Silk Road: independent travel or with guided tours?

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cindy
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Silk Road: independent travel or with guided tours?

Post by cindy »

I'm wondering if anyone has ever been on a guided tour of the Silk Road and can recommend any?

I'm a female in my early-twenties who will be traveling solo and, as much as I'd love to just do it by myself, I think for peace of mind I'd prefer to go with a company who will prepare all my accommodation, visas etc.. especially given it will be my first trip to the area and my russian is very basic

I am currently looking at Vodka Train's Marco Polo tour (Beijing to Istanbul) so if anyone has any insight to this one specifically I would appreciate hearing from you!

Thanks in advance :)
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bwv812
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Re: Guided Tours

Post by bwv812 »

I know that it can all seem very daunting, but in my experience things are a lot easier than you fear once you actually get your feet on the ground. I had the same fears when I started traveling, and my first trip involved a hop-on-hop-off bus route through Europe. In retrospect I didn't need the structure that made it appealing, but I understand the feeling.

I suspect that most people here haven't taken a tour, especially an extended trans-continental tour. And while I think that tours really can allow you to see more places in less time, I also think that many of them rob you of one of the greatest attractions of Central Asia: the chance to meet locals, interact with them, and discover the incredible hospitality of places like the Pamirs or Iran.

Basic Russian is more than most people start with, and should make things a lot smoother if you can ask basic questions from the moment you arrive. There are also lots of chances for solo travelers to join up with others for a couple of days or a a couple of weeks, as in most places there are a few guesthouses where tourists congregate and it is easy to meet other travelers, make friends, share info, and potentially join up with others if so inclined. In almost all places in Central Asia local women/mothers/grandmothers will basically look out for foreign females (they tend to look out for everyone, actually, but will take special care of females).

I don't know what your time limits are, but the tour you mention takes you from Beijing to Istanbul in a little over three weeks, and some of the destinations don't seem like natural highlights. Urumqi, Almaty, Tashkent, Ashgabat, and Mashhad all have their merits, but aren't especially Silk Road-ish and I can think of other places I'd pick instead. Unfortunately, their destinations are largely dictated by the pace of travel, and even so it looks like you will spend a lot of time traveling. Two days on a train between Beijing and Urumqi, another day between Urumqi and Almaty, another day between Almaty and Tashkent (but maybe you fly?), another day between Bukhara and Ashgabat, half a day to Mashhad, half a day to Isfahan, two days from Tehran to Ankara, one day to Istanbul. That's eight or nine days on a train or bus—plus more time for shorter sections like Tashkent-Samarkand-Bukhara—which is pretty substantial on a 25-day trip.

Even if you do decide you want to take tours (and have the time and flexibility), I would consider buying smaller, more regional, tours as you go, and/or limiting yourself to a smaller geographic area. Of course this will mean you have to arrange visas on your own or go through separate visa agencies, but it's not as difficult as it may seem—though some admittedly require time and a bit of planning to get.

I hope you have a great time no matter how you decide to go, and don't let anyone make you feel bad if you do decide to take a tour (there can lots of dick-swinging about who is the most authentic "traveler," though most people who go to Central Asia aren't like that). So long as you enjoy yourself as much as you can within the time and money available, that's what counts.
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cindy
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Re: Guided Tours

Post by cindy »

Thanks so much for your reply and insight!

I'll admit I've never been on board with the idea of tour groups and if I were traveling to somewhere less off the beaten track I wouldn't hesitate to do the journey solo. I suppose it's just how foreign Central Asia is which made me think twice.

I should also probably add that, though I have traveled alone through the US, Australia and NZ, I have never been to Asia, or even Europe, before. Maybe I should be visiting the main tourist hubs in Western Europe or South East Asia first before I jump in the deep end... but I figure you only live once and the hot spots have never really interested me!

To be honest I'm mostly concerned about having visa problems and getting stuck/ not being able to communicate with authorities, as opposed to actually traveling around the area. In fact, being a solo female in these places doesn't really bother me at all - particularly after hearing your words about how hospitable the local people are.

When I embark on this trip I will actually be quitting my job and therefore will definitely have the luxury of time, so your idea of doing smaller, more regional tours is a good one. Would you have any that you could recommend over others?

