A complete guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan
As a travel destination, Uzbekistan is still largely off the beaten track. The advantage for smart travelers is that it remains an authentic and uncrowded country with amazing architecture and rich culture. On the other side, organizing a trip there requires quality information. For this purpose, we compiled a complete guide with practical tips and cultural insights to help you prepare your adventures on the Silk Road.
For a first visit, we advise to include 4 cities in your itinerary: Tashkent (the capital city), Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Uzbekistan is mainly a cultural destination for its architectural heritage, crafts and history.
Tashkent is usually the start and end of the trip because the international airport is located there. We recommend dedicating at least 1 full day to the capital city. It does not have the same obvious charms as the other cities. However is still an interesting Central Asian capital town with a blend of architectural styles.
From there, we recommend visiting in order Samarkand and Bukhara, which are conveniently connected to the capital city by a modern high-speed train. 2 to 3 full days should be enough for each city if you do not want to rush.
In both Samarkand and Bukhara, you will go back in time in the period of the Silk Road and be amazed by the architectural wonders: mosques with blue-tiled domes, mausoleums and madrasas. You can read our travel stories on Samarkand and Bukhara to plan your visits there.
Khiva is a gem but the “least” convenient city to include in a trip because you need an internal flight from Tashkent or a significant journey from Bukhara through the desert by car (5-6 hours) or by train.
Khiva is located in the Western area of the country and the nearest airport of Urgench is 40 km away. In Khiva, 1 to 2 full day(s) should be enough as it is quite small but very authentic. But you have to count flight time back and forth from Tashkent or the driving time from any other cities. So transportation easily adds 2 days in your travel plans.
Since February 2019, citizens of 45 countries do not need a visa to enter Uzbekistan for up to 30 days. These countries include some European Union states such as France, the UK and Germany but also Australia and New Zealand. It is part of a government strategy to develop tourism.
They join countries who have benefited from this policy for a longer time such as Turkey, Israel, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan,
The Uzbek authorities have put in place an E-visa process for other 78 countries including the USA and China .
The E-Visa costs 20 US$ and require 2 to 3 working days of processing time. It is a single entry Visa valid for 30 days within a window of 90 days from the date of issuance. To apply, you need to use the official E-visa website from the Uzbek government.
Seasons to visit
The best seasons to travel in Uzbekistan are during the Springs (April-May) and the Fall (September-October). Summer and Winter sees extreme temperatures and are not recommended.
We strongly recommend using the modern Afrosiyob high-speed train connecting Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. There are other types of trains, but they are much slower and less comfortable. The Afrosiyob was built by a Spanish company and was launched in 2011. We used it several times to travel between these 3 cities and were really happy about it. Not only will you be able to see the landscapes, but the travel time is limited and the seats comfortable. Finally, prices are not very high for western standards, even for the so-called VIP class.
How to buy train tickets
To book tickets, there is the website of the Uzbek Railway although the English version is including some Cyrillic characters. At the time of our visit, it was not accessible. Therefore we contacted the travel agency Stantours to book tickets for a 10 US$ fee per ticket. It is a well-known and reliable travel agency in Central Asia. They would then deliver the tickets to your hotel in Tashkent when you arrive.
In all cases, it is recommended to book train tickets way in advance of your trip as there are not so many high-speed trains each day. On the day of your travel, you need to arrive at the station at least 30 minutes. To note, there are security checks at the entrance. The stations are well maintained and not crowded.
Cost of tickets
You can pick your seats among 3 types of classes: 2nd, Business and VIP. We booked on VIP, which is essentially a 1st class with large leather seats including electrical adjustment, a light drink and food service.
To give you an idea, here are the journey duration and indicative prices per person. The government announced a price increase as of November 2018.
Tashkent - Samarkand (2:00 hours, VIP ticket at 30$ per person)
Samarkand - Bukhara (1:30 hours, VIP ticket at 25$)
Bukhara - Tashkent (3:50 hours, VIP ticket at 40$)
We recommend using an internal flight if you plan to include Khiva in your itinerary. This ancient city is located in the far west of the country and best accessible by plane from Tashkent.
By train, you can count 7 hours on a slow train from the closest town on our recommended itinerary, which is Bukhara. The Afrosiyob high-speed train does not go further west than Bukhara. Alternatively, you can rent a private driver from Bukhara and cross the desert in a bit more than 5 hours. The landscape is mainly flat and arid.
Internal flights from Tashkent (1:30 hour journey) land in Urgench, a city 40 km away from Khiva. Therefore you will need at least 3 days to go there, visit one full day and connect then with your next city.
One can wonder how safe it is to travel in Uzbekistan. It is still a relatively unknown country that shares borders with troubled states such as Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is overall a safe country with low crime rate. If you visit the capital and the other famous cities (Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva), there is no risk even as a female solo-traveler.
