I’ve seen a few Central Asian countries mentioned in the typical internet circles lately. Specifically Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have popped up.
This region has been off the radar of everyone–even the most seasoned travelers would be hard pressed to find Bishkek or Dushanbe on a map. But with these latest references things may be changing.
I wholly-heartedly support these trips. The region, while not particularly exciting, has something to offer for those prone to exploration and adventure. Particularly, the silk road cities like Khiva and Bukhara, as well as the picturesque mountains of the Tien Shan.
Tourist infrastructure is lacking here, but changes are coming. Kazakhstan recently relaxed its visa rules for most Western countries. It’s also easy to travel to Kyrgyzstan. But these are only for short-term trips. Staying longer is going to be a difficult task.
In my trip to Tashkent, I feel like I met all of the country’s expats while there–perhaps just a dozen. I’m exaggerating, but with the restrictions on businesses, freedoms and travel, expats and travelers have their work cut out for them in this region. While these five Central Asian states are not monolithic, they share many similar characteristics. With that said, I’d like to share a few of them and talk you out of expatriating to this region in case you had any illusions about doing so:
Visa policies certainly vary by country. For example, Kyrgyzstan has a welcoming 60-day visa free policy for most Westerners. Kazakhstan in recent years imposed a 30-day visa free policy. This is fantastic news! However, the other countries of the region are more strict.
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have byzantine visa regulations which makes them quite off-putting. You’ll need to secure a visa with an invitation from a registered travel agency or citizen. Hopefully you’ll get it approved.
And in Uzbekistan, for example, you must stay at a hotel for at least three days upon arrival. No AirBnb for you!
Like the visa policies, Central Asia is becoming a better place to do business. It is still much less than ideal though.
With the exception of Kazakhstan (and they still aren’t great either), you can expect to deal with corruption and cripplingly slow bureaucracy.
People complain about police in the West, but until you’ve lived in the former Soviet Union you don’t have the right to complain.
Warrants? Who needs ’em.
Random searches? Sure.
Endemic corruption? You bet!
The one benefit about corruption is that bribing a police officer can come in handy. For example, I bribed a police officer in Samarkand to let me climb a 500-year old minaret. Well worth the $10.
Culture Shock and The Language Barrier
Central Asia will likely be different from other regions of the world you’ve visited before. English levels are quite low. Plus, the cross between the Soviet legacy and Islam creates an odd, but fascinating culture which is seen in all five ‘stans’.
Culture shock is no reason not to visit a place, but it will certainly make it harder to fit in and live long-term, let alone start a business.
So, What’s the Verdict?
Well, there you have my argument. Not that many of you needed it!
I am certainly keeping an eye on the region, particularly Kazakhstan. Under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan is making some smart moves to position itself strategically in China’s budding One Belt One Road project. Moreover, the country is making efforts to characterize Astana as a tourist attraction. The architecture is indeed impressive!
Bishkek is probably the best bet for a nomad or expat who wants to get off the beaten path. It is the most lax in terms of government and has much to offer in the way of scenery.
The cities and mountains of Central Asia will definitely make for a great trip you will cherish, but as a long-term expat you can rule it out–at least for the next decade.