A couple of other questions I have for you:

It's encouraging to hear that there is a camaraderie and kinship among other solo travelers. Would it be fair to say that April/May is the busiest season for tourists in Central Asia? Or later?

Since you don't agree with the itinerary I referenced, what in your opinion are the must-see places along the Silk Road? I realize this is probably relative to what you enjoy seeing but I'm open to anything! And how long do you think is a decent time to spend on this trip? I was thinking of maybe choosing one place and spending a longer time there to really get a feel for the place.

Thanks so much in advance
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steven
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Re: Guided Tours

Post by steven »

Hi Cindy,

I am in an internet cafe right now and my time is running out, so keeping it short. The busiest season is July-August for Kyrgyz-Tajik - that is when the students from Europe come, and when the hikers come. , and spring and fall for Uzbek and Turkmen - when group tourists from France and Germany come. 30 seconds left...will write more later :-)!
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bwv812
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Re: Guided Tours

Post by bwv812 »

With that context, I think you really could jump in and do things on your own. Language can make things difficult, but not as difficult as you probably fear. The authorities you probably want to communicate with usually speak some English, while for those you don't want to communicate with (e.g., police looking for bribes) it's better to play the dumb tourists, anyway. Arranging transportation is where language is maybe the most problematic—especially since taxi drivers everywhere in the world try to rip you off—but it's not that difficult.

Visas can be a challenge, but they're not too difficult to pick up on the road, and lots of other people touring Central Asia will be in the same boat. If traveling East to West, you only have to get your Chinese visa at home (or in Hong Kong), and the rest can be picked up along the way (and it's easier now that Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are visa-free). You'll meet lots of people lingering in Bishkek for visas. If you don't go to Bishkek or Kazakhstan, then you may need to get your Tajik visa and GBAO permit in advance.

In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan you can go through places like CBT, PECTA, and META to arrange homestay tours, either in advance or more ad-hoc once you arrive. In Uzbekistan you have no need of a tour to visit the big three of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand, but local agencies can arrange for side-trips into the desert, to the Aral Sea, etc. There are plenty of agencies listed in Lonely Planet.

As for what you should see, I always recommend the Silk Road Guide as a good starting place. It has lots of pictures and a more discerning viewpoint than Lonely Planet, and covers the Silk Road from China through to Turkey.

One thing I always tell people is that Xinjiang offers a more traditional Central Asian experience than pretty much any of the CIS 'stans. This may seem strange, but think of Turkestan as being a historical area that covered the area between the Caspian/Iran and Tibet/Gansu—an area which includes the 'stans and Xinjiang. But while the CIS 'stans have been under Russian and Soviet influence for well over 120 years, it's only in the last 20 years that China has become internally stable enough that it has been able to turn significant attention to Xinjiang: the current battle there between Uyghur and Han culture is a fight that was largely lost in the 'stans a long time ago. So I would be sure to spend some time in Xinjiang (not Urumqi, which has always been a Han town). I think the itinerary in the following thread is pretty interesting, even if only half of it is really related to the Silk Road:
http://caravanistan.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=953

In Central Asia, I think the Pamir Highway and the Wakhan valley in Tajikistan are unmissable, and they offer a good mix of outdoor life, local culture, mountains, and stunning views with Silk Roads ruins.

Kyrgyzstan is geared more to outdoor excursions, yurt-stays, and horse treks, and less towards Silk Road sights (Tash Rabat, the Ozgen mausoleums, the Burana minaret near Bishkek, and maybe Suleiman Too in Osh are about it). The mountain scenery in Tajikistan is generally harsher than it is in Kyrgyzstan, which is famous for mountain pastures and horses (relatively few horses in Tajikistan).

Kazakhstan is much more expensive and modern than the other 'stans, and also has comparatively little to offer to visitors that can't be enjoyed elsewhere. Uzbekistan has the big three Silk Road cities, but compared to elsewhere in the region they are very touristy and people are more likely to treat you as a walking wallet.

