Central Asia Overland – money planning

I spent last night and this morning trying to work out how much money I need to take with me on the Central Asia Overland trip.

I always find this the most difficult part of the planning – and if you get it wrong and you end up short of cash without an ATM to hand (highly likely in some parts of this trip!), then you’re really stuffed. One big attraction of the Wild Frontiers‘ approach is that it’s all inclusive – all you need to plan for is your souvenir spend, booze and sundries. In contrast, the Explore! model means I need to estimate how much I’ll need to cover meals, drinks, tips and optional extras as well, in addition to the local payment.

This is what the trip notes offer by way of guidance:

PERSONAL EXPENSES

You’ll need some extra money to cover meals not included in the tour price, other sightseeing, photography fees (approx. £20) souvenirs, drinks with meals, entertainment, laundry, etc.

Foreign Exchange
Local Currency: China: Renminbi/Yuan. Kyrgyzstan: Som. Uzbekistan: Sum.
Recommended Currency for Exchange: Take your spending money in US$ cash, as many bars and shops only accept hard currency (and often lack the facility to change travellers cheques). We recommend you take new (post 1990), good condition dollar bills.
Where to Exchange: In major towns. Your tour leader will advise you.
ATM Availability: Very limited, do not rely on this.
Credit Card Acceptance: Limited to major restaurants and stores in cities only.
Travellers Cheques: Not recommended for these tours.
Additional Information: Remember to keep your currency declaration form. It may be needed when you cross the next frontier.
Up-to-date information re:global exchange rates can be obtained at https://www.currency-express.com/explore/

Local Payment
Payable in USD cash(not Travellers Cheques) to your Tour Leader at the start of the tour.

Meal Plan
Local Food and Drink: CA: 17 breakfasts and 2 dinners; CAU: 27 breakfasts, 1 lunch and 3 dinners are included on this trip; please be prepared to pay for all other meals. Approximate meal costs are given below:
UK China Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Kazakhstan
Tea/coffee £1.20 £0.30 £1.00 £0.20 £1.20
Soft drink 0.80 0.60 0.50 0.50 0.70
Bottled water 0.80 0.60 0.50 0.75 0.40
2 Course Meal* 10.00 2.00 5.00 3.00 5.00
3 Course Meal** 18.00 5.00 7.50 10.00 10.00
*Cheap local fare in a small cafe or restaurant.
**Typical food in a simple, reasonably comfortable mid-range restaurant.

Tipping
Local Staff: In this area, tipping is a recognised part of life. Some local staff will still look to members of the group for personal recognition of particular services provided. Accordingly, you should allow £40 for tipping.
Tour Leader: At your discretion you might also consider tipping your Tour Leader(s) in appreciation of the efficiency and service you receive.

Other Sightseeing
The following excursions and/or activities are usually available and may be arranged locally. Estimated costs are provided below for guidance only, are on a per person basis unless shown otherwise, and may depend on the number of participants.
BISHKEK Ala Archa Gorge £8.00.
KASHGAR Karakul Lake £20.00; Camel riding at Karakul Lake £2 per hour; Uighur folk performance £5.00.

So, to work out roughly how much money I’ll need over the 28 days, I’ve created a spreadsheet summarising the information from the trip notes, and applying the food and drink estimates. I’ve assumed the 2 course meal plus 2 soft drinks for lunch and the 3 course meal plus 2 soft drinks for dinner. I’ve also allowed for two bottles of water a day (I drink a lot!). I’ve then added in dollops of dosh to cover souvenirs and other expenses, and then rounded up generously. Here’s my template, tailored for this trip:

Central Asia Overland - Money to take (estimate)
Central Asia Overland – Money to take (estimate)

I’ll post an update on actual spend on my return.

I then need to work out how best to take it. If possible, I’d rather not be travelling with wads of cash. But the trip notes make it sound like I need to be self sufficient, for 27 days, in US dollars.

Now, I know for a fact that ATMs are common in China, at least in the main commercial and tourist centres. Hazel and I used ATMs throughout our two week trip there last year. We didn’t take any travellers’ cheques or US dollars. The Beijing Olympics, and the PRC’s focus on attracting the tourist spend, will have resulted in increased investment in infrastructure – which in tourist money terms means ATMs. A quick look on the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum confirms that there are ATMs in Kashgar, which is our final stop in China. Plus I can even pre-order Chinese Renminbi from Marks & Spencers! So I’m planning to take enough Renminbi to cover my estimated core spend on meals and drinks, and will rely on US$/Kashgar’s ATMs should I need more, and Kashgar’s banks and/or M&S buy-back should I find I’ve got to much of the readies. M&S rates beat those offered by my bank and Currency Express, the online exchange operator Explore! mentions.

It’s access to cash and likely spend in Central Asia proper that is a mystery. Time to read the guidebook and to work out what denominations of US$ will work best, balancing the desire to have as few notes as possible against the flexibility in the amount I can change/use at any one time.

The other annoyance is that the trip notes provide estimates in GPB £ – so I have to convert that into US$, which means that the original estimate in local currency has gone through a double conversion, and any errors/inaccuracies in the estimates are magnified twice over. They are only estimates after all! I’m also narked that I didn’t buy my US$ when it was $2 to the £!

One final tip. I use XE.com’s Full Universal Currency Converter to find out current exchange rates, and always like to take a ready reckoner with me, usually just one easy to remember conversion statistic. So, here they are, based today’s rates:

  • China Yuan Renminbi: 100 CNY = 8.26486 GBP
  • Kyrgyzstan Soms: 100 KGS = 1.63118 GBP
  • Kazakhstan Tenge: 100 KZT = 0.474864 GBP
  • Uzbekistan Sums: 1,000 UZS = 0.429303 GBP

Next weekend*, packing planning.

(* or possibly the one after. I don’t like getting to the “piling up things on the spare bed” stage until everything is definite – which means knowing I’ve got my visas. I don’t like to tempt fate.)

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