It is rare to find blank spots on the tourist map of the world in this age of mass tourism. Yet the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are such “undiscovered” spots. Before the Iron Curtain fell, only a few EastBloc citizens would have had first-hand knowledge of these countries, and even fewer Westerners managed to overcome the hurdles of holidaying in the Soviet Union.
After the Berlin Wall fell, former East-Bloc tourists’ interest in these countries waned even more: they wanted to travel West, and Westerners were somewhat suspicious of these distant Asian republics so close to civil war-ridden Afghanistan.
The three CIS states are hoping things will change now. Each of them was represented with a stand of its own at the International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Berlin in mid-March. Kazakhstan had a stand at the fair for the first time ever, and ITB visitors could even get a free tourist visa stamped in their passports at the Kyrgyz stand.
Kazakhstan is easily the largest of the Central Asian republics. According to statistics from the Ministry of Youth Affairs, Tourism and Sport, around 400,000 business travellers and tourists visited the country last year. Of those, around 20 per cent were from Germany, many of them ethnic Germans from the ex-Soviet Union who were visiting their former homes.
Among the main attractions in Kazakhstan are the Silk Road, which traverses a good 1,200 kilometres of the country, and the capital Alma Ata with its Kazakh National Museum. This 55-metre-high building is the highest wooden house in the world and was built without a single nail.
The foothills of the massive Central Asian Tien Shan mountain range are an ideal destination for hikers and alpinists. Hunting trips are another popular package offer, according to the ministry, as is the Baikonur space station.
A tourist visa for Kazakhstan costs around 12 dollars. The best foreign language to speak is Russian, though you can sometimes get by with German or English. It is possible to travel to Kazakhstan independently, though hotel accommodation is scarce and expensive: One night in a three-star hotel dating from Soviet days costs from 70 dollars upwards, and for Western standards in a new five-star hotel you will pay around 300 dollars.
Kazakhstan’s southern neighbour is Uzbekistan. According to the state tourist board Uzbektourism, the country has over 4,000 sights worth seeing, mainly on the Silk Road, the route along which caravans of traders travelled from China to Europe and back.
The oasis city of Buchara is an absolute must – its historic city centre is one of the best preserved in the Orient – as are the cities of Chiva and Samarkand, famous for their magnificent architecture and carpet weaving. The Uzbeki capital Tashkent was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966 and rebuilt in Soviet style – its architectural attractions are limited accordingly.
Uzbekistan also requires tourist visas, which cost around 95 dollars and can be obtained through Uzbektourism. Last year, 300,000 foreigners visited the country. Apart from Russian, tourists can get by with some German or English. Hotel accommodation costs from around 15 dollars upwards per person per night. Independent travellers need a certain spirit of adventure to get by in the country without local guides, according to the tourist board.
Kyrgyzstan as a tourist destination is only suited to independent travellers; there are no organised package deals to the country as yet. Mountains cover 94 per cent of the surface area – the highest peaks are over 7,000 metres high – so the country has great potential for climbing fans.
Because of its relative isolation, only 12,000 people from outside the former Soviet Union visited the country in 1996. Of those, 1,000 were tourists, with Germans accounting for 25 per cent.
Max Haberstroh, tourism adviser in the capital Bishkek, advises anyone travelling to Kyrgyzstan to have a basic command of either Kyrgyzian or Russian: “There are very few means of orienting oneself in country, and without the language or without a guide, you haven’t a hope.”
Various local travel agencies are now offering a one-week hiking package: From June to August 1997, groups of seven to ten people can treck by jeep, horse and on foot through the mountainous country at a cost of 438 dollars per person (flight not included). The programme includes rafting on the River Cu, a steamboat trip on Lake Issyk-Kul and tours through the high mountains.