How I Blew My Budget in Central Asia

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Central Asia was supposed to be cheap. I was supposed to stay in yurts and with local families and eat cheap street food. The money I saved in the ‘Stans was supposed to make up for the expense of Russia and my splurges in adding Italy and Turkey to my itinerary.

My total budget for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was $4,625.00 for an estimated 84 days, or $55 per day. Removing Turkmenistan from the equation (where I knew I would have to hire a guide to accompany me, thereby raising the cost), and it came down to about $42 a day, which would have made the ‘Stans some of the cheapest countries I visited.

In the end, I spent $6,870.24 over 90 days, which comes out to…
 

$76.34 per day.

 
So what happened? How did I spend nearly $2,000 more in Central Asia than I originally planned?
 

1. Outdated information

 
In formulating my budget, I relied in large part on the Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia that was published in 2010 (meaning most of the research was completed in 2009). I took into account the fact that prices would likely be higher by the time I visited in 2012, but either the original research was off or prices increased much more rapidly than I could have expected. For example, Lonely Planet said a taxi from Khujand, Tajikistan to the Uzbekistan border should cost $15. I figured that probably would have increased to around $20 or $25 but in reality I could not find a taxi that would do the trip for less than $40. The same was true when I looked for a taxi from Bukhara, Uzbekistan to the Turkmenistan border – Lonely Planet quoted $20, most taxi drivers told me $60 and I eventually negotiated down to $40.

In the end, almost everything was more expensive than I anticipated.
 

2. Lack of budget accommodations

 
This may come as a surprise, but it was very difficult to find decent budget accommodations throughout most of Central Asia. Outside of Kyrgyzstan, hostels don’t really exist yet. In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, the cheapest hotel room I could find was just over $30 a night and was possibly one of the worst places I have ever stayed. I understand there are one or two decent guesthouses in the capital that NGO workers frequent, but they fill up far in advance. Other travelers told me of a hotel in Khujand that cost $30 or $40 a night and didn’t even have running water or constant electricity. I played it safe there and paid $70 for my room.

Kazakhstan was the worst, with almost nothing going for less than $30 and anything decent costing at least $60. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were the most budget-friendly, with plenty of quality hostel options in Kyrgyzstan costing as low as $5 a night and nice guesthouses throughout Uzbekistan for as little as $15, including breakfast and wi-fi.

Aral Sea, Kazakhstan
 

3. Expensive excursions

 
Visiting Central Asia is enticing because it is off the beaten path and for the most part devoid of massive hordes of tourists. At the same time, that lack of tourist infrastructure can make visiting more expensive, especially when you want to see anything outside of the main cities. Demand generally isn’t high enough for most tour companies to run any regularly scheduled group tours, so instead you have to plan things individually – which can cost a lot! The pilgrimage that I took to Beket-Ata? Tour companies were quoting me as much as $800 for a day trip! My half-day excursion to the Aral Sea ran a few hundred dollars, which I managed to split with another tourist, bringing my share down to $160. A couple hiking excursions also cost me close to $50 each – and would have been more if I had not found other travelers with whom to share the cost.

There were several other excursions I would have liked to have done, but I couldn’t justify the extra cost.
 

4. Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan

 
Remember how above I mentioned that I budgeted extra for Turkmenistan because I knew I would have to hire a guide to accompany me throughout my visit? This would not have been necessary if I had simply visited for a maximum of five days on a transit visa, but I wanted to experience more – I wanted to go on a tourist visa and get far off of the non-existent beaten path in Turkmenistan. In order to do so, I had to hire a guide and book a pre-planned itinerary. When I initially started working with StanTours in 2009 (yes, 3 years ago!), they gave me estimates around $1500. Even a year before I actually went, it was looking like the trip should cost around $2000. But when things were all said and done, my total expense for 11 days and 10 nights in Turkmenistan was $2,797.27.

Did this make me happy? Not at all. Do I regret doing it? Not at all. Turkmenistan was by far one of the most amazing experiences of my life and the highlight of my entire thirteen month journey. It was worth every penny.

