For the past month, I’ve been traveling solo through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and posting my travels to Facebook (starting with this post on Day 1). Many of you have asked for itinerary details and specifics.
So quickly, briefly, here they are.
Welcome to my three-week Central Asia itinerary.
Any woman traveling on her own can do this – or something like it. I used a mixture of budget and more upmarket travel but you can choose to do it either entirely on the cheap or in the lap of near-luxury.
This trip took place in September 2016. Lake Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan shouldn’t be attempted after mid-September; there’s a strong chance of rain but worse, snow could fall, making the road terribly dangerous. Conversely, it’s still quite hot in Uzbekistan. The other viable option is late spring.
I won’t go into trip preparations, which you can find here in excruciating detail. Nor is this about what to do and see, which will be the subject of other posts. This is about my personal ‘how I did it’.
Finally, although this trip took me a month, six of my 28 days away were spent working so I’m not counting those – which leaves you with 22 days, or a 3-week Central Asian itinerary.
Day 1: Fly into Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I flew with Turkish Airlines, which had great prices out of Europe (and has similar deals out of North America via Istanbul). Aeroflot is another option but keep checking before you buy. I saved $300 on Turkish, but a fellow traveler saved the same amount on Aeroflot. Go figure. I had booked a hotel for my two night in Bishkek via booking.com because I like a bit of worry-free down time at the start and end of a trip. (I stayed at the Grand Hotel – not grand at all, a decent location near the university and a ‘Soviet’ utilitarian vibe.) First order of the day: satisfy coffee craving. Try Sierra Coffee – there’s one downtown and one across the street from the CBT office – that stands for Community-Based Travel, a group that pays local people fairly for their travel services (more on CBT below).
Day 2: Walk around Bishkek with Bradt Guide to Kyrgyzstan in hand, get rid of jet lag, drop into CBT (call them for directions). It has offices all over the country and can help you set up part or all of your trip (I dealt with Diana – tell her I said Hi). CBT can handle everything from transport between cities to homestays in yurts. As I was working part of the time I hired a driver and an English-speaking guide so I did it the expensive way, at about $220/day, everything included. You can pay less than a quarter of the price if you take shared taxis and let CBT organize the homestays. For dinner in Bishkek I ate at Cafe Faiza, a cheap eatery with great local food – try the lagman noodles if you’re in a rush for an intro to Kyrgyz cuisine.
Day 3: Leave Bishkek for the northern shore of Lake Issy-Kul (there’s public transport but I was covering the World Nomad Games and so my Kyrgyz hosts had organized a driver for me). You’ll find plenty of driver suggestions on Tripadvisor and other forums. Shop around and don’t hesitate to write to them – they all either speak English or use Google Translate in a credible way (just make sure they actually speak English so you can communicate when you’re traveling). I stopped in the village of Cholpon-Ata for a week for the Games but there are plenty of other smaller towns on this stretch of the lake. Without the Games, I probably wouldn’t have spent more than a day in this Soviet holiday meets Costa Brava resort. If you do decide to spend the night, a clean and very cheap option is the Apple Hostel. I stayed at the Akun, definitely upmarket with beautiful grounds but tasteless food – and a bit far out of town if the town is what you’re after.
Day 4: Continue along the shore of the lake and stop by some of the rural villages. Notice the many Muslim cemeteries in every single village along the way. I had lunch at a homestay but then pushed as far as Jyrgalan, a hidden valley with enchanting mountains. The village itself looks as though it hasn’t changed in a century (if you can manage to ignore the power plant right in the middle of town). I didn’t hike but others have done so and highly recommend it, along with horseback riding through the mountains – and skiing and snowshoeing if you happen to visit in winter. I stayed at an excellent little guest house called the Eco-Center Alakol, in a perfect little room with outstanding plumbing. You won’t get far more off the beaten path than this.
Day 5: Hike or ride in the Jyrgalan mountains – just make sure you’ve reserved ahead of time.
Day 6: Head to Karakol. I stayed at the Alakol Guesthouse, run by the friendly Gulmira, wife of Emil, the owner of the Eco-Center in Jyrgalan. If you choose to do this the other way around, Gulmira can organize transport from Karakol to Jyrgalan. The food is tremendous, the bathroom very clean, but the bed a bit hard. I don’t personally know other places in Karakol but I’d stay here again just for the cooking. If by now you’re craving Western food and – yes – coffee, go to Karakol Coffee for good coffee, good wifi, good pastries and perfectly acceptable pizza. Gulmira can drive you there and pick you up if you ask her.
