a pretty amazing destination for American travelers. There’s something here for everyone – from Soviet and Silk Road history to stunning hiking opportunities, a unique culinary scene and access to some of the most well-preserved nomadic traditions in the world.
So, my dearest fellow Americans, I’m a little baffled as to why you aren’t coming here.
What Exactly is Central Asia and Why Should I Go?
The region of Central Asia, by most definitions, consists of Asian countries that comprised the former Soviet Union. Today, most sources include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in the greater Central Asia area. As many of these countries are still working on developing their economies following the fall of the Soviet regime, tourism is starting to become more and more important. Believe it or not, there’s actually already a burgeoning tourism scene in the region. Most tourists I’ve met are from Europe or Russia.
When I told people about my upcoming trip to Central Asia, the most common question I got was, “What is there to see there?” You may picture miles of flat steppe and nothingness. However, the variety in landscapes, history, and culture here absolutely floored me. Traveling to Central Asia will give you a unique glimpse into an important and vast area of the world that’s still relatively untouched by tourism.
So Why Aren’t Americans Traveling in Central Asia?
So, if Central Asia is such an attractive region to explore, why aren’t Americans coming here? These are some of the main cited reasons that prevent Americans from traveling in Central Asia (and why they’re pretty much all false).
1. It’s Too Hard to Get There
I won’t lie and tell you that it’s easy to get to Central Asia from the United States. It’s not. Getting to the major cities of Almaty or Bishkek by plane from the USA would require a layover in Europe or the Middle East. However, it’s not any more difficult or time-consuming to get here than a place like Thailand, which sees a huge amount of American tourists each year. A quick search says that a flight to Thailand from New York would take 20 hours minimum, and a flight to Almaty from New York would take 15 hours.
If you’re coming from the United States, you’ll most likely have a layover in Moscow, Istanbul, or Dubai. Flights typically run over $1,000 for a round trip, but you can generally find good deals by searching on CheapOAir.
2. It’s Dangerous/There Are Terrorists
For some reason, many people associate Central Asia as a terrorist hotspot. Recent news about ISIS killing two American cyclists in Tajikistan doesn’t help this image much, either. We’ve come to associate anything with a “-stan” in the name as a dangerous place, but it’s a really unfair assumption
On the contrary, Central Asia is a very safe place to travel – in fact, the US State Department gives Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan a safety level of 1 (with 1 being “exercise normal precautions” and 4 being “do not travel”), and Tajikistan a safety level of 2. If this were really a hotspot for danger and terrorism, I think the US government would have caught on by now.
After over a month of travel here, I can say that, anecdotally, the most dangerous things I see here are road safety (the drivers are nuts) and food poisoning (I’ve gotten it on more than one occasion here).
3. It’s Difficult to Travel Here
For those who have researched traveling here, you might have been deterred by claims of difficult transport systems and rampant corruption. I get it, especially if you’re working with limited vacation days. However, in my experience traveling solo in Central Asia, it’s actually fairly easy to get around the region if you plan your route in advance. First of all, there’s a pretty substantial bus/minibus system between cities and across borders in the region. The buses rarely cost more than a few USD and you can see most of each of the countries using them. I speak zero Russian or Kyrgyz, and I’ve still found the transportation systems here pretty easy to use.
Where there are no available buses, like to certain national parks, you can easily hire a driver for a few days. This isn’t the cheapest option, but it’s very easy to work with local tourism boards to organize this. It’s an especially good option if you have limited time in the area. If you’re feeling brave (or frugal) hitchhiking within and between cities is also an option.
For me, the hardest struggle has been with the language barrier. There aren’t too many people who speak English in this region. However, the difficulty of communication is offset by how incredibly hospitable and kind the locals are. Locals invited to tea more times than I can count, and offered me free stays and meals in almost every city I’ve visited. I can’t say the same about many of the places in the world that I’ve traveled in the past.
4. I Can’t Do Anything There With Limited Vacation Days
Because this region is so vast, it’s easy to think that you need several months to explore it. For the average full-time worker in the United States, this perception may make Central Asia feel inaccessible. However, in just one week in Kazakhstan, I spend two days in bustling Almaty, swam in a turquoise glacial lake in Kolsai Lakes National Park, hiked through a gorgeous red Charyn Canyon, and watched the sunset over a giant sand dune in Altyn-Emel National Park.
Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, in one week I traveled to some of the most remote regions of the country – largely by public transport! Before you write off Central Asia as a travel destination, read some of my upcoming posts and maybe you’ll change your mind…
5. I Don’t Know Anything About It
From my own experience, this is the #1 reason why Americans don’t travel to Central Asia – because we really don’t see a lot of information about it. Generally, we don’t see much in the media about the ‘Stan countries. Therefore, we don’t have any clue about the vast array of attractions that are available for travelers here.
This lack of information might lead people to think there’s nothing here, but the reality is that tourists in this region can experience things that aren’t available anywhere else in the world. Silk Road history? It’s here. Beautiful nature? Check. Hikes for days? Lace up your boots. An intimate glimpse into the lives of semi-nomadic shepherds? You can’t miss it. Here, you can sleep in yurts, swim in salt lakes, watch nomadic games, and discover some of the fascinating traditions here. After visiting many places around the world, I can easily say there’s nowhere like Central Asia for travelers who are looking for a unique experience. Yes, even if you only have a few vacation days to see it.
So what are you waiting for? Come enjoy some tea, boorsok, and breathtaking mountain views in the company of some of the most hospitable people in the world.