Have you ever wonder what it is like to travel the ancient Silk Road? You don't have to wonder anymore as you can travel the Silk Road by yourself with my guide on how to backpack through Central Asia in one month with a suggested itinerary, where to stay, and basically everything you need to plan your own trip. Without further ado, let's begin, shall we?
One Month Central Asia Itinerary Map
Central Asia Travel Video
Why Go to Central Asia
Central Asia is one of the last few regions of the world that is still considered to be off-the-beaten-path for travelers who are looking for a real adventure. The region also played an important role in connecting the East to the West during the Silk Road time hence why there are so many ancient monuments, stunning old towns, and forgotten cultures for you to explore.
Not just that, the region is extremely diverse making it the perfect area to backpack around for a month or more. With the stunningly beautiful mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, the stunning architecture of Uzbekistan, the Gateway to Hell in Turkmenistan and the rich culture of Kazakhstan, you will never get bored in Central Asia.
When to Go to Central Asia
The best time to visit Central Asia is during Spring (April - May) or Autumn (September - November) where the weather is mild in all the countries in Central Asia and the shifting colors of forests and mountains is in full-swing.
You can go during the mid-summer months but be aware that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are mostly a desert and it will be very hot and most uncomfortable if you plan to take a public transportation.
Where to Stay in Central Asia
Kadji Say - Legenda Health Resort (Budget) - 3 USD/Night
Song Kul - Contact CBT Office in Kochkor and they will arrange a yurt accommodation for you
The Pamir Highway - Mostly Homestays and Guesthouses - 10 - 15 USD/Night with dinner
Dushanbe - Green House Hostel - 7 USD/Night (Dorm) | 25 USD/Night (Double Room)
Samarkand - Amir Hostel (Budget) - 10 USD/Night (Dorm) | 22 USD/Night (Double Room)
Bukhara - Rumi Hostel (Budget) - 8 USD/Night | 22 USD/Night (Double Room)
Khiva - Laliopa 2 Guest House (Budget) - 7 USD/Night | 23 USD/Night (Double Room)
Darvaza Crater - Camping (tent + food included in the tour)
Ashgabat - Depending on the tour you picked from Stantours.
Yangykala Canyon - Camping (tent + food included in the tour)
This place is moderately priced with transportation, food and accommodation average around 35 - 55 USD per day per person. Not that cheap but not too expensive.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
Visas for Central Asia
No matter where you are from, getting the visa for countries in Central Asia is complicated and require you to plan ahead before you arrive.
Kazakhstan is easy if you have European or American passport but for the rest of us, you will need to get a visa prior to arriving in Central Asia. They only issue visas to tourists from the embassy in their home country. You can not get your Kazakhstan visa abroad unless there is no Kazakhstan embassy in your country.
For more info: How to get an Kazakhstan visa.
Kyrgyzstan is the easiest as they either are visa-free or offer Visa-on-Arrival to most countries. For visa-on-arrival, you can only get it at the Mana Internation Airport so if you are from a country that is eligible for visa-on-arrival, you will either have to fly into Bishkek or prepare your visa prior to starting the trip.
For more info: How to get an Kyrgyzstan visa.
Tajikistan visa is pretty simple to get if you are eligible for e-visa. You can easily apply for an e-visa here. The visa cost 50 USD + 20 USD for GBAO Permit which is required if you are planning to travel through the Pamir Highway. Be sure to also print it all out before you start your journey from Osh as there will be no place for you to print anything after that. If you are not eligible for an e-visa, you will have to apply it at the embassy.
For more info: How to get an Tajikistan visa.
Uzbekistan has recently opened up the country to tourists and many countries (51 nationalities as of 2018) are now eligible for an e-visa which can be done online without a letter of invitation. If your country is not on the offical list, you will have to contact a tour company to issue a letter of invitation, which can take up to 7 days so be sure to do it prior to your trip. After you get the LOI, you can apply for the visa in Bishkek or from your country and that will take another week or two.
For more info: How to get an Uzbekistan visa.
Turkmenistan is the toughest one out of all. The country is one of the most isolated countries in the world and in order to travel there, you will either need to get a tour (for the duration of the tour) or apply for a transit visa (5 days including entry and exit days). The criteria for visa approval is totally random as I got rejected first and got immediately approved the second time I applied and I was applying through a tour company. Same goes for transit visas.
