17 July 2017 — I almost didn't make it into Uzbekistan.
As I was preparing to cross the overland border from Kyrgyzstan, the long-time Uzbek strongman, Islam Karimov, died. In the state of uncertainty that usually follows the death of a dictator, chaos ruled.
What would happen next? A revolution? A power struggle? A clampdown? Nothing?
Getting news was difficult. The occasional snippet surfaced on local online forums and after a few days of contradictory news, normal life took over and some borders, including mine, reopened.
I was IN - and I couldn't wait! But let me backtrack for a moment.
Knowing which "Stan" is which can be confusing at first, especially if you've never visited Central Asia.
Uzbekistan occupies space somewhere between China and Russia and has five immediate neighbors: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
People have populated this part of the world for millennia and by the time Alexander the Great swept through and conquered Samarkand in 329 BC, the Silk Road was a well-entrenched trade route.
Islam eventually took hold, Genghis Khan invaded and destroyed, and Tamerlane finally established an empire with Samarkand as its capital. Centuries later, the Russians turned the country, then known as Turkestan, into a cotton-producing colony. Any timid anti-Russian sentiment was quickly crushed by the Bolshevik Revolution and for nearly a century, Uzbekistan would be ruled as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. When the Soviet structure crumbled, Uzbekistan declared independence. It would henceforth be ruled with increasing authoritarianism by its first president, Islam Karimov, a rule that ended only with his recent death.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, travelers have been rediscovering the old Silk Road, criss-crossing Central Asia to marvel at mosaics and fortresses and mud walls dating back 1000 years.
Today's Uzbekistan is transitioning, as a post-Karimov modern state pushes for development while doing everything it can to preserve its heritage.
For a Muslim country, it has done much to keep radicalism at bay. Signs of Islam in Uzbekistan are far less visible than, say, in Kyrgyzstan next door. The government is well aware it has Afghanistan on its flank and of the links between its own Islamists and those of its neighbor. It doesn't want the country to slide into extremism and so keeps tight control over religious leaders, banning membership in militant Islamic organizations and throwing followers into jail, often under harsh conditions.
So is Uzbekistan safe?
The country's very authoritarianism guarantees a constant police and military presence, ensuring violent crime is kept at a minimum. There have been outbursts of religious unrest and ethnic violence but as a foreigner, you'd have to be quite unlucky to run into anything as long as you stick to the tourist trail. The borders are far less secure and there are occasional hostilities. Most Western governments recommend steering clear of land borders altogether but my own crossing was uneventful and in my personal opinion, advisories are often excessively cautious.
In terms of safety, one of the first things that surprised me was the level of people's trust in everyday life: purses are left on tables, as are cellphones, and no one seems to worry they might disappear.
I traveled as a solo woman in Uzbekistan and - other than scary car rides - I never felt unsafe. Crime in Uzbekistan is rated low to moderate.
Of course, this level of strict control comes at the price of human rights and freedom of expression. Uzbekistan sadly ranks just behind North Korea on the Global Slavery Index, mostly for its use of forced labor in the country's cotton fields. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, however, following Karimov's death and the election of a new leader. Recently a decision was made to let a Human Rights Watch delegation visit Uzbekistan, and the BBC is being allowed to reopen its office in Tashkent. It was expelled in 2005 after reporting on the Andijan massacre, which killed many people. Fingers crossed.
The status of women in this largely patriarchal society leaves something to be desired. Women's traditionally subservient position gave way to emancipation and egalitarianism during Soviet rule but with Uzbekistan's independence, Islamic traditions have resurfaced and gender equality has been eroded, with polygamy and early marriage to a certain extent acceptable, at least among poorer families.
To visit Uzbekistan, most of you would be flying into Tashkent, the country's capital.
Uzbekistan Airways flies a few international routes, but Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot have the most frequent flights to Uzbekistan. I'm told arriving by air is relatively straightforward, with less searching of luggage than the overland crossing. It took me a full half-hour to cross the land border, yet I was the only person crossing that day. Every inch of my backpack was searched and I was questioned in great detail.
Other than flying, you can also arrive by train from Moscow - if you love trains enough to spend three days on one.
If you'd rather come in by land, check the border situation first (see my Resources at the bottom of this page). Borders open and close, and even if they are open, not all borders allow foreigners through. If you prefer to enter overland, it's easier through Kazakhstan than Kyrgyzstan, with whom relations are cool at best.
