Transportation Advisory for Independent travelers in Central Asia
While it is true that transportation in Central Asia can be at times a challenging experience, it is also infinitely rewarding and will give you an utterly unique experience. With a little advice from experienced travelers, you will merrily make your way around the region without incident!
General Central Asia advice
In this region, reckless and uneducated drivers are the biggest danger. Although there are traffic laws, they are not enforced due to corruption and weak government administration. Traffic police (called GAI or DPS) do not drive around looking for problems, nor do they stop people for speeding or driving recklessly. Usually you will see them parked by the side of the road, waving cars over to the side, where most often they ask for bribes. Unfortunately, drivers in turn know they may simply pay a bribe for serious vehicle crimes, including drunk driving; running red lights, and even accidents involving pedestrians!
When walking or riding
on or near any streets, highways, alleys, parking lots or even sidewalks, here are some rules to follow:
- Stay out of the way!
Never assume that a driver sees you or trust that they will stop for you. They won't, as it is assumed that pedestrians have the responsibility of avoiding traffic. Many locals see driving as a competitive game, and will intentionally cut in front of you.
- Traffic signals mean nothing.
Drivers will often go straight through a red light without stopping, even if people are present. They will also begin to drive before the green light appears.
- Constantly look to all sides for traffic.
A car going 150 km
an hour on a city street is especially difficult to see, because it is unexpected. Also, one thing to be prepared for are vehicles making sudden "U-turns"
or other strange maneuvers.
- Vehicles here drive anywhere they can, in any direction.
This can mean through parks, over sidewalks, or the wrong direction down the street. Be careful walking around parked cars or traffic jams, reckless drivers will always
swerve around obstacles at high speed in any situation, regardless of pedestrians.
, remember the advice above, and also:
- Turn signal lights are never used.
Drivers will swerve and turn at a high rate of speed with no warning, and little room for error. The best policy is to drive slowly and leave lots of space between you and the next car.
- Drivers will attempt to pass
, or overtake, on the highway with not enough space
. When an oncoming car attempts to pass in your lane, slow down and drive as far as possible on the right.
- Farm animals and people
frequently wander around on the highway. Go slow, especially around corners.
- Expect the unexpected,
such as very drunk drivers, cars traveling the wrong direction, cars with no mirrors or lights, overloaded trucks dropping materials on the road, large amounts of smoke or water on the highway, and sudden detours due to road damage. Dangerous obstacles or road conditions
are commonly not marked
, even including giant holes
in the road surface and washed out bridges!!
- Keep your vehicle and documentation in order.
Don't give the traffic police any extra excuse to take money from you. When they stop you on the highway, remember that as a foreigner, you actually have a certain amount of power over them as you could make trouble if you choose to complain. If you can communicate, refuse to give them any money for as long as you can, they won't actually arrest you or take your license, regardless what they say. If you don't speak any local languages well, speaking in nonsense Russian or pretending not to understand when they ask for money often works.
Driving at night is a bad idea,
but if you must, remember this:
- Vehicles often stop in the road or have no lights!
This includes slow-moving farm equipment like tractors, and of course, there is still the danger of hitting animals and people. Since there is little lighting on the highways, this is a major problem. Drive slowly at night.
- On the highway, you will see oncoming vehicles flashing their lights
at you. This simply means the other driver wants to know you are not asleep or drunk;
flash your bright lights once or twice in return.
- Don't stop or sleep in your car anywhere near the highway at night,
for obvious reasons.
One way or another, unless you are wealthy you will be riding public transport. There are many choices for getting around in the region, some cheaper, some more comfortable. One thing you will need to consider is the extreme distances between places of interest (especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and the poor state of the road network (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan being the worst). Either way, spending lots of time in vehicles can be exhausting and dangerous. Many are surprised to learn that air travel is one of the best and most cost effective ways to travel in Central Asia. Most flights within these countries are subsidized; airfare between cities of the region rarely exceeds $100, and as low as $50 or less in the case of Turkmenistan. Airlines here don't have the greatest safety records in the world, its true; however, compared to the hazards of road travel it is not in the least dangerous.
One of the most common forms of travel in former Soviet countries is by "shared taxi". In this format, each seat in a taxi has a set price, and taxi drivers wait at bus stations and other well-known locations (often bazaars) and gather passengers until all seats are filled, or someone pays for the remaining seats. This is a much more comfortable alternative to vans and buses on long trips, and not much more expensive, though you usually will need to bargain over the price. In addition, you will also have the chance to converse with some locals!
Train travel quality varies widely among post-Soviet countries, though they share the same basic infrastructure and equipment. Generally, train travel is a reliable way to travel and an interesting experience, however it requires advance booking and places in comfortable compartments are more expensive than bus routes. Train travel is usually a bit slower than other methods, though much more comfortable. A second-class ticket ("kupei" in Russian) includes a bed in a locked compartment with four people. Third class ("platzkart" in Russian) includes a bed in an open compartment shared by six people. First class compartments "myakhkii" (soft) are rare and very expensive, and include two beds and numerous other luxuries. In addition, there are private trains ("firmenniy") on certain express and tourist routes, which offer higher levels of cleanliness and service, at a higher price.
Flights and Airports
As stated above, flying is especially effective in Central Asia. Regulations and procedures are similar to those in Western countries. Baggage theft and theft from baggage is common on domestic flights, lock or otherwise secure closures on luggage, or use the luggage wrapping services offered in some airports.