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Part 5 – Anatomy of a Solo Female Backpacking Adventure: Breaking the Central Asian Language Barrier

(Back to Part 1)

Communicating with people is one of the greatest gifts of travel. We can do it in many ways – art, gestures, expressions – but to me, language is the most complete, allowing for nuances, emotion, information and even the intangible.

Language helps us walk into someone else’s world and sample it from their point of view, allowing them to do the same with ours. Even without fluency, a few words or phrases can open doors and paste a smile on someone’s face.

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196 countries – many more languages (Photo Leyla Giray Alyanak)

Being able to communicate makes our attitudes to one another more positive, it increases familiarity and therefore friendship, it breaks down barriers and encourages respect, bolsters tolerance and unlocks cultural doors. I’ve always been a proponent of studying a language in its own setting and have put my beliefs into practice by learning a few myself.

The Central Asian language barrier

Not everyone speaks English (I’m always surprised at how this sometimes comes as a shock). In some countries the second language might be French, or, as will be the case for me in Central Asia – Russian.

In preparation for a trip to Moscow years ago I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet, developed in the 9th century and named after two Byzantine brothers, St Cyril and Methodius. It’s quite common: more than 50 languages use it, including Kyrgyz and Uzbek. So I’ll be able to read a newspaper headline – but I’ll have no idea of what it means. At least I’ll be fine with street signs…

I began my search on Amazon for a good Russian phrasebook. There are plenty of excellent ones, and having used the Lonely Planet phrasebooks before I was initially drawn to the Russian one. Their other option is the phrasebook for Central Asia – but, it doesn’t include Russian, which I think could be helpful. Drilling down even further are individual phrasebooks for Kyrgyz and Uzbek but that, to me, is overkill. I’m trying to travel light and two books, however small, are too many.

Another possibility is the Point it: Traveller’s Language Kit by Dieter Graf, which allows you to point at things without knowing a word of the language.

Yet another would be to use a translation device, into which I could type something in English with instant translation into other languages. But for some reason, I’m not keen.

In the end, this may well be the trip on which I try out a language app. I won’t have constant wifi (maybe not even sporadic) so I’ll need something offline. I’m traveling with an iPhone so that also dictates what I can use.

Here are some likely candidates for the iPhone:

  • Google Translate – it’s free and can handle voice and writing, offline and online. I find the volume of translation very low – it’s difficult to hear even at high volume.
  • iTranslate costs $2.99 and looked awfully good. But on trial, the interface is less friendly for technophobes – the voice, though, is sharper and louder than with Google Translate.
  • Voice Translate Pro costs nearly $5 (at least in Europe) and at first sight isn’t going to give me much more than Google Translate.  (I tried the free Voice Translator Pro, with an almost identical name, but thought it a bit too elementary for my needs.)
  • Yandex is another recommend – also free and simple to use.

There are many more others if you use Android or if you have wifi but for my purposes these will do for a start. (Note: I settled on Google Translate after figuring out I could boost my iPhone volume with a few minor adjustments.)

One more thing before you go: learn a few phrases.

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Мен ушул жерде кубанычтамын. I’m so happy to be here, in Kyrgyz.

Men sizning mamlakatni ko’raman. I love your country, in Uzbek.

Or maybe just…

Спасибо. Thank you.

Part 6: My Central Asia Itinerary

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Matilda Voss August 16, 2016, 8:09 pm

    Hi Leyla,
    This entire article was great reading. I’d love to visit those countries too. Back packing…..how big is your pack? I find my back pack too heavy these days and prefer a small cabin bag to drag along. What are your thoughts on that? As for all the terrorism fear, we cant predict where they will attack next and as you say France is probably more dangerous.
    I look forward to reading about this amazing adventure. Best wishes and safe travels.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak August 17, 2016, 9:30 am

      I’ll be posting all about packing in a few days – I still haven’t decided what I’m taking but the lighter, the better. Something small. That’ll be a challenge!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak August 21, 2016, 11:24 pm

      I’m not sure of my pack size yet… it needs to be pretty small, since I have to lug it around myself and I’m not quite as youthful as I used to be! I won’t take a carry-on with rollers, even though I have one I love, because I don’t anticipate smooth streets and sidewalks, and I’ll be in the countryside a lot of the time so backpack it is. Stay tuned – I’ll be writing about packing very shortly, as soon as I start packing!

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