The sun shines behind a rocky mountain range whose peaks are so grey and jagged they look like the fangs of an elder dragon. These teeth are charred from centuries of vehement fire reflux, and forgotten along a decaying, asphalt colored gum. You have been waiting for long, silent, solitary minutes, so much that you start feeling lost at the side of this unknown road. Then, all of a sudden, a reflection blazes far ahead in the depths of your sun-blurred vision. It’s coming nearer, zooming along the dragon’s jawline. Instinctively, you raise your right arm before realizing it’s a car: all of your hope pours into your outstretched fingertips as if you were prepared to cast a powerful incantation. You have just one moment to pierce the driver’s mind with your best expressional arrow. And when that car screeches to a halt sending airborne dust to tickle your nostrils, a powerful feeling rumbles inside your adventurer’s chest. As you run behind the stuttering vehicle preparing to spell out the same poem you have already recited so many times today, that feeling mutates into spinning dices on a roulette table. You know that you cannot always win.
Hitch hiking is one of the most adventurous ways of traveling: considered unsafe by most, it is instead a great opportunity to make great memories and get deeply connected with the reality of the countries we visit. However, for all those who have still been reticent to experience the powers of the upright thumb, Central Asia certainly does not look like a good place for starters. In fact, the harsh reality of overland travel in Central Asia – still one of the least tourist friendly regions of Asia -certainly requires some needful advice.
I have completed an overland trip from Singapore to Europe, spending a couple months thumbing my way across Central Asia, and the following is a set of useful tips to help you accomplish a similar once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Cars or taxis? The Central Asian dilemma
The Central Asian hitch hiking experience can be confusing: there is no other place in the world where any passing car can double as a taxi. Given the lesser number of vehicles, the widespread poverty, and simplicity of life, cars shuttle people for some extra cash. At times, you will see drivers pulling out a taxi sign and position it on top of their dashboards as they slow to a halt in front of you. This is especially true in Uzbekistan, where finding a lift has proved to be harder, as the majority of drivers will expect payment for their services. For this reason, don’t take a ride before you have clarified that you are not willing to pay, or that you have dingi niet (no money), or you actually clearly set for a price. This task is particularly hard as English is not widely spoken, and your Russian is probably non-existent.
A good way to get around this is to prepare a Russian written explanation you will always carry with you, clearly stating that you are traveling on a budget, and you are not looking for a taxi, but a free ride. Do not be afraid of stressing it out again before you hop in the car or stash your belongings in their trunk – I personally avoid this option by always carrying my pack on my lap, so that getting out of the car quickly in case of trouble is easier. Do not be discouraged by the huge number of “taxis” stopping by to ask for “service.” Be persistent, and eventually you will find a good soul ready to take you on. It will then be your own decision whether or not offering some money contribution, but clarify your intent from the start to avoid unpleasant situations later.
Easy riding: get in the truck!
In my experience, hitching a ride in a truck is by far one of the most comfortable and satisfying ways to travel along the Central Asian roads. The most hospitable drivers are the Turkish, which you’ll meet all over Central Asia as the route from Istanbul to Dushanbe or Tashkent is a hive of commercial trade. As a rule of thumb, don’t try to stop trucks in Turkmenistan, as foreign drivers have a restriction on passengers, who require paid registration at the border. They will not pick you up as they risk hefty fines. On the other hand, remote areas in Turkmenistan have plenty of local drivers willing to help. Furthermore, a sleeper train berth across the country would cost you a mere $2, making it the most practical, almost free of charge overnight travel option.
Why choose rides in trucks over cars? Simple. First, truck drivers are more often than not easy-going, long distance travelers looking for some company. Second, nothing beats looking at the scenery scroll by from the huge, high front windshield of a truck’s cabin. And third, what other vehicle gives you a chance to lay flat and nap on a comfortable bed, as your driver plies the windy Central Asian mountain roads, or chugs over a dirt track skirting the side of dusty, featureless rocky deserts? Riding in a truck is all of the above, and more: drivers will take care of you like family. Try to stop them from paying for your meal, and you will understand the level of embarrassment I felt many times along the Silk Road.
