Liftoff to Central Asia

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Backpacking in Central Asia

“Travel brings power and love back into your life.”
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.  

Hushed voices and muffled footsteps seemed to boom through Dulles Airport on Sunday night. Despite the late hour, I was wide awake.

I was finally leaving on a one-month trip through Central Asia. 

Choosing the destination was easy.

I wanted to go somewhere unknown, off the beaten path, and just a little dangerous. Far from the distractions and temptations of my humdrum yuppie life in D.C.

On a recent business trip to Almaty I’d fallen in love with the region. The mix of European and Asian cultures, the charming people, the stark landscape, the cheap, plentiful, and delicious vodka. I wanted to know more. 

Planning the trip was…not so easy.

Most Central Asian countries require tourist visas with specific entry and exit dates, and some also require special permits to visit “sensitive” regions. But as a solo backpacker I couldn’t know exactly how long I’d be where and when. After weeks of calculating times and distances, contacting tour operators and hostels, and multiple trips to understaffed embassies around Washington, I finally settled on three countries in 10 steps.

  1. Fly into Uzbekistan and explore the capital Tashkent.
  2. See historic madrassas and caravanserais in Bukhara.
  3. Visit stunning mosques and mausoleums in Samarkand.
  4. Make a side trip to Shahrisabz to visit the palace and tomb of 14th century conqueror Tamerlane.
  5. Cross into western Tajikistan to visit the Turquoise Lakes in the Fan Mountains.
  6. Travel down to Dushanbe and see if my Persian was passable in the Tajik capital.
  7. Cross overland to Khorog, then travel the Pamir Highway by jeep.
  8. From Murghab, cross into Kyrgyzstan and tarry in Osh.
  9. End my Central Asian trek in quiet Bishkek.
  10. Recover and relax a few days in beloved Istanbul.

As much as I wanted to watch giant spiders leap to their death into a flaming pit, time constraints forced me to leave Turkmenistan for another trip. I had exactly 30 days before reporting to graduate school back in the District.

I looked around at the other people in the security line. Mostly tired faces in work attire lugging leather briefcases and rolling carry-on suitcases.

Business travel, how dull.

A few years ago I’d been proud to join their “glamorous” ranks as an international consultant. Now, I carried my oversized backpack with an air of superiority.

I was a “backpacker” now.

Except I wasn’t. I was the anti-backpacker. Sharing a cramped hostel room with half a dozen other smelly, drunk 20-somethings was for me, something between a necessary evil of budget travel and the sixth circle of hell.

I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t help but feel a little self-important. Very few Americans could say they’d traveled the old Silk Road. Much less point it out on the map. My mother, my former boss, my friends, everybody was worried and nervous. What if “the terrorists” kidnapped me? Or worse? There would be scarce internet, scarce plumbing, scarce electricity…

It was the perfect adventure.

And my first ever solo trip.

I was nervous. As much as friends and family drive me to the edge of sanity on trips, I tend to go more than a little stir crazy when left by myself too long. So why go it alone?

I was thirsting for a spiritual journey.


A painting of the poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.

I had become obsessed with Sufi spirituality and folk Islam, through the poems of Rumi and films like “Bab’Aziz” and “The Silence.” I wanted to see these cultures up close, and find my own mystic experience through them. I knew I needed to get out of my head, and into my heart.

Yet here I was, at the airport, over-analyzing, sizing myself up, comparing, judging.

It was an inauspicious way to begin my “spiritual journey.”

But I was determined to conquer


Inhaling a long, deep breath, I stepped on my first plane to Frankfurt.

July 20, 2008.

Tell us about your own first solo trip in the comments below. Why did you do it? How did you feel?

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1 thought on “Liftoff to Central Asia”

  1. I left Los Angeles in my son’s car as he was about to depart for his 2-year tour in Bangladesh as part of his dream to join the Peace Corp. This was the first time I had ever driven that distance alone in areas that were foreign to me, California to Kansas. It was freeing for me to be buzz down the highway singing along with music I enjoyed, my own freedom and no agenda. The experience gave me confidence in myself during a time when my heart was so hurt, a thirst for adventure and time alone on the road for deep reflection.

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