Lonely Planet Central Asia 5th Ed.: 5th Edition Paperback – Oct 5 2010
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About the Author
Bradley Mayhew has been exploring remoter parts of Asia since studying Chinese at Oxford University. A university wager saw him race three classmates to Lhasa in 1990, winning him a crate of Lhasa Beer for his endeavours. Conversant in Chinese, Bradley has explored most corners of China, especially the Tibetan border regions of Sichuan and the Muslim parts of Northwest China.
Bradley has worked on over 20 guides for Lonely Planet, including Tibet, Central Asia, Shanghai, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, China, Nepal, Jordan, Southwest China, Mongolia, Morocco, Middle East, The Gap Year Book, Pakistan, Karakorum Hwy and Indian Himalaya. He has also had his photographs published in a wide variety of publications. Personal travels have taken him from Ethiopia to Mt Everest.
He is also the co-author and photographer of the Odyssey Guide to Uzbekistan, contributed a chapter on Travelling the Silk Road to the book Silk Road: Monks, Warriors and Merchants on the Silk Road and has lectured on Central Asia to the Royal Geographical Society.
When not travelling, Bradley lives an expat life in Billings, Montana and grabs every opportunity to go hiking and backpacking in the nearby Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. A big fan of world music, his is probably the only stereo in Montana regularly playing anything from Saharan blues to Tibetan chants.
His favourite destination is Tibet, most underrated destination is Kyrgyzstan, and his favourite city is Bukhara in Uzbekistan. He best travel tip: always travel with a heating element and instant coffee.
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One particularly glaring error is the amount of time the authors of the guidebook suggest it takes to travel in the region via automobile. For example, I had to travel from Bukhara to the border crossing with Tajikistan at Denau, which according to the guidebook would take 5 ½ hours. In reality, the road venture took more than 12 full hours to cover over sometimes very bad roads and through multiple police checkpoints. While this region is probably one of the more difficult to cover for travel guidebook writers, errors such as this makes you wonder how much of their recommendations they've actually experienced themselves.
Bottom line: if you are travelling to the region, you really must have this guidebook to accompany you. Virtually every single tourist we met in the region had their own copy of it. That said, considering where you are traveling, you need to accompany this guidebook with a lot of other work to really understand what you are doing. There are lots of good travel blogs to help you plan your trip, and even Tripadvisor has some good hotel and restaurant picks for Central Asia to consider beyond what Lonely Planet offers. Get the Lonely Planet guide, but plan of doing some reading and planning beyond what it has to offer.
I used this guidebook in conjunction with the Silk Road (Insight Guides) guidebook (2013 edition: Silk Road (Insight Guides)). In my experience, these two books work well together, especially if your primary area of interest is in exploring the Silk Road (if you are interested mainly in mountaineering or hiking, then the Silk Road guide is obviously less useful): the Silk Road Guide is a far superior guide to actual attractions, and is the best resource for actually deciding what to see and where to spend your time; the LP is best for figuring out the nuts-and-bolts logistics of how to get to these places and where to stay, but is otherwise inconsistent.
The difference in quality is a little surprising, as Bradley Mayhew wrote the Silk Road guide and is also the coordinating author of the LP Central Asia guide being reviewed here. But perhaps it's not a surprise that the Silk Road guide, written entirely by Mr. Mayhew, shows much tighter editorial control and consistency, while the multi-author LP is much less coordinated and more inconsistent. This lack of consistency, combined with the typical LP style of over-hyping all attractions/destinations, makes it very difficult to use this Lonely Planet to chose between different destinations... a problem that is accentuated if you have to select between destinations in different countries (with different authors writing about them): need to chose between hiking in the Wakhan corridor and doing the same around Issy-kul? Good luck with that. Want to know if the market in Osh is better/more appealing than those in Dushanbe, Margilon, or Tashkent? You're on your own. And while you might infer from the LP that Uzbekistan's Ferghana valley is the most conservative area in the entire region, almost all travelers would agree that Osh and the Kyrgyz Ferghana valley is more conservative, and in my experience the Zeravshan valley in Tajikistan is even more conservative (I had local women literally run away from me if they saw me walking along a mountain path).