Day 7: Visit a yurt-making village, then drive along the southern shore of Lake Issy-Kul for a complete change of pace and spend the night at the Bel-Tam Yurt Camp in Bokonbaeva.
Day 8: Head for Kochkor, the jumping off point for Lake Song Kul. If you didn’t make your arrangements in Bishkek, the CBT Kochkor office is particularly clued in and efficient. It’s right at the entrance of town so even if you’re coming in by shared taxi, keep your eyes on the right – it’s behind the Shepherd’s Life office. Next to the CBT office is a women’s NGO that works as a cooperative and sells crafts to tourists, providing the artisan with 80% of the paid price (not to be confused with the CBT handicraft shop behind the office – also good for community workers). I stayed in a guest room in Kochkor to start bright and early for Lake Song Kul. And here’s where your itinerary could/should differ from mine. My time was limited but several friends rode on horseback to the lake and said it was the experience of a lifetime. If you don’t have the time, take a short day-ride, even if you’re a complete beginner.
Day 9: Drive up to Lake Song Kul. If you don’t like heights, stare at your feet. This drive is best done in a 4WD. I did it in a regular car but I wouldn’t recommend that at all. Beware the rain: the red clay soil looks extremely slippery and the yawing precipice particularly close. At Lake Song Kul, spend the night in a yurt in one of the most extraordinarily gorgeous settings I’ve ever seen, a mountain plain fringed by a lake and high mountains.
Day 10: Make sure you’ve organized your transport out of Lake Song Kul before you go. I ran across several people unsure of how to get out. One French couple was stranded and hitched a ride with us. There aren’t many taxis, and they’re hard to call because there’s no phone signal at the lake. Don’t leave until afternoon if you haven’t had a horse ride yet. Those plains were made for riding.
Day 11: Drive to Kyzil-Oy, halfway along a stunning but terrifying (there’s a lot of that in Kyrgyzstan) canyon. I loved this village, even though there was nothing to do (other than watch a local kok-boru game in which riders throw around a headless goat carcass). Ask at CBT Kochkor – they can organize a proper homestay in this cool, green village.
Day 12: A long drive to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, along one of the main roads: crowded, chaotic and winding, and I was relieved to arrive. Some people turn back towards Bishkek at this point and fly to Osh. I took the long way. Osh has a cheerful feel (and great fried chicken if by now you’re fed up with mutton). I stayed at the VIP Guest House, but I was working in Osh for three days and needed the space. You probably won’t need a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchenette…
Day 13: If you’re a city person, spend the day in Osh and climb the holy Mt Sulaiman-Too. If not, leave (see Day 14).
Day 14: Cross the border into Uzbekistan at 8am. Change your Kyrgyz soms into Uzbek soms before you cross – there’s nothing on the other side. If you can organize this, have a driver waiting for you on the Uzbek side of the border. When I saw the utter lack of public transport (not a usual thing, I’m told), I was grateful I’d spent $175 booking a private car with driver for the full-day drive to Tashkent. Most travel agencies can provide this service so check online, write to them, and compare. In high season you probably won’t do that much better. In the off season prices should go down. Or you can hope you’ll find a shared taxi to the nearest city, Andijon. (Soon after I visited the train from Andijon to Tashkent began operations. I’d reckon this is much better than driving.)
Day 15: Visit Tashkent and figure out where you’re going. I was going to Nukus to see the Savitsky Collection and normal people would take the one-hour flight, whereas I rode the train for 22 hours. I don’t suggest you do that unless you have an inclination for loud snoring, falling out of bunks and significant discomfort. What I didn’t do because of time was visit the Aral Sea but I do regret that. Your hotel can arrange transport, shared or private, to Moyniaq, once a port city and now in the middle of the desert. I stayed at the Massaget Hotel, small, clean, family run and five minutes’ walk from the museum. For great local food, try the fried chicken with spices at the Palvan Shakh (near the hotel) or the Cinnamon for more Westernized food (next to the museum but closed on Mondays). I ran out of Uzbek soms and the hotel kindly sent their son to the bazaar to exchange money for me. They also arranged my trip to Khiva the next morning.
