Get lost. This is hardly a goal of any traveler. Most people want to discover unique places without compromising safety and wellbeing. That’s why most cultures revere the role of a guide. The ancient Greeks worshipped Ariadneand her lifesaving thread through the mythical labyrinths. Native American heroine Sacagawea was indispensable to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and formation of a national identity in the US. Contemporary tour guide industry is worth $16 billion a year, a rough estimate on track for substantial growth in the coming years. From travel e-giants like Airbnb launching its “Experiences” portfolio in select most popular cities to breakout startups like Veritamo zeroing in on the elite luxury market, more and more tech-savvy companies focus on the segment.
A hunting Golden Eagle flies during the 'Ethno Fest' festival in the village of Ton, near Issyk-Kul lake, some 350 km from Bishkek, on July 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO (Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
However, if you are an adventurous person interested in “off the beaten track” destinations on a reasonable budget, your options tend to dwindle. Indy Guide is a platform that connects travelers directly with vetted local guides in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Thanks to the Mongolian mining boom and EXPO 2017 in Astana, this part of the world appeals to those who treasure unspoiled natural wonders and historic Silk Road heritage sites, as well as latest tech ambitions of newly emergent markets.
Courtesy of Indy Guide
Atahan Tosun and Alexandra Tosun, co-founders of Indy Guide
Indy Guide started as an idea during the extended honeymoon of Atahan and Alexandra Tosun in 2015. The Swiss couple spent a year traveling in the region reconnecting with Atahan’s Kazakh cultural roots and exploring far off places. Enchanted by the beauty and the people, they launched this project first based on their own contacts and expertise. Atahan was a bank manager for over a decade and Alexandra’s experience with hospitality industry included working at the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa. “For us it is was never about selling tours, but about bring together people with completely different backgrounds. We didn’t expect the project to be so successful so quickly. It just proves people are hungry for authentic travel experiences and that there is real investment in Central Asia,” comment the Tosuns.
Courtesy of Indy Guide
Uzbekistan lures thousands of global tourists with its one of a kind architectural treasures like the ancient city of Bukhara.
Out of all the challenges, re-conceptualizing the image of Central Asia for global audiences was a priority. When the local guides were asked about the biggest misconceptions of their homelands, many came back with one surprising answer: Borat! In 2006, British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen introduced the titular character in his mockumentary: “Borat or Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” A decade later, its pop-cultural impact remains problematic. Despite its satirical nature, the hit film perpetuated a misconstrued vision of the entire region as one “-stan country”. In 2011, American presidential candidate Herman Cain was criticized for his dismissive comment about an imaginary “…beki-beki-stan-stan”. In 2013, US Secretary John Kerry accidentally invented “Kyrzakhstan” in a major diplomatic gaffe. This is one of the most misrepresented parts of the world. It is also home to many of the world’s wonders: the majestic lake Issyk Kul, the vast Altai and Pamir Mountains, the great Gobi Desert, many ancient Silk Road outposts such as Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as the vibrant diverse nomadic culture. Gulnara Apandieva, a guide from Tajikistan, says: “Many people confuse us with our neighbor Afghanistan where things can be dangerous. I am happy to challenge this stereotype, because Tajikistan is safe for visitors and rich with culture where hospitality is number one tradition.”
Courtesy of Indy Guide
Meet friendly local villagers that continue to preserve the age-old way of life.
Over 1000 local providers make Indy Guide the largest regional peer-to-peer network of guides, hosts, drivers and tour operators. This first of its kind independent transparent marketplace features fixed negotiated prices and an honest feedback system. There is simply no cheating; trust is the most valued commodity in this industry. For example, Tashkent-based guide Beck Emirhas sold ready-made tour services to other operators before. The major difference in working with Indy Guide is that it allows Beck to create each program entirely in cooperation with the individual clients. “It is not the number of years providing tours but your passion, knowledge and love of your home that make you the best tour guide or driver,” shares Beck.
Courtesy of Indy Guide
Tajikistan mountainous landscape boasts a variety of wild animals, including Yak (pictured).
Often the quality of experience depends on little things, like knowing simple customs. For example, in nomadic communities, meals may still take place on tapestries on the ground. It is customary for western picnickers to jump across the blanket or step over its corners. In these cultures, this is considered a sign of disrespect and is strictly forbidden. Mongolia is home to some of the most scenic horse trekking routes in the world. However, steppe horses are reared and trained slightly differently from their European or American counterparts. They are friendly and reliable, just used to different handling techniques. Local Indy Guide partner Zhandaulet Erbolat from Mongolia always reminds it’s important to pay attention to the trainers regardless of prior experience with horseback riding to avoid mishaps and injury. Sergey Gluhoverovfrom Kyrgyzstan notes, “The funniest thing is that some tourists expect to see yurts, horses and sheep outside the airport! Then they are surprised to arrive in the quite modern capital city that still keeps its authenticity.” Visitors from global urban centers often misread rural social dynamics in remote areas. One of the common awkward exchanges involves giving money or gifts to children. Children are drawn to newcomers out of curiosity and their families may take offense to such unsolicited gestures. “A kid without an iPad in hand is not automatically a poor unfortunate kid,” stresses one of the guides.
Courtesy of Indy Guide
Mongolian Eagle hunter
World Tourism Organization reports that Central Asia has experienced a nearly twofold increase in international visitors over the last decade. While the exact numbers may not be staggering (the leading designation Kazakhstan recorded about 4.5 million visitors in 2013, a fourth of the Parisian tourist traffic for the same year) the overall trend is overwhelmingly positive. It also empowers local travel industry to mature. Kazakh operator Darkhan Berdirakhmanuly acknowledges that partnering with Indy Guide has been a game-changer for his business: “It affected my work totally. Firstly, I am now an active social media user. I started writing daily posts on Facebook and Instagram, using hashtags related to Almaty and Kazakhstan. Secondly, this is very professional environment for me to realize my knowledge from bachelor degree in tourism management. Thirdly, it is simply a joy!” The company was selected as one of the top five travel start-ups at the World Travel Market in London. It is one of the reasons to be grateful for this initiative that is transforming the Central Asian travel experience both for guests and hosts. How do you say thank you in local languages? Well, a mix of Turkic and Persian heritage has had strong linguistic influences here. Thank you israkhmat in Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek (rakmet, in Kazakh orbayarlalaa, in Mongolian). Now you are one step closer to your own nomadic adventure!
Kyrgyz women wearing traditional dresses gather inside a portable folk dwelling yurt during a folk festival at Kyrgyzstan's Chon-Kurchak valley, some 30km outside Bishkek, on June 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Vyacheslav OSELEDKO (Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Five Things to Check Out Before You Go to Central Asia (as recommended by the local guides):
- Kazakh singer Dimash Kudaibergenov is challenging vocal range records in his performances, including the famous Diva Dancesong from “The Fifth Element”
- The BAFTA-nominated Mongolian documentary “The Eagle Huntress” by Otto Bell features an exclusive girl power anthem track by Sia
- A Kyrgyz novella Jamilia (1958) by Chingiz Aitmatov is often considered to be one of iconic love stories in modern world literature
- This Madrid-to-Samarkand diary, published in 1859, is still one of the best examples of diplomatic travel writing: “Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy Gonzalez De Clavijo to the Court of Tomour at Samarcand A.D. 1403-6”
- Indy Guide’s Instagram highlights firsthand experiences of the nature, cultural practices and everyday life of the people of Central Asia
By Stephan Rabimov , Contributor