Central Asia Backpacking | Everything You Need to Know

The ultimate Silk Road trip! Central Asia is relatively untouched by mass tourism, making it difficult to find information online. So, here is the best Central Asia backpacking route with up-to-date information on land border crossings and visas.

The ultimate backpacking Central Asia route

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Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia backpacking route

Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan

The perfect place to begin your off-the-beaten-path journey in Central Asia is Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek. Not only are flights cheap to Bishkek, but many countries have visa-free access for 30 days. It’s a great starting point and the perfect place to apply for those pesky visas that are required for other countries.

Osh bazaar - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Spice section at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Issyk Kul Lake – Kyrgyzstan

After sorting your visas and preparing for your Silk Road trip in Bishkek, it’s time to branch out to nature. Head for Issy Kul Lake; the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan. You can make stops in places such as Cholpon-Ata and Karakol before returning to Bishkek.

Things to do in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan without hiking
Young children riding horses in Karakol’s nature

Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan

After a fun-filled time catching sunsets, riding horses and hiking around Issyk Kul Lake, it’s time to head back to Bishkek to pick up visas for neighbouring countries.

Osh – Kyrgyzstan

Make your way to Osh from Bishkek. Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and the perfect meeting point for travellers to arrange a tour of the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. Whilst you can go straight from Bishkek to Osh, we fully recommend a night stopover in Toktogul. There is a stunning lake there that’s worth breaking up the 13-hour journey for.

You can find a more detailed itinerary for Kyrgyzstan here.

Eating cherries at Toktogul lake - Kyrgyzstan
Eating cherries down by Toktogul Lake

Visa for Kyrgyzstan

45 countries do not need a visa to enter Kyrgyzstan. UK and US citizens (along with many others) now have visa-free access to Kyrgyzstan for up to 60 days. YAY! No need to worry about that.

Tajikistan – Central Asia backpacking route

Pamir Highway – Tajikistan

Begin your trip to Tajikistan by crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan at the Sary-Tash border crossing. The best and most convenient way to start your journey through Tajikistan is by booking a Pamir Highway tour. The Pamir Highway is a magnificent stretch of road (also known as the roof of the world), that runs from Kyrgyzstan, through Tajikistan, into Uzbekistan. However, halfway through most tourists branch off to the more scenic Wakhan Corridor, which is certainly a highlight of any trip through Central Asia. The trip will eventually end in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s modern capital city.

Jumping along the Pamir Highway
Jumping along the Pamir Highway

Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan border crossing

As for the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it’s very easy and simple; your driver will take care of it for the most part. You will just need to hand over your passport. Sometimes we had to wait for the Tajiki soldiers to get up and decide to attend to us, but the wait was nothing like as previously reported online. We waited no more than 30 minutes, and there were 2 other foreigners in front of us. We did hear that the price of your tour includes a small bribe for the border guards to get up and let you through without waiting around. We’re not sure how true this is, but if you’re asked for money, DON’T pay, as it just perpetuates the scam.

Wakhan valley road - Tajikistan
Wakhan Valley Road separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan

Dushanbe – Tajikistan

Most people will end their Pamir Highway tour in Dushanbe. Dushanbe is a surprisingly very modern city filled with greenery, and grand statues and buildings. It’s a great place to freshen up, reconnect online, and chill out for a couple of days.

Fann Mountains & Iskanderkul – Tajikistan

The next stop on this backpacking Central Asia route is the Fann Mountains and Iskanderkul Lake. Both can easily be reached from Dushanbe and make for the perfect halfway point between Dushanbe and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Reaching the Fann Mountains can be a little difficult and will thus require you to book a tour or try your hand at hitchhiking. Either way, camping in the mountains will reward you with remarkable views.