Turkmenistan
 

5. Desperation for comfort

 
More than anything, I blew my budget out of my desperation for comfort. As I have written before, traveling through Central Asia was difficult. I spent long hours driving through the desert with no air-conditioning and even longer hours sweating on stuffy, crowded trains. So when it came to choosing accommodations, I was in no mood to settle for a place that lacked A/C or good wi-fi. After a month of living with local families in the mountains of Tajikistan, I splurged on my ten days in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, staying at a hotel that ran me $50 a night (and would easily have cost $150-$200 in the United States).

After my adventure in Turkmenistan, I arrived in Khiva completely exhausted and lost patience when the room I booked for $15 a night lacked a working shower, television or wi-fi. I bolted for a much nicer hotel that ran me closer to $50 a night instead.  As I searched for a hotel in Aktau, Kazakhstan, every place costing less than $60 had such horrible reviews I didn’t want to risk staying at any of them. So instead, I booked a room for $80 a night and used credit card points to defray the cost (so yes, taking that into account, my actual amount spent is $320 higher).

Even when I got to Kyrgyzstan and had a plethora of hostels from which to choose, I couldn’t stand the idea of staying in a dorm room again and opted instead to pay a few extra bucks for a private room. It wasn’t much and it was well worth it.
 

I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting Central Asia.

 
There are so many things I loved about it and I don’t regret breaking my budget at all. But, I do want people to be prepared for the fact that it is not an ultra-cheap region to visit like Southeast Asia. Do your research, prioritize what excursions are most important for you to do, be realistic about the level of comfort you need and then budget accordingly.

Share Button

40 thoughts on “How I Blew My Budget in Central Asia”

  1. What an adventure in patience and your pocket-book that was. The good thing is that in a few years you will be laughing at this all and recount as all part of the fun in your travels. I can relate though. When i went to Dusseldorf, Germany I expected it to be expensive. I looked up hotel prices and hostels. I booked a hostel and when I got there it was more than expected. I had to bolt and took a room in a hotel off the beaten path. It was worth the quiet and relaxation time but at the same time, I only marginally enjoyed the city so I felt it was $ slightly wasted up to today. I could say worst for Koln as I HATED that place but luckly I was able to stay in a cheap hostel that served breakfast and then left the city the next day.

    1. Definitely! Although like I said, it was all quite worth it.

      Funny, I hated Koln too – one city I will absolutely never go back to.

  2. Seriously it is always the excursions that do it. We had to be selective if we were to hit our £10 a day budget. Hard to do when there are so many cool things to do though… but over $76 a day!? nuts! ;p

    1. Wow, 10 pounds a day? That’s like $20, right? 100% impossible in Central Asia. You can’t even find accommodations for that little in any country besides Kyrgyzstan.

      1. It’s definitely possible to do a lot cheaper. I don’t think I spent $20 a night anywhere in Central Asia in the three months I was there, and I spent less than $1000 per month overall. In Dushanbe I spent 60 somoni at the Hotel Farang (next to the Circus), and I also stayed at a guesthouse for 73 som. These were some of the higher prices I paid on my trip. Kazakhstan would have been quite expensive if not for the new Apple hostel in Almaty and the cheap train station hotel in Astana. Turkmenistan and Ashgabat would have been expensive, except I was on a 5-day visa and spent my nights in transit.

        If you are willing to do shared transportation and wait for the taxi to fill up, then the prices in 2012 were pretty much exactly what LP quoted, even when it seemed ridiculously low (especially in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with their subsidized petrol). From Penjikent to Dushanbe I paid 80 som for a seat in a car. The obvious downside is that you have to wait for the cars to fill up, which can sometimes take a few hours if you arrive at a non-peak time. I also wonder if part of the difference is that, even though I don’t speak Russian, Tajik, or a Turkic language, I can physically pass for everything from an Iranian to a Kyrgyz: I think that in some senses I am seen as a lower-class foreigner, and probably seen as less exploitable than your (or their) stereotypical Westerner. I’m sure being male doesn’t hurt, either.