In contrast to LP's shotgun approach, the Silk Road guide tends to list only the best and most interesting places to visit, and provides pictures of most places (there's generally at least one full-colour photograph on each page). Essentially, the Silk Road guide presents a curated list of sights, without attempting to artificially inflate the number of attractions/sights in a country simply in order to make that country's chapter appear more comprehensive--if something is better seen or experienced in another country, then there's a good chance that it either will not appear in the guidebook or will only receive scant attention. This approach is a lot more useful when it comes to deciding where to spend your time and what to see.
Of course, the most useful function of LP guides is in providing logistical information: where to stay, how to get around, and how much things cost. The good news is that the information in the book was still relatively accurate about 30 months after publication (so maybe 3-4 years after research?): most prices were within 10% of the listed price, though many things in Kazakhstan are a lot more expensive. The bad news is that although prices are fairly reliable, the locations that marshrutkas and share taxis leave from seem to constantly fluctuate and there doesn't seem to be any source of updated information available on the LP website. So while the prices may be close to what LP quotes, you will still need to figure out where things leave from (your guesthouse and/or other travelers are probably the best source of information on this).
As for the content and accuracy of the book itself, I would have to say it is quite variable. Some countries/authors are better than others, and some worse. The chapter on Afghanistan is incredibly brief, and only describes a few places. Sure, this may be understandable given the general security situation, but it's also far too thin and superficial to be something you would want to use if/when the situation improves, as the guidebook suggests. It's also very weird that the cover photo is from Afghanistan, given how useless the book is for that country (you get the impression the Afghanistan chapter is mainly there so they can claim they are the only book that also covers Afghanistan). The chapter on Turkmenistan is also quite bad, and it is missing a lot of useful information (and it must be bad if I can arrive at that conclusion after visiting on a 5-day transit visa). The country-level map is atrocious, especially since it appears to show that the road from Dashogus to Ashgabat goes through Konye-Urgench (this is kind of a big deal if you want to go from the rather small Konye-Urgench to Ashgabat, since from the map you would assume all traffic from Dashogus will also stop in KU). Smaller maps, such as those of Merv and Mary, are also questionable, with attraction flagged in the wrong location and non-existent streets listed. Also, the failure to list 3-day and 5-day itineraries for Turkmenistan makes is mind-boggling, as most people visit Turkmenistan on 3-day or 5-day transit visas.
------------------------------ MY VISA RECOMMENDATIONS------------------------------
Also somewhat annoyingly, while there is information on embassies and visas in each country's listing, there is no real information on where the best places to get visas are. This is an important consideration, because some places are much faster and friendlier than others. Here, then, is my personal list of the best places to obtain visas (traveling from East to West):
-TURKMENISTAN: if you're heading east to west, then Dushanbe is the best place to get your Turkmen visa. The consul is extremely friendly, and will help you out. 2 weeks and $45 for a 5-day transit visa; 1 week less and $10 more for urgent processing. A visa for your onward country is required at time of application (visa for country of entry is not required). The consul will also let you change the entry and exit dates at the time you pick up the visa, which is amazing! I haven't heard of any problems at this embassy, as everyone seems to get their chosen entry & exit ports, as well as the full 5 days. If you are coming from Iran, I've heard Mashhad is also a good place to get a visa.
-IRAN: I got my visa in Bishkek, but I've heard the embassy there is not the best place. They couldn't find my confirmation number/letter the first time I went, and when I was able to apply they had 3-day processing time. They also required proof of travel insurance. Dushanbe is apparently a better and faster place to go through. Visa price was 60 euros, in addition to the fee I paid a travel agency for the confirmation number.
-KAZAKHSTAN: I got my visa in Mongolia, and it was a pain. I believe it takes a week to get your visa in Urumqi, so it's not a great option. In Bishkek I believe it can be done in 3 days. Prices seem fairly standard between embassies at $30 for single entry and $60 for double entry.
