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Part 3 – Anatomy of a Solo Female Backpacking Adventure: Security Concerns in Central Asia

(Back to Part 1)

“Weren’t the Istanbul Airport terrorists from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan?”

Yes, they were.

Scared, no. Cautious, yes.

“So why are you going to visit those two countries? Aren’t you scared?”

And that’s been the gist of my email Inbox for days.

I’m planning to travel through Kyrgyzstan the first half of September and Uzbekistan the second half.

And my chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack are really, really tiny.

I live in France, which carries the following advisory from the US government: “France’s Parliament approved an extension of the state of emergency imposed after the Nice truck attack in July 2016. The state of emergency will now remain in effect until January 26, 2017.” That sounds scary.

According to the British, France faces “…a high threat from terrorism. Due to ongoing threats to France by Islamist terrorist groups, and recent French military intervention against Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL), the French government has warned the public to be especially vigilant and has reinforced its security measures.”

France sounds scarier than Central Asia.

A quick geography lesson

If you’re anything like me and haven’t yet been to Central Asia, untangling the “Stans” is the first challenge. When I decided to visit this part of the world I wasn’t even sure which countries it contained.

Seven countries in the region end with “stan”, which means place of in Persian. But when travellers talk about visiting “the Stans” they usually mean the five core nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – not Afghanistan or Pakistan.

This is Middle Asia, as the Chinese call it, once the heartland of the Soviet Union. Each of these was once a Soviet Socialist Republic and is now, in the wake of the USSR’s breakup in 1991, a newly independent nation.

The ‘Stans are Muslim, though you’ll find a sprinkling of Russian Orthodox and a few other religions. One great attraction for me is its diversity: this is the region through which the Silk Road passed, and any trade route means people will mix.

Most of the people are of Turkic origin. My father, who was Turkish, once travelled overland across Central Asia speaking only Turkish and was understood everywhere. Sadly I’ve forgotten my Turkish and will have to settle for a Russian (the lingua franca) translation app instead.

Here’s my extremely basic itinerary: I plan to land in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, the orange bit in the lower right-hand corner of the map. I’ll then travel around the country clockwise and end up in Osh.

From there I’ll cross the border overland into Uzbekistan and visit places with such haunting names as Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent. These words have seen centuries pass through them, dusty with camels and merchants from all corners of the civilized world.

map

Security concerns in Central Asia – warnings to stay away

Given the increase in terrorism, a border with Afghanistan and connections through Istanbul, I’m being extra-cautious in my research. We’re all more anxious when terrorist attacks take place. They’re graphic, disgusting and take over the news, so understanding the risks is essential.

Because I do take terrorism extremely seriously, my research begins by checking what governments say. They may exaggerate and they’re not always right but travel advisories are at least an indication of what’s happening on the ground (along with recent news reports and word-of-mouth posts in the more reliable travel forums).

Here’s Canada’s take on Kyrgyzstan: “You should exercise a high degree of caution due to the possibility of violent crime and occasional civil unrest…. The Kyrgyz Republic has a high rate of violent crime and foreigners have been targeted. Organized gangs are common.” Yikes. I’ll be careful.

And the Brits: “Muggings (sometimes violent) and theft occur regularly. There have been incidents involving criminals, mostly after dark. Take care if you go out after dark.” Slightly more understated and frankly, that description fits most cities I know.

Otherwise, there was some unrest near the Uzbek border but that was 2010 and these days, things appear calm.

Uzbekistan faces slightly different concerns “You can be detained on arrival for the possession of certain medicines, including codeine.” Note to self: leave painkillers home or bring prescriptions for everything.

And this, a British near-afterthought: “Take care in areas bordering Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s borders are potential flashpoints and uncontrolled border areas may be land-mined.” I hope not.

After scaring you to death, the British then tell you, “Most visits to Uzbekistan are trouble free.”

Good, glad to hear that.

A few precautions

It all seems placid, with a few caveats.

I’ll travel in broad daylight only. I’ll (try to) avoid crowds. I’ll book my first night’s accommodation ahead of time, and try to connect with local women to better understand the culture and because there’s safety in numbers. I’ll avoid places that are clearly Western or frequented mostly by tourists.

Most important, I’ll pay attention.

No travel is risk-free, but this is a good time to remember travel isn’t any more dangerous than staying home. In the wake of the Istanbul and Paris and Nice attacks, we’ve often been reassured about the relative safety of travel and we should by now know that the greatest cause of overseas deaths (for Americans, as an example) is car accidents, followed by plenty of other factors – heart attacks, diabetes and even suicide rank well ahead of terrorism.