Trucks, however, are not always of the highest standard, at times being old rattlers that won’t drive more than 40 to 50 miles per hour. For as excruciatingly slow and boring as it may sound, chugging slowly up the mountain slopes also makes for a fantastic Central Asian experience you will treasure as a travel tale for years to come.
Overcoming the language barrier
Central Asia’s real travel challenge is the language barrier. We have the general impression that by speaking English we are magically entitled to get by in any country and any situation. Unfortunately, this is very far from truth in Central Asia, which never had a history of Anglo-Saxon civilization or extended contacts with English speakers. Thus, English is only spoken by a small group of locals in the upstarting tourist industry, or by the more educated and young city dwellers. For the rest, Russian is the universal lingo. When hitch hiking, you will have two choices: paruski (speak Russian), or find your way around it. At a minimum, you have to learn the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet, so that you will know where you are by deciphering the road signs.
We have the general impression that by speaking English we are magically entitled to get by in any country and any situation. Unfortunately, this is very far from truth in Central Asia.
Central Asian people are a bunch of friendly, good-hearted fellows, and they will love a conversation as they take you up for the ride. If you can learn some basic Russian words to describe your family, mention names of some of their foods, and point at basic objects, it will help you a long way, so try to make the effort. For the rest, hand gestures will become your most important communication resource. Do not think that by acknowledging that your Russian is non-existent, your driver will stop talking to you in the language you do not understand. Communicating seems to be so important to Central Asians, they will try their best to convey their meaning at all costs by using body language, hand gestures, and all sorts of facial expressions, and still speak Russian, louder and louder. Keep your cool, relax, and try to understand what they mean. Gesticulating, raising your voice, and spelling out English words loudly are considered rude behaviors in other parts of Southeast and East Asia, but in Central Asia are the best way to open doors and propel your chances to get invitations into your drivers’ homes.
After the ride: Follow up with your driver’s hospitality
It happened many times that my drivers insisted to take care of me once we reached our destination. In other cases, after having dropped me at an intersection, some decided to stay on to help me flag down another car and continue my journey. Others have even given me enough flat breads and fruits to last for several days’. Central Asian hospitality is heart-warming, sincere, and unique. And for as much as this may change with more travelers flocking to the region in the next few years, it is still the accepted social norm.
If you decided to take on your driver’s invitation, be ready for a humbling experience that may make some people uncomfortable, as your hosts will make you a part of their own families. For example, once he noticed that I had a small hole in my socks, my Uzbek host promptly went to the market and bought a new pair for both me and my fiancée. He did not allow us to leave his house until we had changed into his new gift and disposed of the old pair.
Food can be another potential issue: it will be abundantly served, and there is no way you may decline the offer. The easiest suggestion you can use to thank your hosts politely is to leave some money properly tucked away under a mattress, or inside of the tablecloth’s folds. It is in fact considered extremely rude to directly offer money to your hosts, definitely creating awkward moments on both sides. If you really feel uncomfortable, you can always ask them to take you to the closest market, and buy some fruits, cakes, and nuts to offer back to the family. Are you thinking about walking to the market by yourself? You may try, but I doubt they will let you once you have entered their homes’ premises. If you decide to accept their invitations, make it your special gift until it’s time to leave.
Hand gestures, the Central Asian way
So far, I have given the impression that getting a ride in Central Asia is a fairly straightforward affair. But what signs do you have to use in order to stop passing cars? Central Asia has not seen a big influx of Anglo-Saxon culture, and the upward thumb symbol that would flawlessly work in Europe, Australia, or the USA will not work in this part of the world, confusing any driver. The universally understood Central-Asian gesture to stop a car and ask for a lift is instead to outstretch your arm and wave your open palm up and down. By waving your palm, any driver from Kyrgyzstan to Turkmenistan understands that you are looking for a ride. The upward thumb, on the contrary, will not produce very good results.
