So, you want to go to Uzbekistan? No? You should, it’s an amazing country with incredible history and more! Friendly people, amazing architecture, parks, fountains, museums, improving transport infrastructure which now includes high-speed rail, it’s becoming more and more accessible as well, really – it could be the next BIG THING. It could be the next big destination people start to flock too!
I mean, it probably won’t be because in general tourists seem to like going to the same ol’ places, and right people aren’t going to many places at all thanks to YOU KNOW WHAT. But once travel is a thing again, when travel is a thing again, you could do a lot worse than consider Uzbekistan as a destination because it’s rewarding, yet doesn’t see a huge load of tourists. Not that it doesn’t see tourists though. Over four million tourists headed to Uzbekistan last year, and if it wasn’t for YOU KNOW WHAT that number would have surely increased this year.
But anyways, Uzbekistan is a place you really should consider. Of all the Central Asian countries I’ve been to – which includes the five the ex-Soviet states – Uzbekistan offers the most, is the easiest to navigate and is the best set-up to receive tourists. It brims with the history of the Silk Road, the path from China to Europe used so many years ago now as the world’s longest, busy trade route. Cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are on this trail, and have been magnificently preserved.
Of all the Central Asian republics, all of which have a Muslim majority, Uzbekistan is the one that has held onto its Islamic past the most. The buildings are stunning and reminiscent of Iran and parts of Pakistan, without the security concerns of either country (Please note – Iran is a pretty safe country in my opinion and Pakistan’s security has improved greatly over the last few years, this is more about perception rather than actual danger) or the need to get a visa. Also access and, again, transport is easier.
It’s still a relatively cheap country too, for example last year I paid under $30USD for comfortable rooms and there are cheaper options going around too if you need them. Hotels and guesthouses often double up as tour agents as well to help with the purchase of tickets and advice, or to hook you up with a day tour or longer should that take your fancy.
So let’s break it down folks – the essential things you need to know for travel to Uzbekistan!
So, visas. Great news folks – you probably don’t need one! Last year Uzbekistan scrapped visas for visitors from many countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom. Half a year earlier they started e-visas, and as far as I can see those from the USA still need one of them. Trust me, it’s a huge weight off your shoulders.
Back in 2011 when I first visited Uzbekistan, not only did I need a visa but I needed a letter of invitation, which took a few days to organise in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The border crossing from Kazakhstan was a chaotic mess with arrival cards (now no longer needed by most foreigners) which were in Uzbek and Russian only. If I wasn’t lucky enough to have made a friend on the shared taxi to the border who helped me through the card, I might have been stuck there for more hours. The card asked me to detail the value of all the money I had and my personal belongings.
When I exited – via the airport, I was taken into a room and they searched everything I had and I had to declare everything again. I was held in a room for a little while, not sure exactly why but Uzbek officers have been known to seek bribes. It is a massive blessing that this card is no more, and in fact Uzbekistan has had a drive to welcome tourists and last year I felt I was treated the exact opposite – I was welcomed into Uzbekistan (and given a warm exit too with no searching or anything).
There is still a registration process that you must go through though. The guesthouse or hotel that you stay in does that for you, for each night of your stay and there’s a small fee which may or may not be counted in your room price. There is also the option to register yourself online. According to carivanistan.com though, that was all set to change on the 1st of July this year, with registration scrapped. Which is another blessing. Check out details here – ‘Registration in Uzbekistan’ (carivanistan.com)
All these hassle-bringing things are no doubt partially a hangover from the Soviet days, but it is great to slowly see them being removed, one by one!
I have experience three border crossings into Uzbekistan. The first I described a little above, from Shymkent Kazakhstan to Tashkent. It’s probably the busiest of them all, and in 2011 it was very disorganised, but that was 9 years ago. If you’re coming from Almaty, which I think is the biggest city not only in Kazakhstan but also Central Asia, then this is the one you’re going to be using. From Bishkek the capital of Kyrgyzstan I went into Kazakhstan across to this border, it seems this is the best route to connect the two cities, albeit one that involves a third country. But the roads are better and it’s more direct. It was an all day affair, but I made it from Bishkek to Tashkent in one day.
For a little look into that day from 2011, check out the first 5 minutes and 40 seconds of my video, ‘Astounding Uzbekistan’ and marvel at how thin I am and how much browner my hair was nine years ago now!
I crossed from Panjakant in Tajikistan across to Samarkand last year, and this crossing was super easy and quick. In fact, I left at 9am or so, and was in Samarkand shortly after 10am. There was an hour’s time difference, but that was still under two hours door to door. The border crossing really was a matter of getting a stamp out and then in, and they said ‘Welcome to Uzbekistan’. It was the exact opposite of my experience in 2011!
I left the country on my third border crossing know as the ‘Shavot’ crossing into Turkmenistan. It was a bit of a weird one from the Turkmenistan side, it took a little while and involved taking a bus 500 metres through tall corn or wheat in no-man’s land. The Uzbek side though was efficient, pleasant and easy. With no forms to fill in these days, it makes it simpler, and as a foreigner they tend to wave you through quickly.