Most people do not speak English in Uzbekistan. You'll be fine in hotels and restaurants in tourist areas but if you venture off into local neighborhoods - and you should - Russian will serve you better. If you speak neither Russian nor Uzbek, use Google Translate on your phone. It'll write things out for you (better in my opinion than the spoken version) and you'll make friends quickly.
The weather in Uzbekistan is extreme continental, which means summers are hot and winters, once terribly cold, have now warmed along with the rest of the world making travel in the winter months possible (but not ideal). Still, in my opinion the best time to visit Uzbekistan is spring (April-May) or autumn (September-October). I visited in late September and the temperature was still hot in the daytime but lovely and cool in the evening. Any earlier would have made it uncomfortable.
As for what to wear in Uzbekistan - wear everyday clothes but err on the conservative side, bearing in mind this is still a Muslim country. I saw very few women with headscarves during my stay, and wore travel pants and a T-shirt most of the time. In the touristy enclaves of the old town, I did see women in shorts and spaghetti straps. I also saw the disapproving looks they received from locals.
As of this writing the issue of Uzbekistan currency hadn't yet been resolved. The national currency is the som, and you can either buy soms legally at the bank or illegally on the black market from any money-changer, which is somewhat tolerated (but watch out, it can still get you into trouble). The black market rate gives you twice as many soms for your money... That said, many hotels know this and will insist on being paid in dollars (also illegal), which they can then exchange on the black market. What I did was change some money 'informally' to use in markets and restaurants, and kept dollars and euros for larger expenses like hotels. But it is frustrating.
While there are a few ATMs outside the capital, the last thing I need is to have my card swallowed up in a far-off province so I kept my money in cash (in a money belt). I suspect the ATM situation might improve quickly - Uzbekistan is nothing if not adaptable.
Getting an Uzbekistan phone card can also be an adventure. Usually, as a foreigner, you're required to prove you've been registered in the same city for three days before you can buy a local SIM card. I talked my way out of this requirement, and other travelers have told me they had no trouble at all, even on arrival, so clearly this too is in a state of flux. That said, I was unable to buy a SIM right after crossing the border and had to wait till Tashkent, so the process isn't quite smooth yet.
A new visa-free regime was supposed to take effect in June 2017. Under this new system, Uzbekistan visa requirements would be lightened or eliminated for citizens of 27 countries who visit for under 30 days.
The government decided to postpone its decision and the new visa rules are now expected in 2021 so yes, you probably still need a visa to visit the country.
For a while it seemed citizens from 15 (wealthy) countries - along with senior citizens from an additional 12 - might be allowed in visa-free but that waiver hasn't materialized either.
However, if (as of this writing) you're a citizen of Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Malaysia, Thailand, Spain, Switzerland and United Kingdom, at least you won't need a Letter of Invitation, an LOI. These are easily obtained (for a fee) from a tour or travel agency within the country.
Obtaining a visa is a simple procedure: apply through the Uzbekistan Embassy in your country. Fill out this official Uzbekistan Visa Application, print it out and send it to the Embassy along with your passport. What is less clear is how long your visa will take - days, or weeks, depending on the embassy. I used a visa service (in the US VisaHQ comes highly recommended) because I was a bit rushed and didn't want any hiccups but by planning well and starting early, you should be able to handle the entire process yourself - at less cost.
If your country doesn't have an Uzbek embassy or consulate, or if you're connecting through a country that does have one but you're not staying long enough to apply for a visa, you may be able to get a visa on arrival at the airport in Tashkent. Again, make sure you check with the nearest Embassy of Uzbekistan.
If you're coming in overland, as I did, ensure you know the rules and that every single bit of paperwork you have is in order.
Travel in Uzbekistan is relatively straightforward, if not easy. You'll have plenty of choice when it comes to how you get yourself from place to place:
Whatever transport you use, your destination won't disappoint you. There are dozens of Uzbekistan tourist attractions, many of which I've listed below by city.
You'll have to split your holidays in Uzbekistan into a viable itinerary that makes sense for you. If you're properly organized, you can easily visit most Uzbekistan tourist spots in ten days or so - I spent only nine days there and while I (almost) managed to see what I wanted, I regretted not having a little more time. I visited five main cities: Nukus, Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent.