Day 16: Drive to Khiva in the morning – of if you didn’t make it to the museum yesterday, go this morning. The drive takes about three hours over terrible roads that are negotiated at high speeds. Hang on. And pray. Get to Khiva in one piece and spend the afternoon roaming through this irresistible city. The road is being upgraded so things may be vastly different soon. In Khiva I stayed at the Orzu Guesthouse, right in the center of the old town – ideal. Super breakfasts so huge I couldn’t eat lunch. For dinner I became addicted to the fresh watermelon juice at the Kheivak, which is also a hotel. The staff was friendly, wifi was good – and you can lay back and smoke a shisha water piper if you’d like to and no one will bat an eyelash.
Day 17: Enjoy Khiva! I certainly did.
Day 18: Time for another harrowing drive of about five hours to Bukhara, although the motorway is half built, so half the drive is excellent. Evening is the perfect time to walk around this incredibly pleasant place. I stayed at the friendly Kavsar Boutique Hotel, which can be a bit noisy if you get a room without shutters and there are people chatting in the patio. Breakfasts are memorable and Rustam and his wife a lovely couple – he drove me to the train station 16km away at no charge early in the morning – after breakfast was prepared well before regular hours. Desperate for coffee? Can’t handle another green tea? Leave the hotel, turn left and you’ll find a small Segafreddo café on your left.
Day 19: A day to walk around Bukhara. If it’s hot, you’ll be happy to have a hotel nearby for a quick shower and nap at the height of the sun. While Khiva was easy to photograph, Bukhara (spelled Buxoro locally) is harder, especially with an iPhone. The angles are challenging so build in enough time to scout around. Several restaurants have terraces but even so, the views aren’t perfect – there’s always something in the way. Try to avoid the Bukhara Silk Carpet Factory (no website, in person only)… or go armed with cash or a credit card. I’m not sure you’ll be able to resist the temptation to buy one of their glorious carpets. (I was unable to resist.) The factory will ship it home for you and bend over backwards to accommodate any and every payment method you can think of. You’ve been warned.
Day 20: Take the early train from Bukhara to Samarkand, especially if you’re fed up with road travel (I was). Make sure you’ve reserved your tickets early on because this train (all trains on this route) is often full. In Samarkand I stayed at the Antica B&B – divine. Samarkand can be hot hot hot, and the garden at the Antica provided a cool breeze and fresh air at all times. Breakfast is superb, but there are few places to eat around there so they do make dinner on demand (you need to reserve it a day ahead of time).
Day 21: Samarkand. I can’t recommend any place to eat and that was my main issue with this city. That said, its beauty carries you through any hunger pangs. Walk around the Registan or other world-famous sights and keep your mind off your stomach. Late in the day I took the train into Tashkent but be forewarned: there are no taxis when the late evening train gets in. I hitchhiked to my hotel! In Tashkent I stayed at the Wyndham, a perfectly acceptable international-class hotel, chosen for its wifi, my need to spruce up before catching my flight, and a late-opening coffee shop.
Day 22: Fly home… and wonder at the magical few weeks you’ve just experienced.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- Remember you’ll probably need a visa for Uzbekistan – and probably won’t need one for Kyrgyzstan. Do check.
- For Kyrgyzstan, don’t forget to write to CBT and start discussing your visit as soon as you know you’re going.
- Buy your Uzbekistan train tickets fast – as I said, they fill up.
- Try to familiarise yourself with the money. In Uzbekistan there are two rates of exchange: the official rate, and the black market rate (about twice as good). Many upcountry hotels and guest houses will ask you to pay in hard currency for precisely that reason. It gets complicated when you try to pay in som – guest houses will usually charge you the higher rate, which means you can pay twice as much in one place as in another… Larger hotels tend to charge you in soms and let you pay at the black market rate, which means you might pay the same in a large, modern hotel as in a small guest house or B&B. Problem is – you won’t know ahead of time.
- Both countries are as safe as can be. While I did spend time with guides and drivers, I spent far more time on my own, at any hour, in any place, and not once did I ever feel unsafe.