15 Important Things You Should Know Before Traveling To Central and South Asia
Central Asia is probably one of the world’s least-visited region, but it’s already changing as the visa application process are easier and there are more direct flights to these countries now. I hear a lot of bad things about it to the point that I become more eager to see what really is in it and truth be told, I was overwhelmed.
I have met such wonderful locals and I have seen very beautiful landscapes especially. I have learned so much about their history and culture, and most importantly, I felt safe the entire time contrary to what the media is portraying.
Traveling to Central and South Asia honestly isn’t an easy trip to plan. It takes guts, courage, money, and a lot of time. I’ve spent months doing my research, booking hotels, applying for visas, organizing my tours with reliable tour agencies, as well as thinking about what to pack and what to buy beforehand.
I’ve survived traveling around South Asia and Central Asia for almost two months and have done so, I’ve learned so many things that I wasn’t able to get from a month of research. The countries that I’ve visited were: Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran but also did a sidetrip to Mongolia and Pakistan.
There are things you can only learn and get to know about once you’re there and here are 15 things I’ve gathered from this exhilarating journey!
1. You’ll most likely encounter a language barrier
I believe that one thing that makes humanity extra special is the difference in the languages we speak. Tagalog will always be my favorite, Spanish is sexy and Korean sounds so cute! Central Asia is no exception to this. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, etc. are very exotic and hearing them as a foreigner makes it so hard for me to classify which one is being spoken.
Here’s my one solid tip: LEARN BASIC RUSSIAN WORDS (like hello, thank you, goodbye, excuse me, etc.) and download an offline Google Translate in Russian as most of the locals speak and understand that language.
2. Brace yourselves for long road trips
Traveling around Central Asia could mean VERY LONG ROAD TRIPS and by that, you could be in the car the whole day with just lunch, snacks, dinner, photo, and toilet time as your breaks. Since you’ll be in the middle of nowhere, don’t expect to have toilets around.
You’ll be doing your business on the side of the road, by the bushes, or in the forest (sometimes with herds as your audience) so ALWAYS bring something to cover yourself up, lots of tissues, wet wipes, and a trash bag.
3. There will be a lot of checkpoints
Security is very tight on this side of the world and the police or military officers are concerned about one thing– whether or not you, as a foreigner, have the required documents to travel around their country.
Having said that, always have a copy of your passport and visas. If you’ll be doing the Pamir Highway then make at least 10 photocopies of your passport and GBAO permit. I suggest you put it aside in one small bag placed inside the car so you can avoid delays by searching for it inside your luggage.
4. Always bring US Dollars or Euros with you
And by that, I mean the fresh and crisp ones. Finding an ATM that will work with your card could be hard especially in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan so having cash is the way to go. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be helpless when you’re in the middle of a trip.
Another thing is that there are black markets in some countries like Turkmenistan where they change your money with a very good rate compared to the official exchange rate, more so with the bank rate and bank fees.
5. Know the weather
As you plan your itinerary, always check the weather. The temperature from June to the 2nd week of August could reach up to 46 degrees celsius so I don’t recommend visiting around that time. Another thing is that as you go up, the temperature could go up as well. Central Asia is known for its mountain ranges so I suggest you always pack warm clothes with you, no matter what the season is.
6. Know what to wear
Most of the countries in Central Asia are Muslim countries yet they are modern (just like Istanbul) so you can wear whatever you want. Let’s just say that some are more conservative than the others. Take note of the restrictions in some countries like Iran wherein the moment you go down the plane or cross the border, ladies will be required to cover themselves from hair to ankle. With that, I suggest you always bring a hijab and a long-sleeved dress on your trip.
Related Article: Iran Travel Guide for Filipinos
7. Know the exchange rate
Money exchange can be tricky in some areas so you always have to be updated with the current exchange rate and you always have to compare. For example, in Turkmenistan, 1$ is officially 3.5 Manat but the black market exchange rate is 1$ to 16 Manat. That’s a whopping 12.5 Manat difference!! The rate is so much better than withdrawing from the ATM but remember that it is illegal, so don’t get caught!
Just imagine having to change your currency every time you cross the border, I’m sure you’ll be confused! Just to give you an idea, you might have to deal with Pakistan Rupee, Iranian Rial, Turkmenistan Manat, Kyrgyzstani Som, Uzbekistani Som, etc. and these rates change every single day. I suggest you use XE Currency Converter for this.
8. Say goodbye to your good old wifi
Since you’ll mostly be out and about, you wouldn’t have a wifi connection most of the time. This is why I suggest you buy a local sim card (which is usually cheap except in Tajikistan where I had to pay $25) to get some 3G or purchase a Skyroam Hotspot. The latter is what I prefer since I was able to use it in most countries. It’s very much worth it!
9. You’ll need a VPN
Just like in China, Social Media Networking Sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are blocked in some countries like Turkmenistan and Iran. This is why you need to download a VPN application (a lot of them are free) before your trip.
In case you’re not familiar, A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs can be used to access region-restricted websites, shield your browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi, and more.
If you’re someone like me who really needs it (just like me since this is our bread and butter), then I suggest you just purchase a good one for your phone and laptop (if you’re going to bring it) especially if you’re traveling around Turkmenistan and Iran.
10. Always ask permission before you take photos of locals
Locals in most of the countries are extremely friendly– they’ll engage in a conversation and even invite you for tea. However, this doesn’t mean they’re giving their consent to have their photos taken and posted on social media. If you want that photo badly, then ask them nicely. This is better than having issues with a newfound acquaintance.
11. Don’t take photos of state buildings
And by this, I mean don’t even try. Otherwise, risk having policemen or soldiers come after you, grab your phone or camera, and delete the photo. Come on, you wouldn’t want to get yourself into this kind of trouble and ruin your vacation for just a petty photo, don’t you?
12. You won’t be able to book local flights in some countries
In Iran for example, foreigners like Filipinos can’t book local flights online because most foreign credit cards have sanctions. The best way to do it is to just ask for a local agency to book a flight for you like Visit Our Iran who arranged my trip in Iran (including visas, accommodation, transportation, and local flights) to this beautiful country.
13. Not everyone can travel freely without a Tour Agency
Booking with a Tour Agency will make your trip hassle-free and more convenient but for Filipinos, this isn’t mandatory. However, in Iran for example, UK and US Citizens are required to travel with a Registered Tour Agency for the entire duration of your trip. This is something to take note of.
14. You might need permits in addition to the required visas
A perfect example of this is when you’re traveling along the Pamir Highway (which I believe is a must when you visit Central Asia), then you’ll need to procure an additional GBAO Permit which you can also get when you apply for the visa. It is very important that you have this since there’s a lot of checkpoints in that area. You can never get away without having it!
15. YOU NEED NEED NEED TRAVEL INSURANCE!!
This is pretty obvious but a lot of tourists overlook the necessity of this. I can’t stress this enough because this is NECESSARY for every trip. I always have this whenever I travel and I’m glad I did because I was in a car crash in Pakistan which crushed some bones in my left ankle which led to a Bimalleolar Ankle Fracture.
I thought I was helpless and alone but good thing an ambulance arrived more or less 20 minutes after the crash happened. I am so thankful for my insurance provider Safety Wing who made sure I get the urgent and best health care assistance both in Pakistan and in Bangkok.
See?? Accidents can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone so wherever you may be headed to, never take this for granted.
That’s it for this post!! I’m pretty sure that you will be encountering people who will discourage you from going on this trip but I say GO FOR IT!! I really enjoyed my time here and it was one of the most amazing and enlightening trips I ever did! Wishing you a stress-free planning and a safe journey across Central Asia! 🙂
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