The best way to get Turkmenistan visa is via a tour company as you won't have to rush through the country and they will manage the visa process for you so you can apply even while you are abroad. The cheapest tour company I found is Stantours. They are responsive and made the whole ordeal easy for me. I highly recommended them if you are looking to apply for a tourist visa.
For more info: How to Get Into Turkmenistan.
How to Get to Central Asia
The most connected airport to the international world in Central Asia is the one in Almaty which is perfect since our itinerary begins there. Air Astana is the cheapest option and very well-connected throughout the world. Turkish Airline is a great option as well. Make sure to browse through Skyscanner and Momondo to find the best deal that fit your itinerary before booking anything.
How to Get Around Central Asia
Like with all other post-soviet states, marshrutka (minivan) is the cheapest way to get around the city or in between cities in Central Asia. You can also cheaply fly domestic for a further route like Bishkek to Osh and Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi.
Trains are also a great way to move around in Uzbekistan without having to deal with the unreliability of buses and marshrutkas there.
For the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan you will need to hire a jeep with a driver since the highway is extremely remote and not many people are traveling the route.
For more info on the rate of hiring a jeep with the driver, visit: How to Get Around the Pamir Highway.
For Turkmenistan, you do not need to worry about it as the tour will provide you with all the transportation you need to get to the places you want. It's all-inclusive. By land, they should provide you with a jeep and a driver. For some itinerary, you might need to fly and the tour company should provide you with transportation to the airport and the air ticket without you having to do anything.
You have plenty of options for internet in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with having a local sim card is the most reliable way to stay connected but plenty of hotels and restaurants in big cities have fast wifi available.
For the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, you will not have any internet connection whatsoever throughout your road trip until Dushanbe so let people know you will be gone for a week.
Fast internet is also hard to come by in Uzbekistan with the most reliable way to stay connected is to register to get a sim card. Unfortunately, that can only be done in Tashkent and since we are not passing through the capital city, we will have to rely on the hotel's wifi which is passable but doesn't expect to reliably stream Youtube videos from your phone or laptop.
Turkmenistan has an extremely strict censorship when it comes to the internet and you will only find free wifi in Ashgabat and only in international hotels like Hotel Oguzkent and Grand Turkmen Hotel and the are slow as hell. Be sure to get a working VPN before arriving as well if you want to access apps like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Orbot for Android work awesomely in Turkmenistan.
If you are looking for a travel insurance to go along with your trip to Central Asia, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure.
One Month Backpacking Itinerary for Central Asia
Almaty, Kazakhstan (2 Nights)
Photos by Torekhan Sarmanov
Almaty is home to many stunning architectures from the brutalist style buildings you often see in this part of the world to the Russian Orthodox style cathedrals. If you are into architecture, be sure to drop by Zenkov Cathedral, Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, First President’s Park, Arman Cinema and the Auezov Theatre.
Almaty is also a great place to launch yourself into the surrounding beautiful nature like the Big Almaty Lake, the Kok-Tobe hill and Aksay Gorge.
From Almaty, you can easily take a private/shared taxi to Bishkek which should take from 4 - 10 hours depending on the traffic and the delay at the border. For more detail guide on how to cross the border, check out: Crossing the Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan Border.
For more info about Almaty: 25 Things to Know Before You Visit Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (3 Nights)
Bishkek is one of my favorite cities in Central Asia. With a blend of brutalist architecture and the nature surrounding it, there is always things to do here.
You can go to Ala Archa and hike through the valley and alpine forest for a day or you can a little bit further east for a change in scenery and hike around the Konorchek Canyon.
Want to see what the real nightlife is like in Bishkek? Go to No Name Bar for a pint of craft beer before hitting the hippest club in town, Tuman where all the cool kids hang out.
For more info: Top 10 Things To Do In Bishkek.
Karakol, Kyrgyzstan (4 Nights)
From Bishkek, you can take a marshrutka to Karakol, a base town to launch yourself into all the beautiful mountains around the Issyk Kul region. An unforgettable trail I would recommend is a 3 days trek to Ala Kul that will take you through one of the most stunning valleys and lakes in Karakol.
