When I told friends that I would be travelling to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan this summer, I was met with a faces showing emotions ranging from confusion to surprise to bafflement and comments along the lines of “like in Borat?” (no, that’s Kazakhstan!). More often than not it was simply blank faces that stared back at me – where the hell is Uzbekistan and why on earth would I want to go there? This post is an attempt to explain why I would count our two weeks in Uzbekistan as one of my most successful trips, and why it’s an amazing place to travel to!
1. You’ve probably never heard of it. For me, one of the best things about travelling is finding out about an area you don’t know much about, and the people and places that shaped its history. What better plan than to travel to a country that you know literally nothing about? Before coming here there was a big gaping hole in my knowledge of the world, right where Central Asia stands. Everybody knows about the Middle East (how can you not, if you follow Western news even the smallest amount?), and everyone is always talking about China and China’s place in the future world etc etc, but how much do you know about Central Asia, which links these two important regions together? It’s been great to be able to put it in my mental “map”, to talk to people living here, to read, and generally to learn more about it. Given its position at the centre of the world, even if you may not know much about it at the moment, I can assure you that Central Asia (and Uzbekistan in particular) is no murky backwater.
2. Visit the Silk Road cities. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are the three big sights in Uzbekistan – stunningly beautiful cities built mainly through wealth generated by Silk Road trade, as merchants and traders travelled backwards and forwards from China and the Far East to markets in the Middle East and onto Western Europe, particularly before the sea routes were established between these places. The result is that these cities (each with a very different atmosphere and each with its heyday in a slightly different period) are dotted with dazzling mosques and madrasahs (centres of Islamic learning) as well as palaces and sturdy forts that are a delight to visit. Samarkand was the capital of Timur the Great’s empire, as well as the setting for the story of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and where Alexander the Great fell out and killed one of his generals, Cleitus. Bukhara was for a long time the seat of Islamic learning, with competing madrasahs not unlike Oxford or Cambridge with their different colleges, each founded by a different wealthy donor keen to show his munificence through the endowment of educational institutions complete with architectural magnificence. Khiva was the capital of a powerful khanate that had a strong hand in the slave trade. These are cities rippling with history and legend, and while wandering round (and dodging the sun) it was easy to imagine either the trains of camels stopping at caravanserais to trade their wares, or the British and Russian spies that infiltrated the region during the 19th century as part of the Great Game, or opulent khans on their thrones dispensing orders, but I’ll leave it to photos to show you the rest. Rosie and I both read “The New Silk Roads” by Peter Francopan on our kindles while we were in Uzbekistan and we would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to find out about Central Asia and its part in world history whether or not you’re planning on visiting here.
3. Getting away from it. Travel is also about a change of scene from back home, from wherever your base of life is. For me, that’s the non-stop, constantly-lit-up and buzzing city of London. Uzbekistan couldn’t be further away from this: it’s where “off-the-beaten-track” takes on a new meaning. You’ll be visiting one of the top tourist attractions in the country, without another tourist in sight, or being the only (and therefore much-welcomed) guests in a guesthouse, or whizzing across the desert in a shrivelled old car with a driver who is desperately trying to communicate with you in a variety of languages, none of which you understand a word of, while you look out the window as kilometre after kilometre swishes by and it’s been over ten minutes since you saw something that showed any sign of human habitation. It’s just you, this speeding car, and the desert – and it was in these enormous open spaces of Uzbekistan that I felt most like I’d just left Earth and momentarily stepped onto another planet. That’s not a feeling it’s easy to find nowadays.
4. Travel is cheap and easy. I’d heard quite a few horror stories about Uzbekistan before travelling here as it’s a police state, one of the most authoritarian in the world. However, although this is a terrible place to work as a journalist or human rights activist (there are many political prisoners, and torture is rife in the justice system), as a tourist we didn’t encounter any difficulties at all. In fact, policemen stopping cars always waved us on as soon as they realised there were tourists in the car (though this meant occasionally we wondered if we were being used for covers for illicit activity). Crime is low, travel between and within cities is easy, the food is decent (and certainly way better than Kyrgyz food!), there are lots of nice places to stay, finding accommodation is easy and the people are friendly. What more could you want? Sure, the prices aren’t South East Asian-style dirt cheap, but a trip here certainly won’t wipe out your wallet either.
