Uzbekistan? Never heard of it? Neither have most people, and those that have are usually quick to assume the worst because of the ‘stan’ suffix. But this is a hidden gem of a country in a region seldom visited by tourists.
Central Asia is a cradle of culture and has been for more than two millennia. Of all the countries in the region, it’s Uzbekistan that has the very best offerings in terms of architecture and ancient cities. The Ancient Silk Road wound it’s way through Uzbekistan and has left a fascinating trail of historic sites to visit. The neighbouring ‘stans’ are quite bereft of sites in comparisons, but they do all have their own unique qualities so don’t be discouraged from exploring the others.
You have probably never heard of Samarkand, Bukhara or Khiva but these cities will not fail to impress even the most traveled of backpackers-they are quite simply awe inspiring. Outside of the historical sites, there are a plethora of regions to visit, all environmentally unique; the remote Karakalpakstan desert, peaceful Nuratau Mountains and the ever-receding Aral Sea. There is something for everyone in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is a police state but don’t let this worry you, it makes it inherently safe for foreign travellers and the Uzbek people are heart-warmingly welcoming to a degree I have rarely experienced on my travels.
This guide aims to provide you with all the information you need prior to your trip and, of course, an idea of what to do whilst you are there.
Visa for Uzbekistan
Annoyingly visas are needed for most nationalities visiting Uzbekistan. They are simple to obtain through your local embassy and more recently changes have been implemented meaning selected nationalities no longer require a letter of invitation (LOI).
I applied for a standard 30 day, single entry and that cost around £70. It’s roughly the same cost for most countries.
Uzbekistan is a bureaucrat’s dream, red tape and paperwork are a fact of daily life and a remnant of the Soviet times. Bear this is mind when filling out paperwork and forms etc when in the country.
Accommodation and Registration
You need to register at the hotel or guesthouse where you are staying and keep the registration slip as a means of verification of where you stayed otherwise you will probably be subject to some very boring and inane questioning when trying to leave the country.
Officially you need to register at least once every three days, although I have heard these rules are open to interpretation from police and customs officials. As a result, if you leave it more than 3 days to register you may be asked to pay a small bribe to make any problems go away. Just go with the flow and do whatever is necessary to get on with your travels. Of course, if it seems completely unreasonable I would employ the help of other policemen.
Couchsurfing is illegal in Uzbekistan although you can stay with people you meet on your travels (I did this without any problems at all).
Although I didn’t experience it first hand there are stories of the police and customs officials kicking up a fuss if a tourist doesn’t have all of the registration slips. The best advice I can give is to stand your ground and be firm about the law which states you only have to register every three days and thus didn’t need to register every day.
DO NOT discard anything, just in case.
Glorious sunshine; all day, every day in the summer and early autumn! I loved it, I’ve never seen the sky such a deep blue. To break it down simply: April to June make for perfect travel conditions as it’s sunny and cooler than the blistering heat of July and August. However during the July/Aug heat, better deals can be found at hotels.
Sep-Oct is still warm although the nights can be chilly (especially in the mountain and desert regions). I advise traveling in the shoulder seasons as the heat can be a killer (literally), especially in the South. Ideally, it’s best to view the beautiful architecture set against the perfect blue skies so winter would steal some of the magic in that respect. If you do decide to travel in the winter you may be lucky and get blue skies, rock bottom hotel prices and ancient cities like Khiva entirely to yourself!
As I said earlier preconceptions about this region tend to make people shy away and stick to more frequently trodden paths. Traveling in Uzbekistan felt very safe and certainly no different to any other countries. In fact, it felt safer than Thailand as I didn’t feel like a walking wallet. I think around 40% of the population are police in Uzbekistan, and although this is largely for show as opposed to any real effectiveness this means you should be safe. The only thing to watch out for is not getting ripped off at the airports with taxis and money changers, which brings me on to my next point…
The Uzbek Som is not available outside of the country, which means you have to obtain currency on arrival. I admit, I really wasn’t all that comfortable with this idea, especially given the fact there is the official government-set rate of 2500 Som to the US $ and the ‘blackmarket rate’ of anywhere between 4000-4800 Som to the US $. That’s a HUGE difference. More on this later.
As usual, the internationally accepted currency is US Dollars, although Euros can also be changed, but it’s not as easy. Other currencies are completely useless as far as I recall.
