So you’ve spun your globe and marked your aim, booked your flight and written that cheeky out-of-office auto reply – now here you are, poised to pounce on your Caucasian Challenge, starting in Istambul, Turkey and winding up Yerevan, Armenia via Georgia. Oh, lands of breath-taking landscapes, ancient Silk Road citadels and, well, Borat. Actually, scrap that last bit. Probably best not to tempt fate and end up a Western edition of the freewheeling misadventure, remembered forever with a derisory snort among gap-toothed smiles at dusk. But how will you know a clanger before you drop one? Navigate round a faux pas, make a good impression, and all-round get off to a good start on your gas-to-floor adventure of a lifetime? Read on to find out.
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Get your visa in order
A key trope of travel tips. Before you even set foot here, you must steel yourself for a bewildering array of bureaucracy for travellers to navigate. Depending on which passport you hold, you’ll almost certainly need to obtain visas for the countries your Central Asia Rally touches. With this under your belt, you are ready to take your first step, and head to…
Before you turn your wheels on the E40, your rally’s first section, cast your eyes around Astrakhan. It’s a veritable cornucopia of gastronomical, cultural-architectural and natural delights that you’d be kicking yourself if you passed on. As you do so, you might as well take advantage of the relatively relaxed – and thus more forgiving, compared to Middle Eastern – social customs that the city’s multicultural milieu fosters.
Say hello to everyone you meet the right way
When men meet each other in this part of the world, a firm handshake is expected. Women greet each other with a handshake or a kiss, depending on familiarity. However, like in most Islamic cultures, you should never touch the opposite sex in public. If you’re a man greeting a woman, put your right hand to your heart and give a slight nod. If you are a woman, wait til you’re greeted – always.
Tone down your selfie game
Islam, the dominant religion of the region, frowns on all things frivolous, and this includes posing for photos for the sake of it, or worse, publicly displaying the results of wanton photo shoots of yourself, or others, or even animals. However, you are more than welcome to point your lens at the breathtaking scenery, architecture, and all non-living things in general if you find yourself getting carried away.
Watch your feet
If you’ve done it right, you’ll find yourself invited to the home – most often a yurt – of a Central Asian family. Here, always take off your shoes. When you sit down for the obligatory meal, take great care not to step on the dastarkhan, a tablecloth that is spread on the floor or on the table.
Don’t step over the dastarkhan or the body parts of other guests and family members. While sitting, the soles of your feet should be pointing away from the table and other people present.
Don’t use your left hand to handle food. This hand in Central Asia is considered unclean. Eat only with your right hand. Using your left hand at the table in any way is highly insulting. The only exception is breaking bread – here, you may use your left hand for support. Also, try at least one bite of all the food you’re offered. Though with fare like this on offer, you’re probably best off pacing yourself!
Learn a little language
You’ll get a lot more out of your adventure trip in Central Asia this way. There are dozens of languages spoken in the region, but Russian works as a unifying medium. Pick up a Russian Phrasebook and try to learn a few key sentences, and watch the locals’ eyes twinkle with delight as you torment their former oppressors’ language.Ready to roll? Good. Your lifetime’s most exciting ten-day stretch is but a click away (and that’s a promise!). Come take the Caucasian Challenge and let the music of the landscape carry you away.