June – August 2018
The Silk Road has been on my to do list for years but fitting in a long stretch of travel is much more difficult these days. Firstly, having a child in tow means more planning, secondly, a nursery place can’t be held for long periods without some serious expense. But conversely, school allows even less leeway for time off and school days are nearing. Therefore my best compromise was to take three months off just before school started! Not the best time of year to visit these countries due to the oppressive heat for most of the time but still a fantastic trip, starting in Kazakhstan, through 4 more ‘Stans’ and across China.
The Republic of Kazakhstan is the largest land locked country in the world with a population of about 18 million people. They predominantly make money through oil and gas but have large mineral reserves also. Historically the people were nomadic becoming a distinct Kazakh group in the 16th Century. Eventually the Russians advanced to become rulers this later becoming part of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was the last state to declare independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991. It now has a President and Prime Minister governing the country. Kazakhstan has an extreme continental climate so choose wisely when to visit, very hot summers and very cold winters. Human rights are considered low in this country but we did not feel as oppressed here as in other ‘Stans’. The national railway network is excellent and tickets can easily be booked online, even choosing your desired seat or sleeper. Some cities have modern underground systems also and there are numerous, frequent bus routes. The ATMs accept foreign cards and most shops and restaurants take card and contactless payments.
Astana, Almaty, Shymkent
The Republic of Uzbekistan is a double land locked country in Central Asia. It has changed hands many times over the years from Persian, Macedonian Greek, Parthian and Sasanian Empires. Later in the 19th Century it gradually moved into Russian hands and became a Soviet State. It declared independence in August 1991. The borders were not exactly as the previous independent country so you get many Uzbeks living in Southern Kazakhstan and parts of the other bordering countries. This makes the cultures very interwoven in some cities. Uzbekistan’s main products are cotton, natural gas and gold. We found Uzbekistan to be quite difficult to travel through due to the number of restrictions on us. Money is hard to come by, most ATMs do not give local currency, some if you are lucky will accept a foreign card and give US dollars. These then need to be changed in a bank to the local currency. The national train network varies in quality from old style sleepers to ultra modern high speed bullet trains. There is no way to book trains online so either go to the station or ask someone in your hotel/hostel to book for you.
Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara (Links coming soon)
The Republic of Turkmenistan is a sparsely populated country in Central Asia with borders on the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan is difficult to travel as a backpacker and you almost always need a registered guide with you at all time and to arrange the visa. This has its pros and cons, you can travel in style and not waste time finding your way around, but you will only get shown the Turkmenistan that the government wants you to see… The press is heavily restricted in Turkmenistan so accessing information is difficult, even the guide will only tell you what he is allowed to. There are also cameras everywhere so be careful to follow all of the countries rules. The president’s photo is everywhere, on buildings, on every taxi driver’s dashboard, in houses. Definitely a dominating force. There are many great sights to see here, from burning craters to immaculately, all be them ghostly, new cities. On a tour you won’t really need money and we never discovered the actual exchange rate as all exchanges are black market so whatever the person can get away with.
Darvaza, Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi, Mary (Links coming soon)
Another landlocked country of Central Asia is Tajikistan, population of about 8 million. It has been ruled by many civilisations but became part of the Soviet Union in 1929 and left in September 1991. Mountains cover 90% of the country so the popular place to visit and travel is the Pamir Highway which borders Afghanistan, this is favoured with cyclists and 4WDs. Again money is difficult to come by and only a few bank chains take foreign cards and then not every machine. Withdrawals can be made at bank counters. The capital Dushanbe is very modern with many grand statues and parks, I also tried out the medical facilities here which were good too.
No Man’s Land, Dushanbe, Pamir Highway, (Links coming soon)
The Kyrgyz Republic is a landlocked country in Central Asia, the crossroads of the Silk Road. Due to its mountainous terrain it has retained more of its original culture than the surrounding ‘Stans’. This was noticeable as soon as we entered the country as there were nomadic families with yurts scattered across the hills. However the cities are much more modern with 5 star hotels, shopping centres and plenty of cash machines. The restaurants cater easily for children and the supermarkets sell fish fingers singularly! There isn’t much public transport, only buses and taxis (which do not like being hailed) so organising a private driver is a good option.
Osh, Arslandbob, Yurt Stay, Bishkek (Links coming soon)
China, a much more well known country on our Silk Road tour. The People’s Republic of China is the world most populated country with over 1.4billion people, and didn’t we know it at every tourist site! It has a long complicated history, too lengthy to explain here. This has led to controversy over certain regions now claimed as part of China. The country is governed by the Communist Party of China. There are press restrictions and this continues into the internet therefore you will need to install a VPN before entering if you wish to access popular social media sites. WeChat is a popular app (similar to WhatsApp) but also used to pay in shops and restaurants. Cash is also easy to obtain from cash machines. The transport system is excellent and I would advise using an online agency to book train tickets. This is slightly more expensive but the counters in the stations can be extremely busy and often following odd rules which we never got to grips with. Taxis often take strange routes or go to the wrong place entirely, even with the address printed out for them so be wary and track on your phone if possible.
Turpan, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Chengdu, Xi’an, Shanghai, Beijing, Tibet, Macao (Links coming soon)