To change money, you have to head to the Bazaar. DO NOT change money with the illegal taxi drivers who operate from the airport, you will get a very bad rate of about 4000 Som instead of the 4900(Sep 2015) available at the bazaar in Tashkent. They will pressure you and pressure you as they did to me and in the end, I changed up a small amount as I went against my gut instinct-never again!
You will be glad to know that there is a new 5000 Som note so you don’t have to carry around a huge bag of 1000 Som notes as you would have a few years ago. I changed up $500 worth and I still felt rich, the money was just like monopoly money in huge wads. This makes it all too easy to spend as it seems everlasting at first, so be wary of how much you are spending!
There are now ATM’s in most parts of Uzbekistan and especially in the cities so you shouldn’t have any problems getting cash if you need it, but remember this will be at the awful official exchange rate. My advice is to bring more dollars than you think you will need and then you won’t be caught short. It’s always better to have more money that you think you need.
Tashkent is the primary international airport of Uzbekistan so if arriving from outside the country then this will most likely be your arrival point. The airport is exactly what I expected of the region, in that is has a duty-free shop, and a cafe etc but it’s certainly not Hong Kong Airport!
There are airports in Andijan, Bukhara, Ferghana, Karshi, Namangan, Nukus, Samarkand, Tashkent, Termez and Urgench although these only serve Uzbekistan and a handful of countries in the region and of course Russia.
Passenger services only exist to Kazakhstan and via Kazakhstan to Russia and Ukraine. These include the following trains:
The Tashkent – Moscow runs 3 times weekly but the trains are old Soviet Union style and very run down so be aware what you are getting yourself into before committing to a journey.
In theory, the borders with surrounding countries are open and you should be able to enter or leave but this may change due to political situations or just because they feel like it.
The most convenient way of getting around is actually a shared taxi, don’t be put off as it’s often the quickest and most effective way, not to mention authentic in Uzbek style!
You can get shared taxis from any major town to another with ease. Just ask the hostel or guest house owner to direct you to the taxi rank and then you should be able to work it out. Remember to also get a rough idea of prices so you don’t get ripped off as each passenger negotiates their own rate for the journey. As an example, the taxi from Tashkent to Jizzakh was 20,000 Som.
I was surprised to discover that Uzbekistan has a high-speed train line that links Tashkent to Samarkand. Sounding more like a character from a street fighter game than a train it’s called The ‘Afrosiyob’ and can cover the distance between Tashkent and Samarkand in 2.5 hours.
There are 3 classes:
The economy class costs 46 thousand Soms.
Business class – 65 thousand Soms.
VIP – 80 thousand Soms.
There are also two standard express trains, one named ‘Sharq’ which covers the 600km journey from Tashkent to Bukhara with a stop in Samarkand in 7.5 hours. The other is the ‘Registon’ which goes directly to Samarkand in just 4 hours.
There is also a daily overnight train that is slower, but of course, this way you don’t lose a day traveling and save the cost of a nights accommodation whilst traveling.
Overnight trains also run from Tashkent and Samarkand to Urgench (3 times weekly) and to Nukus – Kungrad (2 times weekly), so it’s also possible to travel to Khiva (30 kilometers from Urgench, taxi/bus available) or to the Aral sea (Moynaq, 70 km from Kungrad) by train.
In reality I think you will find that shared taxis are far more convenient than the train, of course, it all depends on your itinerary. But if you decided to follow one similar to myself then you will probably have no need to use the train.
I decided against using the buses because they are not express and will continually stop to pick people up at the side of the road and I didn’t want to waste time traveling between destinations.
The metro only exists in Tashkent and I suggest you take a look at the amazing Soviet-era architecture and styling of the stations. In fact, they are the highlight of Tashkent (more on that later) If you can work out where the buses are going then they can be helpful too but I just walked everywhere as most cities were manageable on foot. The single journey fare for the Tashkent subway is 1000 Som (US$ 0,43).
Internet & Phones
The internet is usually rather slow and intermittent throughout Uzbekistan, of course it was better in major cities like Tashkent and Samarkand, but nothing like what you would be used to back at home. You can buy cheap sim cards everywhere and topping up with credit is as simple as popping into a shop.