-AFGHANISTAN: the consulate in Khorog is probably your best bet, as you can get the visa on the same day. I paid $50 cash for the visa itself, and they wanted another $50 for urgent processing... but this fee is highly negotiable (as it should be, since it goes straight into their pocket). If you are told to pay at the bank and to bring your receipt back (which is how it should be done), it will likely be much cheaper: I spoke to someone who paid something like $35 at the bank for his same-day visa. The embassy in Dushanbe charges $70 (payable at the bank) for 2-day processing, with no urgent service available. Dushanbe staff are very rude and don't seem to have a good grasp of either English or what is going on (one kept insisting I need a transit visa to visit the Afghan Wakhan, which he said I couldn't get since I had already used my Kazakh visa??!). At both locations they will only issue single-entry tourist visas that begin on the date of issue and expire 30 days thereafter.
-UZBEKISTAN: I got my Uzbek visa in Dushanbe, for $75. I already had a letter of invitation (LoI), and the visa was issued while I waited. The wait was about 3 hours, however, since Uzbekistan makes Tajiks get a visa as well, and the embassy was swamped. Staff are not friendly, and the dates listed on my LoI were ignored: the visa period began running on the date of issue, and expired 30 days afterward. If you have an LoI, I suggest trying in Bishkek, as it is also issued while you wait. Without an LoI, however, it can take up to 2 weeks in Bishkek. So even if you don't need an LoI, I therefore suggest getting one in order to avoid spending way too much time in Bishkek. I would also suggest going through StanTours for all your visa/invitation needs (their Uzbek LoI is $45), as they are very honest and extremely helpful.
-TAJIKISTAN: You can get a visa while you wait in Bishkek. $75 for single entry with immediate processing. $55 if you can wait for one week (they simply put your application aside and then immediately process this saved application when you return a week later; they don't keep your passport or take any money when you initially apply/drop off your application form). Add $10 for double entry.
-CHINA: I don't have personal experience with this one, as I got mine in Hong Kong (same-day double-entry visa valid for 90 days, eliminating the need for visa extensions, through Forever Bright Trading), but I have talked to multiple people who had trouble getting Chinese visas (some needed proof of accommodation for their entire stay in China, as well as tickets in and out). If you are heading to China, I suggest you do some research before departing home or arriving in Central Asia, as if you wait until your last country before China you may be in for a surprise.
-KYRGYZSTAN: visa-free for citizens of virtually all Western & industrialized nations (including the US and Canada) as of July 2012.
------------------------------MY 5-DAY TURKMEN ITINERARY------------------------------
Sample 5-day transit itinerary for Turkmenistanm with Uzbek/Iran entry/exit (or reverse):
Day 1: enter in the morning from Iran at Bajgiran. Spend the day in Ashgabat. Take the night train to Mary (about $5 for sleeper, but arrives in Mary around 2:00 am... they will let you sleep in the station until morning, though). Overnighting in Ashgabat is a relatively expensive proposition, as the cheapest place seems to be about $30. There is budget place to stay in Mary (hotel Caravanserai, about $10 per night), but you'll never find it from LP's directions/maps, there's no sign on the building, and most locals don't even know the street it's on. You'll probably need a bit of luck to get there.
Day 2: go to Merv. You can take a public bus to Bayram Ali, and get out when you see ancient walls, just before the bus turns right at a stop light. This puts you at the edge of the archaeological site, at the Abdullah Khan Kala, in the bottom-left corner of the LP map of Merv. Return to Mary in the evening, and take the midnight train back to Ashgabat.
Day 3: see more of Ashgabat. Take a share taxi to either Dashogus (relatively easy at all times of the day, should be around $10) or Konye Urgench (much more difficult, but about same price). Overnight taxi may be your best bet if you want to maximize time and avoid costs.
Day 4: go to Konye Urgench and explore the archaeological site just south of town on the road to Ashgabat, as well as mausoleums in town. Stay overnight in Konye Urgench if exiting at Khojeli (good exit point for Nukus); overnight in Dashogus if exiting there for Khiva.
Day 5: exit to Uzbekistan.
If anyone from LP is reading this, you do not have my permission to incorporate any information here in your next edition.