Dushanbe to Samarkand with a stop in Iskanderkul
Incredible scenery at Iskanderkul with the Fann Mountains in the background

Tajikistan visa

The Tajikistan visa is easy to apply for providing you are on the list of countries that do NOT need an LOI (letter of invitation). You can find that list here. If you are lucky enough to not need an LOI, you can apply for your visa online. Simply fill in the application form and tick the box to state that you need the GBAO permit, which you will need for the Pamir Highway tour. The total cost of a visa + GBAO permit is $70. We received our e-visa the following day, exactly 24 hours after applying for it online. Once you have your e-visa, which will be sent to your email address, you simply need to print it out and take it with you on your tour. You must carry a paper version of your e-visa with you at all times until you leave Tajikistan.

See also  The Most Exciting 3-Week Backpacking Kyrgyzstan Itinerary

Uzbekistan – Backpacking Central Asia route

Tajikistan – Uzbekistan border crossing at Penjikent

The next country on this Silk Road trip is Uzbekistan. Contrary to plenty of articles online, the border crossings into Uzbekistan are not as strict as the articles will have you believe. Since the change of president, Uzbekistan is now open to more tourism, thus the ease of rules. Previously, visitors to Uzbekistan underwent rigorous checks; bags, laptops and cameras were checked for any political or religious content. All of which were forbidden in Uzbekistan.

As of May 2018, the previously closed border crossing at Penjikent was re-opened. This significantly reduced the journey time from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan. Penjikent is the perfect place to cross into Samarkand after a visit to the Fann Mountains. The border crossing was very simple. It took no more than 20 minutes in total to stamp out of Tajikistan and into Uzbekistan. We were not checked or searched once! Read more about the border crossing journey here.

Samarkand – Uzbekistan

Samarkand is the heart of the Silk Road and the perfect place to start your adventure through Uzbekistan. Take some time to marvel at the fascinating architecture, whilst feeling like you have been transported back to the days when men galloped through the desert land on their horses.

Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan Square in Samarkand is the heart of the Silk Road

For more images and inspiration to add Samarkand to your Central Asia route, check out our Samarkand guide.

Bukhara – Uzbekistan

Next up is Bukhara, which is just a quick 90-minute train ride away from Samarkand. Bukhara is filled with more ancient buildings but is a bit more compact than Samarkand. However, you could easily spend 3 days in Bukhara getting lost in the cream-stone alleys.

Check out our full Bukhara itinerary here.

The Ark - Bukhara, Uzbekistan
The funky architecture of The Ark in Bukhara

Khiva – Uzbekistan

The last city of Uzbekistan’s big 3 is Khiva. Khiva often gets overlooked as it is out of the way of the other major tourist locations. However, this does not mean you should skip it altogether. Khiva turned out to be our favourite city out of the big 3. It is a town straight from a fairy-tale book.

To read how to get from Bukhara to Khiva, check out our post here.

Watch tower - Khiva, Uzbekistan
The watchtower in Khiva is like a princess tower

Tashkent – Uzbekistan

Finally, finish your Uzbekistan trip to the capital, Tashkent. You can reach Tashkent by overnight train directly from Urgench (a city located 30 minutes away from Khiva). Unfortunately, we only spent 1 night in Tashkent and did not go out to explore.

For a more detailed Uzbekistan itinerary check out this post!

Uzbekistan visa

Citizens of most countries need a visa to enter Uzbekistan. Only a limited number of citizens can enter Uzbekistan visa-free. But not to worry, the visa process is simple. We recommend you apply for your Uzbekistan visa in Bishkek.

*Note: As of February 2019, UK citizens can enter Uzbekistan visa-free for up to 30 days.

Kazakhstan – Central Asia backpacking route

Uzbekistan – Kazakhstan border crossing at Chernayevka

The final country on this silk road trip is Kazakhstan! It’s possible to enter Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan at the Chernayevka border crossing. To get to the border, you can take a taxi directly from Tashkent. Pay no more than 35,000 Som ($3.68). The journey takes around 40 minutes. We recommend asking your hotel to book a taxi for you.

