There are some things to watch out for, but in general, it is not less safe than anywhere else in the world except Japan, 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.
Disclaimer: this is just our opinion – we hold no responsibility for anything that might happen to you. Travelers should make up their own mind.
We currently have forum threads up on Eastern Turkey, Xinjiang, Afghanistan (a separate topic exists on Wakhan Corridor safety), Pakistan/Balochistan and Chechnya & Dagestan. Read the latest reports and add your wisdom.
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. It is, by far, the biggest threat to your life in the Silk Road region, and tourists die every year in traffic accidents. Cyclists are especially vulnerable to dangerous drivers, and foreign cyclists get hit by cars, sometimes with lethal consequences.
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, Turkey has 9.6.
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 keep a list of scams in the region.
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 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.
Food and water
A lot of travelers get sick from eating or drinking something contaminated in the Pamir. Take extra care of your hygiene there. Uzbekistan is another place where you might be running to the toilet from a change of diet.
Water in cities is considered safe to drink by locals, but you might want to filter it. Outside of the cities, use your own sound judgement.
In Kyrgyzstan, people out on the jailoo might invite you for a barbecued marmot (it’s not common, but it might happen). This is generally fine, but be aware that marmots carry the bubonic plague and this could kill you.
Scorpions, black widow spiders and venomous snakes all live in desert areas throughout the Silk Road region. Take care, but do not cancel your plans because of it – so far, we have not heard of a tourist getting bitten.
Wolves are numerous across Central Asia. You are unlikely to meet them if you are an average hiker. Bears live in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan: especially in the Altai mountains, it makes sense to inform yourself with locals. In Kyrgyzstan, there is no need to take special precautions.
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 the sphere of influence of both Russia and China.
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.
Nevertheless, Islamic terrorism in Central Asia is an issue. Quoting topical expert Edward Lemon: “According to my data 142 people died in terrorist attacks in Central Asia between 2009 and 2018.”
That’s not little. However, let’s keep in mind the second part of that quote: “In that same period, 11 583 people died in Kyrgyzstan in traffic accidents.”
The 2017 Global Terrorism Index rates Central Asian countries on places 67 (Kazakhstan) to 130 (Turkmenistan), behind eg. Germany, US, UK, France, Thailand, Israel, Sweden, Australia, Canada and Japan.
Having said that, in July 2018, 4 foreign cyclists died in Tajikistan from a terrorist attack. That’s a fact. If you think you might suffer the same fate, best not to come to any of these countries (except Turkmenistan). We recommend Singapore and Antarctica as safe travel destinations.
In addition, a number of terrorist attacks in recent years have been perpetrated by Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens in Istanbul, Stockholm, St-Petersburg, Boston and New York. So we recommend you do not travel there either to minimise your risk of death.