        Private excursions would be the big budget killer, though. I wasn’t willing to spend the money to take private side-trips, and I think this makes a big difference.

        1. I think it all depends on the level of comfort you want. I was there in July/August when it was over 100 degrees every day so A/C was a must. I was also working online so wifi was a must. I definitely saw options that were cheaper in many places but they were lacking one or both of those things or had such bad reviews I didn’t want to risk it. In Dushanbe, the cheapest places were all booked up before I got there – I tried several places that were like $15 a night and they had no room – so I asked the organization I was volunteering with to book me a place and they gave me a choice of a $35 a night place or $45 a night.

          I planned to splurge in Turkmenistan as I really wanted to do more than the 5 day transit visa allowed so I had to pay for a guide at all times outside of Ashgabat and for the 4WD to take me into the desert to Dekhistan and to the Yangykala Canyon. The only other excursion I splurged on was to the Aral Sea and I managed to split that with another traveler.

          I did share taxis almost exclusively except for to the Turkmenistan border from Bukhara and to Khiva from the border. And I understand enough Russian to know that I was paying the same as everyone else in the car, so it’s not like I was getting gouged as a foreigner. In my experience, the LP prices were way off.

          1. Interesting.

            I was in Xinjiang in August, and it was around 40-45°C (100-110°F) when I was there. The only AC was on buses, and even some of them didn’t have that. If you really needed AC then I can see this breaking your budget. Needing 24/7 wifi would also be a problem, as I mainly used internet cafes outside of the few cheap places that had wifi.

            Like I said, I found prices from LP to be surprisingly accurate (then again, I had just been in China where they are stupendously inaccurate), at least outside of Kazakhstan. Did you find that their marshrutka rates were just as inaccurate? Looking at my notes, I paid 300 som on the Karakol-Bishkek route, whereas LP quotes 250. A single room at the Neofit in Kochkor was 450 (including breakfast & wifi) as compared to LP’s 780, though I visited in late September. Bishkek-Osh was 1000 som from Osh but 1300 return—both via car (didn’t see any Marshrutkas doing this route)—which on average is cheaper than LP’s quoted 1200. 400 som for Bishkek-Almaty and 1300 tenge to return, compared to LP’s 300 som and 1000 tenge; not an egregious difference in my opinion. Prices for transport in the Pamirs was more like double the LP pricing, and the Bukhara-Urgench run was 50,000 as opposed to LP’s 35,000 but also took 3 hours longer than LP claims. Hotel prices in Uzbekistan were pretty close for the most part, and it seems from LP that everywhere I stayed in Uzbek had AC though I wasn’t there until early November so it was never needed. Places in Samarkand and Bukhara were somewhat flexible in their pricing and I paid LP prices or less ($10 in Samarkand for decent private with bathroom and $12 in Bukhara for really nice new place with proper bathtub and satellite TV on US election day), but Khiva and Tashkent were slightly more than LP quotes. Stayed in one place near the train station in Urgench without registration for $5 after arriving late and other share-car passenger tried to scam me into paying 30,000 to share taxi to Khiva with her.

            So I don’t know. I’m sure that prices in some places in Uzbekistan were a bit lower because I was in low season. I know in a couple of instances I paid less than the rates some locals get for transportation by happening on local tourists who just wanted someone to help defray their travel costs, and I know I overpaid in others. But for the most part the LP pricing data was surprisingly accurate in comparison with the China guide, even if the actual travel information could be very hit or miss.

            But where did you find reviews of places to stay? Did you use tripadvisor or something?

  3. Excellent post, Katie. Thank you.
    I can with the current point in my career to accumulate $1,500(~43600 Rubles) per month for travel, but this region is likely to remain for me a white area on the map into the next year or two.