The countryside and the city
Another important difference to account for is your surroundings. Hitchhiking works best outside of city centers, in the countryside or near the head of any highway’s toll gate. In major city centers such as Bishkek, Osh, Dushanbe, Khujand, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Ashgabat, your best bet is to find a way out of the city in the direction you want to go.
Central Asia has an inexpensive public transport system by means of mini vans, or marshutkas. Once you figure out their routing, your best bet is to hop on the one directed to the city’s outskirts, and get off close to a major intersection. Central Asian countries do not have the variety of road infrastructure you may find in other Asian nations, and it is quite straightforward to find a marshutka headed to the nearest way out of the city. These highways are generally small, two lane roads with limited but constant traffic, and it won’t be hard to flag down a ride from there. Be reminded that in border areas such as the Tajik/Uzbek border outside of Dushanbe, drivers may not be too friendly and demand payment in full before taking you to the border post. At times, this may become the only choice, unless you are ready to wait under the head-splitting afternoon sun.
Safety tips for waiting on harsh terrains
It is important to start hitchhiking in the early morning, as traffic out of cities and towns is most frequent, and things comes to their daily halt very early in this part of world. As you will be most likely visiting during the summer months, make sure you always carry enough water and some water purification tablets for emergencies. Water is available, but be reminded that in areas such as Dushanbe’s municipality, tap water is poisoned with heavy metals and will give your stomach a long, painful nightmare.
Markets and convenience stores provide cheap local food such as flat breads to carry as emergency provisions, and fruit is also delicious, cheap, and plentiful. You have to stock up on essentials, as you may encounter nothing but mountains and goats for long sections of your trip. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan there are farmers selling basic foods, but do not count on it. Be extra prepared in Uzbekistan when hitch hiking across the barren deserts from Bukhara to Khiva. A sun hat and sunscreen are a necessity, as much as a jumper for suddenly chilling nights. It would be unlikely to find yourself without a ride, but a light tent is also a very important accessory for this trip. It really saved my day when a kind driver dropped me off in front of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in the early evening, and I found out it was closed until the next morning. And lastly, if you are a female solo traveler, beware of cars with two elder, male passengers unaccompanied by their wives.
Getting stuck: On wild camping and security
Be reminded that sometimes, somewhere things will not go according to plan. You might get stuck in the middle of nowhere without sufficient light to try hitching further. This is when a tent comes very handy. Make sure to carry a torch light, as you will need a helpful blaze to set up your tent in the darkness of any star-lit Central Asian night. Try to camp at least 30 feet away from the roadside, as trucks and vehicles pull over frequently.
If you do not consider wild camping as a safe option, you can always try to walk to the nearest farm, house, or village and ask for help. In each one of the republics, when I asked if I could pitch my tent next to a house and use the external pit toilet, I got a formal invitation instead. Again, people are very hospitable, but it is not nice to abuse their kindness. Wild camping in Central Asia is indeed very safe, and in most areas you will be able to find complete solitude and grassy comfort. The safest option, the chaikanas - traditional Central Asian teahouses where customers seat on low tables and eat, drink or play games – can double as places to stay. Order a meal, relax, and sleep on the soft mattresses provided as seats. You may be awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of the bread maker rolling dough and maneuvering the wood fire oven, but that’s all part of the Central Asian experience…. and another great travel memory to tell your mates back home.
For more on hitchhiking and traveling in Central Asia, check out the following articles and resources:
- Indie Travel in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for $50 Per Day
- The World’s Most Underrated Destinations
- The Newbie’s Guide to Hitchhiking
- The Complete Guide to Hitchhiking in Southern Africa
- Sign up for Plan Your RTW Trip in 30 Days
Photo credits: All photos by Kit Yeng Chan and may not be used without permission.