When people knew I was going to kick off my “Silk Road” adventure across Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan, their response was generally similar, “Ah....Borat!”, which tells you how much of a hit the movie was. Kyrgyzstan, most people didn’t have a clue where on earth that was.
Before Borat the Movie in 2006, the general impression of “the Stan’s” was that of danger. After Borat, “the Stan’s” started to be perceived as somewhat an exotic destination. Today, “the Stan’s” are a relatively popular tourist destination (among Europeans). Though fortunately, they haven’t yet fallen to the tourist hordes the way Turkey and Morocco unfortunately have.
Central Asia is huge, and to be honest, with just two weeks, you’d barely scratch the surface. Still, two weeks is ample time to experience some of the regions key wonders and get you pumped up on visiting the rest of the “Stan’s” on your future trips.
This time, “The Girl” didn’t come along as she had already consumed most of her leave traveling in the early part of the year. Instead, I had the pleasure of having colleagues, both past and present travel together with me, and yes, it was a blast.
Kazakhstan is the worlds largest “landlocked” country and also the 9th largest country in the world.
It was once a part of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan, and centuries later, a part of the Russian Empire. After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Kazakhstan is today the most economically dominant nation in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan was once part of the Mongol Empire, the Qing Dynasty, and later, a part of the USSR. Like Kazakhstan, it was one of the 15 states that made up the USSR and gained its independence in 1991.
Among the 5 “Stans”, Tajikistan is famous for its Pamir Highway, Uzbekistan for its architecture, Turkmenistan for its “Gates of Hell”, Kazakhstan is a good mix of the 5, and Kyrgyzstan, is especially popular for trekking and is noted for having the most beautiful natural scenery among the 5 “Stan’s”.
The above is a table of the exact breakdown and miscellaneous costs you should allocate daily. I traveled in a group of four and hence the budget reflects that. You’ll find it’s a really comfortable budget to stick to, and adds up to a total of S$2,424. I’ve even included bribes!
The Stan’s are a pretty corrupted part of the world (we got fined on an average of twice a day).
If you get stopped and you’ve done nothing wrong, the law allows you to film them. The police fear tourists and their camera phones. Filming should be your first defense so you don't encourage the already corrupted culture.
But still, it’s safer to have a budget for bribes because it could mean the difference between a night in a cell in a country where no one speaks English, and carrying on for the rest of your trip.
Air-tickets start from around S$1,200, which is slightly more expensive than what you’d pay to fly to Europe. But getting around in the country is really cheap. S$2,500 for 2 weeks in Europe is do-able if you stayed in hostels and watched what you ate. But S$2,500, for 2 weeks in “the Stan’s”? You’ll live it up in hotels and eat without looking at menu prices.
1 USD = 390 Tenge (Kazakhstan)
1 USD = 70 Som (Kyrgyzstan)
Mains at a Restaurant = 800 Tenge or 120 Som
Beers = 400 Tenge or 80 Som
Accommodation = 20 USD per room (after negotiation) for a decent local 3 Star Hotel chain.
Bribes = They start off between 30 USD – 40 USD. But you can bargain them down to 15 USD. Locals pay just 7-8 USD per bribe.
I suggest you set off from Almaty in Kazakhstan, bite the bullet, and head for the furthest attractions first, which would be the Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes. It's around a 6 hour drive from Almaty, but once you get past this tiring day, driving back will be a breeze. You'll be able to stop and enjoy the rest of the attractions at your own pace as you take a slow drive back.
Almaty to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan will take you indicatively 4-5 hours depending on how congested the border is. Once you're in Kyrgyzstan, make Issyk-Kul lake your first stop, and stop by Song-Kul Lake on your return to Bishkek. You'll be driving an average of 5 hours a day.
I'll say this clearly, so no one has any doubts on what is required.
You MUST rent a 4WD if you're planing to attempt this itinerary in Autumn or Winter.
Don't be a smart ass or a scrooge and rent a 2WD hatchback or sedan just because you're trying to save money. You'll get stuck, end up having to abandon your rented car in a region with zero phone connection, and spend more money trying to get help as a result.
(Above) Us getting stuck in mud so soft we had to practically shovel and push our 4WD out. Imagine if you arrived in a budget hatchback; your holiday would have come to an instant halt.
We encountered this muddy obstacle 10km from Lake Kaindy in Kazakhstan. The ground is constantly muddy and soft from melted snow that falls at night.
(Above) Driving across a mountain range in Kyrgyzstan to get to Song-Kul Lake.
Our heart practically skipped a beat when our 4WD started sliding towards the edge of the mountain as we drove across snow covered roads without snow tires.
We had already rented a top of the range Toyota Sequoia, a 4WD with a 4L V8 engine anticipating dirt roads. It wasn't too expensive, $85 USD a day before spliting four ways.
It turned out that dirt roads were the least of our concerns. We weren't expecting snow as it was still autumn, but snow it did. Without snow tires, we had to contend with a combination of driving along dirt roads, soft "quicksand like mud", snow and ice.
Besides the renting of a 4WD, I'd highly suggest being competent at changing tires at the very least. Either that or buying a Breitling Emergency watch which has it's own satellite frequency so at least you'll have some means of getting help as there's practically no connection in either the mountains or grasslands.
[Attractions & Activities Kazakhstan]
1. Within Almaty
Arasan Baths is very likely, the finest bathhouse in all of Central Asia.
This was our first stop, to reward our cramped up bodies after a 7hr flight.
Despite its opulent feel, bathing in Arasan is actually pretty cheap. We paid less than 8 USD for indicatively 1.5 hours of bathing + the rental of miscellaneous items like towels and slippers.
The bathhouse is huge, almost the size of one whole city block, and houses a Finish Sauna, Turkish Bath, Russian Banya, Moroccan Hammam, and an ice pool. Men and women bathe separately, and massages start from $5 USD.
We aren't exactly the sort of guys who would enjoy spending hours walking around the botanical gardens. But in the heart of Almaty, sits one of the Kazakhstan's coolest parks; the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen.
This attraction is a must visit, and is dedicated to and named after 28 soldiers who died while fighting against Germans outside of Moscow in their attempt to significantly delay the Germans advance to Moscow.
(Above) An eternal flame commemorates the fallen of WWII
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen is also home to the second tallest wooden building in the world, the Zenkov Cathedral, one of Almaty's last standing "Tsarist-era" attractions.
It is completely made out of wood with no nails, and I can attest is, more impressive than more than half the cathedrals I've visited in "Touristy Europe".
(Above) The light from the stained glass windows. It's certainly a colorful cathedral!
Kok Tobe is the highest viewpoint in all of Almaty.
We paid roughly $8 USD for a return cable car trip and were rewarded with 360 degree views of the city below and the mountain range in the distance. There is also an amusement park and zoo, at the top of the Kok Tobe mountain, making this arguably Almaty's favorite place for families.
(Above) The view from Kok Tobe. Just magnificent.
Shymbulak Ski Resort