  4. Despite the budget issues, it looks like an amazing trip! Excursion-based trips always cause me budget issues! Even had the exchange rate been the same, the amount of money I spent in Australia because I wanted to see the GBR and do other adventure-based things far topped the amount I’ve spent in any other place.

  5. that was a really useful and interesting post! I somehow always assumed it’s much cheaper in Central Asia but then Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia were slightly cheaper than Poland but not oh-so-cheap!

  6. This is really useful to know, thanks for sharing. We have wanted to visit Uzbekistan, and what we’ve found in researching some of these countries is that even though these countries are cheap, they are not necessarily cheap to visit because they require you to go on guided tours in order to get around or that your options are so limited if you don’t know the language. Good to know. It’s not a deal breaker for us, but definitely important to understand and consider.

    1. Uzbekistan is probably the one of the easier ones to get around. Samarkand and Bukhara are big tourist destinations so most hotel staff speak English and a lot of signage is in English. There is a high speed train that runs between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara as well, which makes it pretty easy to go from one city to the other. I met several other tourists traveling independently in Uzbekistan who did not speak any of the language and they were getting by just fine.

  7. it is more expensive than you plan but honestly i think you got ripped off a little. 🙂

    you can get hotels in dushanbe for $15 (75 somoni) right in the centre. they’re the same as you describe except that’s half of what you paid.

    As for the taxis, well you’ve just got to bargain harder. you can get near the 2010 LP price even in 2013.

    you are right about the excursions though. if you’re doing it solo outside july/august you need some luck to meet up with fellow travelers, especially on the pamir, to share costs

    1. Well I didn’t have much choice in Dushanbe. The first several hotels I tried were already booked so I asked the organization I was volunteering with to book something for me. Both options they had were the same price.

      As for taxis, when you’re surrounded by 5 or 6 drivers, all shouting the same price and telling you you’re crazy for trying to get lower (even getting angry at you), you don’t have much room to negotiate. In every case I was at least able to get them down from the original quote, which was good enough for me.

  8. Thanks for the info Katie. Just wonder if the daily cost of $76 includes the very expensive time in Turkmenistan.

    1. Yes, the $76/day includes Turkmenistan.

      By country, it broke down like this:

      Tajikistan: $21.69/day

      Uzbekistan: $73.73/day (includes $50/day on hotel in Tashkent while I was splurging after roughing it in Tajikistan – it can definitely be done much cheaper)

      Turkmenistan: $279.73/day

      Kazakhstan: $77.73/day

      Kyrgyzstan: $48.11/day

      1. I’m curious, do these numbers include visa costs too? I have to say, I’m surprised by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (though for opposite reasons).

        Your description of the hotel in Dushanbe made me laugh, though. Was it that big old place on the big square beside Rustaveli?

        1. Yes, they include visa costs – $140 for Uzbekistan, $40 (I think) for Tajikistan, $30 for Kazakhstan and something like $80 for Turkmenistan. Kyrgyzstan eliminated their visa requirement right before I got there.

          And no, the hotel wasn’t on the big square beside Rustaveli, it was further down (away from the center).

  9. You write excellent blogs. I live in CO. I did trans siberian from Moscow to Beijing in 2007 and am planning to do silk route (roughly) this fall and plan to go through Kazhakastan and cross over to Urumqi.
    One of the inconvenient things about planning is getting visa. Fortunately Russia is now giving 3 yr visas (I got one).
    I was about to apply for Kazhakh visa in DC; but came across an announcement on their embassy site that they too are giving 5 yr visas. It would really make things easier.
    I am also amazed at how expensive Kazhakastan is and there is a big lack of tourist infrastructure, making it expensive for independent travel. Looks like the reason the prices are so high is the # of oil-gas business folks who stay in Almaty/Astana. I wonder if its even worth going there due to all the headaches and the costs.

