When we first starting looking at Central Asia and trying to think about our route, we really had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. We started with a map of the region and, made note of several very troublesome features (e.g. Afghanistan) and started to work at it. All through Latin America and Africa we basically traveled in a straight line along the ‘road;’ in Central Asia there are lots of ‘roads’ to choose from and we had to do some serious work and research to figure out which ones were open to us. To those who think we are on a permanent vacation, this should help to prove otherwise.
The first challenge was getting to Central Asia from Turkey and the Caucasus. From that region we looked to the east and came up with three ways of reaching Central Asia.
1.The southern route around the Caspian Sea. Through Iran. The visa process for US citizens wishing to visit Iran is straightforward and clear as mud. Pay lots of money, apply within the US, wait 3 months, maybe get approved (but probably not because we have a website) and then take an organized tour that starts and ends in Tehran. Given that we wanted to travel from one end of the country to the other…this really wasn’t an option at all.
2.The northern route around the Caspian Sea. From Georgia we would have had to trek up through Russia and around the Caspian Sea and back down. Problem is that the Georgian-Russian border is a bit fortified at the moment (there was a war between the two a mere 2 years ago) and foreigners are not allowed to cross. This would have meant backtracking across the Black Sea and back into Europe to enter Russia through Moscow….a bit much if you ask us. Not a great option either.
3.Through the Caspian Sea. Travel from Georgia to Azerbaijan to the port city of Baku. Take the near daily ferry to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, or the not so daily ferry to Aktau, Kazakhstan. This was the ‘option’ we thought was the best.
Now that we knew where we were going we started our visa research:
Azerbaijan: Tourist visa $130 and takes 3-5 days to get. Thankfully there exists a $20 5 day transit visa, nice.
Turkmenistan: Tourist visa as much of a PITA as an Iranian visa, not an option. Thankfully there exists a cheap 5 day transit visa, nice.
Kazakhstan: Tourist visa is $60 and has two entries, no problem there.
So we begin a bit more research. We read rumors online that the Turkmenistan government likes to hold the boats at port and disallow disembarkment until transit visas have expired. This is seemingly confirmed by various warnings against said visa on the US Department of State website…the first such warning we’ve seen from them. We rule out the Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry option.
Next up is the ferry from Baku to Aktau, Kazakhstan. This should be a winner, operative word is ‘should.’ Problems. It has no schedule and generally runs only every 2-7 days or so. This means if we enter Azerbaijan to take the ferry we can either pay for the $131 tourist visa or risk overstaying the $20 5-day transit visa. Either way we’ll likely burn time and money while we sit in Baku waiting. At least we finally have an option. Confused yet, not so easy is it?
The other option we can think up is to fly over this mess. From Georgia and Armenia only one airline, the Kazakhstan airline SCAT, flys to where we’d like to go. Good luck using their website, not much English to help you. From Baku there are a few more options, but again that means getting a visa. To make matters worse, we find at least two airlines that don’t even seem to exist….Central Asian and Georgian International (not to be confused with Georgia Air, Georgia’s actual national carrier). Naturally, none of the air tickets available could only be booked until we found an an authorized travel agent within the Caucasus.
Uzbekistan Airways also flew from Baku to cities within Uzbekistan, and is a ‘modern’ airline by all accounts, but we preferred to travel on land as much as possible and this would have had us skip a fair bit and meant going to Baku, Azerbaijan, in order to catch the flight.
This is the kind of ‘route planning’ we deal with frequently and have gotten quite good at. As we’ve found most of the information we’ve used on the Internet (and especially a few cousins of ours planning their own Silk Road trip) we are happy to help future travelers by sharing our experiences. Our next post will describe the route we actually took, what we learned, and the next steps we made.