I wouldn’t say Uzbekistan was a truly budget destination but it’s certainly rewarding enough to warrant the extra costs. I think I spent around $800-900 for the two weeks I was there. The biggest cost is going to be accommodation, especially if you are a solo traveler. There are places you may want to visit like Termez, Nukus and the Aral Sea where you will have no choice but to spend $30 a night on a hotel. Unless you want to camp of course (which is illegal I might add).
In Tashkent and Samarkand I was paying around $15 for hostels and guest houses which included a decent breakfast that filled me up until dinner. The quality of accommodation varies but was usually of a good standard and quite clean. The hostel and guesthouse owners were really friendly and helpful with things like advice, direction and what to pay for taxis etc. They really went out of their way to make my satay enjoyable and some even provided tours for a small fee.
You can hitchhike in Uzbekistan but it might be helpful to have your destination written down in Russian before you try to do so. Around the towns and cities, it’s very common for drivers to just act as taxis if they see someone walking and offer them a lift in exchange for a 1000 Som or perhaps more depending on distance. Some of the younger people want to practice their English too so may pick try to pick you up for this reason. Don’t be concerned about drivers slowing down and tooting at you if you are walking as they are just asking you if you want a lift. It’s a good way of getting around if you are confident enough to try it. I found out that you can use location services on your phone to display a map on google maps and this is free as it doesn’t use data, it was pretty accurate in most parts of the country too. This can help if you are tying to explain where you want to get to.
The sites are reasonably priced, $2-$5 to see magnificent sites like the Registan in Samarkand is remarkably cheap considering the cultural and historical significance of these places. Of course you don’t have to go in each and everyone you can just admire them from the outside if your budget is really tight. Places of natural beauty are free, unlike China for instance where you end up paying a huge amount to enter ‘national parks’. Food is cheap and a meal can be had for as little as $3 with a beer. Don’t expect anything too amazing though, just kebabs, rice and Russian beer.
Uzbekistan is one of those rare countries where it’s easy to travel in a logical order without zig zagging about and spending a fortune on travel. Starting in Tashkent means you can either go East to the Fergana Valley and visit the green mountains of this remote region or head Southwest towards Jizzakh & Samarkand, then onto Buhkara & Khiva. From Jizazkh, you can head West into the Nuratu mountain region and from Samarkand you can make your way South to the amazing frontier town of Termez and then continue back on the main itinerary. Once you reach Khiva you may want to go further to Nukus which is way out in the Desert and the starting point for a trip to the Aral Sea.
Seldom have I visited a country that was as easy to decide upon an Itinerary as it was for Uzbekistan. If you have around 16-17 days you can do all of the above if you don’t mind a relatively fast-paced itinerary.
What to see
So now that we have the basics out of the way we can move onto the more important and exciting part of what to do and see:
Uzbekistan has been situated at an important crossroads since the beginning of settled civilisations. Infamous conquerors such as Alexander the great and Ghengis Khan both conquered Uzbekistan because of its lucrative location between kingdoms and as such a plethora of sites await the modern day traveler. There are painstakingly restored Islamic monuments and madrassas sitting alongside crumbling ancient desert fortress that will impress even the most well-travelled history buff. All these amazing treasures are awaiting to be discovered in cities nestling between vast expanses of desert. But it’s not all sand-Uzbekistan has the lush and fertile Fergana valley in the Northwest as well as ranges of mountains and lakes.
Don’t let the following statement put you off, but I found Tashkent to be extremely boring and soulless! It’s largely bereft of any historical sites or even sites of interest so I left after one day. The guidebooks will tell you to visit Amirs statue in the main square, which I did, then the Chorsu Bazaar which was average. But then I have been spoilt with rather more rustic bazaars like those in Kashgar and Myanmar.
For the seasoned traveler, it’s probably too clean and similar to back home to be of any real interest. There was a mosque which I also visited but aside from that, there is quite literally nothing to do! I stayed at the Art Hostel, which was about 25 minutes walk from the centre. The hostel was very clean and had a small pool too.
The only thing of any real interest to myself were the metro stations. The Soviets are well known for the architecture of the metro stations throughout the former USSR and modern Russia. Lots of marble, chandeliers and mood lighting. When you step foot in one you can’t help but feel as though you have been transported back in time and are now playing a part in a cold war spy film, especially during the eerie silence between trains. The stations that stood out especially are Kosmonavtlar, Paxtakor and Bunyodkor. Each station is unique and the architectural and artistic decoration of each station reflects its name.
