Planning for the Silk Road

It’s about three weeks until I set out on my overland trip from the Pacific to Uzbekistan along the Silk Road. Here are some common things people ask about my trips:

Isn’t it dangerous?

Short answer: probably not.

Long answer: Despite what American cable news says, the world probably isn’t as dangerous as most think. I’ll keep an eye on the news, but at the moment things look good for the Chinese provinces and former Soviet republics I’ll be visiting. In the past I’ve had to change travel plans because of protesters storming and burning government buildings in Paraguay, floods in Albania, and the like. I’ll adapt if need be, though I don’t think I’ll need to.

armageddon

What most Americans think the outside world looks like.

Even the US Department of State travel advisory page says the areas I’ll be visiting are safe. They’re extremely overcautious and I’m not that concerned. Cumulatively I’ve spent years abroad in 45 different countries, and I think I’ll be fine. The most dangerous and violent place I’ve ever been is the United States.

How much will it cost?

Short answer: comparatively not that much.

Long answer: I don’t expect this trip to be that expensive. Hostels should be $8 to $10 a night. Chinese train tickets are pretty reasonably priced ($10 to $15 an hour for high speed lines, $4 an hour and up for slower night trains with a bed). Transportation in the Central Asian republics will be by van and train, and should be cheaper than in China. Local cuisine is about $2 to $3 a meal in China, and I don’t expect my food costs to be high in the Stans.

Typically, visas are a major cost and headache for Silk Road trips. I’ll explore that later in this post, but I expect to spend around $250 on visas. At the end of my journey I’ll likely fly from some capital city in Central Asia back to Shanghai on a Chinese airline. There are many daily flights between the Stans and Shanghai, with connection in northwest China’s Urumqi, running about $300 one way.

How will access your money?

QR-Code

The merchant can scan a code on your phone to pay with AliPay or WeChat Pay.

Nobody in Han China uses cash anymore, instead opting for AliPay or WeChat Pay. My phone reads my fingerprint, which unlocks a QR code (see photo above). The merchant then scans the code on my phone, and within about two seconds it’s finished. These smartphone apps are pretty useful, also allowing you to buy train tickets and order taxis, and draw funds directly from my Chinese debit card. That card is linked to my account at the China Construction Bank, which has offices and ATMs all over the country. If I need cash I should be able to withdraw yuan at their ATMs as I go without cost. I don’t know if electronic payment systems will be common in the non-Han areas of Tibet and Xinjiang province (I suspect not, since they require some knowledge of how to read Chinese).

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have their own currency. In these places I’ll use my Charles Schwab debit card, which has zero foreign conversion costs and refunds all ATM fees at the end of the month. This card refunded me about $750 in ATM fees in South America. I expect the Stans to be cash-based economies, and that I’ll be using my card to withdraw cash a lot in the former Soviet Union.

rsz_img_2512

Cash exchange listing in Transnistria.

Back in the Balkans, where you drive two hours and enter a new country with a totally different currency, faith in the local money was pretty low and so were conversion costs for cash. Changing from local currency to the more stable euro was commonplace, and there was a lot of competition for these services. You’d typically lose around 1% of the value of the cash to convert something like Serbian dinar or Albanian lek to euros, which could be used to pay hostel bills in every country (accommodation was always priced in euros, but hostels would let you pay in local currency at good rates too). Those euros could also be used to buy local funny money in the next country at good rates (definitely NOT the case in the more advanced economies of Western Europe). Substitute the US dollar for euros, and from what I’ve heard it should be very similar in the Stans.

Visas

Central Asia traditionally hasn’t been the easiest place to visit. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Stans maintained restrictive entrance and travel policies for foreigners. Although it can still be a bureaucratic nightmare, it’s become much easier over the past two years to do this trip.

China

Usually a pain in the ass. But I have a multiple entry work visa valid through January of 2019, so I shouldn’t have issues.

Kazakhstan

No visa needed.

Kyrgyzstan

No visa needed.

Tajikistan

I’ll have to apply for an eVisa online, which basically entails paying $50 and uploading a scan of my passport’s bio information page. It should take around three days to get the eVisa.

Uzbekistan

Supposedly Uzbekistan is launching an eVisa program similar to Tajikistan starting July 1st, but I’ll believe it when I see it. If I make a reservation and get a letter of invitation from a hostel in Uzbekistan, then I should be able to get a visa within a few hours from the embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan or Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The visa fee for American citizens is $160.

Language

I speak conversational Chinese, which should serve me well until I leave Urumqi in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Urumqi has a large Han population, but outside of this provincial capital people likely won’t speak Chinese or English. Instead, it’ll be a language related to Turkish. They’ll speak Turkic languages in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan speaks a relative of Persian. Russian is likely the main lingua franca of this region, owing to the days of the Soviet Union, but maybe the younger generation will speak some English? I can read Cyrillic and should be fine.