Visiting Kazakhstan has been a dream of mine; for a simple reason: it was my parents’ home country before moving to Germany. Growing up with the food, and culture, I always wondered what it might be like there. Consequently, I did not hesitate when my parents proposed to visit for a week in 2018 for the first time in my life.
I decided that I wanted to spend more time in this region and travel around. It would not have been my first trip as a solo traveller. In the end, an acquaintance joined for three out of the total of 6 weeks. While travelling with someone has its perks - as my credit card, for instance, did not work at one ATM so he lent me some money until we reached the next town. I would have preferred to start and complete this trip on my own: as it was an emotional trip for me, so I wanted to dive deeper into the culture. My primary goal was not to see as much as possible, but rather to understand this region where my parents spent their youth. The road led me from Bishkek to Osh and the border to Tajikistan, then back north to Karakol and the Issyk-Kul region before crossing the border to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The last stop was Aktobe, my parents’ town.
So, there I was, arriving at the small airport in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, early in the morning, sharing a cab into the city with other travellers and instantly falling in love. I just felt comfortable among the mountains, the morning dawn and the taxi driver’s anecdotes about his military service in the GDR. Overall, all the people that I have met were insanely helpful and friendly. They left me with so many happy memories.
One should be aware that English is still not widely spoken, especially not among older generations. Knowing at least some Russian or one of the local languages is definitely helpful, especially if you are on your own. As a woman travelling on her own, I did not feel unsafe at all.
Yes, it happens that more men are talking to you when you walk as a woman on your own than with male companions, but it never got to the stage where I felt uncomfortable. And going on hiking trips in the countryside is no problem either since you always find travel buddies along the road.
Except for Osh, I felt like a dress code did not exist. Only there, I started to dress more modestly. Before anyone starts to question why a woman should change her dress sense, one should not forget that you are the guest while travelling. It is not upon you to judge their culture and way of life of the host country.
I encountered a situation with a man around 50 years who did not understand why I was unmarried, with no children and getting an education in my early 20s. As an outsider, I was not in a position to impose my value system upon him. A simple “My parents want me to get an education” was enough to convince him.
Another trait that some travellers showcase is the feeling of superiority and arrogance towards the host country. A behaviour that I, unfortunately, noted in one person I shared a twelve-hour-taxi ride with. On a lunch stop along the road, he wanted to order a vegetarian dish. Neither the waitress nor the driver were familiar with the concept of vegetarianism and recommended Laghman. As it turned out it was just a dish with less meat. He made it obvious that he was not pleased at all and complained to us in English about 'those people.' He assumed he was superior for the simple fact of knowing the concept of vegetarianism.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a vegetarian is completely fine and there are often vegetarian dishes hidden in the appetizer sections. The problem lays in the way some travellers expect the host country to adapt to him or her and not the other way round.
Realizing how much I grew up with this culture and finding acceptance was liberating. Until that trip I never realized how familiar I had been with all those little different cultural aspects: from the delicious food to the improvised solutions for problems; apparently, everything can be repaired! Seeing my parents reunite with their friends after 28 years of separation was heart-warming. A week full of home-cooked food and late-night talks followed. Maybe it is just me, but the portions were huge!
In general, you can expect great hospitality in these societies and people are really welcoming. What astonished me the most was their acceptance of me as one of their own despite my mediocre Russian and having zero knowledge of local languages.
My recommendations for travelling to Central Asia solo (as a woman)
Don’t be afraid!
Learn some basic Russian/Kazakh/Kyrgyz/Uzbek/Tajik/Turkmen. Knowing the language will make your travelling experience so much more enriching.
Respect the local culture. Take a look at the two examples I gave. After all, travelling is about meeting people. It is about respecting each other, learning from each other and sharing moments.
Enjoy local cuisine. It's delicious and while it might be difficult to find vegetarian options in the countryside at first glance, check the appetizer section on the menu.
Inform yourself about the country before you go. That way you prevent certain expectations and get a first impression of the cultures. Out of all my trips, this had been the best one so far. Probably because of my background, but this region with its mesmerizing landscapes and cordial people is astonishing.
Post written by Anna Leicht.