It’s illegal to take pictures inside the metro system or of any of the stations because they are considered military installations. There are at least two armed guards at each station so be aware if you want to try and take a sneaky photo.
You need your passport to get into the metro stations so don’t forget it if you intend to spend a few hours checking them out.
There’s an Irish bar in Tashkent that was quite good but is only open until 11 pm. There is very little nightlife aside from hotel bars and clubs. So don’t expect much to do in the evening unless you want to spend a fortune on beers with the Tashkent political elite!
I also noticed a German beer house on the main road (Shahrishabz Street) that the Irish Bar is located on the corner of. I’m sure there are more places but Tashkent really isn’t the type of place where you can just wander around and find somewhere to drink for the evening, have a destination in mind and find out if it’s open before making the trip.
Forget about any kind of nightlife in the rest of Uzbekistan, I like to consider myself quite adept and seeking out a few places to spend the evening. But in Uzbekistan there is literally nothing to do in the evening aside from getting something to eat and enjoying a few beers at a hotel or restaurant.
The gem in the crown of Uzbek tourism and it’s easy to see why: Huge monuments to Timur, the famous Registan and a buzzing bazaar are all woven into the cities rich history. There is certainly enough to keep you occupied for a few days. Modern Samarkand is built around the ancient parts of the city and tho two exist almost effortlessly.
You can visit most of Samarkand’s high-profile attractions in two or three days. If you’re short on time, at least see the Registan, Gur-e-Amir, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda.
Samarkand has undergone a radical facelift in recent years and as such is perhaps a little too sterile for travellers seeking a true Silk Road adventure. Nevertheless, the renovation of the city leaves the areas of interest easily accessible and true to themselves. Make time to explore some of the old quarters hiding behind the perfectly constructed pedestrianised areas-that way you will experience the best of Samarkand-both old and new.
I stayed at the B&B Bahodir, decent accommodation right next to the Registan.
Here’s a little tip: You can pay the security guard to climb the minaret attached the Registan. Be warned that once you are at the top there are no safety rails, it’s a sheer drop of a few hundred feet!
I always enjoy getting off of the tourist trail, so much so that I spent half of my time exploring places in Uzbekistan that most tourists never see. One of those places was the Jizzakh region; The Jizzakh region is one of the most environmentally unique in Uzbekistan and is well worth a few days of your time to explore, especially if you have a preference for getting out into the untouched regions of a country.
The Nuratau mountains overlook the unbelievably peaceful and serene lake of Aydarkul, which covers over 3000 square meters and stretches over 250km. The lake has to be seen in order to appreciate just how large it is. It’s even more impressive considering this huge body of water is flanked by The Kyzylkum Desert to the West and a barren steppe to the East.
To get to Jizzakh from Tashkent I took the metro to Olmazar Station on the red line. It’s in the South West of the city. Once outside Olmazar Station, you will be descended upon like a fresh piece of meat in a lions den by the taxi drivers. Be firm and stick to a price of around 20,000 Som or roughly $5 (depending on the exchange rate you managed to get).
The journey takes about 2 hours to Jizzakh town. The road carves it’s way through the hills just outside of Tashkent until it opens up onto the barren desert! From there I paid another 5000 Som to get to Yangikishlok. You can also go to Forish town which is a bit further West on the road running next to the mountains. I would advise that you stop in Yangikishlok unless you have transport onward from Forish (to your homestay) already arranged. Pay a visit to Nuratau Ecotourism in Yangikishlak at Bogdon street 1, Forish tumani, Yangikishlak 131200, they can arrange the homestays in the region.
Termez is located at the Southern most tip of Uzbekistan, on the banks of the Amu Darya River, the river acts as the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan over which the rather suspiciously named Friendship Bridge spans (it was built by the Russians to invade Afghanistan).
Termez has a rich and fascinating history which I just couldn’t wait to explore and delve into. The thought of making my own way to this far-flung corner of Uzbekistan was exciting in itself as I enjoy straying from the beaten track, especially in a country where the beaten track barely exists.
It takes about 4 hours from Samarkand in a shared taxi.