Here's my Uzbekistan itinerary, as an indication:
Day 1: Arrive in the country, and if you're coming in through another border, get yourself to Tashkent
Day 2: Tashkent to Nukus by train, all 22 hours of it (only if you're a masochist) - please do yourself a favor and fly
Day 3: Visit Nukus (flying will give you time to visit the Aral Sea and see how far it's receded) and travel to Khiva
Day 4: Khiva
Day 5: Drive to Bukhara
Day 6: Bukhara
Day 7: Train from Bukhara to Samarkand
Day 8: Late train from Samarkand to Tashkent
Day 9: Tashkent, then fly home
So you see, it's tight. I could have used an extra day in Tashkent, along with more time in Nukus. But that's me. You might choose to visit for far longer and love it!
And now, drum roll, the best Uzbekistan places to visit are... (in order of my itinerary):
Nukus is a strange little windswept town, "the end of the line" in Uzbekistan. The train ride cuts across miles of undulating desert. Instead of the warm golden dunes of the Sahara you get the flat, arid scrublands not even goats are willing to feast upon. One of my most exciting sightings in 22 hours was the silhouette of three cows against the horizon.
This train ride is for the hardy (or foolish). The engine crawls at the speed of a sloth, with plenty of stops where there seemed no reason to have one. The chugging was so irregular I was nearly catapulted out of my high, red leather bunk each time the brakes screeched - when they could be heard above the snores of the men sharing my compartment.
Three things would bring you here:
Nukus hosts one of the world's greatest collections of avant-garde Russian art from the 1920s and 30s. The museum is the brainchild of Russian artist Igor Savitsky, who abandoned the sophistication of Moscow to settle in Nukus and collect traditional Karakalpak art for his new museum. In the 1950s and 60s he added works by Russian artists who were banned in the Soviet Union and had migrated to Central Asia, making the collection as unusual as it is excellent. I was sadly disappointed to find that some of the most pertinent works of art had been "moved" in anticipation of the opening of the new building a week later. Never mind. What I saw, I loved.
The newer part of Nukus has an almost alien feel to it, with wide open spaces and barely completed buildings - and hardly a soul to be seen.
I did eat my best Uzbek meal in Nukus at the Palvan Shahk near my hotel: fried chicken sautéed with coriander, the first and last time I sampled that herb here. I was the only customer and to entertain me the three waiters loaded a DVD showing a Russian stripper gyrating to pounding music. As always, the differences in culture can be somewhat surprising.
A few hours out of Nukus lies Moynaq, once a wealthy harbor and now more of a ghost town. I wasn't able to visit but do so if you can - the vision of ship skeletons littering the desert must be something terrifying, an environmental catastrophe of the most tangible kind.
Both Nukus and Moynaq are located in what is called Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan which is now poor and hungry for water; the Aral Sea's waters were so intensively diverted by the Soviets for irrigation that the sea is now only one-tenth of its former size. But for those who care about such things, visiting a republic within a country is a reward in itself.
Journalist AA Gill once penned a piece for the Sunday Times in which he called the region "the worst place in the world". I think he needs to travel more, and we need to be influenced by what we see for ourselves.
I left Nukus slightly perplexed but glad I had come.
From Nukus to Khiva, the road - half divine and half abominable - is the only form of transport. Cars carry a red oxygen-like tank strapped beneath their trunk and I'm left guessing: some sort of local gas power, perhaps? There are plenty of petrol stations along the three-hour journey but passengers aren't allowed near them. We disembark and sit in a lay-by, which often sells snacks, waiting for the driver to get through the checkpoint, fill up, and come back for his passengers. Until, at last, Khiva.
Of all the things to do in Uzbekistan, taking an evening stroll through the streets of Khiva should be near the top of your list.
Not everyone likes this small town: its millennial walls and buildings have been refreshed, with signs indentifying them and deterioration patched up. To purists, this "outdoor museum" should have been left alone, or at least renovated with a little less gusto.
I beg to differ. By bringing the city to life, we can insert ourselves into history, feeling its heartbeat almost like a medieval trader would have experienced it. In daytime, that picture is slightly marred by the souvenir sellers lining the main streets and eking a difficult living but at night, the magic of Khiva appears.
Everyone has a favorite city in Uzbekistan; Khiva without a doubt was mine.
