When I jumped on board and told the guys I’d be joining them on this adventure, I had no idea what lay between Europe and Mongolia. I figured Russia would likely come into it, possibly China? I knew this was ‘Stan’ country and while I’d heard of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, friends of mine worked in Kazakhstan a few years back, that was just about the sum total of my knowledge. Looking back it at, I’m not sure I even knew of countries such as Turkmenistan or Kyrgyzstan.
From the start we’d said this was about the Stans, countries you’re unlikely to visit again. And since we were clear on that, the outline of the route once we made it to Turkmenistan was clear. Turkmenistan would lead us into Uzbekistan and then into Tajikistan before heading the slightly north into Kyrgyzstan and then Kazakhstan. And although it looks like they touch, there is no border crossing between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, meaning we would have to make our way into Russia for a bit.
That was the outline. Over the last few weeks and months, and courtesy of the Lonely Planet Central Asia guidebook Dyl received as a birthday present, we began to fill in the detail and started reading and planning. And reading and planning.
I won’t give too much away here, keep an eye out for our en-route blogs!, but highlights we’re particularly looking forward include the Uzbek towns of Samarkand & Bukhara, the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan (this pass through the mountains hugs the Afghan border) and the Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan. And then of course just the scenery en route will be half of the experience let alone the adventure in its own right.
But that’s once we get to Turkmenistan … how do we go about getting there?
Initially, we’d planned to make it to Istanbul as quick as possible and then head through Georgia and Azerbaijan before crossing the Caspian Sea aboard an overnight ferry into Turkmenistan. But reports we read put us off – long delays in getting the Turkmenistan visa in Istanbul, sporadic ferry times, long waits mid-sea whilst the authorities tried to get more money form passengers. There was just too much out of our control and things had the potential to go horribly wrong.
Then we looked at heading a little north and making our way into Russia before dropping in Kazakhstan and then Turkmenistan. The biggest pitfall to this was the 1,000 or so kms of Kazakhstan desert we’d have to cross without even being able to confirm online that a road exists! Not the smartest idea that. What put paid to that plan, though, was the realization that it would involve entering Russia twice but outside a 30 day window and that’s not possible on the visa they issue.
Then we looked at Iran & crossing overland form Turkey & then up to Turkmenistan. All of us have met people who’ve visited & they say the country is stunning & the people some of the friendliest you’ll meet. Safety concerns were a major issue, especially with the conflict in Syria, but we felt that given all options this was our best one. And the thought of visiting Iran excited us all hugely.
So we went with that & started to organise our letter of invitation and visa. This was some 3 weeks ago and just this past week we learnt that they’ve changed the Iranian visa rules and one now needs a guide.
So it was back to the drawing board – do we lose our freedom and flexibility and go with a guide and pre-planned route (including fixed entry and departure dates) or do we revert back to options 1 or 2?
Reading more recent stories and chatting to people who were on the rally last year, the visa process looks a lot smoother and the ferries a lot more reliable (they now go daily and take 14 hours overnight although there are no proper docking facilities in Turkmenistan so the slightest breeze will delay you mid Caspian sea!).
In addition, Georgia is meant to be a beautiful country with great wine & food (I can attest to the good having had heaps in Russia). Further, Iran is a huge country & definitely a holiday on its own unlike Georgia &/or Azerbaijan.
So it looks like we’re back to the original plan then! Drive non-stop through Europe to make it to Istanbul within 48 hours. Hopefully we get the visa overnight and then it’s another 48 hours to get to Baku and onto the ferry.
Thereafter we’ll have 4 weeks to explore the Stans and a week to make it to Ulanbataar once we enter Mongolia. What a 6 weeks it’s going to be!