Howdy folks – Thursday means it’s another virtual trip to a country that right now, none of us can visit. And today I want to take you, ‘virtually’, to Central Asia and Uzbekistan. Please keep in mind that I don’t write these posts because I don’t think you should go to these places, I, in most cases and particularly today, think that you SHOULD! Uzbekistan is a safe country that’s pretty easy to get around with friendly people and some absolutely amazing things to see. So come along with me and see what I saw!
Uzbekistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Central Asia. It borders Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to its south, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to its east and Kazakhstan to its north and west, making it the only country to border all ex-Soviet central Asian states. Each of the ‘Stans is similar in ways and different in others. Uzbekistan is a flatter, more desert-like place than its neighbours to the east and north, and one where Islam and Sufism have had a stronghold for many many centuries.
Having said that, if you’re expecting a radical sort of Islam, in general in Uzbekistan it’s far more liberal than you might expect. Compared to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, perhaps thanks to years of Soviet rule when religion was all but banned (the Soviet Army destroyed mosques by the bucketload when they came through), whilst the practice of religion is an important part of Uzbek life, from a visitor’s perspective society appears to be visibly less conservative.
Uzbekistan, whilst a place where poverty certainly exists, is not a poor country and like some of its neighbours, since independence found a wealth below the surface which has funded restoration and building. No where is that more evident than in the capital of Tashkent. Tashkent is a wide-spread capital city with parks and boulevards to burn. Fountains and water seem to be central to the design, and you will see kids (and the occasional adult) swimming under fountains when the summer heat begins to descend.
But it’s the capital with the best restaurants and accommodation options, and you’ll find it hard to ignore the figure which united the nation after independence – that of Timur, a mighty warrior from centuries past now. You’ll see him depicted here and there, and he has his own museum too.
From Tashkent head westwards and a little south to see the countries’ historic cities. This is the Old Silk Road, and one of the most famous cities on that road was Samarkand. It’s in amazing condition today and has so much splendour about it. The Registan is the famous image that features on far too many postcards, three large impressive madrassas that face in on each other. And there are more historic sights to grab your attention in Samarkand after this amazing spot in the centre of town.
The tombs of Shah-i-Zinda and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque are not far away, an easy walk and well sign posted. There are more similar sites dotted around Samarkand, it’s a highly reward city to visit. Nowadays it’s easily reached from Tashkent on the high-speed train which zooms along well in excess of 200 km/h. It also links Samarkand to the next destination along the line, which is another ancient city of Bukhara.
Bukhara is smaller than Samarkand, which also has a fair sized modern component to the town. Bukhara in some ways seems even more set up for the tourist, with a lovely square, and old town which has been beautifully restored and maintained. There are a few sights here too, not least of which is the amazing ‘Ark’, an old mosque and much more. It’s a great town to spend a few days in taking your time and appreciating the history and the exact place you are in the world.
The final stop on this virtual tour of Uzbekistan is Khiva. Last year I took a shared taxi from Bukhara to Khiva, much further west, through the desert and very little else on an amazing road. There is a train too and I believe there were plans on making highspeed but I am unsure whether this eventuated. This would only take you as far I think as Urgench, which is around 30 minutes by road to the ancient city.
For me, Khiva was the ultimate place in Uzbekistan. I stayed in the old city, which is walled off and has its own environs, and that’s a great way to do it because there are enough sites within the walls to occupy you for a couple of days, plus a number of places to stay and places to eat. Yes, it’s more expensive than outside the walls as you might presume, but it’s not overly expensive either. In general Uzbekistan is a fairly cheap place to visit anyway and you won’t be paying West European prices here.
You can walk the walls, check out the sites and minarets in Khiva to your heart’s content. The Khulna Minaret is the most recognisable landmark in Khiva, and the Juma Mosque is made mostly of wood with a unique sun-light and garden in the middle. The Kuhha Ark is also worth a bit of time, there are palaces as well and I recommend the Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum where wedding photos were happening when I went. There are so many more things to see though, a number of madrassas now are used as museums.
The weather in Uzbekistan can be brutal. I went last November and it was chilly, but sunny every day (it’s not a country of high rainfall as you might imagine) but I imagine winters get very cold, especially at night and summers are brutal, so I would avoid the extreme seasons and shoot for Autumns or Springs.
Flying in Tashkent is one of the better connected airports of the region. Uzbekistan Airways is the country’s main carrier, and to speed things up if you wanted to you could fly some of the route, perhaps Urgench back to Tashkent. Otherwise taxis and high-speed train do a decent job of getting you around.
There is varying levels of security in Uzbekistan, and train stations seem to be well protected and I think airports. For example, I could only get into the Samarkand station with my ticket. People in the past have reported being hassled by officials on border crossings and at Tashkent Airport for bribes. I myself when flying out nine years ago now had my bags searched and was taken to an office and had to talk through all my possessions. If they were after a bribe they never asked and I never offered. I think it is possible that I had a number of different things like an ipod which they hadn’t seen before and were curious as to what I had.
Since 2011 the country has become a lot more open and discarded its visa policy. Whereas I was greeted with stoicism and grave looks in 2011, in 2019 I was welcome with smiles. This, to my mind was the only real issue I had with travel to Uzbekistan and they have clearly made a conscious effort from government downwards to address this issue. In general I found officials to be a lot friendlier in 2019 and had no issues whatsoever in crossing into and out of Uzbekistan (I crossed from Tajikistan and left to Turkmenistan).
We are still a while off returning to international travel, that’s for sure. But I reckon once planes are taking to the skies again, Uzbekistan is one place worth having a look at! Thanks for stopping by today – May the Journey Never End!