There is so much to see in Termez, most of it ancient ruins from past civilisations, but the fascinating blend of history, religion and culture is quite unique. To get the most out of your visit to Termez you really do need a guide and a driver. I can 100% recommend a man named Sergei, he took me on a guided tour with his driver for $50. This may sound expensive, but it was all day and a long drive around all the sites. If you don’t want to use a guide, it’s really not worth going as the sites are located outside of the new city of Termez.
Sites include The Zurmala Stupa, At-Termizi Mausoleum, Fayaz Tepe Buddhist Monastery Complex, Kampyr-Tepe Citadel, Jarkurgan Minaret, Sultan Saodat and the Kirk Kiz (“forty girls”) Fortress. See I told you there is lots to see!
I visited here on my way back from Termez. It was meant to be a one day stop over but instead, it turned into two days as I got a little ill, luckily I found the perfect spot to recover. The whole of the city around Amir Timur Palace has basically been knocked down and they are making it tourist and pedestrian friendly, similar to how Samarkand is now.
It was disappointing because I could literally stroll through the destruction of the authentic old town and of course as it was one huge construction site I didn’t even have the benefit that the planned development would bring! I would much rather have seen it a year or so ago and explored the vibrant old alleys of the town. The palace remains are worth seeing as are a few of the old mosques nearby, but I really wouldn’t advise anyone to come here especially unless its just for a few hours.
The guesthouse I stayed at was very traditional and tucked away in one of the remaining alleys. It was called Dulon and its address is 45 Kapkon Street. If you want to contact them: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other budget guesthouses listed in the guide books have been demolished to the Dulon is probably your best bet at $20 a night including breakfast.
This is a must, the ancient town is a joy to walk around and like everywhere else in Uzbekistan. It only takes a few quiet moments and the slightest use of your imagination to transport yourself back in time to the age of the Silk Road. Imagining all the traders striking deals in the market places and the stories that have unfolded in Bukhara is what traveling is all about! Take a guide book or do as I did and hire the owner of the Sarrafon Guesthouse to give you a tour of the town and sites. You can spend a day or two here as Bukhara has a wealth of sites considering it’s relatively small size.
Here is a list of sites I saw on the tour:
Great Minaret of the Kalon
Ismail Samanid Mausoleum
Mir-i Arab Madrasah
Poi Kalyan Mosque
For dinner, I ate at the Old Bukhara Restaurant which Trip Advisor rates as number 1 and I have to agree. The Uzbek noodles were delicious as was the salad. It has great sunset views of the minaret and the service is half decent for a change. If you are only here for one night I wouldn’t risk eating anywhere else. I also tried The Old House Restaurant (No.8 on Trip Advisor) and it was distinctly average although the soup was good. They only have a few dishes available depending on what the chef has cooked. This is Uzbek home-style cooking; a few dishes available each day and when they run out that’s it!
Khiva is so well preserved that it reminded me of a film set. So much so that it’s regularly used as one in fact. People often refer to it as a museum town, whilst I agree that it does have that kind of feel to it, I have to say it’s the best museum I have ver visited! Walking through the old city walls and seeing the famous minaret gleam in the bright sunshine is like stepping into another era.
There are plenty of guesthouses to choose from and some are more authentic than others as the mud and brick buildings have been renovated to provide more accommodation. Most of the owners speak very good English too. I stayed at the Mirzaboshi just outside of the ancient centre. I have also heard good things about Alibek Guest House which is outside of the main city walls.
Although the city dates back thousands of years most of the buildings have been created in the last few hundred. Whilst walking through the tiny alleys you will stumble on one of the many mosques, silk workshops or traditional courtyard homes. There are numerous ‘museums’ which are to be honest a load of rubbish and there to validate the rather steep $8 entry price to the city. You have to pay an extra $1 each to climb the minaret, watchtower and enter a certain mausoleum. I recommend climbing the watchtower at sunset to see the amazing golden glow the sun casts over the ancient town.
You can see all of Khiva in a day trip from Urgench. But you’ll absorb it better by staying longer. At both dawn and sunset, Khiva is as close to a fairytale setting as you can imagine. As the sun sets and the silhouettes of the madrassas cast long shadows over the old town you cannot fail to be enchanted by the city. There is no better place to watch it all unfold than the Art Khoreszm restaurant: This was by far one of the most memorable meals I had in Uzbekistan. The green noodles with meat and tomatoes were delicious as was the pumpkin soup starter. The salads are fresh and even have seasoning! Much better food than the Bir Gumbaz which is currently rated higher on Trip Advisor.
