I visited Uzbekistan for 3 weeks in May of 2017. During my time there I managed to traverse almost the entire length of the country from East to West. Yet there were still several places I didn’t have time to get to.
Uzbekistan contains within its borders a great trove of historic and cultural marvels that are little known in the West. That’s beginning to change with group tours starting to become popular with western European tourists. Independent travelers are still a rare sight in Uzbekistan however, even in the exulted former Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. You’ll often feel as if you have the place to yourself if you venture there on your own. Historic cities and ancient ruins – some dating back thousands of years – are scattered throughout the country and beckon to travelers with a taste for exotic and lesser-known locales.
Once a part of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan lies right in the heart of Asia. The country has a harsh continental climate with bitterly cold winters and hot, humid summers. Unless you plan to get in some skiing, Spring and Fall are the best times to visit.
While the gist of this post is to convince the reader that Uzbekistan is very much worth consideration as a travel destination, I feel it only fair to point out that getting a tourist visa requires more than the usual amount of advance planning. Additionally, the cost of a visa will be about $200 US – not cheap. The first stage of obtaining the visa is getting a Letter of Introduction (LOI) from a travel agency authorized by the government of Uzbekistan for that purpose. I dealt with an agency called Stantours which was recommended by one of my travel guide books ( the 2nd edition of the Bradt Uzbekistan guide ). Stantours was a very reliable and professional agency to deal with. They answered all of my emails promptly and were exceedingly helpful. I paid $90 US for an LOI that would entitle me to a dual entry visa. Once I arrived at the airport in Tashkent – the country’s capitol – I presented my LOI and had to pay an additional $100 US for the actual visa stamp in my passport.
The bureaucratic tedium doesn’t end there. All tourists visiting Uzbekistan are required to stay only in government-sanctioned hotels for the entire duration of their stay. You can’t sleep over in people’s homes or make any other alternative arrangements for accommodation such as camping or sleeping in a rental vehicle. Each hotel issues documentary proof of your dates of stay when you check out. You are supposed to have these papers ready for inspection by Uzbek customs when you leave the country. I left Uzbekistan twice, the first time to visit the neighbouring country of Kyrgyzstan, and the second time to return home to Canada. On neither occasion was I asked to show my collection of hotel slips. Regardless, it’s best to have them in order to avoid any possible fines. Part of receiving your LOI is agreeing to the stipulation that you must only overnight in officially approved hotels.
Just one more little proviso … Uzbekistan is a repressive police state! I had to state that fact just to get it out of the way. While it’s certainly the case that Uzbek citizens live under the rule of a government that doesn’t feel the need to put on any pretense about caring for human rights, fairness, or universal equality, you as a visitor will not be impacted by that unfortunate truth. Traveling around Uzbekistan you run into soldiers and police at checkpoints with considerable regularity. Like Uzbek people as a whole, the security forces will want you to feel welcome to their country. Several times uniformed officers saluted me or shook my hand or simply inquired if I was enjoying my visit. In all of my encounters with Uzbek security personnel I was always treated with patience and politeness. There was more of an air of welcoming about these interactions than anything else. It’s very clear that there is an official Uzbek government directive to make foreign visitors feel safe and accepted during their visit. Fact is, I never had an unpleasant experience with anyone during my stay in the country.
Now with the negative factors dealt with it’s time to get on with the good reasons for paying a visit to the fascinating country that is Uzbekistan.
(1) You Can Visit Beautifully Preserved Former Silk Road Cities in Uzbekistan
Without a doubt the main reason for traveling to Uzbekistan is to see the marvelous old Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Each of these cities is replete with magnificent examples of medieval Islamic architecture that will dazzle even the most experienced world travelers.
The Old Town of Khiva is still surrounded by a fortified protective wall. Walking the streets there evokes an air of exoticism that is matched by few other places on Earth. Gorgeous monumental mosques, minarets, and madrasahs crowd the Ichon Qala, the portion of town that’s contained within the crenelated fortified walls. Cars are banned from this space which makes it easier to absorb the almost mystical ambience of the Old Town. Easily explored on foot, Khiva offers the opportunity for the traveler to feel transported back in time to a place when the city was an opulent Silk Road stop-over on the ancient trade route between China and Europe. Even jaded adventurers would be in awe of this little-known gem of a city.
Bukhara was the second of the venerable old Silk Road cities I visited in Uzbekistan. Though it is larger than Khiva, Bukhara can still be explored on foot in a few days. The heart of Bukhara’s Old Town is the Poi Kalyon, site of the intricately adorned Kalyon Mosque and the Kalyon Minar ( Great Minaret ) which when finished in 1127, was the tallest free-standing structure in the world. Opposite the Kalyon Mosque is the Mir-i Arab Madrasah which is reported to have been built by thousands of Persian slaves. The partially restored Ark Fortress, another highlight of Bukhara, is situated next to a portion of the fortified battlements that once surrounded the entire city. There are a host of other exquisite historic sites in Bukhara including the 10th-century Ismail Samani Mausoleum that’s shaped like a cube and is reminiscent of the Kaaba in Mecca. This is but a brief summation of Bukhara’s historic treasures. There are plenty of others.
