The joys of winter travel are under-advertised. If you are active and enjoy the freshness of cold and snowy landscapes, you will love it here. Central Asia is a very quiet place this time of year, although things are slowly changing. But, some extra preparation and knowledge is needed for winter travel. You will find all you need to know below.
When and where does King Winter hold court?
Climate change is throwing up a curve ball here. It’s kind of difficult to say when winter starts and finishes when no one really knows what season it is anymore.
Anyway. Here is a rough depiction on the map of regional differences in winter climates, to give you an idea.
- Dark Blue: From October to April, minimum temperatures to -40 degrees Celsius. Long winters with frequent periods of very cold temperatures and clear skies.
- Light blue: Cold nights down to -20 degrees Celsius, but few days that stay under 0 all day during winter. Light blue in the Caucasus is about 5 degrees warmer than in Central Asia. Minus temperatures last from December until the end of February. Of course, if the elevation goes up, the temperature goes down.
- Orange: Very short winter season around December-January. Little or no snow or freezing temperatures. Mountains get a short ski season.
- Red: warm all through winter.
What is it like, winter on the Silk Road?
The cold in Central Asia is not like the cold in countries close to the sea. It is a dry cold, with a lot of sun on your face once you move outside of the smoggy cities. If you shiver at 0° in your home country, you would perhaps find -10° still bearable in a continental climate such as that of Central Asia or Eastern Turkey. But, when the sun goes down you should really try to get inside. If you come from a warm country and have no point of reference, see our appropriate clothes section.
City life is bleak during winter. A blanket of smog lies over many cities as citizens heat their houses with coal, covering the city with grey skies. It’s dark, cold, and there are less cultural events than in summer. Be prepared for black-outs and lack of heating inside, and understand you might never really get warm the whole duration of your stay (this does not count for Kazakhstan).
On the other hand, nature is beautiful. This is where you need to be. Being active warms you up. Snowshoeing, ice skating and skiing are great ways to enjoy the winter landscape. If you want to go horse riding, understand that you will need to dress up extra warm as you move less on the horse.
Things to do
Winter sports are the top thing to do. Ice skating on Medeu in Almaty is great fun. Snowshoeing is the winter equivalent of hiking, but less developed by tour operators. It’s coming. Ice climbing and winter ascents are an option for people who think summer climbing is for wussies.
3 types of skiing are possible in Central Asia. Heli-skiing (in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), ski touring, and regular slopestyle skiing. Almaty has a European-style ski slope at Shymbulak, with European-style prices. Kyrgyzstan has good ski touring in Arslanbob and regular slopes as well as touring opportunities in Karakol and the Bishkek area. In Tajikistan, regular skiing is possible near Dushanbe, everything else is for real adventurers.
In Pamiri villages, weddings are held in winter, as people have plenty of time and there is nothing else to do. A good time to be merry. Adventurers may wish to venture into the Altai to seek out eagle hunters. Nauryz/Nowruz/…, around 21st of March, is a highlight anywhere in the region signaling the coming of spring.
Winter road conditions
Kazakhstan: Mountain roads leading to small settlements will be difficult or impossible to access, but all main roads are kept open diligently.
Kyrgyzstan: The 2 main roads that are inaccessible in winter are the road to Song Kol and the Naryn – Jalalabad road. In winter, there is avalanche danger between Toktogul and Karabalta, and several other places. Roads might be blocked because of snowfall or avalanches, and it is obviously very slippery in winter. Tunnels lack light and ventilation. With some of them measuring 1 or 2 km, this could be dangerous too.
Tajikistan: The Pamir Highway is kept open year-round. Roads into smaller valleys are not maintained, and many communities in the Pamirs and Zerafshan mountains will be snowed in for at least part of the winter. Be careful when crossing the Anzob tunnel.
Turkmenistan: The winter is not that severe in Turkmenistan. Everything is accessible.
Uzbekistan: The main mountain roads are open. Only small hamlets deep in the mountains will get snowed in for part of the year. Like Turkmenistan, most of Uzbekistan is not that wintery.
Motorbikers need to have a look at the following winter guide from RideNorway and the accompanying forum thread on HUBB. Car drivers can start their search for how to ready their car for winter here. Adequate preparations are in order: at very low temperatures, mechanical failure can be lethal quickly as there is no way to stay warm.
More and better info, especially geared to Silk Road conditions, comes highly appreciated!