Dining directly outside a madrassa in Khiva with the sun setting over the minarets and the call to prayer echoing around the city is one of those moments everyone should enjoy in Uzbekistan.
Out in the desert around Khiva are numerous fortresses, I use the word fortress loosely as they are largely just ruins of walls sitting on a mound in the middle of a flat desert. Magnificent to see and 3 or 4 can be toured in a $50 day trip from Khiva. This was expensive but you can try to organise it with others so that you share the cost of the taxi. Well worth doing if you have come all this way already.
Karakalpakstan is the Stan the world forgot and this is home to Nukus and Moynaq. It was once an enviable and thriving region know for agriculture and, of course, the Aral Sea, which was the world’s 4th largest lake! Now the region is mostly desert and if you have already explored both Nukus and Moynaq then why not go further north into the heartland of the Karakalpak people and explore the vast deserts and plateaus in a 4×4.
I am being truthful about what I write next, and although it may sound as if I was unimpressed with Nukus and Moynaq that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a remote region of a seldom visited country, this is where you can feel as if you are truly exploring and making your way into the unknown. Ok, it’s not the full moon party in Thailand, but for those that want to reward themselves by perhaps pushing themselves a little further than most backpackers then you will appreciate Karakalpakstan.
Nukus ranks as one of the strangest places I have ever visited: This city in the middle of nowhere (isolated doesn’t do it justice) is home to the famous Savitsky Museum, and erm, that’s about it. Nukus is Soviet to the very core. But I was drawn to it because of its isolation and the museum. The general sense of hopelessness is palpable, and this was in the summer. It must be a living nightmare of depression in the winter when it snows! The only thing to do in Nukus is to visit the museum and the bazaar. If you are planning to visit the Aral Sea then Nukus is the ideal place to organise the trip from.
The Savitsky Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Soviet Era Soviet cultural policies, introduced under Stalin threatened any style of art or culture that failed to conform to the Communist ideals. Igor Savitsky amassed a huge collection to safeguard it. The entirety of this amazing collection is now housed at the Savitsky museum and the museum is actually being expanded in order to display even more of the vast collection. To get the most out of the museum I recommend taking the guided tour. The museum is closed on Mondays, remember this is you are taking a four hour trip from Khiva in a shared taxi!
There is a shortage of accommodation in Nukus. But it’s not hard to see why as there is almost nothing to see here. The best hotel is the Jolpik Joli, they have two hotels which are just around the corner from each other and you can haggle the room rate down to $30.
There is nowhere with Wi-Fi outside of the hotel (aside other hotels).
The train station is a $1/ 4000som taxi ride from the centre. You can then get a driver to Moynaq (Aral Sea) for around $40 or do the shared taxi if you get there early enough and feel confident you can get one back.
The 999 club and the Neo restaurant are the only two kinds of ‘nightlife’. Don’t stay in Nukus longer than you have to as there is literally nothing to do aside from the museum and bazaar-which was actually the best I have visited in Uzbekistan. There are three flights daily to Tashkent (except on Tuesday it would seem when there is just an evening flight).
Moynaq (Aral Sea)
So I thought Nukus was the embodiment of depression and isolation, well it had nothing on Moynaq; the depressed and beyond hopeless former fishing town. The Aral Sea has now all but dried up from the Soviet Irrigation schemes used to produce cotton and has decimated the once thriving fishing industry. People now come to see the ship graveyard where the ships on the former seashore have been disregarded like children toys and are now just rusting hulsk for visitors to climb on. The journey from Nukus took 3 hours each way by taxi and cost $40 for the return trip. You can also try to organise a shared taxi with other tourists from the hotel in Nukus.
Again, it sounds like I am maybe being a little hard on the region but I am being truthful as I don’t want people to be disappointed. I found the experience to be both memorable and interesting. The impossibly straight road cutting a path across the vast expanse of desert sticks in my memory and for me that vivid memory is reason enough to have visited.
The Fergana Valley is a lush and fertile (for Uzbekistan at least) region in a corner of Uzbekistan bordering Southern Kyrgyzstan and Northern Tajikistan. I was planning to visit the Fergana region but I just didn’t have time in the end, but there is a host of things to do and see so it could be worth the trip, especially if hill walking is a favourite activity of yours as the landscape is some of the most impressive in Uzbekistan!
