Douglas Coupland called it “Expatriate Solipsism”: going to a destination one thought was undiscovered only to find lots of people like yourself. Pretty much all parts of South-East Asia and many other destinations are like that now, providing a comfy hostel and fellow travellers to chat with. If one really wants the undiscovered, where not even backpacker comfort exists, where does one go? Central Asia fits the bill.
Unfortunately the region lacks not only hostels but also reliable information how to get around. The Lonely Planet for Central Asia is a great help (get it) but covers a wide area and lots of details are missing. As we recently did what I would call the “Small Central Asia Loop”, I thought describing it a bit might help future travellers.
This loop starts and stops in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It’s a very convenient starting spot as there are direct flights on Tuesday and Friday from London. In Uzbekistan the pull is to go west: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva for the mosques, the long Silk Road history and the desert communities. We only made it as far as Samarkand – by the excellent Russian-made train straight from Tashkent – because in summer the temperatures rises to over 40˚C the further you go west. Turning around, one can head for Kyrgyzstan. The slight problem is that these countries don’t like each other much, leaving only one border crossing available: Osh in the Fergana Valley. The only way to get there is by shared car.
Transport in Central Asia is centred around shared cars. Buses only run between the major cities and train lines are only common in Kazakhstan or going from capitals (Tashkent, Bishkek) to Moscow. There is a single train line in Uzbekistan connecting Tashkent with Samarkand and Bukhara. The shared car transport dominates all other routes, is super simple and dirt cheap. You just go to the central square in town and ask for the right destination – a fixer will get you to the right car, you wait until it is full and you are on your way. Usually just for a couple of dollars.
The Fergana Valley has a bad reputation: it was after all the place of a massacre in 2005. As it is also mostly agriculture and industry few tourist go there. Going from Samarkand to Kokand, he first major town in the Fergana Valley, requires two shared taxi rides: first 4h to Tashkent and then another 4h to Kokand. Getting to Tashkent is easily arranged, but Tashkent has multiple departure points arranged by destination. Make sure your driver drops you off at the Eastern one for Kokand.
From Kokand you have multiple options. You can ride a shared car to Andijan, then find another hop to the border near Osh. We decided instead to hire a taxi driver in Kokand getting us all the way to the border. It’s a bit more money but much less hassle. The border crossing can take a while, as Uzbekistan officials like to investigate every piece of luggage. And now you are in Osh, Kyrzystan.
From Osh, a rather ugly city, getting to Arslanbob, a beautiful mountain town, is a shared mini-bus going couple of times a day. Our hostel knew the times and helped us get to the right spot. After Arslanbob our goal was to reach Kazarman, a sleepy little mountain town on the way to famous Lake Song-Köl. Unfortunately the only road is over a mountain pass only accessible in summer. Taking it requires either patience – hoping to find enough people to fill a shared car – or money, paying a driver for the 6h journey and his return back. We opted for the latter and had an amazing ride, passing by glaciers in a beautifully empty landscape.
Kazarman, Naryn and Kochkor, small towns up in the mountains near Lake Song-Köl are the best representation of the undiscovered: barely any accommodation or restaurant, the best places to stay (and eat) are home stays organised by CBT (community based tourism). So few travellers come here that you can easily start a conversation with any traveller you meet.
Lake Song-Köl, the main draw here, is a beautiful secluded mountain lake, only accessible in summer, with a couple of yurts, horses and not much else. To get there, one has to first get a 4h shared taxi from Kazarman to Naryn, then CBT Naryn helpfully arranges transport to the lake which can include a pick up afterwards going to Kochkor. Definitely stay at Song-Köl for a while, several days at least, it’s an amazing place.
Kochkor to Bishkek is easy: as you probably guessed it’s a shared taxi ride of about 5h. To close the loop one has to get from Bishkek going to Tashkent via Kazakhstan. A mini-bus goes straight to Taraz, Kazakhstan, about 6h. After that ride, we decided to take a train to Shymkent from Taraz, which is about 4h. Shymkent to the border is only about 2h and after the border crossing you are right in Tashkent closing the loop.
You can do the whole loop quickly but you probably need two and a half to three weeks to enjoy it and appreciate the places on road. It is probably as far from tourist towns and the banana pancake trail as you can get. The people are friendly and helpful, the food is amazing and as long as you get used to the crowded transport, you will have an amazing time.