    1. Hi Ravi! Thanks for the comment. And congrats on the 3 year Russia visa – was it difficult to get? I was so annoyed they started offering that just a year after I went. Would’ve made things so much easier! And interesting about the Kazakh 5 year visa. Kazakhstan is definitely expensive and it is not well set out for independent, solo travelers. However, there are ways to save money. I stopped in Zhabagly to hike and was able to split the cost of the guide. I also managed to find another traveler to share the cost of day trip to the Aral Sea (still quite pricey – my share was well over $100!) and through the help of a couchsurfing host, joined a van full of pilgrims to visit Beket Ata instead of dropping $800 (!!!) on a day trip through an agency.

      I really did like Almaty – thought it had a nice vibe to it. Didn’t make it up to Astana. Also really liked Shymkent and there are some other places worth seeing in southern Kazakhstan that you can manage on your own.

  10. Thanks Katie for the info! Well it appears that 3 yr Russian visa are a norm now – basically US signed a pact with Russia last yr to give long term visas for Russians and they are doing the same. I did not have to give any extra special documents and simply put in a cover letter asking for 3 yr multiple visa – processing time is still just 2 weeks. I got the shiny new visa just last week.
    The Kazakh info was put on their website just on Aug 2. It remains to be seen how this process works out.
    I am kinda nervous as I know little to no Russian ( though I can read cryllic). I plan to go by train to Turkey,then ->Sochi by sea ->Moscow->Astana->Almaty->Urumqi->Beijing and possibly other cities in China. Taking a detour to Kyrgystan looks enticing as that country is full of mountains ( and no visa requirements)..lets see!

  11. Hi Katie,love reading the financial dynamics of the your trips.Gives me insights how I will do mine.Am leaving for Russia and Scandinavia for 2 weeks including travel time.I am doing it for less than $2000 (yes that’s right, you heard it) including airfare From Sacramento California ,7 days stay with breakfast at a large home outside Helsinki thru airbnb (they give me the whole attic pad with wifi yey!) and 5 day cruise with a ferry in the Baltics including St Petersburg, Tallin,Vilnius and Stockholm.Thanks again for your blog. Keep blogging especially the financial dynamics.I don’t have a trust fund or a rich uncle to finance my trips ,LOL so I am on the el cheapo loco genry of budget travellers.lol!

  12. Very interesting piece indeed. Lonely Planet is really lonely since many years because now it is being updated or even added by non-professional writers.
    Best is to buy FIT and negotiate with travel companies instead of trying to make budget sitting 6000 miles away. Anyhow there are organisations that can link you to good agencies all over Central Asia. I have been travelling since 1992 and always book me as FIT.
    Have a look in our tourism networking and we do not take any fee to connect in anywhere in South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe

    1. My budget was simply an estimate – I did look into FITs in some countries but traveling solo, the prices were insane. I splurged on Turkmenistan since you can’t get a tourist visa there without being accompanied by a guide, but otherwise I traveled independently and booked as I went. WAY cheaper than putting any sort of package together.

  13. hi i am a world traveller visited 110 countries.
    for 5 stan tour : to do visas i need letter of invitation how do i get ?the tour operator charge huge amount and compel to join their tour .if you have any suggestion mail me regards
    kumar

    1. Kumar, based on my experience traveling the Stans in 2013 ago:
      1. Kyr: Most nationalities don’t need a visa
      2. Tajik: Get in Bishkek
      3. Uzbek: Apply weeks before arrival for an invitation letter via an Uzbek agency such as http://stantours.com/ then in Bishkek make appointment first by telephone then go to consulate
      4. Kazak: Get at home consulate, which is what I did
      5. Afghanistan: Got mine in Khorog, Tajikistan.

      No need to join tour group, except maybe in Turkmenistan whicb I dropped due to high cost.

      Great source of info at http://caravanistan.com/visa/

      Good luck. Central Asia is awesome!!

  14. Hey, great article Kate and really interesting. I too would have thought Central Asia was dirt cheap and we were looking to visiting it next year! Seems as if we may have to re-adjust the budget a bit from what the LP states! Still, as you say, probably still worth it!

