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I consider myself a fairly hardcore traveller—a backpacker at my core, although over the years, as I’ve gained a few wrinkles, I’ve also collected a penchant for 1,000-thread-count Supina cotton sheets and room service. I’ve gotten soft. So when I embarked on a trip across the “Stans,” retracing the steps of Marco Polo across the Silk Route, I had my concerns that the princess inside of me might be challenged by the odd sesame seed lost under my mattress. And more importantly, was Central Asia ready for the client that Goway Travel typically handles?
Long story short: it is, but with some caveats.
The region of Central Asia is comprised of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. On this last exploratory trip, I only had time to visit the top three and really, 12 days was not enough. I will be hosting a webinar detailing the three countries on Dec. 5 at 2PM EST. Click here to register. But in the meantime, I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight what surprised me about this area that has been left relatively unexplored since the days of the ancient silk and spice traders.
Throughout my stay, I never once encountered a hotel that wasn’t clean. You won’t find many true 5-star properties and even those classified as 4-star might have some hotel snobs turn up their nose. But cleanliness was never a problem. The shortcomings on the hotel front had more to do with the quality and quantity of amenities in rooms coupled with a lack of modern stylish furnishings than anything else. Often, I was confronted with hotel toiletries that were somewhat basic, bedding that looked to have been pulled out of Cold War Russia, and TV sets that were so old I was surprised that they even had remotes. But what the hotels missed on fancy accoutrements, they more-than-made-up on in charm. There was something endearing about the smaller, boutique-style quirky properties where I unpacked my suitcase every night.
I will say, though, that many of the hotels did not come with elevators. They weren’t high rises and there was always someone more than willing to lug my suitcases up the stairwells, but for clients with mobility issues, this may have caused concern.
I had my hesitations. For one, no one has ever called me a foodie. I’m a zero on the food adventurer scale. I even had pre-trip nightmares that I’d be forced to eat Mister Ed (definitely dating myself), but I need not have worried. While the food of Central Asia probably won’t win any culinary awards nor are the cities of Bishkek, Almaty, or Bukhara peppered with Michelin starred restaurants, I certainly still had my choice of cuisines. Horsemeat was on just about every menu I came across, but I didn’t catch anyone trying to sneak slivers of it onto my plate.
Yes, they could be described as long, but funnily enough, there were times I almost wished we wouldn’t reach our destination too quickly. I couldn’t get over how stunning the mountains of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were. I loved stopping at roadside stands selling yak cheese. In Uzbekistan, most of the travel was by train—quick and efficient and just like our trains at home.
The only downside that I think could cause issues for some clients was the public bathroom situation. Refuelling stations looked similar to our petrol stations at home, but the outhouses were just that—outhouses. At first, I was taken aback. I assumed that our stop to restock our snacks for our road trip was a one-off. I giggled to myself and thought, “Oh, I’ll wait for the next bathroom,” instead thinking I’d cheated the system. Little did I realize that outhouses with long-drop toilets (squat toilets) are the norm throughout Central Asia. They seemed so out of place next to the neon Slurpee signs of the convenience stores.
I’m guessing bathrooms are still on the regions “to do” list before welcoming the throngs of tourists that will eventually visit. So in short, your clients need to be prepared and mobile enough to use a squat toilet facility. To be clear, only public restrooms along highways were like this. Generally speaking, toilets in hotels, restaurants, and key historic locations have all made it to the 21st century.
Historical sites and Instagram-worthy pics
Here’s where Central Asia really shines and more than makes up for any shortcomings in hotel, food, or bathroom deficiencies. Central Asia is a photographer’s and historian’s playground. The striking turquoise and gold of the tiled mosaics of the vibrant madrassas are easily the main reasons that Lonely Planet has given the region the nod for 2020. The expletive “Wow!” falls shy of accurately capturing the feel of the region.
From the glorious mountains of Kyrgyzstan to the grassland steppes of Kazakhstan to the brilliant mosques, the pomegranate-coloured tapestries, and the wind-blasted trading domes of Uzbekistan, it was impossible to get enough of the area. Had it not been for previous engagements holding vigil in my calendar, I would have happily extended my stay a few more months.
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