Our trip to Central Asia to see the 5 “stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has been very interesting in terms of the history, geography, people, and diverse political systems. We visited a total of 12 cities in these 5 countries over 2 weeks. Great trip but after awhile it became difficult to appreciate the same sort of food and mosques in all these cities!
The tour company we joined was called Advantour, and they are not cheap given that these are not expensive countries (average salaries are between $150 to $300 per month in most of these cities). But their service was great and everything was well organized from beginning to the end so it was worth it for us. The total cost for 14 days, after Visa fees and tips was around $4000 USD per person. I am glad we had joined them because we couldn’t have made it to see so many places on our own in 2 weeks as most of the places we visited were not transit friendly like other parts of the world.
I agree with Andrew that traveling is indeed so much more interesting and fun when shared with the right person. I used to love solo traveling because it feels liberating. But I have a hard time going back to solo travel now that I had done so many trips with Andrew. He is such a great partner and travel buddy! #FeelingGrateful
Below are some highlights for me:
- TURKMENISTAN – was definitely THE highlight of the “5 Stans” for us. It has the most interesting and unusual places to visit in Central Asia despite social media being banned in this country!
- According to the UN, only 5% of the population (250,000 people) use the Internet in Turkmenistan. The Internet is slow and expensive and there is no Wi-Fi in cafes and restaurants; Even the internet inside high end luxury hotels for foreigners was like dial up speed. And even if you do manage to go online, many websites will be blocked, such as: opposition party websites, human rights organizations, and western social networks. Access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and messengers like Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp, and even Telegram is denied here. The websites of many mass media corporations, including some of the Russian ones, are also blocked
- The capital city, Ashgabat is known as the city of love and city of lights. That’s why they call it AshgaVegas! On a sunny day, the city center shines glamorously due to the white marble. So much white marble was used in Ashgabat that it holds the Guinness World Record for having the highest density of marble buildings. What a beautiful city! Also, this is definitely one of the cleanest cities I have ever visited!
- Located in Derweze, Turkmenistan, the Darvaza gas crater (total area of 5,350 m2 with a diameter of 69 m and a depth of 30 m), also known as the Door to Hell or Gates of Hell, is a natural gas field collapsed into an underground cavern. Geologists intentionally set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas, and it is thought to have been burning continuously since 1971. Fascinating to witness 48 years of fire continuously burning!
- Turkmenistan is one of the least-visited countries in the world: it is estimated that less than 15,000 people visit the country annually. If it was easier to get a visa then I would definitely recommend my family and friends to visit this country.
- Turkmenistan is one of the most censored countries. It is so hard to legally get into the country that smuggling cartels are a better option for many. In 2017, the World Press Freedom Index ranked it 178th of 180 countries, just below Eritrea and North Korea.
- Turkmenistan possesses the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas resources as well as substantial oil resources.
- Since 1993, citizens have received government-provided electricity, water and natural gas free of charge. As a result, people do not have a habit of saving electricity, water or gas. A Turkmen could easily leave the gas on so they don’t have to buy matches to light it up again!
- There are no human rights organizations in Turkmenistan and judging from the \the fear in people’s eyes when asked about repression, it is a serious problem.
- Newlyweds must take pictures with a portrait of the president in the background. There must be at least three pictures with Berdimuhamedow in their wedding album. There is no formal rule for this, but officials in the registry’s office say that it is required.
- Turkmens long ago stopped questioning what they were told to do and why. During their twenty-five years of independence, they have experienced a lot. First, Turkmenbashi molded his nation like clay. Then the regime of petty tyranny was continued by the new leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and so the show goes on.
- There is no freedom of opinion in Turkmenistan at all. The mere idea that someone may not like something about Turkmenistan terrifies the locals. And you can forget about protests! People here do not know what protests are; they are afraid to criticize the government even in their own homes. And due to the long years of pressure from the government, Turkmens have learned to justify every stupid thing that happens to them.
Unusual Laws here:
- The president passes laws just because he has the power to do so; for example, he named the days of the week after his immediate family members.
- In 2004 Turkmenbashi banned newscasters from wearing make-up. Why? He said he couldn’t tell the male and female news readers apart and that made him uncomfortable.
- Car radios, lip-syncing, and recorded music were all prohibited.
- In September 2006 Turkmen teachers who failed to publish praise of the Turkmen leader would remain at a lower payscale.
- President doesn’t like dogs, so dogs are banned!
- In January 2018, the new president banned black vehicles in the city because he associates black with bad luck so, naturally, no one can drive a black car.
- Smoking is prohibited almost everywhere. You cannot smoke on the street or in a car; even hookahs are forbidden.
- There is no freedom of photography. It is prohibited to take pictures of airports, train stations, government buildings, marketplaces, and people in uniforms. The mere sight of a camera terrifies Turkmens, especially near government buildings.
- There are no laws in Turkmenistan; there is only the will of the leader.
UZBEKISTAN – is the 6th safest country in the world to visit.
- Samarkand is a city in south-eastern Uzbekistan – I love how this city is decorated with so many lights and bright digital signs on their lamp posts. The highlight here for us was the local spa where we got pampered for 3 hours with 2 hour massage, body scrub, peeling etc for $35/each only. Andrew experienced Russian bath for the first time and he likes it more than the Turkish bath!
- Prostitution and sex between men is illegal. Punishment ranges from a fine to 3 years in prison.
- Bukhara is an ancient city and the most holy city in Uzbekistan. it was a prominent stop on the Silk Road trade route between the East and the West, and a major medieval center for Islamic theology and culture.
TAJIKISTAN – has 94% of its land covered with mountains. It is said that at least half of the country lies at an altitude of at least 3000 m above sea level.
- Tajikistan is a fairly young country, gaining independence only in 1991, and being ruled by the USSR from the 1920s to 1991. It was one of the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union and was known as Tajik SSR.
KAZAKHSTAN – is the world’s largest landlocked country, and the ninth largest in the world – 65 time size of Switzerland.
- I didn’t expect to see fancy strip bars in Almaty which is Kazakhstan’s largest city.
- Kazakh men do not normally shake a woman’s hand in mixed company. Upon entering a room, they usually use both hands to shake hands with every other man in the room
- Kazakhstan’s traditional drink, kumis, has also been referred to as “milk champagne.” It is made from fermented mare’s milk and is believed to be a cure-all for everything from the common cold to tuberculosis.
- Kazakhstan has an unofficial taxi system. People wave on the street, cars stop, destination and price are discussed, and off they go!
KYRGYZSTAN – is about 70% mountains, which are extremely high; with dozens of peaks over 5000 m (16,400 ft), the tallest of which is Jengish Chokusu at 7,439 m (24,400 ft).
- Bride kidnapping is still prevalent in rural areas (but not officially)
- I was surprised to learn it’s cheaper to buy sex than a massage! Prostitutes offer sex starting from $7/hr compare to spa offering massages for $20/hr