I traveled Central Asia overland for two months and it turned out to be an epic once-in-a-lifetime journey. Here’s all you need to know about overland travel in Central Asia. If you’d like to join me on the road, check out my new Tajikistan Pamir Mountains tour.
Table of Contents
- Overland Travel in Central Asia
- How is overland travel in Central Asia like?
- Why travel with an overland company?
Overland Travel in Central Asia
Traveling Central Asia is the stuff of dreams, evoking images of golden sand dunes, vast steppes, yurts, and exotic ancient architecture. For centuries, this region has been closely tied to the Silk Road and has acted as a crossroad for the exchange of goods, people and knowledge between Europe and Asia. The first travelers came to this region in 200 BC, and since then it has attracted an influx of Silk Road travelers over the centuries.
Stretching from the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan to the Tien Shan mountains straddling between China and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia is a massive region of varied geography. Travelling the Silk Road means crossing at least one major stretch of desert, climbing up mountain passes, and avoiding roads that are blocked by meters of snow, even in the summer. As if this is not daunting enough, the mountain of red tape you have to overcome and the lack of infrastructure in this part of the world are enough to deter even the most hardened traveler.
To traverse this challenging yet exciting route, I chose to travel on an overland expedition with Oasis Overland, a UK tour operator specializing in overland travel. To dig up some Silk Road history and retrace the footsteps of Marco Polo, the Bishkek to Istanbul trip brought us through six countries – Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey.
While amazing sights were aplenty, it was the overlanding journey itself that made the trip memorable. For those who plan to travel overland in Central Asia, here’s a detailed review of my experience that will hopefully give you a better idea of how it is like to travel in the region.
How is overland travel in Central Asia like?
First, let me explain what an overland expedition is. It usually involves traveling in a big, multi-purpose truck that packs in cooking facilities, storage space, camping tents and seating capacity for 10 to 30 passengers. Travelers are expected to help with cooking and pitching up their tents, and it’s all about team work.
For this Silk Road journey, there is a good mix of camping in the outback and staying in hotels while exploring cities. While the degree of comfort usually varies according to the price of the tour, don’t expect to be indulging in five-star luxury as most of these overland expeditions involve camping and participation from travelers.
READ MORE: Silk Road Travel Guide
Expedition travel: Flexible Itinerary and Lots of Freedom
Firstly, to join an overland expedition, you need to be flexible and spontaneous as unexpected situations may occur anytime. If you are looking for a set itinerary where everything runs smoothly, then this is not the kind of trip for you. Itineraries can change due to unforeseen circumstances. For instance, we had to change our route in eastern Turkey as violent riots were taking place all over the Kurdish region. Our tour leader and driver made sure to follow the news and talk to locals in the area and the foreign office to find out the best route to avoid the risky areas. We felt that we were in safe hands and sure enough, we didn’t find ourselves in any tricky situation at all.
Truth be told, it is this flexibility and unpredictability that I love about this particular trip. The tour operator mainly takes care of the driving and logistic part, while you do the exploring on your own. On our trip, we had a lot of free time to explore and do whatever we wanted — and that meant we could meet locals easily and have serendipitous encounters just as we would if we were traveling independently. During certain parts of the trip (like in Turkmenistan and Iran) having a guide is mandatory according to the countries’ tourism law, but that didn’t restrict us in any way. In fact, we could choose to explore on our own or go around with our guides and ask whatever questions we had.
The Bishkek to Istanbul trip that I did was also a brand new trip for Oasis Overland, it was only their second time doing it, so they were still finding their way around and trying out new stops, different routes and hotels. I thought our tour leader Grace and driver Malcolm did an excellent job and behaved very professionally even though it was their first time in this region too. They had clearly done plenty of research beforehand and were able to answer most of our questions and provide us with recommendations along the way. It definitely felt more like I was traveling with friends rather than on a tour.
As part of an overland expedition, you are expected to have an active involvement in the day to day running of the trip. The trip is run by a tour leader and driver, but you still need to do your part and help with various tasks, whether it’s cooking meals, pitching your tent or cleaning the truck.
Passengers are divided into cook groups and are given expenses by the tour leader to do grocery shopping and cook. It’s a fun way to get to know each other and sample food cooked by passengers from different parts of the world. Food is only covered by Oasis Overland when camping or doing truck lunches; so don’t worry about missing local food, there’s plenty to try.
I genuinely enjoyed the self-participation aspect of an overland trip, it made me feel like part of a team and that we were working together on this adventure. When you’re camping with people 24 hours a day for months on end, the camaraderie definitely forms a close bond between you and your travel mates.
Transport: Your Truck is Your Home
For most of the trip, the Oasis expedition truck was our home and it was definitely a comfortable and spacious base (there were just three of us on a huge 24-pax truck!). The truck that was used on our trip was a brand new Scania 93 series 4×2 truck, a purpose built truck converted especially for this expedition, which passed through all types of terrains from soft sand, mud, rock and potholed roads to tarseal. I liked the way in which the seats in the truck were arranged, in vertical rows facing each other which made it more social as you could easily talk to your groupmates.
The truck is also equipped with a huge variety of equipment, including a medical kit, large water & fuel carrying capacities, cooking facilities and extensive range of spare parts. Each of us also had very wide and deep storage space underneath our seats and we also shared a safe for secure storage of our valuables. There are also electric outlets on the truck that can be used to charge devices when the vehicle’s moving. All we needed to bring was our sleeping bag, a roll mat and personal gear.