The highest pass you will have to hike is 3,800m high and that is where you will be able to see the true beauty of the mountains in Kyrgyzstan. The hike is tough and the trail not very well marked but I can assure you after you reach the pass, you will know why it is worth every sweat.
For more info: Trekking The Ala Kul & Altyn Arashan In 2 Days.
Kadji Say, Kyrgyzstan (1 Night)
After a long trek like the Ala Kul, you will need a bit of a rest day and there is no better place to do it than at a small beach-side town in a remote part of Issyk Kul, the second highest Alpine lake in the world. Enjoy a quiet evening, watching the sun set behind the Tian Shan mountain and listening to the sound of a wave crashing along the rocky coast of Issyk Kul.
Be sure to drop by the Fairy Tale canyon on your way out of Kadji Say. You will not regret it.
Kochkor and Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan (2 Nights)
After Kadji Say, we continue onward to another highlight of Kyrgyzstan, the Song Kul, an alpine lake 3000m above sea-level, but before you get there, you will have to go to Kochkor and find a tour to go to Song Kul lake. You can either go with one of the tourism organization like CBT (Community Based Tourism) and Shepherd's Life, which you can find in Kochkhor or organize it through your hostel. The more you can find people to join you, the cheaper it will be.
I did it alone and even though it was not cheap, I had a great time going with the Sheperd's Life. I met other travelers up there and we had a big party around a campfire, dancing to Kyrgyz dance music blasting out from a Toyota Yaris under the stars. It was a surreal experience.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan (2 Nights)
From Kochkor, it is best that you head back to Bishkek via a marshrutka and fly to Osh to save time. The flight from Bishkek to Ost can cost as low as 30 USD so if you don't have a lot of time to spare, flying is the best way. If not, you can take an overnight bus or go with a shared taxi to Osh which could take as long as 8 hours.
Osh is like another country to the rest of Kyrgyzstan. Its landscape comprising of mostly desert, Uzbek population, and the deliciousness of the food here makes it all worthwhile to come all the way down here. You can spend a day hiking the Sulayman Mountain and planning for another highlight of your trip to Central Asia, the Pamir Highway.
For more info: The Ultimate Backpacking Guide To Kyrgyzstan.
The Pamir Highway, Tajikistan (7 Nights)
For the Pamir Highway, as mentioned before you will need to rent a jeep and hire a driver to traverse the road and one way you can organize is through Osh Guesthouse in Osh. This is the hub where you can organize a trip to the Pamir Highway and find other backpackers to share the jeep with. You can also plan ahead and connect with other travelers online at Caravanistan Forum and plan the trip together. I personally used the forum and successfully found 3 more people to share the jeep with.
There are a few routes you can take to traverse the Pamir Highway but I would recommend the 7 days one as follow:
- Day 1: Osh - Lenin Peak - Sary Mogul
- Day 2: Sary Mogul - Crossed to Tajikistan - Karakul Lake
- Day 3: Karakul Lake - Murghab
- Day 4: Murghab - Bulunkul (Hiking possibility)
- Day 5: Bulunkul - Wakhan Valley - Langar
- Day 6: Langar - Hotspring - Ishkashim
- Day 7: Ishkashim - Khorog
- Day 8: Khorog - Dushanbe (public jeep)
One of the highlights of the Pamir Highway trip is the Wakhan Valley which runs along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan where you will be able to take a peek at the true beauty of Afghanistan landscape. You don't get to do that very often in life. 😉
Khorog is the last town you will be traveling with the rented jeep so from here, you will have to get a marshrutka to Dushanbe which can take up to 16 hours depending on the road condition. The marshrutka leaves early in the morning from the bus stop in Khorog. If the weather permits, you can also fly on a small aircraft back to Dushanbe which will allow you to see the surrounding landscape from above.
Dushanbe, Tajikistan (2 Nights)
After the Pamir Highway, you can spend the day in Dushanbe relaxing, eating good food and go for a walk around the Rudaki Park and check out the second tallest flagpole in the world (first is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia).
I like Dushanbe. The slow quiet vibe of Dushanbe is a much-needed change from spending time with 7 other people for 8 days in the Pamir Highway (we were 2 jeeps traveling together). Before ending the day, talk to your hostel or guesthouse and organize a taxi to the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan border for the next morning.