This snippet on the CDC website particularly caught my eye: “Wikipedia notes that obesity is a contributing factor in 100,000–400,000 deaths in the United States per year. That makes obesity 5,882 to times 23,528 more likely to kill you than a terrorist.”

So yes, I’m definitely going to Central Asia, but as I’m overweight and I have high blood pressure, I’m also going on a diet.

Part 4: My Central Asia Travel Budget

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • If you’re from a Western country, getting visas for Central Asia is relatively straightforward (although it is expensive and involves a lot of paperwork.
  • If you’re from a developing country, you may have to resort to acrobatics to acquire a coveted visa, any visa. So yes, I do realize how fortunate I am.
  • Make sure before you even think of a visa that your passport is valid for at least six months after your planned return. Don’t do what I once did and show up for a flight to Bangkok with an expired passport.
  • Check the visa dates. Some visas begin running from the date they’re issued. If you’re traveling in a few months, your visa might have run out by the time you arrive!
  • Here are some of the official government travel advisory sites: Australia, Canada, IrelandNew Zealand, UK and USA.

 

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Ann July 27, 2016, 7:27 pm

    I’ve been to Kyrgizstan four times for work, all of it in Bishkek or Osh. The official warnings, as you know, are overstated. You’ll be able to get by with Russian and with many young people, English. Keep your wits about you as you would travelling in any country. I was pickpocketed twice, both times in marketplaces and it was because I wasn’t careful enough. In Osh make sure you see the ancient public market in existence since the early days of the Silk Road and the museum where you can actually touch ancient artifacts.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 30, 2016, 8:31 am

      I plan to spend a few days in Osh before crossing into Uzbekistan so I’m taking careful note, thank you!

  • Dyanne July 28, 2016, 4:14 am

    Very thoughtful article, Leyla, and coincidentally I too have been lately scouring the Thorn Tree forums for up-to-the-minute reports on just what’s currently happening in Turkey – first-hand accounts from those on the ground. I’m likewise popping on my backpack and headed out for a month or more on the trail come September (landing in Munich, and making my way south through the Balkans to Turkey.

    Yes, extra research is prudent these days, but I honestly pay little heed to gubberment travel advisories which have long been reliably overly dramatic and (not surprisingly) uber conservative. While on one hand, I’m not foolish enough to wander into a war zone (or another Turkey coup attempt), but on the other? As you say, statistically my personal safety is far more threatened – simply by driving down the expressway amid a stream of 16-wheelers in Seattle (where I’m from, but presently am living in Ecuador).

    In short, simply walking out your front door entails risk. And I’m not about to miss exploring the many wondrous and unique corners of the globe – simply b/c there *might* be a bit of danger.

    Wishing you safe travels, many adventures in your coming trip. I’ll be thinking of you as I too wander a bit west of you. 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 30, 2016, 8:31 am

      Across the Balkans to Turkey sounds like a fabulous trip, one I’d love to make by car. I could jump in my car from France and simply keep driving East…

  • Lisa Carnicom August 3, 2016, 3:22 am

    Another superlatively helpful article. And I love knowing what you’re up to; you have such a fascinating life. I’m excited for you for this trip! I’ve been drawn to the Silk Road ever since I can recall. Recently bought Peter Hopkirk’s book Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. An intelligent & well-traveled friend highly recommends it. Hopkirk was quite a fellow! He was once on a plane that was hijacked by armed terrorists. He confronted the terrorists & persuaded them to hand over their guns! That’s exactly what I picture myself doing, in my surer moments. Terrorists are scared little boys & girls who might sometimes listen to a motherly person. Perhaps to be disarming is among the best preparations for travel in areas of unrest. I might change my tune when I ride my bicycle in the ‘Stans. That’s my favorite form of slow travel. Thank you for sharing your experience & insight 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak August 3, 2016, 8:03 am

      Thanks for the book recommendation – I’ve tried so hard to research well before going but time is too short and many other preparations are in the way! I’ll try to get it on Kindle so I can at least read it on the way… Also, I have no immediate plans to disarm terrorists so I’ll have to hope they stay away…

  • Hantie August 30, 2016, 3:26 pm

    Dis ‘n voorreg om jou “briewe” op ‘n gereelde basis te ontvang!! Sal in diie komende maand of twee aan jou dink…..geniet die toer / reis deur die vreemde met opwinding en avontuur…en kom veilig tuis…. tot ons weer van jou hoor!!!!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak September 1, 2016, 6:22 am

      Now if Google Translate isn’t letting me down, you say you’re enjoying my newsletters (thank you) and wishing me a good and safe trip (thank you again!) 🙂

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