The only downside of the design of the truck was the window — there wasn’t any glass window per se, only rollable plastic flaps that could be secured to the truck using bungee cords. While that’s a great idea for wildlife-watching in Africa (unobstructed view without any reflections on the windows), I didn’t think they were very secure. People could easily break in if they tried hard enough. However, our tour leader assured us that there has never been any break-in on any of her tours.
On this particular trip, our accommodation is 50% camping and 50% in hotels. I think that it’s a great mix that allows us to experience the camping lifestyle without compromising too much on comfort. Most of the time we were bushcamping (i.e. camping on a random spot in the bush) as there aren’t any campsites in most of Central Asia (except Turkey). That meant that we had to answer nature’s call in the bush, which really wasn’t much of a problem for me, but not being able to shower for a few days on end was more annoying for me. Towards the end of our trip (in western Iran and eastern Turkey), it got extremely cold and I hate to admit but I was actually miserable camping.
That said, the tents that Oasis Overland provides are new, well-maintained, spacious and easy to put up and take down. They are two-men tents that fit two mattresses and belongings – they are so spacious that an average person can even stand up within the tents. You don’t really need to be an expert in camping — on my previous overland tours, there were travelers who had never camped before and had no problems learning how to do it.
The cost of this 78-day Bishkek to Istanbul trip is as follow:
Trip Price From: £2749.00
Local Payment From: US$1,925.00
I only traveled on part of the trip for approximately 63 days, leaving the group in Cappadocia, and the company gave me a discount. The local payment is paid to the tour leader upon joining the trip. This is a pre-determined amount which covers the day to day expenses such as food, local guides, firewood, gas, some entrance fees to certain sites and game parks, accommodation etc.
If I had traveled independently, I think I would have spent less, but I would definitely have missed out on camping in deserts and seeing the backcountry in general. That, for me, is an important part of travel and it gives me the real glimpse into a country. It would also have taken me a lot more time to travel through these four countries.
In Central Asia, there aren’t many companies that organize overland expeditions (unlike in Africa). Adventure tour operators that do this route include Oasis Overland, Dragoman and Odyssey Overland. I went with Oasis Overland because of recommendations from friends and also because it offered the longest trips at the most affordable prices. They seemed to be the most experienced in the overland travel business and the most reputed one as well.
Why travel with an overland company?
I chose to travel with Oasis Overland, not only because it was easier logistically in terms of border crossings and getting around each country, but also because I wanted to experience the backcountry of the region. Bush camping in the farmlands, deserts and mountains gave me a chance to experience the rural life and culture of these countries—things that I would otherwise have missed if I had traveled independently and taken buses/trains from one city to the next.
Besides, the only way to truly experience the Silk Road is to traverse it overland, the way ancient traders did on their camels. I felt as though I was tracing the footsteps of Marco Polo, the first professional traveler, and joining the ranks of epic explorers in their conquest for the unknown.
Advantages of traveling with an overland company:
The itinerary is planned out for you, although it is flexible — there are also optional activities that you can opt to join or not
You can travel through the backcountry of Central Asia, which most people would miss when flying from one point to the next
You get lots of free time on the trip which allows you to explore on your own
It packs in a lot more sights and takes less time than if you were to travel independently
You get to meet fun and interesting travelers in the group
Disadvantages of overlanding:
Following a fixed itinerary can be quite restricting
Time spent on truck can be very long and taxing — the longest day of driving for us was 10 hours (with short stops in between)
Camping might be fun, but sleeping out in the cold and going a few days without a shower can be exhausting
Self-participation is expected, so don’t think you’ll be shaking your legs and doing nothing
If you’re not a sociable person, group expeditions might not be suitable for you as you spend 24/7 of your time with the same people
Does an overland expedition suit you?
As mentioned above, you need to be flexible and spontaneous, and willing to help out with chores. If you don’t think that’s what you want to do on a holiday, then this is not the trip for you. You also need to be a sociable person, being able to get along with other travelers. This is actually rather important if you want to enjoy the trip, because you’ll be spending almost everyday together, working and traveling as a team.
In general, overland trips cater towards independent travelers who are looking to travel in less-visited parts of the world in an adventurous way, without having their freedom compromised. Sometimes traveling to such places present some form of risks, so joining a like-minded group of travelers is also a good idea.
Conclusion: Is overland travel a good way to see Central Asia?
I’d been on two overlanding trips prior to this Silk Road journey and both were in Africa. What I found different between overlanding in Central Asia vs Africa was that this part of the world is a lot more urban and populated, with most of the interesting sights in major cities and towns. This meant that we were traveling mainly from one city to another in Central Asia. While the journey in between was interesting, it sometimes felt like just a means of getting to our destination rather than being the journey itself.
That said, if you’re looking for the old world romance of slow travel like I was, then overland travel is definitely the way to go. At times I felt like a modern-day Silk Road explorer and I could imagine traders hauling their caravan-ful of jewels and spice, traversing the route from East to West. Granted, trails that weave through vast deserts have long been replaced by tarred highways and paved roads, and ancient traders have been substituted by massive cargo trucks. The old world romance may be gone, but in today’s world where untouched frontiers are rare, traveling the Silk Road gives you the opportunity to take a peek into a relatively unknown region.
An overland expedition is so much more than just traveling — it bonds people closely together and teaches you life lessons that you can’t learn on your own. I arrived in Kyrgyzstan to meet a group of strangers, but I left with a bunch of lifelong friends.