We hadn’t proposed to drive through The Stans when we first planned our Best Life adventure, but an unexpected 3,500km diversion around our Iranian visa issues, gave us one of the best parts of our overland adventure. It was a great reminder that arriving with no expectations, no premonitions and no plans is one of the best and purest ways to travel.
I had no idea what to expect as we drove north through China towards the border with Kyrgyzstan. My mind was littered with images of cold, unfriendly towns linked by long, featureless stretches of broken tarmac, the odd oil field pumping black gold way off in the distance. So what would we really find in the former USSR?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the five of countries that gained independence have collectively been referred to as The Stans. Each has used their newfound freedom to assert a different identity on their population, political system and relationship with the rest of the world.
From an outsider’s perspective how easy are they to travel to, how do they differ and what exactly do they offer? Here’s my guide to uncovering The Stans…
Capital – Astana
Language – Kazakh, Russian
Size – 2,700,00 km2
Terrain – Steppe, grassland, arid desert and mountains
Population – 17.5 million
Getting hold of a visa – Simple. As of the 16th July 2015, 19 countries can now enter the country visa-free for up to 15 days
It’s the big daddy of the region in terms of size and wealth. Covering the same area as Western Europe and home to an abundant supply of uranium and fossil fuel resources, Kazakhstan is a country that’s changing at a remarkable speed.
With huge high-rise developments taking over the skyline of both its weird capital Astana, and the cosmopolitan city of Almaty it’s easy to see where the tenges are being spent. The cities are a stark contrast to the vast empty plains that stretch to the Siberian border in the north and the deserts of Central Asia in the south.
Why would I go there? Natural attractions include stunning mountaintops, pristine mountain lakes, glaciers, coniferous woods, canyons and amazing rivers. Falconry and winter sports including skiing and skating. It’s worth visiting Almaty, Astana and the Soviet space launchpad at Baikonur Cosmodrome,
Capital – Bishkek
Language – Kyrgyz, Russian
Size – 200,000 km2
Terrain – Mountains, rolling pasture, fertile valleys, picturesque lakes
Population – 6 million
Getting hold of a visa – The easiest of the lot. Visa-free for 44 countries for up to 90 days!
As difficult to spell, as it is to pronounce, Kyrgyzstan might not be as famous as the other Stans but to us, it provided one of the best and most surprising travel experiences of our trip so far.
Vast sweeping mountain ranges, rolling pasturelands and freshwater lakes that morph from luke-warm swimming holes to frozen ice sheets in just a few months. Throw in yurts, the surprising city of Bishkek and the caravanserai of the ancient Silk Route and you’ve got one of the most fascinating countries of the lot.
We drove from the Chinese border to Bishkek and on the way found some of the most incredible, untouched landscapes in the world, perfect for overland camping.
See the huge hill in the distance – why not drive to the top of it? Perfectly possible. See that massive lake in the distance – why not drive to the edge, strip down to your birthday suit and dive right in? Already done it!
Capital – Dushanbe
Language – Tajik
Size – 143,00 km2
Terrain – Awesome mountain ranges, fertile valleys
Population – 8M
Getting hold of a visa – Easy enough. All travellers require a visa though and most embassies issue them for 30 days. Expect for wait between 3 – 5 days if applying out of your country of origin.
Sandwiched between Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan it’s known for it’s rugged mountains and economic volatility. Sitting uncomfortably in the Bottom 10 of the Global Resilience Index of 2015 the future for Tajikistan doesn’t look too bright but it’s an incredible place to visit.
The Tajik population are warm and welcoming, curious and kind and with tourism playing such a minor part of every day life, authentic adventure and a genuine cultural experience are guaranteed.
Home to the Pamir Highway, undoubtedly one of the most incredible roads in the world, the southern border of the country skirts along the Afghan border. Safe it might not sound, but the most adventurous cyclists, motorbikers and overlanders flock to its 1,200km of dust, dirt and dangerously steep sided drop-offs.