Samarkand is home to the Registan which Lord Curzon, once Britain’s Viceroy in India, called “the noblest public square in the world.” The three grand madrasahs that face out onto the square are exquisite and grandiose examples of of the finest traditional architecture in the Islamic world. The detailed, and brilliantly coloured, tile work on the exterior of the buildings in the Registan is quite simply stunning. It’s actually difficult to find words to describe the splendour of Samarkand’s Registan.
There has been urban development in Samarkand since at least the 6th-century BC. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan both left their mark there. Tamerlane, the merciless conqueror of much of Asia made the city his capitol. Today his remains are interred in Samarkand at his lavish mausoleum, the Gur Emir. Other must-see sights in Samarkand include the lusterous necropolis of Shah-I-Zinda which the famed 19th century science fiction author, Jules Verne, described in 1894:
“I cannot, writing straight away, give you an idea of this marvel. If I were to thread the words, mosaics, pediments, spandrels, bas-reliefs, niches, enamels, corbels, all on a string in a sentence, the picture would still be incomplete. It is strokes of the brush that are wanted, not strokes of the pen. Imagination remains abashed at the remains of the most splendid architecture left to us by Asiatic genius.”
After sacking the Indian city of Delhi in 1398 AD, the emperor Tamerlane vowed to build the most fabulous mosque to be found anywhere in Samarkand. Today the resulting Bibi Khanum Mosque lies within easy walking distance of the Registan. The whole complex is magnificently ornamented with marble and terracotta, glazed mosaics, and frescoes. The impressive entrance portal hints at the wonders beyond and entices the visitor to explore further into the courtyard facing the mosque.
I’ve offered only a very brief glimpse here of the sensational artistic and cultural splendours of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road heritage. It would require far more than a handful of paragraphs to render a more deserving treatment.
(2) Uzbekistan Is Easy On Your Wallet
It’s always great to venture someplace where your dollars go much further than they do at home. Well, good news … costs in Uzbekistan are downright cheap. At the time of my visit ( May, 2017 ), the officially ordained exchange rate between the US dollar and the Uzbek som ( pronounced ‘soom’ ) was just under 3,700 to 1. At that rate, Uzbekistan would qualify as a very affordable travel destination. However, everyone in the country understands that this seemingly generous ratio actually grossly understates the real value of the American greenback. You have the option of exchanging your dollars at a bank to get the official exchange rate or conducting the transaction on the street with one of the numerous money changers. On the face of it this will sound rather dodgy to anyone who’s never been somewhere where disparities between what the non market-based official exchange rate is compared to the on-the-street rate. This situation exists in countries where the populace has lost faith in the economic policies of its own government. At the time of writing, Venezuela, is probably the best known example of this.
In any case, unofficial, or if you will – black market – money exchanges can be carried out in bazaars and hotels throughout Uzbekistan and you’ll receive at least twice as much som for your dollars. It seems odd that you can openly engage in such transactions but you can do so without fear of reprisals. Unofficial money exchanges are conducted casually and openly in public. In the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent I was able to get 8,000 sum per dollar. For the reminder of my stay I never failed to get less than 7,800 sum per dollar. Generally I’d change $100 US each time and collect thick bundles of Uzbek notes held together with elastic bands. I’d have far too many bills to count there on the spot. Nevertheless, I was never cheated during any of those trades. Changing money this way made Uzbekistan super affordable for me.
(3) You Can Visit Ancient Desert Fortresses in Uzbekistan
Twenty-five centuries ago Khorezm, in western Uzbekistan, was mostly watery marshland that supported a large population of people called the Scythians. The Scythians are believed to be one of the first people to master the art of warfare on horseback. Over a period of centuries the surrounding Kyzyl Kum desert encroached on the wetlands and eventually subsumed them entirely. Today the ruins of fortified sites built by the the Scythians, and later interlopers, are stark testaments to what was long ago a fertile and temperate region. Now these ruined fortresses stand as mute reminders of past grandeur in the midst of inhospitable desert.
It’s not possible to visit the ruined desert forts of Khorezm by public transit. You must join a group tour or hire a car and driver to take you around to see them. Both of these options can be easily arranged through the tourist bureau in Khiva which is just inside the West Gate ( Ota Darvosa ) of the Ichon Qala ( Old Town ). I hired a car and driver to take me to three of the desert fortresses. It would have been nice to share the cost with another independent traveler but they’re not easy to come by in Uzbekistan. In any case, like costs in Uzbekistan in general, it was quite affordable to hire a car with a driver/guide.
The first stop on my tour was the the ruins of the fort of Qizal Kala. My driver dropped me off at the foot of the hill that the fort sits upon. It was an easy walk up to the entrance. As I approached I could hear the chirping of thousands of songbirds. These birds were black and brown and resembled sparrows. Once I entered the inner sanctum of the fort I could see that they were nesting in the innumerable cracks in the ancient mud-brick walls of the fort. During my visit they continued their chorus of chirps and many flew past me as I walked about.