Most people do Turkmenistan on a 5-day transit visa, which makes things difficult but even in that time frame it is possible to see the Darwaza fire-pit, as well as the sites at Konye Urgench and Merv (neither of which, in contrast to Uzbeki sites, are not horribly over-restored), with a brief stop in Ashgabat.

And for pretty much everyone who goes there, Iran ends up being a favourite—though the experience for females is quite different than it is for males, and unaccompanied females may be subject to harassment and chauvinism, though this is less likely if you're mainly in public spaces/cities (female cyclists seem to report it being more of a problem when they meet men in the middle of nowhere or while camping).

After Iran you can head straight to Turkey or do Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia before going to Iran. I didn't have the time to visit them, but wish I did.

In my opinion, this would be a pretty much ideal itinerary after Kashgar (the bold are what I would consider essential, but I would also probably want at least one place from the Kyrgyz countryside, and one place from the Ferghana Valley):
- Torugart pass to Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, with stop in Tash Rabat (absolutely need a tour agency in Kashgar to arrange Torugart crossing)
- Song-Kul yurt-stay and horse trek
- Jeti-Oguz/Karakol
- cross into Kazakhstan at Karkara (need own transport or get lucky hitching)
- Charyn Canyon
- Almaty
- Astana by train
- Almaty
- Bishkek (get Tajik visa and GBAO permit while you wait)
- Arslanbob
- Osh, with a brief stop in Ozgen on way from Arslanbob
- Pamir Highway to Murghab (best to hire car in Osh for entire segment between Osh and Khorog)
- Wakhan valley
- Khorog
- Dushanbe (apply for Turkmen visa for pickup in Tashkent or at Turkmen border, if possible; get Uzbek visa on the same day with LOI from Caravanistan or another agency)
- Fann Mountains & Penjikent
- Khojand
- Fergana/Margilan
- Tashkent
- Bukhara by night train
- Samarkand
- Khiva by night train (only operates from Samarkand/Tashkent), with Elliq Kala tour
- Nukus if you want to see the Savitsky museum
- cross into Turkmenistan in early a.m., hire a taxi to Darwaza with a stop in Konye Urgench, and hike to Darwaza crater in middle of night for night and morning views.
- Ashgabat for a day or two
- Mary by night train, spend day in ancient Merv
- enter Iran


That is the basic outline of route that would be pretty amazing, I think. You could probably do all of this in a couple of months, plus the three weeks or a month in China. The cost for three months could be as low as the $4,000 tour you're looking at.

It would also be easy to cut off entire sections (such as going straight from Naryn/Song Kul to Arslanbob/Osh, in which case you'll need to have your Tajik visa and GBAO in advance).

There are a few segments above where you will need to arrange your own transportation, and this generally isn't a problem (either through an agency or simply arriving at the local taxi stand) so long as you're willing to pay. Things only become really problematic when trying to use share taxis or public transportation on less-frequented routes. As you were looking at a tour, I'm assuming it won't be much of a problem on the segments you need one.

Finally, as Steven notes, April and May is too early for the mountains, though good for the deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
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cindy
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Re: Guided Tours

Post by cindy »

Wow, thank you for such a comprehensive response to my questions! And Steven, I appreciate you using your valuable internet time replying to me :)

This all definitely makes me feel a lot more confident (and excited) about tackling it alone.
I'm going to take a look at the places you have mentioned in your itinerary more closely and if I have any more questions I'll be sure to come back here haha, thank you again
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steven
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Re: Guided Tours

Post by steven »

Back home and lots of time...:-) Bwv covered a lot of ground here, let me just add a few places that I visited recently and found lovely/interesting, mostly off the beaten track. Turgen gorge near Almaty, Tamga and surroundings on Lake Issyk-Kul and the back country of Karakol, Namangan in Ferghana Valley, Sentob/Sentyab in Nurata nature reserve west of Jizzakh. You should be careful, of course, but as I always say, Central Asia teaches westerners life skills they cannot learn at home. You will return home with a Ph. D. in bargaining, and you will not tolerate being pushed around by anyone, having fought for your place in line at the train ticket office, laughed away some drunk idiot with a silly hat and shouted at a customs officer to give you back your bag, RIGHT NOW! :-) Trust me, it will be fun.
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