Uzbek tourism is growing and returning travelers are reporting high levels of satisfaction. Its Central Asian culture is very much alive and well. The country is relatively safe to travel in but a guide is recommended as few people outside the major hotels speak English.
Uzbek tours are offered by the overland operators like Dragoman, Oasis and Exodus, and the international travel companies like GAP, Peregrine Adventures, World Expedition and Intrepid Travel. You’ll find reputable local Uzbek tour operators on Google. Always ask for and check references. Independent travel is risky and is only recommended for experienced nomads.
So where is Uzbekistan and how do you get there?
Uzbekistan is bordered by Afghanistan (south), China (east) and Kazakhstan and Russia to the north. Tourist visas are required. These are relatively straightforward for group travel but individuals will be required to provide a letter of invitation. Local travel agents in Uzbekistan can assist here.
Uzbekistan Airways operates a fleet of modern aircraft from a number of international destinations into its hub, Tashkent. Airfares are expensive because of their virtual monopoly. Try Asiana or Turkish Airlines, who also have flights.
Upon arrival, you’ll find that customs clearance is chaotic. Some of the officials forms are in Russian and you will need the copy of your arrival form to be able to exit. You may be required to show your cash in all currencies. Take a reasonable amount of low denomination US dollar bills. Outside the terminal beware of the hordes of “taxi” drivers that are after your business. Many hotels will send a car. Arrange this before you arrive. Allow four hours for departure.
Tashkent is linked by rail to neighbouring states (and on to Moscow in one direction and China in the other). Moscow is a three day journey. There is little information in English. Tickets usually are paid for in US dollars inside of Uzbekistan.
Train travellers should develop a security plan as there are many stories of personal item theft.
Travel to and from the borders by car is possible but you’ll need to be picked up on the other side. Buses do the complete journey but they can be crowded, uncomfortable, not air-conditioned and many do not all have toilets. Seek the help of tour operators with this.
Uzbekistan Airways operates almost daily flights to most cities. This is practical for groups with a guide but more difficult for independent travellers due to language difficulties of purchasing tickets. There can be delays.
Don’t take photographs in or near airports.
Soviet style trains connect most cities. The daytime express linking Tashkent and Bokhara is the fastest, taking 6 and ½ hours. Most overnight trains are slower with four persons to a sleeper. Take your own snacks and bottled water.
By far the simplest way of getting around is by car with an English speaking driver. Don’t expect perfect English. If you are in a group you’ll find a modern, clean coach service is available.
Most of the top tourist interests are located in the city centres and within easy walking distance. Taxis, which are old and unregistered, are the major means of getting around. But they are cheap. Negotiate your fare in advance. Ask your hotel reception to tell you how much the fare should be. Few drivers speak English so carry a map or guidebook that shows your destination. Carry a hotel card to indicate your return. If you are going somewhere remote, you can usually negotiate a waiting fee and the return fare.
Tashkent has a modern metro system with three lines. Tickets were 400 som (about a quarter). The exchange rate in December 2008 was 1380 Som to 1 US dollar. US dollars are widely used for retail shopping. Notes must be clean and unmarked. Most ATM’s don’t accept foreign cards however most shops and hotels do.
The Best Time to go
The winter in Uzbekistan is cold and severe. The Navrus festival is in March but April-May and September and October are ideal.
You’ll need layered, practical clothing. Lots of areas are dusty. Take sunscreen, sunglasses, toilet rolls, antibacterial hand gel, bottle drinking water and a flashlight.
What to See
There are heaps of fascinating and even amazing attractions in Uzbekistan. The country has a rich culture much of which is still intact today. The shops in the markets are like Aladdin’s Caves with a huge range of hand crafted items on sale. These include pottery, embroidery, lacquer work, inlaid brass work, carpets and musical instruments.
You really need ten days, or longer, to see the main Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva sights.
Nowadays, few people go to the Aral Sea which is an ecological disaster inherited from Soviet times. The water was used to irrigate cotton crops and this drained the Sea. It is now slowly recovering. The Igor Savitzky Art Gallery in Nukus is worth a visit and the only reason that you’d visit that city. This is an impressive art gallery with thousands of paintings done by Russian impressionist painters in the 1920-1930’s.
Tashkent was largely rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake with rows and rows of soviet style apartments. But it does have a number of attractions including the Moyie Mulbarek Library Museum which houses the world’s oldest Quran (7th century). Nearby is the huge covered Chorsu Bazaar which is an active and colourful farmers and craft market.
About the time of Alexander the Great, this city was one of the great trading cities along the Silk Road. After being completely destroyed by Genghis Khan it was rebuilt as his new capital by Timur (Tamerlane). The centrepiece is the Registan (the first madrassah – an Islamic college was completed in 1420) which comprises a square surrounded by three of the world’s most impressive examples of Islamic architecture. Imposing on the outside, with beautiful tile work, the delicate and intricate plasterwork and gilded tiles on the inside of these buildings will long stay in your memory. The main buildings were restored by the Russians in 1999 as a gift to the people of Uzbekistan.
Timur’s tomb, at the Gur-Emir complex, is one of the most revered sites in Samarkand. It has a wonderful collection of buildings with restored tile work, wooden carvings and sculptured brickwork. The Bibi Khanum Mosque (named after Timur’s wife), is impressive and the tale of Bibi’s fateful kiss is intriguing. By the time of Timur’s grandson, Ulug Beg, Samarkand led the world in scientific and astronomical discoveries. The remains of his huge observatory which made Samarkand the stargazing capital of the world, is a fine example of an era now long passed.
Climb to the top of the Kalon Minaret (48 meters – 155 feet high), the site of the Sunday entertainment when those unfortunates who had incurred the wrath of the Grand Khan were trussed in a sack and tossed from the top.
The Ark Citadel was once the fortified residence of the rulers of Bokhara. It is now a museum and it was brought to life by our guide’s description of Uzbek court life before the Russians arrived in 1868. Within walking distance is the Lyabi-khauz complex in the Old City. Formerly the site of a number of religious schools, it now houses a multitude of craft shops which offer beautiful miniature Persian style art, paintings, carpets and rugs, embroidery and jewellery. Most of the work is inexpensive.
It is a dusty 6 hour drive across the flat steppes to the desert city of Khiva. This walled city is one of the most historic cities on the Silk Road. It is now a quite, sleepy oasis that awaits the coach loads of tourists like it waited for the caravans of traders of old. The Old City is compact with everything within walking distance. It is a living museum. The site has been used in many films and is a photographer’s delight. Some of the older buildings date to the 16th century but many where built around the late 19th century where the city was the focal point in the “Great Game” – the struggle between Russia and England to control Central Asia.
Trading is a way of life here. It is a great place to sharpen your bargaining skills but do go for quality rather than purchase the cheap tourist souvenirs that are found on the street stalls.
How to organise your trip
Book a tour with one of the tour operators is the easiest. This provides certainty of airfares, accommodation and sightseeing. You’ll find many Uzbek travel agents if you Google them. You can either fit into a pre-set itinerary or ask them to work out something to meet your needs. Consider a car and driver option. Don’t be rushed, you’ll probably only ever go to Uzbekistan once and you’ll need time to get the most out of your experience.
Many experienced travellers rate Central Asia as being one of the “Best Choice” travel destinations. I agree and I’ve written a chapter about our travels there in my book Following Marco Polo’s Silk Road. This is the story of our travels from Venice to Beijing following in the footsteps of the mythical hero, Marco Polo.