While it was obvious that some of the bulwarks of the outer walls at Qizal Kal had recently been rebuilt, it was equally apparent that many centuries of dirt and dust had built up within the walls of the fort. Whether the site has has been thoroughly excavated by archeologists or not I can’t say. But if I had to guess I’d say that certainly doesn’t seem possible. There were meters of compacted clay within the walls of the citadel that surely covered human-built structures underfoot.
The whole setting was semi-surreal. I was alone in the ruins of an ancient fortification with only the company of countless warbling songbirds darting about hither and thither. If I hadn’t been able to discern their singing on my way up to the ruins i might have thought that I had disturbed their solitude. To check whether this was so, I calmly rested against one of the inner battlements for several minutes to see if the birds would calm down. They didn’t. All the chorus of bird calls had nothing to do with my presence there.
The second old fortress I visited in Khorezm was Topraq Kala. This is the remains of a 2,000 yeqr old fort and religious centre that covers an area of approximately 350m metres by 500 metres. It’s believed that about 2,500 people lived here from the 1st century BC to about the 3rd century AD. When I visited a small Italian tour group of a half dozen people was also present. We ignored each others presence but I was happy to photograph them in the distance to lend a sense of scale to the site. In its ruined state, Topraq Kala resembles a streamlined, almost aerodynamic terrestrial sculpture. Centuries of ( sparse ) rain and wind erosion have both helped to diminish and sand-down the ruins into a rounded-cornered edifice. While it’s difficult to imagine the original site, the present one is highly evocative of 20th century sculpture on a grand scale.
The third old fort I visited that day was Ayaz Kala. There’s actually two separate ancient forts resting on two different hilltops at this site. As I hiked up the hill to the larger of the two forts I passed some domesticated camels. Twelve golden statues dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC were unearthed at this site by archeologists. These statues are now on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
At the base of the hill is an encampment of yurts. After I had finished exploring the forts I was served a very substantial, and tasty lunch in one of the yurts. A pair of swallows had built a nest in the inner roof of the yurt and they kept flying in and out as I sat there watching them. Their presence helped to create an even more relaxing atmosphere.
(4) The Food In Uzbekistan Is (Usually) Quite Tasty.
Uzbekistan’s national dish is called “plov”. It’s a rice-based meal with meat ( usually mutton ) and carrots and onion. There are many variations of plov. Some include raisins while others have added quince. I was lucky enough to have an absolutely delicious plov lunch in Samarkand that was made with rice, mutton, and apricots.
An even more commonly served food in Uzbekistan is “shasklik”. Shashlik is simply skewers of grilled meat served atop a bed of sliced onions and flatbread. It’s simple but oh so good. I hate onions so I’d enjoy my shashlik without them.
“Lavash” is unleavened flatbread that is used to create wraps of spiced meat and vegetables. There was a restaurant near my hotel in Tashkent that served up a stunningly tasty lavash.
A common snack food in Uzbekistan is “Manti” which is a type of dumpling filled with meat ( again, usually mutton ). I found that manti really varied in taste and quality. It could be quite good or not at all.
“Lagman” is a mutton-broth soup with meat, vegetables, and noodles and is generally very good, not to mention filling.
Springtime is a good time to be in Uzbekistan if your tastes run to less meaty staples. The markets are stuffed with all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables. “Non” the large, round, and unleavened Uzbek bread is always readily available throughout the country. The smell of fresh non is very appealing and present throughout the country.
(5) Uzbekistan Offers You The Opportunity To Explore A Fascinating Country Before Mass Tourism Arrives
While there’s plenty of countries in the world that attract few tourists the reason for this is almost always a lack of worthwhile tourist sights combined with a shortage of facilities for visitors. Uzbekistan on the other hand is brimming with absolutely fabulous antiquarian cultural sites as well as a multitude of good hotels and restaurants.
Uzbekistan can’t remain so far removed from the tourist mainstream forever. You can visit there now and still be regarded as somewhat of a novelty by the local people. You’ll find Uzbeks to be welcoming and friendly. So far at least there’s none of the tourist hustle that plagues so many tourist hot spots. People will say hello to you on the street and you will understand that they’re only being genuinely friendly.
The lack of touts and habitual over-charging so common in other countries, like Morocco and India, is very refreshing. In my whole time in the country no one tried to scam me or demand an exorbitant price for anything. I recall that when I got dropped off outside the city walls of Khiva I was expecting to be greeted by a bevy of touts extolling the virtues of their merchandise or services as guides. In reality, not a single one appeared. Sadly, this will probably change as more and more travelers become aware of all that Uzbekistan has to offer. Greater numbers of tourists leads to more opportunities for those that want to prey on them.
Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet Republic that lies east of Uzbekistan, greatly loosened up requirements for tourist visas a few years ago. Citizens of most countries in the developed world can now obtain free visas upon arrival in the country, whether by air or land. This open visa policy has led to spike in the number of visitors to Kyrgyzstan and subsequently more tourist dollars. In order to encourage more attendance at it’s 2017 World’s Fair in Astana, the government of Kazakhstan also recently made it easier for citizens of many countries to obtain tourist visas. Perhaps the government of Uzbekistan will also soon come to realize the benefits of attracting more tourist spending by also liberalizing its visa policies.