I have been told that the drive from Tashkent is very impressive as it crosses a high mountain pass before descending towards Kokand. You can then go onto visit Fergana town and Andijan.
The border crossings with the neighbouring countries are often flash-points for gunfire between border guards, as such the crossings could be closed. Check before you go!
Food & Drink
First of all you have to remember that nothing here is going to really make your taste buds tingle or even excite you in the slightest. Especially if you have already visited Asia, which is likely if you are considering Uzbekistan as a destination.
There are about 5 main dishes:
Shashlik: Kebab on a skewer
Osh/Plov: Rice with carrot and mutton
Manti: Parcels of dough with mutton inside.
Samsa: Similar to a mutton pie
Lagman: Noodles with mutton
So you can see the variety really isn’t that great and to be perfectly honest these 5 dishes are usually quite boring and uninspiring when served in a restaurant. The Plov I once had at a families house that I was invited too in Jizzakh was really good, as were the snacks, bread and breakfast. But if you go to a restaurant prepared to be underwhelmed. Even the shashlik isn’t often marinated or spiced and anything with mutton in really isn’t going to taste that great. Still it’s decent enough and cheap enough to sustain you for your trip and of course, you can get plenty of cheap Russian beer and Vodka.
At the bazaars, they have various sellers offering cheap beer fruit juice and what I think was also a weak beer. It’s server served from a tank on a trailer for nothing more than a few pence.
Uzbekistan captured my imagination and the experience has encouraged me to travel more of Central Asia this year. There is something unique about Uzbekistan and the way it managed to evoke my imagination into creating almost tangible scenes of the ancient world. A country of such rich historical and cultural significance without hoards of other tourists and backpackers is indeed a gem of a country that people should take the time to explore. The experience is richer, more intense and exclusive when it’s just you and a handful of others exploring the sites and towns.
One of the great points about Uzbekistan is that you can spend 2 weeks here and cover the majority of the cities and towns so that you feel like you have truly discovered the majority of the country. Of course, it’s a relatively fast paced itinerary but very rarely have I felt so rewarded in just a few weeks of traveling.
Uzbekistan is opening up to both international trade and tourism. Although I may be guilty of saying this about most countries I feel it particularly important that you understand what this means and how it may affect your trip if you choose to visit is a say 5 years time. The tourism/infrastructure revolution is well underway, especially in the more remote cities and although this will make it easier to travel it also means becoming more tourist oriented. For now, this is largely aimed at the domestic traveler but international visitors are increasing and with this increase comes the usual problems of redevelopment, higher prices and tourist tax (getting ripped off). Visiting now allows you to see Uzbekistan as it should be; friendly, open, affordable, honest and most importantly; rewardable. When all the bazaars are replaced by the new shops, the old Lada cars replaced by the Chevrolets and the kebabs replaced with burgers & pizza the experience will be very different!
Visiting Uzbekistan now allows you to enjoy the well conserved and faithfully restored sites in a country that is looking towards the future. There are only a few countries where you can travel safely and freely whilst still feeling like you are truly exploring off of the beaten path-Uzbekistan is certainly one of these countries.
You will be hard pushed to find another backpacking experience like the one Uzbekistan offers right now. Ok, I know it doesn’t have the beaches of Thailand or the Jungles of Malaysia. But it has unique historical treasures and sites dotted across some impressively inhospitable landscapes.
The people are VERY hospitable. If you are lucky enough to meet someone like I did (in a shared taxi) who will give you a guided tour of their hometown and let you stay with them, then you will feel like a member of the family. Even the hostel owners, taxi drivers and shopkeepers are friendly towards guests without trying to extract money from you! Just genuinely friendly people who want to help and find out about your home country.
Looking back on the trip. I see it as one of my more adventurous journeys. Perhaps because it forced outside of my comfort zone little by little. It’s these types of trips that keep travel interesting. Uzbekistan encompasses everything I love about travel because it allowed me to challenge stereotypes and furthermore, learn a great deal whilst immersing myself in a completely foreign culture and society.
I would assume that most backpackers are looking for the same satisfaction and rewards that I found on my journey through the country and the promise of that is surely the best reason to visit Uzbekistan.
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