There are plenty of others as well to the countries already mentioned, including one near Osh in Kyrgyzstan which might prove useful if you want to avoid Kazakhstan – not that there’s any reason too. But it might be more convenient. There are others to Turkmenistan as well, Kazakhstan and south to Afghanistan from Termez. Not that many (if any) foreigners are crossing there.
Money can be a little bit of an issue in Uzbekistan still. Last year I had a mixture of US Dollars and was also using ATMs, but the latter can be problematic outside the bigger towns. For example in Khiva locating one last year was tricky, I certainly hadn’t seen any handy. There was one in a hotel so I had to go on a walk to find it. I think they take a fair slice of commission/fees too. Exchanging money – USD is the best – is the way to go I think. Caravanistan seems confident though that there are enough ATMs to help you survive though, and says Euros, Pounds and Yen are now more widely accepted.
The current exchange rate is just over 10,000 som to the USD. When I went in 2011, the highest note they produced was the 1000 som note. Now, the exchange rate was much better too, less than 2000 som to the USD. However, the biggest note, 1000 som, was still equal to just over 50 cents. The wads I had to cart around with me were massive! Today, the 10,000 som note is in popular circulation, which is around 1USD but I think was worth more last year when I was there. I am told there are 50,000 som and 100,000 som notes in circulation, but I don’t recall actually seeing one. Credit cards are generally accepted at guesthouses and hotels, at least in popular spots. It’s not a really difficult situation these days, but you do need to manage your money.
Hot-diggity! Uzbekistan has HIGH SPEED RAIL baby! Which it didn’t have in 2011. The Talgo trains are brilliant, comfortable and fast and reduced the train ride for me between Samarkand and Bukhara from 7 hours in 2011 to less than 2 hours in 2019. Give them another ten years and at that rate they might get it to below ten minutes! Well, maybe not…
Uzbekistan is well-served by rail, and high-speed also connects Tashkent to Samarkand, meaning from Tashkent to Bukhara can now be done in just on four hours. To go further afield to the west of the country to Nukus, Khiva or Urgench, the trains are back on standard times I think, but some of the sleepers can be quite comfy.
As for buses, their use is still strangely limited. Most locals will go in share taxis or mashrutkas, which mingle at certain points in towns and leave when full. You can get lucky and score a car ready to go, or end up waiting hours as I did in Bukhara last year. They can be a lot of fun, or the source of frustration and hold onto your hat, because sometimes boy to the drivers put the pedal to the metal!
Uzbekistan Airlines is the country’s main carrier, I think there are a couple of less reputable airlines doing domestic legs as well. Tashkent is the main international airport, and apart from the national carrier, other Central Asian airlines such as the brilliant Air Astana connect to Uzbekistan. Also China Southern and Lufthansa among others, also Aeroflot, S7 from Russia. Still, it’s pretty limited pickings. The other international airport is at Samarkand, with very limited international connections.
In the cities you’ll always be able to find a taxi. It might not even be a taxi, in Tashkent it is common for people to take others to places if going that way if flagged down for example, for a small price. The metro in Tashkent has grown though and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is being slowly fazed out. Mashrutkas also ply city streets, but can take a little while to navigate. Ask around at your hotel for which ones to take where.
As with Tajikistan, the food is of the Central Asian variety which is meat heavy. Stews abound, and soups, plov – meat, beans and rice – is a favourite, Laghmann is a hearty soup, shashlik is always popular too. Not a lot of variety of options but you can find pizza too, drink bottled water not from the tap, small convenience stores can be found everywhere selling all manner of snacks including chips, soft drink, biscuits and the like. You may find Chinese food in Tashkent and maybe Samarkand, but otherwise it’s not the best country to look for foreign cuisine!
Things to see, Places to go!
So I usually just do a quick summary of the actual things to see and do in these posts. Tashkent – the capital – is certainly worth a few days. So many parks and fountains, if it’s warm you’ll love Tashkent, people flock to the parks and you’ll see them swimming in fountains (well, the kids do!).
Samarkand is really one of the most amazing places in Central Asia, with it’s Registan, three giant, beautiful madrassas facing each other, tombs and mosques that are just amazing. It also has the resting place of Timur the Great, a figure that led the Uzbeks a few centuries back and now appears in countless statues all over the country.
Bukhara is another ancient Silk Road city, with an historic ‘Ark’ and a beautiful old town where you can relax and enjoy where you’re at.
Finally, I have also been to Khiva, perhaps the ultimate Silk Road town. All contained within city walls it’s UNESCO Heritage listed and has some truly beautiful mausoleums, minarets and palaces to see and explore. On top of that is the amazing Juma Mosque made from wood, so different to any other mosque I’ve seen in Uzbekistan.
Elsewhere in Uzbekistan, I haven’t been to Nukus and the Aral Sea area, but apparently it’s amazing. The sea dried up and there are basically large ships sitting in the middle of a salty desert these days – although water apparently is returning to the region. Also, the Fergana Valley to the east is an area that, despite political unrest, is supposed to be very beautiful. And I am sure there are more places that I haven’t even thought about visiting!
Thanks for popping by today. I hope this has been useful to someone because it really is a fantastic country to visit, and offers so much to the traveller. Any comments, well, please pop them below! May the Journey Never End!