Capital – Tashkent
Language – Uzbek
Size – 450,000 km2
Terrain – Arid desert, fertile valleys, mountains
Population – 29M
Getting hold of a visa – Possible but needs planning. Issued for 7, 15 or 30 days and is date specific. Some countries require a letter of invitation, others don’t. If you’re thinking of visiting you need to get your LOI (Letter of Invitation) organised up to 6 weeks in advance, and once you have it, it should only take 1 – 7 days to have it issued at the embassy.
Tourism is booming in Uzbekistan and once you’ve been it’s easy to see why. It’s one of the cleanest countries you’ll ever visit and has an incredible wealth of historic Silk Road sites that are beautifully preserved and looked after.
Throw in a diverse mix of landscapes from the bountiful Fergana valley (which provides almost every fruit and vegetable under the sun), to the featureless desert steppe in the north, right through to the mountainous border with Tajikistan and there’s something for everyone. The roads are generally in great condition (think potholed tarmac in places but definitely driveable), which means the ‘whole lot of nothingness’ between the major sights can be covered quickly and safely.
On the flip side it’s also a country that’s politically locked in the dark ages with human rights abuses regularly reported, widespread poverty and a high unemployment rate. Add to that the weird annual tradition of forcing all school children to harvest the cotton fields and you’ve got an unusual, intriguing destination.
Get your head around the black market system that operates for the local Som currency and you’ve won half the battle of understanding how far your tourist dollar will go.
Why would I go there? Tashkent’s beautiful underground metro system, the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, the incredibly beautiful Uzbek bread and finally the traditional sheep-fur hats!
Capital – Ashgabat
Language – Turkmen
Size – 491,000 km2
Terrain – Arid desert and a capital constructed from white marble
Population – 5.5M
Getting hold of a visa – Really difficult and expensive. Rejection rate of around 30 – 50%.
Transit visa – issued for 3 – 7 days with a set start and end date. Sometimes these are difficult to get but you don’t need a letter of support or to book a tour.
Tourist visa – expensive option but more likely to be issued. Anyone applying for a tourist visa needs to book a tour (read as government guide!) Prices range from US$150 – 200 per day and need to be organised up to 6 weeks in advance.
Where do I start with Turkmenistan! Am I happy I’ve been there? Yes. Did it deliver everything I hoped it would? Yes. Is it the weirdest place I’ve ever been to? Without doubt yes. Would I recommend it to anyone else? Possibly.
The country has an incredible amount of money – huge reserves of oil and gas will do that for you – and the capital, Ashgabat, is a true reflection of what it can buy.
Almost every building in the new part of the city is beautifully constructed from the finest white Italian marble. The roads are perfectly smooth tarmac, the parks full of beautiful sculptures and every bus stop is air-conditioned and has a wide-screen TV’s to watch whilst you wait for the No. 32.
But where is its soul and where are all the people?! In the few days we spent in the capital we saw lots of cars (most of them white as all other colours are being phased out) but very few people out and about on the streets. Ok it may have been 45c but even the Dubai-esque shopping mall was virtually empty.
The rest of the country is mostly vast featureless desert, barring the cities of Türkmenabat, Mary and Turkmenbashi. We drove for three days from the Uzbek border, via the capital to the Caspian Sea and there’s very little to see along the way expect….one of the coolest/hottest/weirdest places on earth – the Door to Hell – a natural gas crater in the middle of the desert that was lit in 1971 and has been burning ever since.
Why would I go there? The Door to Hell and Ashgabat are the fascinating parts of what is one of the world’s most censored countries. If you like your travels to include the word – weird – then definitely! Think North Korea with a Russian vibe.
Whilst they may not be top of everyone’s list, The Stan’s offer an incredible travel destination. If you visit outside of the winter months (far too cold!) and stay away from the deserts during mid-summer you’ll find a beautiful temperate climate with warm, welcoming people. To find out more visit Caravanistan.com – the bible website of all things Stan-based.
Tajikistan photos supplied by Dave Smith, fellow overlander and bloody good Aussie bloke – http://pathlessridden.com/
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ninara/
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/irene2005/