Comparing the “stans” I visited
I spent five to six days in three of the “stans” – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Going into the trip, I knew very little about these countries and how they distinguish themselves from each other. A week certainly isn’t enough to get deep insight into these countries, however I thought I’d share my observations from the little time I had there. This is not supposed to be an essay comparing societies but rather just observations I had how the countries’ different impressions on a traveler.
Uzbekistan: mostly desert in the west, fertile regions in the east (which I did not visit)
Tajikistan: lots of mountains in Gorno-Badakhshan. Mix of desert and fertile land in the rest of the country
Kyrgyzstan: lots of open green space. Some mountains as well with resemblance of the Alpes in certain places
Besides Kyrgyzstan, there isn’t really a country in the region that you can call a democracy. Some of the countries have just continued the Soviet-era leadership cult. Apparently most extreme of all is Turkmenistan, which I wasn’t able to visit. Uzbekistan (who’s long-time leader recently passed away) surprisingly didn’t have a leadership cult. Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon on the other hand waves at his people from a poster in every town.
All three countries I visited are very cheap by Western standards and actually cheaper than I expected them to be. It is difficult to compare really. Uzbekistan is mainly cheap currently thanks to the black market. Tajikistan was probably cheapest by a small margin. But in all countries, a meal at a decent restaurant can be had for less than S$10. A beer won’t cost you more than S$1.50 and much less in a supermarket. A taxi across town is less than S$3. A mid-range hotel room is maybe around S$40-60.
Not really the main reason to visit. Heavy on meat dishes. No pork (muslim countries). Each country has their own twist on the region’s typical dishes like plov. All three countries I visited could make more out of their cuisine if they were to use their great selection of fresh vegetables and fruits more.
Same. Brutally hot in summer (40° C), super cold (-10° in the lowlands, much, much colder in the mountains) in winter
Uzbekistan is the only country with a semi-decent train system (which will get better over time). At the same time, if you travel by road, the only way to get around are shared taxis. If you are a single traveler, this can be annoying as you’ll be waiting until the car is full, which means four passengers. And four passenger is cramped, so I suggest you go for the front passenger seat. But this again means being the first out of four which means waiting the longest.
Uzbekistan has a decent number of decent flights in state carrier Uzbekistan Airways. However they cannot be booked online, so you either have to go through a travel agent or book in a ticket office (which can be an issue of tickets sell out).
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have some proper buses, though not many. But in Kyrgyzstan there is a fleet of ~28 seater mini-vans that travel between cities, some even on a fixed schedule. Besides the Dushanbe-Khorog flight there don’t seem to be any domestic flights in Tajikistan. In Kyrgyzstan, there are several carriers competing on the Bishkek-Osh route and there are some connections to other, small cities as well.
Ease of getting in:
Before going, I read a lot about how difficult it is to get all these visa. Looking back, except Turkmenistan (which I did not get a visa for despite going through and agent and waiting for three weeks), I thought it was fairly easy.
Tajikistan: quick and easy online application process.
Kyrgyzstan: no visa needed for a lot of nationalities.
Uzbekistan: was a bit annoying as I had to go to the embassy to drop off the passport, go to the bank to pay the fee and pick up the passport again a few days later. But doable and no letter of invitation needed.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were easy, quick and friendly. Getting into Uzbekistan (through the main airport of the country) was easy but getting out was arduous. Having border agents check pictures on your phone and laptop isn’t something I am used to.
censored in Uzbekistan (some government critically websites, such as sites listing the black market US-Dollar value) as well as Tajikistan (Facebook, Instagram – WhatsApp wasn’t blocked). Getting a Sim Card was fairly straight forward in all three countries and cheap (less than S$5 for the Sim card plus at least 1GB of data). Just bring your passport.