7 Things I Love About the ‘Stans

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

By the time I boarded my flight out of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 16, I was ready to say goodbye to Central Asia. My three months in the region left me physically and mentally exhausted and all I could think about was getting back home. I struggled through difficult border crossings. I endured hot, sweaty train rides in horribly cramped quarters. I survived the hottest temperatures I have ever encountered in my life. As I wrote earlier, traveling in Central Asia was like running a marathon. It was just plain difficult. But it was also awesome.

When I think back on the three months I spent in the region, there are a lot of things that make me smile:
 

1. Ice cream

 
How can you not love a place where they sell ice cream on every corner? Soft serve ice cream, ice cream bars, ice cream sandwiches – you name it, you could find it almost everywhere in Central Asia. Enterprising women even sold ice cream treats out of portable freezers on the train platforms throughout Kazakhstan.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
 

2. Adorable kids

 
Yes, kids can be adorable everywhere. But Central Asian kids were just particularly cute in my eyes. And they loved to have their picture taken!

Samarkand, Uzbekistan
 

3. Amazingly delicious melons

 
I confess, I have never been a big fan of melons. The watermelon and cantaloupe I have tried in the United States has always tasted a little blah to me. But melons in Central Asia were like a whole different fruit – so sweet, so juicy, so perfect. And they take their melons seriously – Turkmenistan even celebrates National Melon Day in early August.

Shymkent, Kazakhstan
 

4. Fascinating history

 
From nomadic tribes and violent warriors to Silk Road merchants and curious explorers – Central Asia has seen it all. Ancient ruins, underground mosques, vast cemeteries and fully restored madrassahs and mausoleums are sprinkled throughout the region, meaning you can get a taste of the history no matter where you go.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
 

5. Diverse landscapes

 
Rivers rage and turquoise lakes sparkle in between rocky mountains in Tajikistan. A white marble oasis rises out of the vast, dry desert in Turkmenistan. The tree-lined streets of Tashkent and Samarkand eventually give way to the brown clay buildings of Bukhara and Khiva. Shepherds roam and horses and cows graze throughout green pastures in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Seven Lakes, Tajikistan

Turkmenistan
 

6. Meeting other travelers

 
Back in the dead of winter when I hit a wall and bemoaned the fact that it was so hard to meet other like-minded travelers, my friend Megan assured me that once I got to the ‘Stans, it would be much easier. This may seem counter-intuitive, but she was right. I met more people in Central Asia than anywhere else. I hung out with Adam and Adrian in Bukhara after stalking their Mongol Rally car. I met up with Derrick in Nukus after exchanging messages on Twitter. I traveled with Blanca in Aktau and Aralsk after a random meeting at the migration police office in Aktau. The owner of the guesthouse I stayed at in Zhabagly paired me up for a day hike with a cool Germany guy. I overheard Scott and Jay speaking English at a café in Bishkek and we ended up spending the afternoon exploring the city together. And finally, I spent my last week in Kyrgyzstan with Bene, Sylvain and Alain after a chance encounter at the tourism office in Bokonbaevo. Lesson learned: it is possible to meet fellow travelers everywhere in Central Asia!

Bokonbaevo, Kyrgyzstan
 

7. Conversing with locals

 
Last but not least, I loved that everyone I met seemed to love that I was visiting their country.  When I travel in Europe, I don’t usually feel that anyone really cares I am there. In some cases, I even feel like my presence slightly annoys me them.  I can understand that because, in cities like Paris, Rome and Barcelona, tourists are a dime a dozen.  In Central Asia, we are a novelty and it shows. Everywhere I went, people were baffled as to why I was there, but they were excited to get to know me at the same time. The Tajik woman who shared a taxi with me to the Uzbekistan border whipped out her smartphone to snap a picture of us together after chatting for just a few minutes. As I rode in a van crossing from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan, one woman asked me questions in Russian and then translated my answers into Uzbek so the rest of the group could understand.  Kazakh girls flocked around to practice their English with me when I visited Beket-Ata. And in Kyrgyzstan, a group of locals insisted on sharing their watermelon with me, Bene and Sylvain as they asked us a thousand questions.

Jeti Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

So yes, Central Asia frustrated me with its bureaucracy and Soviet-era ways. It disgusted me with its over reliance on oil in just about every dish (not that it stopped me from eating enormous quantities of plov). And it wore me out with its scorching heat, burning sun and dry, dusty winds.

But more than anything, it gave me some of the best memories, experiences and friendships of my entire thirteen months on the road.

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16 thoughts on “7 Things I Love About the ‘Stans”

  1. your journey has been so fascinating and inspiring, Katie! I can’t wait to get to Central Asia and visit all the ‘Stans myself. My dream is to travel down several routes of the Silk Road 😀

    I am a little scared though, as I don’t know a lick of Russian. Seems like I would have quite the difficult time due to this… would you agree?

    I’m no stranger to solo travel, but this huge language barrier does intimidate me a little

    – Maria Alexandra

    1. I won’t deny it would be harder, but definitely not impossible. I met a lot of other travelers in Central Asia and I was the only one who spoke Russian – and they were all doing okay. A lot of the major cities have a good deal of signage in the Latin alphabet now (rather than Cyrillic) and a lot of the younger people and those who work in tourism speak at least some English.

      That being said, I think it really enriched my experience to be able to speak Russian because I was able to have more meaningful conversations with people, so if you can learn even a little bit, I recommend it. 🙂

  2. You know when I originally planned my travels I wanted to go down Latin America, up Africa, through the Stans and end in Mongolia.

    That didn’t happen.

    But the Stans and Mongolia are still on my list. Especially now that I know about the ice cream.

  3. After reading about a lot of your struggles in this part of the world, it’s great to also read about the positives.

    The people sound really great – similar to what I found in Eastern Europe!

  4. This is a great round up on your time in the stans. I will be reading your other posts on central asia, as I too would love to visit this region. I of course have heard its a difficult area to travel, certainly as an english speaking solo female traveler. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks Elle! It can be difficult, but it’s pretty safe for a female traveling solo. People really look out for you and are incredibly helpful. And while it definitely helps to know some Russian, I met a lot of people traveling who didn’t speak a word and were getting by fine.

  5. I’ve been reading through your Central Asia posts Katie, and can I just say wow! I’m a bit of a victim of thinking that these places are on the ‘too hard’ list but from what you’ve said it sounds so rewarding. Thanks for the stories 🙂

    1. Thank Caitlyn! They were certainly difficult, but do-able if you’re ready for it. I think I often assumed the worst and ended pleasantly surprised when things turned out better than expected. 🙂 And yes, very rewarding!

  6. Hi deaR! your post is awesome. I live in China and i am planning to cross the border to Kasakstan and visit Tajikistan and Kyrkistan as well. I was in Siberia last year and i had no problem to travel without any russian language knoledge. My concern is the cold. I might be hitting the STAN in january, do you think it is a crazy idea? ANd do you think now (2015) prices raised even more?

    So your estimation if 75usd a day…should now be how higher?

    Thanks for your help,
    Lina

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