  15. You can adjust LP prices by 2 to 4 times for Central Asia generally speaking. LP is normally around the world (even the latest editions) are so far off the current costs!!

  16. Hello Katie,

    I was wondering if you would by any chance let me know how you planned your trip throughout central asia, and what sites you saw, or what tour agency you used and so on and so forth. Please if you would have the time, it would be most helpful and pleasing. I very much hope to visit those nations myself very soon.

    All the best

    1. Hi Dmitri – I traveled independently, with the exception of in Turkmenistan, where I hired a guide through a company called StanTours. If you look around my website more for country specific posts, you can read more about some of the sites I visited.

  17. hey, excellent post. I went to Uzbekistan and Mongolia. I had to take tours in Uzbekistan since I was given a visa but didnt think this was expensive. I alsso went to Iran, Armenia and Georgia.

    I felt Georgia sort of expensive and not so worth the effort, Armenia was cheap same with Iran.

    However now I am back in my home country, Costa Rica, and I have 3 Armenian visas: first when I entered Yerevan, second when I was told my Georgia trip got cancelled, had to leave Iran a 24 hour bus trip 🙂 and once again in Yerevan, I had to buy a ticket so I could get to Uzbekistan from Tbilisi… I didnt have a Russian visa, so a new happening in Tbilisi, I had to ccome back by car to Armenia, third visa….I am a big boy but I was in tears,,,,hwever, it was worth it!!!! I love Uzbekistan. I might go back to Uzbekistan and Mongolia and at the time, Id like to see Muslim China and Turkmenistan and or Tadjikistan.

  18. Hi Katie, I’m still in the Stans – been here since late December and deciding to give Turkmenistan a miss, as you say it costs too much. Even if I can do a discounted tour there and review them, we’re talking $1000 for 5-6 days in the country. I went for 3 days in Afghanistan instead and loved it. Most of the other things you say here still apply in the region, though I would say that there are more dorm options in Kazakhstan now and some cheaper hostels there than when you were there. Yeti Hostel in Dushanbe is now open and the Pamirs region, Gorno Badakhshan you can get beds from $4-8 US a night. Most places in Uzbekistan don’t seem to have hot water (instead – warm water) and WiFi is excruciatingly slow in Uzbek and Tajikistan. Overall, except Turkmenistan, you can easily get by on $30-35 US a day as long as breakfast is included and you stay in dorms as much as you can. Safe travels. Jonny

    1. Thanks for the update Jonny! Glad to hear there are more budget friendly options in Kazakhstan now – there wasn’t a single hostel when I was there in 2012! Also good to hear about a hostel in Dushanbe – the problem I had there was the best, cheap guesthouses were all booked up way in advance by NGO staff so I got stuck paying $35 a night for possibly the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed at.

  19. A big life saver is couchsurfing. I’ve spent a lot of time in central Asia and the hospitality of the people has helped me out big time.

  20. Hi Katie,

    I was wondering, did you pre plan any of your trip? Baring Turkmenistan? Previously I have only gone traveling to places where you dont need to plan anything in advance like SE Asia, but does this also work for central Asia, or do you need to have accommodation booked in advance and / or travel to different destinations?

    Also, how do your organize staying with local people in the mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan?

    Thanks in advance!

    Paul

  21. Dear Paul, here’s my thoughts…..

    I travelled in August and did not have a problem finding accommodation, but depends on where. I always prefer to book in advance where possible. In Central Asia accommodation is not expensive and people generally very accommodating. I think if you are willing to pay about 10 to 20 USD per night, many rural families will be happy to take you in.

    Kyrgyzstan has a very helpful network to arrange homestays, referred to as “Community Based Tourism In Kyrgyzstan” or CBT. They have members in several areas and the head office in Bishkek can arrange it for you. http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg/en/

    Take a look at my Central Asia articles. You may find some tips: http://goo.gl/B80Ckr

    Good luck. Central Asia is awesome.
    Peter

Comments are closed.