Including round trip flights, I spent 21 days traveling. It worked out to 6 days in Kyrgyzstan, 10 days in Uzbekistan, and 4 days in Kazakhstan. I definitely could have spent much more time in all 3 countries, but $DAYJOB somewhat limited my total trip duration. I also would have loved to have had time to see more of the region (Tajikistan & Turkmenistan, maybe even Afghanistan), but there was a point of diminishing returns if I had attempted to squeeze in even more countries.
- Kyrgyzstan: if you love hiking, backpacking or mountain scenery, this is the place to go. There was no where that I went in the country that I didn't see snow-capped mountains.
Uzbekistan: history, history, and more silk road history. Lots of thousand year old buildings, and islamic history sites. Gorgeous art work on many of the mosques and madrassas.
Kazakhstan: due to travel logistics, I was only able to spend time in Astana (which is now officially known as Nursultan because politics), and Shymkent. Shymkent is culturally and historically similar to Uzbekistan in many ways.
- Lots of amazing hiking in Kyrgyzstan. I only did day hikes, but they were all spectacular. The area around Tash Rabat is above 3000m, so I had a killer headache for a bit, but the scenery more than made up for it. Also went hiking south of Issyk Kul at Skazka Canyon (desert scenery) and above Jeti Oguz (mountains, streams, etc). I did a spectacular day hike in Ala Archa National Park (an hour south of the capital, Bishkek), although it was pouring rain for the first few hours which made the trail a muddy, slippery mess.
In Uzbekistan, it was basically exploring historic areas and sites in Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, and to a lesser degree, Tashkent (the capital). Lots of walking, in extreme heat (see below), but it was all urban exploration, so not difficult if I had gone at a different time of year.
What Went Wrong:
- OMG, the heat was absolutely brutal. Especially in Uzbekistan, it was over 40C most days. I'm a spoiled westerner who is used to escaping the heat with AC, and that was mostly not an option in Uzbekistan. Most places didn't have AC at all. Those that did, would often set the temperature to ridiculously pointless temperatures (30C!?!). Even when the temperature was set to a sane level, the AC was woefully under powered for the size of the space, rendering it mostly useless if you didn't stand within 1 meter of the air vent. The heat completely wrecked my plans to visit Termez (UZ), as I aborted the 15 hour overnight train trip down there when I was struggling with the temperature inside the train in the middle of the night.
Food poisoning. Despite my best efforts to only drink bottled water, I managed to get food poisoning two different times. I brought immodium & an antibiotic with me, so it wasn't the end of the world, but I still felt rather miserable for a few days. I skipped going up to Muynak because I didn't want to chance being stuck in a taxi for hours if I desperately needed a toilet on short notice.
In what was not too surprising, people drive horribly in all of these countries. Too fast, recklessly, and worst of all, while seriously exhausted. I had a driver in Kyrgyzstan who was literally falling asleep while driving. He spoke virtually no English, but I basically had to keep yelling at him every few minutes to keep him awake. He almost veered off the road into a ditch at one point. I saw so many accidents and wrecked vehicles.
What Went Right:
- While I'm sure the heat played a role, thee really isn't much tourism in this part of the world. Most of the people that I saw were domestic (or perhaps regional) tourists, but very few Westerners. When I arrived somewhere early in the day (before 10AM), I often had the entire place to myself. It was rare that I needed to wait for random people to walk out of the way to get a good photo, as there simply weren't many people anywhere.
The weather? I mean, yea it was brutally hot, but that meant that rain was almost never a concern. Other than one day in Kyrgyzstan when it was pouring rain in the morning.
Uzbekistan Airlines. I'd read some horror stories about how they randomly changed flight schedules, cancelled flights, or were hours late. I flew them 4 times on this trip, and all the flights arrived on schedule, if not a little early. Zero issues or drama.
- Hiking just about anywhere in Kyrgyzstan. You really can't go wrong. While Ala Archa NP had marked hiking trails, everywhere else that I went was basically just 'walk in whatever direction looks good'.
Of all the cities that I visited in Uzbekistan, Khiva stood out as a gem. The old walled city is spectacularly well preserved/restored. You can walk around for a full day and feel like you've gone back in time a thousand years, as everything looks & feels authentic.
Unless you absolutely love 40C heat (over 100F), don't go to Uzbekistan in summer. Spring and Autumn would have far nicer weather.
If you're looking to travel somewhere that (relatively) few have been, with amazing scenery and tons of history, you can't go wrong in central Asia. Its definitely not for everyone, and isn't the easiest part of the world to explore, but its absolutely worth it for an experienced traveler with realistic expectations.
Tash Rabat, a 15th century stone caravanserai over 12k feet up
Nomad guest camp near Tash Rabat
Lenin was here
Ala Archa NP
fog below, rain above
the ruins of the city of Sauran
Khorezm fortress ruins
on the hill
someone loves onions (and old Soviet cars)
15th century mineret
For the curious, there are hundreds of additional photos here and a detailed day by day travel diary here.