(Back to Part 1)
That little bit of research I undertook to plan my initial itinerary barely counts. I now have to engage in more serious research.
My pattern tends to be the same wherever I go: I start off with a long list of things to read and do, and feel lucky if I make it through even a quarter of it. I see no reason why this time should be different!
Here then, in no particular order, is my research for Central Asia. Some things I’ll read, some I won’t, others will drift into that corner of consciousness where guilt and laziness meet for Happy Hour.
Read a guidebook or more
I mentioned this early on – I’ve ordered, underlined, highlighted and massacred the corners of both Bradt Guides for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (I have an early edition of Uzbekistan – the latest issue isn’t out yet but Sophie, one of the authors, was kind enough to send me an electronic copy!)
Talk to people
I’m always amazed at the number of travellers who helpfully manifest themselves once they hear you’re headed somewhere they’ve been. I’ve had lovely conversations with bloggers, journalists and the few citizens I’ve been able to find locally.
Connect on social media
If you can’t link up with people in person, social media is the next best entry point into local society. I’ve now exhausted everyone I know with even the most tenuous connection to these two countries so I’ve taken to social media, starting with Twitter, then Facebook and finally Pinterest. If I find anyone with similar interests or a knowledge of my destination, chances are I’ll reach out.
Read up on country profiles
Many services offer a glimpse into countries. I have my own favourites – BBC Country Profiles, CIA World Factbook and more – but the easiest is a web search. Try “country profile x” and you’ll be amazed at the number of organizations that gather country-based information. As a writer on development issues, sources like the World Bank or USAID are priceless. And sites like Right Tourism and Human Rights Watch will tell you how a country treats its animals and its people.
Set up Google Alerts
I’ve done this for both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to keep up with the news. Not only am I bound to stumble upon story ideas, but I’ll probably discover a few places I hadn’t even thought of. News also gets me into the mood of a country and gives me a sense of what local people think is important. There’s English-language media in the region and when there isn’t, there’s always Google Translate.
Write to the tourist office
Some information is to be found on both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek tourist office websites but my efforts to reach out by email haven’t been too successful. I’ll drop by once I arrive, if I need to, but an alternative to tourist offices is the tourism industry itself. If you’re looking for in-depth information or itineraries, agencies that work in Central Asia often have the best semi-official information on the region.
Research culture and customs
The great thing about the internet is the abundance of offbeat and obscure information about people and places. Simply searching for culture + [destination] will usually get you much more than you need. Another good search is “cuisine” or “culinary traditions”. In fact, traditions + [destination] will get you plenty of insight. I’m curious about the cuisine in both countries (and grateful not to be vegetarian, from what I hear) and will make an effort to taste most things – but I’ve been forewarned about fermented mare’s milk. Not certain I’ll try it.
Tap into collective intelligence
Sites like Wikipedia or Wikitravel all have their uses, as do user-generated content sites like Tripadvisor – mostly in the early planning stages, when first becoming familiar with a place. Lists of things to do are helpful in honing in on popular attractions but- to be used sparingly. My one exception is the use of travel forums – I believe strongly in the wisdom of travellers and love getting information from others who may have passed through weeks or even days ago.
Check out blogs
I’ve found plenty of blogs with great local information (and I could do with a lot more). The easiest way to find them is to Search for blog:kyrgyzstan or blog:uzbekistan. The Search brings back plenty of blog posts on the region. Be careful what you read – you want to leave something for discovery! That said you never know what you’ll stumble upon… in this case a blog post listing the best news outlets for Central Asia.
Look at travel advisories
I mentioned this in an earlier post but it’s always part of my research. They’re issued by a number of governments, including Australia, Canada, UK or US. This region appears relatively safe.
In many countries, literature is plentiful and a compelling window into a society’s history or mores. But pickings can be slim. Kyrgyzstan has Chingiz Aitmatov, a stellar author and one of the very few whose books have been extensively translated into English (but with limited availability on Kindle). Uzbekistan has significant classical literature and a robust cohort of modern writers, many of whom documented (often in fiction) the Soviet regime and its less savoury sides. I’m on the hunt for a few of those. To get a sense of the country, have a look at these traditional legends and stories.
Get a sense of the geography
I’m a map nerd so my first stop is often Google Maps, for main cities of course but also for the country as a whole. I also look at images of a place – browsing through Google Images and Flickr is more than enough of an introduction for stills and the temptation of Youtube lingers… Still, I’d rather not see too much – I love to discover things on my own and don’t want to have such a vivid picture that nothing will look new.
Get sensually inspired!
Beyond literature or images are our other senses. Music is a wonderful introduction. I heard a Kyrgyz musical group recently and loved it, strings and a rhythm that was catchy but arranged in a way unfamiliar to me. I’ll try to record some along the way. And then of course there’s the food…
How useful is researching Central Asia?
Extremely useful! I certainly won’t use all this research. I can’t possibly read it all but now I know what’s out there and available, and I know where to find it if I need it. Much will be kept as material I can refer to when I start to write about my trip.
Having done this research gives me an understanding that goes well beyond guidebooks. Should I somehow manage to have conversations in Russian or Kyrgyz or Uzbek, I’ll be able to contribute more and will have a better grasp of the picture people are trying to paint for me.
And, as is usually the case when I travel… I’ll neatly pack up all that knowledge into my phone and fling myself at Central Asia, trusting that what I need to know will manifest itself at the right time.