Trains run according to schedule in winter. Something seriously catastrophic has to happen before the trains stop running in winter. You can enjoy looking out over the frosty landscape with a cup of tea: the samovar serves constant hot water, and temperatures inside the train are more Swaziland than Svalbard.
Buses and shared taxis run like they do in summer. They have less of a schedule than trains, so they are, in a way, always on time. It’s warm inside, but there’s even less space, since everyone is dressed for the cold. Airplanes can be delayed by snow storms just like elsewhere in the world, but otherwise, fly as usual.
Some hitchhiking tips taken from experienced winter hitchers:
- Know your route and the weather well.
- Dress warm. Use ski gloves instead of mittens or normal gloves. An insulated thumb is a top priority.
- Taking long rides is more important than ever.
- Make sure your cooking equipment will work: see the camping and cooking section below
- Don’t get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, stay near human settlement or petrol stations.
I subscribe to the following advice from Adam who cycled Central Asia in winter: “In winter the weather is pretty bad in Central Asia as you might expect. Basically I wouldn’t recommend going in winter unless you want to cycle across icy roads through occasional snow and don’t mind being frozen most of the time. That said, it doesn’t rain often, so there are some pluses to it.”
If you plan to do this; there is some good information about winter touring online, but no one definitive article yet: I will have to write that article myself one day. In the meantime, have a look at the following posts on Crazyguyonabike, Icebike, Bicycle touring pro, Shane cycles and Bicycle touring guide. We have a forum thread running on the topic as well, and another one more specifically on cycling the Pamir Highway in winter, you are welcome to post your experiences and questions there.
Be prepared. Very prepared. Winter in Central Asia or the Caucasus as a cyclist is not the safest choice. At temperatures -20 degrees Celsius you risk frostbite or getting stuck in the snow.
Hotels and guesthouses
Power cuts are frequent in winter in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Ask your hotel if they have a generator, and if they have a lot of troubles with power cuts (the situation changes, and some city blocks are luckier than others).
Food and accommodation can be hard to find around the New Year in smaller locales as the holiday season stretches out from end of December until 10th of January in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Be sure you know what you are getting into. Ask yourself all kinds of questions: do you know where to cook in winter, what kind of stove works best, what r-value is your mattress, where to get liquid water, etc. A good guide on winter camping to start your inquiry is available at Outdoor Action. But ask around to get expert tips if you are new to this.
Appropriate winter clothes
You have 2 options here: go with what locals wear, or wear high-tech outdoor clothes.
What locals wear
Locals’ clothes are heavy and unwieldy, but they will keep you warm and help you blend in. If you are curious, see our article winter fashion for locals.
If you plan to do any sports (outside of skiing, which requires its own set of clothes), outdoor gear is definitely preferred.
From Sierra Trading Post: No matter what you’re doing outside during the winter, layering will make adapting to changing conditions and activity levels much easier. Proper layering allows you to remove or add insulation so that you never get too cold or too hot. This prevents excessive sweating, which can cause additional heat loss, especially when you slow down or stop to rest. There are three main layers to consider:
- Base Layer: Consists of long underwear or any comfy, tight-fitting apparel worn against the body. Base layers should be made of fabrics like merino wool that wick moisture and dry quickly. Thermal underwear.
- Mid Layer: Good mid layers include a long-sleeved shirt or fleece vest.
- Insulating Layer: The insulating layer acts as your primary source of warmth underneath your winter shell. Fleece jackets and down vests are both good examples.
- Shell layer: Should your insulating layer not be waterproof and windproof, you will need another jacket to throw over the top.
If you don’t know what the layering system is, here, near the bottom, is a good graphical explanation telling you what to wear when.
- Hat and scarf: balaclava for outdoor sports, otherwise a normal hat and scarf will do. Synthetic fibers like polyester and acryl wick moisture and dry quickly. Wool is another warm, wicking material for winter headwear. For moderate conditions and high activity levels, a fleece headband is a good alternative to a beanie.
- Socks: Layering works well with socks too; a thinner merino sock as a base, and a heavier merino sock over the top.
- Gloves or mittens: Usually woolen or fleece gloves may work well enough. In very cold weather, insulated mittens keep fingers warmer than gloves. For even more warmth, layer a thinner pair of gloves under your mittens or ski gloves. Some ski gloves actually come with built-in, removable liners.
- Shoes: Winter boots are a must. Wear winter hiking shoes, leather or synthetic, and waterproof them.