There are some things to watch out for, but in general, it is not less safe than anywhere else in the world except Norway and Switzerland. Most travelers comment on the friendliness and hospitality of the people they meet. It really is exceptional, and goes for every country we discuss. There are of course areas to be avoided by all except the most risk-tolerant (Afghanistan comes to mind). And you should make certain precautions to make sure you don’t put yourself in harm’s way, as everywhere else. But otherwise, you should be fine, barring bad luck.
For detailed country-specific advice, the best English-language source online is the UK’s Foreign Travel Advice website. Here we stick to a quick general overview of the big threats: traffic, police, terrorism, crime & scams, and natural disasters.
Yes, traffic can be quite dangerous in certain places. Wikipedia has a list of traffic-related deaths per country. Iran and Kazakhstan rank highest in the region with 24.1 and 21.9 deaths per 100.000 inhabitants respectively. Uzbekistan has 11.3 (better than US and South Korea), Turkey has 9.6 (better than Portugal). To compare: New Zealand scores 7.4, Germany 4.3, Norway 2.9. So keep it in mind when you hit the road, and take extra care if you have to venture out at night.
Police, especially in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, might want to get some money from you for no reason. Should this happen, smiling and acting like you have no idea what they are talking about works wonders. Don’t give them your passport, have a copy on you and say you left the original in your accommodation. The worst that could happen (barring extreme cases) is that you lose some money to these scammers. At least they won’t shoot you like in the US.
Crime and scams
Countries on the Silk Road have not developed enough of a tourist industry to have dedicated tourist scammers (outside of the police), with Georgia as the exception. Normal precautions should be heeded. Keep your money close, don’t hang out in shady districts after dark, be aware of whose company you keep. A torch comes in handy as cities and villages are often badly lit at night.
Bazaars are perhaps where you are most likely to get scammed, even if the great majority of sellers is extremely happy to see a foreigner (and not just because you have a lot of money). Some people working here are clever tricksters: messing with the scale weights, counting money double, every trick in the book. Keep your eyes peeled and you will start enjoying catching them.
We are keeping a list of scams, dangerous people and shady accommodation in the region as we come across it.
As a woman
See our article with tips for single female travelers (by single female travelers).
Earthquakes happen across the region. Not much you can do about that, should it happen when you are around, besides crawling under a sturdy desk. Landslides, mudslides, avalanches and overflowing rivers are a serious issue in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, one that is getting worse each year due to global warming, melting glaciers at unprecedented speed. Once again, not much you can do about it but be aware of the issue, plan for emergencies, and seek advice from authorities and people in the area once you are there.
We know Caravanistan readers are a clever bunch: independent-minded, well-read, critical thinkers ready to explore and see with their own eyes. So we don’t have to tell you about the inherent bias of mass media in your home country, the fear-mongering, us-vs-them-rhetoric, and how those media’s incessant focus on certain issues (while ignoring others) gives news consumers a skewed image of reality. Especially when it comes to Caravanistan’s area of interest: majority-Muslim, autocratic countries inside Russia’s sphere of influence. (cue Psycho music).
We also don’t have to tell you that you are twice as likely to die from a lightning strike than from a terrorist attack. But, when living inside a bubble, it’s important to be reminded from time to time.
At Caravanistan, we read books, watch movies and listen to music. We don’t watch the news a lot, and we keep the bias of the publisher in mind when we do. And we don’t take advice from people who have never been there.
Nonetheless, a number of terrorist attacks in recent years have been perpetrated by Uzbeks and Kyrgyz citizens, and that worries people. What is most interesting to note here is that they have all been performed outside of Central Asia: Istanbul, Stockholm, St-Petersburg, Boston. There are a number of reasons for that, but mainly, they lack the support infrastructure to perform these attacks in their home countries. Also, the security apparatus is a lot more forceful and efficient in Central Asia, and radicalisation often happens abroad rather than in their home country.