5. Variety is the spice of life. My favourite travel destinations (I’d probably point to Bulgaria and Vietnam here as well) have always been places that aren’t just interesting to visit in and of themselves (often for historical reasons) but ones where there’s a variety of different things to do as a tourist. No one wants to spend a month visiting only temples every day, however spiritual or thought-provoking or ethereal they may be, and if you go to a beautiful countryside landscape, after a while its beauty will cease to have such a strong effect on you: the best trips are where you can combine different kinds of travelling. In Uzbekistan the top three destinations are certainly the three Silk Road cities as above, but we interspersed our city sight-seeing with a range of other activities. We spent a day trip in a jeep visiting some incredible 1st century “qala” mud forts. We stayed a few blissful days up in the Nuratau mountains in a homestay with a delightful walnut tree offering us dappled shade for our reading and eating of delicious homemade Uzbek feasts. We day-tripped again to crumbling Shakribasz, birthplace of Timur the Great. We also spent a few days in the Ferghana valley, visiting a silk factory in Margilon, a palace at Kokand and an enormous open air market in Andijon. While there perhaps isn’t so much in Uzbekistan that you’d want to spend more than two weeks (you must remember that a large part of the country is desert), there’s certainly more to it than Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand – though these three cities would in and of themselves be enough reason to visit!
I hope this post might inspire you to consider Uzbekistan as your next travel destination and as ever I’d be more than happy to give more practical advice as to travel in this region…
- Language: learning a bit of Russian before you go will really improve your experience in Uzbekistan. Of course you can get by everywhere with sign language, but it is annoying not being able to talk to the Uzbek people you meet along the route. I’d recommend the apps Duolingo, SpeakEasy Russian and an offline Russian-English mobile dictionary. And definitely learn Cyrillic.
- Money: there are REALLY NO CASH MACHINES in Uzbekistan. Bring all your spending money into the country in dollars, and then change it as you go along on the black market. Do not enter the country with insufficient funds as you will find yourself in BIG trouble. However, you can only get good rates in the main cities, so change as much as you can carry when you arrive in Tashkent. Find out what the going rate is on the black market and make sure to count all the piles carefully – many dealers try and rip you off by inserting lower value notes in the pile. Be warned that the Uzbek som is so devalued that you will be carrying around literal stacks of money – there’s no point bringing a wallet. We found a small plastic bag worked better!
- Time in the country: you could do the main sights in a rush in a week, or more leisurely in 9-10 days. We spend two weeks and probably wouldn’t recommend staying longer.
- Itinerary details (2 weeks): Flight into Tashkent, sleeper train to Urgench, straight to Khiva, shared taxi to Bukhara, various taxi combinations to and from the Nuratau mountains, onto Samarkand, shared taxis to Fergana city via Tashkent, taxi to border with Kyrgyzstan. I’d recommend all these places, for reasons as above.
- Accommodation: in July you don’t need to book ahead by much, except in Ferghana where it’s really hard to find somewhere to stay. We usually booked online each place for the next. You’ll be in B&Bs or guesthouses most of the time. Would recommend the Alibek guesthouse in Khiva and Antica B&B in Samarkand partly for the breakfast…
- Safety: nowhere we went felt unsafe at all. That includes the border crossing into Kyrgyzstan which was easy as pie.
- Shared taxis: this was the easiest way to get from city to city. Don’t trust hostels when they say they will get you the best price – often they don’t. Try and get the front seat if possible. Avoid being squeezed in middle of back for long distance!
- Food: hygiene isn’t always amazing so bring appropriate medicine for if you get ill. Also everything closes up pretty early so don’t leave dinner til too late!
- Packing: European 2-pin plug adaptor that can fit into deep sockets, also an adaptor with multiple USB sockets as you often only have one plug socket in a room. Enough clothes so you don’t have to do washing all the time (quite expensive). Decent camera – won’t get nicked and there’s so many photo opps. Spare room in your bag for bringing home rugs and fabrics if you want them. Suncream. Most places will give you a towel so you probably don’t need one.
- Travel: we got a travel agent to book our first train for us before we arrived because it was on our first day – this was probably worth the large mark-up. Otherwise, you can book all travel when you’re there. Within cities, particularly Samarkand, the taxis are so cheap and it’s so hot outside we found it better to get taxis around rather than walk.
- SIM cards: don’t even bother trying to get one unless you have great Uzbek connections. Just expect not to have much internet connection as the WiFi is usually hopeless even in bigger cities.