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When you reach the border, make sure to exchange any remaining Uzbekistani Som, before going ahead to stamp out of Uzbekistan. Much like the stamping-in process in Uzbekistan, the stamping-out process was just as easy. When you get to the Kazakhstan immigration, expect long queues. We waited in line for about 40 minutes before reaching the counter. But once we did reach the counter, the stamp in was simple. A quick stamp on our passports and we were waving hello to our 4th and last Central Asian country on this Silk Road trip.

Shymkent – Kazakhstan

From the border, you can take a marshrutka directly to Shymkent city. The marshrutka costs just 700 Tenge ($1.81) per person and takes about an hour. There isn’t much to do in Shymkent itself, but many travellers use it as a base to explore nearby Turkestan. Turkestan is famous for its mausoleums and underground mosque. We did have plans to go to Turkestan, but unfortunately, laziness took over and we opted to chill out in our hostel for 2 days catching up with blog posts whilst we had a fast wifi connection.

Almaty – Kazakhstan

Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan. It’s relatively built up, and you will find many Western brands here. You can explore nature outside of the city from Almaty. For example, the Big Almaty Lake, Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes.

View of Big Almaty Lake - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Out-of-this-world scenery at Big Almaty Lake

Astana – Kazakhstan

Finally, you will end your Central Asia backpacking trip in Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana. Astana is a cool new city to explore for a few days and is probably the most modern city on this Silk Road trip. We recommend walking around and admiring all the futuristic architecture.

You can find a more detailed itinerary for Kazakhstan here.

Modern skyline of Astana, Kazakhstan
Modern skyline of Astana

Kazakhstan Visa

Yay! You will be pleased to hear that much like Kyrgyzstan, British and US citizens do not need a visa to enter Kazakhstan for up to 30 days.

There it is guys, the ultimate Central Asia backpacking route. We hope this will help you to plan your Silk Road trip. Of course, this route does not include EVERYTHING there is to see and do in Central Asia, but we believe it’s a great introduction to the region and will allow you to see the highlights of each country. Happy travels 🙂

Essential resources for travelling in Central Asia

Travel Insurance – No matter where you’re travelling to, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered for any accidents or losses. We spent days and weeks searching for insurance, but most insurers would not allow us to take out a policy as we were already abroad. Our personal choice is Safteywing. You can opt for automatic monthly payments, just like a subscription. More importantly, it is available in 180 countries and can be purchased whilst already travelling. There is no cap on the duration of travel.

Visa – Before you travel to any country, make sure to check if you need a visa. iVisa is a fantastic website that is super easy and quick to use. Just type in where you are from. and where you are going. to check if you need a visa. If you do, you can quickly make an application online.

AccommodationBooking.com is our go-to when looking to pre-book accommodation online. Booking.com tend almost always to have the best rates and a FREE cancellation policy for most properties.

Tours & Activities – If you want to book tours and activities online, make sure to check out Get Your Guide. Get Your Guide takes the stress out of booking activities abroad. You will also find a range of benefits, such as skip-the-line passes, lunch included in your tours, and so much more.

Travel tips ebook -Before you head off on your adventure, make sure to download our free ebook. It has a whopping 109 budget travel tips to help you make your hard-earned cash go further. Click here to download your FREE ebook.

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The Ultimate Central Asia Travel Guide

14 thoughts on “Central Asia Backpacking | Everything You Need to Know

  1. Rebecca Pattee says:

    Loved reading this since I’d love to visit the ‘stans one day. I’ve heard a lot of praise for Uzbekistan. Which ‘stan was your favorite?

  2. Renata - www.byemyself.com says:

    Love reading this. After the Baltic countries are becoming more popular, I think that the Caucasian/Central Asian region is still a hidden gem. It’s way high on my list – the countries that you’ve visited, but Georgia, too.

  3. Renuka says:

    This is quite a detailed post. I’d really like to visit all these fascinating places. Such beautiful landscapes! Thank you for sharing this useful guide!

  4. followingtherivera says:

    This is a great guide for others looking to backpack their way around central Asia. Personally, I’ve not had any interest, but I have to say there are beautiful places here. The Fan Mountains in Tajikistan are beautiful!

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