From Khiva to Bukhara the road is also half-finished. Along its edges the desert begins to fall away and the greenery of cotton and rice fields appears. The driving, on the other hand, remains chaotic although there is a significant police presence, along with several security checkpoints. The city is often spelled Buxoro, by the way, a holdover from the Cyrillic alphabet replaced by Latin letters in 1992.
The main streets of the ancient center are, as you'd expect, lined with souvenir stands and cafés but not excessively so. Wander off into an alley and you'll be engulfed by heat reflecting off brick buildings and turquoise-glazed cupolas, the most famous of which is the Kalyon Mosque and Minaret.
Especially in its 9th-century heyday, Bukhara was one of the busiest transit points along the Silk Road and there are plenty of caravanserai (hostelries) in evidence. Beneath the arcades that lead into the old town, artists still practice their ancient trades - Bukhara is famous for its carpets, of course, but also for fashioning musical instruments, weaving, metalwork... as though nothing had been lost over centuries.
If you love oriental carpets, I have a single warning for you: do not take money or credit cards into Bukhara. If you do, you run the risk of ending up in a carpet shop haggling for a roll of precious silk woven into millions of knots by young women who - when I spoke to them - seemed happy with their jobs. I'm always wary of young women in industrial settings because exploitation is so common. I ask to see the workshop or factory and try to gauge conditions before I buy, with the full realization that my lightning inspection isn't going to yield much information. Still, you can tell a lot from a place's atmosphere and the joking and playfulness that goes on - and I was assured every worker was over 18.
At Bukhara Carpets in the old town you can buy a carpet for US$100 (small with a thick weave) or spend US$10,000 for a true work of silk art. Within the $1000-$2000 range you can take home a carpet that is already a thing of beauty and that will grow in value. I can't comment on prices and quality because while my own carpet was on the slightly (for me) expensive side, I have no idea whether it was a bargain or a rip-off. There was a combination of hard-sell and negotiating involved but - I won't know until an expert sees it... Meantime I'll stop worrying and enjoy it.
If you didn't instantly fall in love with Khiva, you will probably do so with Bukhara.
As you move down the country, cities become larger. After tiny Khiva and the compactness of Bukhara, Samarkand comes almost as a shock. It's a proper city, with traffic and highrises and it's not hard to imagine it was once the capital of this region.
Seeing the Registan is an even greater shock. The architectural complex of three madrassas towers in size and has been so extensively restored the colors nearly jump off their mosaics. The Registan was severely damaged over the years and the Soviet Union made the decision to restore it to its former splendor. The result is, in my opinion, breathtaking but not everyone agrees. There has been much controversy around the restorations, which some see as excessive. Not being a scholar, I cannot compare with the original...
I understand there is a light and sound show in the evenings and I only discovered its existence after leaving Samarkand, so I urge you to go. The Registan is already so spectacular I can't begin to imagine what the addition of lights and sound might do to it.
Equally magnificent (even more than the Registan, some say) are the 14th-century Gur Emir, Timur's mausoleum, and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built for Timur's favorite wife. If you have any interest in architecture, you won't be able to tear yourself away, so consider spending a bit more than just a day. If I were to return, I'd drift along the ceramic walls slowly, examining each intricate lace-like border. There is plenty more to see and I felt slightly cheated with only 24 hours in Samarkand.
For something altogether different and a bit of insight into Samarkand life, why not try a cooking class and meal with a local family?
Of all the cities I visited in Uzbekistan, Tashkent is the one in which I spent the least time - and where I found the least inspiration.
But much of that isn't Tashkent's fault: this modern, sprawling Soviet-style city was rebuilt almost from scratch after the 1966 earthquake that levelled nearly 30,000 buildings and killed dozens, possibly hundreds of people (the numbers remain in dispute). As a result, it is huge and far less walkable than the northern cities and their ancient town centers. Today, Uzbekistan still faces some risk of earthquakes but the risk is officially classified as "low".
Yet there are fascinating places to visit in Tashkent - in true Soviet style, you'll find museums dedicated to cosmonauts and to olympic glory while conversely, you'll find a memorial to victims of Soviet repression - all interspersed with those mosques, madrassas and minarets still left standing.
To appreciate Tashkent, perhaps you should see it first, before you head off to the dazzling and dreamlike qualities of the Silk Road triumvirate - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
You probably won't be traveling here just for the food because you'll find much the same fare (relatively bland and greasy) throughout Central Asia.
