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Off the beaten track – Central Asia Part 1

20th August 2018

Ever considered whether your card would be accepted in Turkmenistan, or how much cash you would need in Ashgabat?

Look, probably not, as these places are fairly off the beaten trail (and seemingly out of reach) for most Aussie travellers. We’re here to show you that this isn’t the case, and that Central Asia is a culturally rich and visually stunning region worthy of the top spot on your bucket list.

Guest writer, Claudia, explored the splendour of Central Asia for her honeymoon and has provided us with wanderlust inducing photos and stories, as well as some Travel Money tips along the way.

 

Think North Korea, meets Aladdin, meets the most naturally beautiful place you can conceive. That is Central Asia.

The most asked question since I’ve come back is ‘would you recommend it?’ - OMG YES. But to the right people…

Who’s the right person? Someone who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty...and then their feet dirty...and not washing their hair for a week (normal for me?!)…But also someone who wants to be blown away. Literally off their feet.

We did an overland expedition with Dragoman – it isn’t for everyone. Big driving days, participatory camping, and long days which need plenty of patience (and snacks) - especially when you’re crossing borders. But the people it is for will love it. You’ve got 2 static tour leaders and 1 local expert who taps in and out depending on which country you’re in. Your leaders know about as much as you do when it comes to where you’re going, but they’ve got some training, good natures and google maps - so don’t worry about them! Your guide is your local expert.

Some pro tips about the area in general so you can plan your holiday like a boss.

  • Take USD, loads of. It’s SO hard to get physical cash, but surprisingly easy to exchange cash (sometimes you need your passport to do this). ATM cards are almost useless, especially if it’s a Mastercard. Visa was slightly easier but still a pain in the butt. If you are gonna pre-load your Travel Money Oz Currency Pass, load it in USD as most of the ATMs actually dispense USD.
  • Russian! Learn some if you can. It will help more than you realise because English is very, very, very hard to find.
  • It’s cold in Kyrgyzstan in the shoulder seasons despite their neighbours being warm. Remember it’s at altitude! The bonus of that is potentially less wild camping and more guest houses, but be prepared to camp in literally freezing temps.
  • All of these places are pretty grassroots. Wifi sucks, if you need internet get a local SIM...and take your passport when you go to the phone place.
  • Take a fair amount of basic meds with you, odds are you’ll end up sharing them as it’s really hard to buy the right stuff when no one speaks English. You’ll probably get sick, so cold/flu and stomach settling stuff is a must. Mozzie repellent and sunscreen were also helpful!
  • Border crossings suck unless you’re with a group, as tourists we were lucky and got ushered to the front, because the lines we’re about 7-10 business days long. Not really, but they were super busy and it would have taken ages if we weren’t escorted.
  • You’ll probably have to pay to use most of the public toilets you go to, keep your coins and little notes!

Turkmenistan

Hands down the strangest place I’ve ever been. When I say ‘think North Korea’ - that’s about Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is a brand new city, rebuilt for the recent Asian Games, completely in white marble with a multi-billion dollar loan from China. The whole city is white and green (their national colours) including the little monopoly houses the government built their citizens...that no one lives in. Have you ever been driving along on an 8 lane highway in the middle of peak hour and seen literally no one around? No? Go to Ashgabat.

 

Some fun things we found out about Turkmenistan

  • The government resettled farmers, knocking down their houses and ‘giving’ them ‘amazing new houses’ in the city...according to our guide the people 'didn't mind' they had their homes knocked down
  • I saw 3 ATMs the whole time I was in the country, all 3 were out of order...
  • No one lives in the city (seriously, where were all the people?!) and I seriously questioned Ashgabat's population of 700,000.
  • They have a 1% mortgage rate subsidised by the government
  • They are neutral (there’s a gold and marble monument dedicated to it)

 

  • They are independent (there’s a gold and marble monument dedicated to it
  • They have the largest indoor Ferris wheel (guess what? it’s gold and marble)
  • Their president loves puppies
  • And horses
  • And giant LED photos of himself displayed throughout the town
  • Outside of Ashgabat there is nothing (that we saw). Literally desert. For miles.
  • You need a letter of invitation (LOI) to get a visa, which they can arbitrarily decide to refuse. BUT once you’ve got this LOI, you can get a visa on arrival. This was almost $100USD per person (get your USD in cash from Travel Money Oz and take it with you, not really anywhere to get it at the airport!).

So, why did we go to Turkmenistan? To see the Door to Hell. AKA Darvaza Gas Crater. The only way for anyone to understand how incredible it is, is to go see it. It’s this massive burning pit the size of a football field in the middle of the desert. The Russians were drilling for oil, hit a natural gas reserve, casually lit it on fire (‘this’ll be right to go again in the morning’), and 50 odd years later it’s still burning!

 

As soon as we crossed the border into Uzbekistan it was instantly apparent that we were in a different country. Firstly, there were people. Did I mention there’s none of them in Turkmenistan? Except for the guy I saw sweeping the desert, job satisfaction level: 0. But beyond that, there was colour, sound, and countless locals waving at our giant orange truck. Find out more about Uzbekistan in the next post!

 

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