Samarkand, Uzbekistan (2 Nights)
It should take you the entire day traveling from Dushanbe to Samarkand through the Denau border. It is a long trip but once you arrive in Samarkand you will start to feel like you are traveling along the Ancient Silk Road.
The entire city of Samarkand is like an open-air museum. You can fly stunning ancient architecture like the Registan or the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis all over the city.
Bibi Khanym Mosque and Gur-e Amir Сomplex are also worth visiting as well when you are in Samarkand.
Bukhara, Uzbekistan (2 Nights)
After spending 2 days in Samarkand, continue westward to another important ancient city of the Silk Road, Bukhara. Some of the many beautiful ancient architectures that you shouldn't miss in Bukhara are the Kalon Mosque and its Minaret, or the massive Ark of Bukhara.
These architectures are nice and all but the real beauty of Bukhara lies within the small alleys of the old town area where you can walk around, discovering local shops and houses, while seeing local people living out their lives. There's no place quite like Bukhara.
Khiva, Uzbekistan (3 Nights)
Khiva is another ancient city that played an important role during the Silk Road time. The entire city is a UNESCO site with it being surrounded by an old ancient wall that maintained its traditional look throughout the years.
The cool part about Khiva is that the people are still living inside the wall despite the place being turned into a tourist attraction. Within the boundary of the wall, you will find a minaret that you can climb to watch the sunset over Khiva. It was quite a sight to behold.
The next day, hire a taxi to take you to one of the many ancient fortresses scattered around the desert of Uzbekistan. One of the most impressive fortresses is the Ayaz Qala, or what's left of it at least since zero work went into maintaining the fortress. It is still fun to hike around the fortress though.
For more info: A Backpacking Guide to Spending 2 Weeks in Uzbekistan.
Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan (1 Night)
At this point, you should already have organized a tour to Turkmenistan, telling your driver that you will be crossing the border from Khiva at a certain time. If everything goes accord to the plan, your driver should be waiting for you at the other end of the border where he will drive you to the Darvaza Crater, set up a tent, make you dinner and then you are free to roam the desert.
The Gateway to Hell (Darvaza Crater) is one of the most surreal places I've seen in my life. It is as hot, as scary and as beautiful as it looks in photos. Apparently, the crater has been burning for the past 40+ years or so since it was discovered and ignited in 1971.
The crater is most beautiful at night when it lighted up the entire area under the stars as it burns through its infinite gas reserver.
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (2 Nights)
After spending a night in Darvaza you will have to go to Ashgabat and register as a tourist. The whole process will be managed by your tour company, all you have to do is sign some stuff and then you are "free" to roam, you know, as free as a tourist can be in a place like Ashgabat.
Ashgabat or the White Marble city is a strange place that you may feel like you hate it at first (it felt like I was suffocating with all the "you can't walk there" and "you can take a photo here" rules), you once you get the hang of it, the place is quite interesting to explore on your own.
There are several gigantic, alien-looking white marble monuments all over the city. The must-see places are Wedding Palace (Bagt köşgi), Sculpture Of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Alem Center (Älem), Constitution Monument (Konstitusiýa binasy), Bitaraplyk Binasy, and Independence Monument (Garaşsyzlyk binasy). And I've checked, you can take a photo in these places without being nagged by the police!
After spending 2 full days exploring Ashgabat, you can either take a domestic flight to Turkmenbashi and meet your driver at the airport there or if you have time, you can opt for a land journey with your driver to Turkmenbashi and continue on to Yangykala Canyon.
Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenistan (1 Night)
Another awesome place to camp under the stars, the Yangykala Canyon is one of the most spectacular natural sights in Turkmenistan showing off its unique red, pink and orange bands that stretched across the canyon walls.
Your camping spot should be somewhere near the plateau that will allow you to climb up to see the 360° view of the canyon while having grilled chicken with your driver, watching the sunset turning the entire landscape orange. Turkmenistan truly shines when you are out and about, spending your time in nature away from all civilization.
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (1 Night)
After Yangykala Canyon, you can either get a ferry to Baku to continue on your journey to Azerbaijan or head straight back to Ashgabat where you will be flying back to Almaty or straight home.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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