Nor will you go hungry (unless you're vegetarian) and food will be hearty and plentiful.
Here are the most common Uzbekistan foods:
I stayed in a rather eclectic string of hotels across the country, ranging from modern luxury to lower-end venues.
Again, unless the currency issue has been resolved by the time you read this, pay in US dollars or you'll be shaking your head in confusion (please see my Currency notes above - this is NOT easy to figure out).
For the best deals, click here to compare prices for Uzbekistan hotels.
Tourism in Uzbekistan is growing. As the government tries to promote the country and make it easier to visit, those of us who visit do feel as though we have been allowed to enter a special place, not yet crowded, different and unusual, a place where travel feels... like travel, as opposed to yet another globalized destination with the same foods, hotels and shops. The striking sights shouldn't obscure the fact that much of the country remains poor, with limited freedoms, although there are timid signs of improvement.
I traveled throughout the country on my own, independently. But that's not for everyone and if my itinerary sounds a bit rushed or complicated, consider taking an Uzbekistan tour. There are dozens of reliable operators, some of whom have been in business in the region for years. Visit the country itself, or incorporate it into a tour that covers several Central Asian countries. I was delighted to have visited Kyrgyzstan first, as that helped me realize how vastly different Central Asian countries could be from one another.
Whatever you decide, it will be an extraordinary adventure.
Much of Uzbekistan, one of the five so-called “Stans”, is not naturally stunning.
If you want non-stop breathtaking scenery, travel next door to Kyrgyzstan. Stay in Uzbekistan and you'll likely be blessed with scrubgrass, boring plains of sand and haphazard peri-urban construction although to be fair, Uzbekistan does have some stunning corners - the Tien Shan mountains for example - but the beauty isn't constant or omnipresent.
You come to Uzbekistan for the history, the culture, the architecture, for the sense of civilization reflected in a symmetry and a love of detail so beautiful UNESCO designated three entire city centers – Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand – as World Heritage sites.
To me, these place names conjure up a flying carpet ready to wing me towards the most exquisite remnants of the past. They bring up visions of turquoise domes and rainbow-hued mosaics, of camel caravans heaving with spices and gunpowder - and lines of slaves slowly dragging themselves in the heat. They evoke ancient walled enclaves where traders once unfurled their carpets and laid out their goods, repacking at dawn to head east or west, depending on whether they were coming or going along the Silk Road.
I can almost smell the cardamom waft by and hear the hooves of galloping horses as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane scorched and conquered their way across the then known world.
Land of my ancestors, Central Asia has always beckoned, yet for much of my life it was hidden behind the iron parapet of the USSR. I'm thrilled to have visited, but keenly aware that while the Soviet Union may be gone, Uzbekistan has yet to embark on the road to freedom and rights.
I mentioned at the start that I almost didn't make it into Uzbekistan. I also nearly didn't make it OUT, either.
As I checked in for departure and made my way through airport security, two armed military men grabbed my arms and walked me away. They checked my passport, threw it on an abandoned shelf where anyone could have picked it up (by far the scariest thing that happened) and whisked me away. We walked down a set of stairs, crossed an outdoor lot and re-entered the building into what must have been the baggage sorting belly of Tashkent Airport. My backpack was waiting for me and they sternly gestured me to empty it.
My heart sank. In a traditional plot line, this is where the protagonist finds a stash of some illicit substance or contraband she had never seen, undoubtedly placed there by some nasty dealer seeking an unsuspecting traveler headed for Europe. Scenes from the movie Midnight Express flashed through my mind.
But no, no contraband. They overlooked my personal locator beacon, even though it could be mistaken for a suspicious electronic device. They also ignored my pills and potions, although Uzbekistan is one of the strictest countries in the world when it comes to medicines (no medication containing codeine is allowed into the country, even if it's part of another compound or prescribed by your doctor).
So what were they looking for?
Finally, their faces broke out into a victorious grin. Aha!
And they pulled out my... ultra-violet water purifier.
I was puzzled until I noticed its elongated, rather phallic shape and tapering end. In this conservative country where disseminating pornography is illegal, I can only think the shape of this lil' ol' purifier made them think it might have been... something else.
In the end we all had an uneasy laugh, but not until I'd actually demonstrated its use by turning it on and plunging it into a glass of water!