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 Outdated information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.
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.
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.