Some remote regions close to the borders with other Central Asian states such as the Ferghana valley used to be not recommended to travelers. Uzbekistan faces tensions with some neighboring states.
Part of these tensions date back to the drawing of borders by the USSR in the 1920s. The Soviet government in Moscow did not take into account ethnic groups when defining the territories of the new Soviet Republics of Central Asia. It is said that they did it on purpose to avoid national identities to emerge and raise against the USSR.
In the main cities, you will notice the presence of policemen and security guards inside trains, subway stations and around monuments.
In train stations, they perform luggage and passport controls at the entrance. Inside Tashkent’s subway, security guards can stop you for a security check so it is recommended to carry at least copies of your passports and Visa at all time.
Each hotel will provide you with a registration slip that you must keep until the end of your trip. Indeed you will be asked to present them upon leaving the country.
In the past, it used to be forbidden for a non-married couple to stay in the same room but this policy has been suspended by the new President.
Most hotels ask to be paid in cash, either in local currency (the sum) or in US dollars. We could use our foreign payment card only in a premium international hotel in Tashkent. Regarding hotel prices, we can give you a range based on our experience as indication:
60 to 150 US$ per night including breakfast for upper range independent boutique hotels in Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara. Most of them had excellent location close to historical sites, were well maintained or even brand new. The staff spoke English. To note, even new hotels often use a traditional architecture, which is nice.
200 US$ for luxury international hotel in Tashkent (new Hyatt Regency), but it might be the best hotel of the country right now.
We did not travel to budget and lower category hotels where you would pay less than 50 US$ per night.
Converting money and payments
In Uzbekistan, you will have to pay most expenses in cash. We recommend you to bring foreign currencies in cash from abroad and change them in banks. Until mid 2017, the official exchange rate in banks was twice higher than on the black-market. Since then, they have changed and the bank rate was adjusted. ATM may not always be reliable.
We advise you to bring a little bag to carry Uzbek cash. When you consider that 1 US$ is worth 8’250 Sums (the local currency), you understand that you might sometimes carry a lot of bank notes.
The most beautiful sites of Uzbekistan are linked to the Muslim religion and 80% of the population describes themselves as Sunni Muslim. However, decades of Soviet domination in the 20th century crushed any strong religious feeling and expression of faith.
The Communist doctrine was fundamentally against any form of Religion and former president Karimov ensured to prevent the rise of Islamist groups after the independence in 1991. Today, most women wear colorful dresses and a kind of veil that has no religious meaning.
There are some specialties from Central Asia to try. We would not describe Uzbekistan as a “foodie “destination although you can find very good authentic dishes and places.
Here are some favorite to try.
Plov: it’s the national dish of Uzbekistan. Cooked in a cauldron, plov consists of rice, meat (often lamb), grated carrots and onions topped with raisins or chickpeas.
Shashliks: this the local name for skewered and grilled cubes of meat (lamb, beef or pork). Uzbek eat them a lot and lamb is their favorite meat.
Green tea (kuk-choy): all meals end with a cup of green tea in Uzbekistan.They usually drink it without sugar. The trade on the Silk Roads brought tea from China. The Uzbek word for tea (choy) is actually very close to the Chinese original word (cha). Besides the drink, their typical tea silverware is a nice souvenir to bring home!
When visiting the bazaars, you should look at some of these crafts for authentic souvenirs:
Ceramics and pottery
There is a famous know-how of ceramic-making in Rhistan, a city in the Ferghana Valley. This valley is located on the Eastern end of Uzbekistan and used to be a kind of no-go area for travelers. However you can find this craft in other cities when visiting bazaars.
Since 800 years, craftsmen from Rhistan have produced glazed ceramic with a unique red clay and natural pigments made from plants’ ashes. The ceramics are painted in rich colors, mainly blue and turquoise, but also with touches of green, yellow or red.
Do not expect to pay just few dollars for authentic pieces although you can negotiate. Each piece is handmade and require time and materials, it is not a factory-based mass production. Visiting a specialized shop in Bukhara, we acquired a selection of large bowls, tea cups and small plates for around 80 US$.
These are traditional embroidered textiles made of silk, cotton or velvet. The word suzani means “needlework” in Persian and most Uzbek homes are decorated with several of them.
Suzani take the form of prayer mat, covers for bed, table or cushions. They can be simply hanged on the wall of the house. The motives are mainly floral - blossoms, vines, pomegranate, plants - and each region has its own designs and colors.
Culture & history
The Silk Road heritage
The term “Silk Road” is often used when referring to Samarkand and Bukhara’s history. The word was only invented in the 19th century by a famous German traveler, geographer and scientist.
It is actually not describing one single road where silk was traded from the East (China) to the West (Europe). It rather refers to a complex network of commercial land and maritime roads connecting Asia (present China, India and South East Asia) with Europe via Constantinople and Central Asia.
The Uzbek cities played pivotal roles in this trading network. All kinds of products (from tea to horses), ideas and religions (Buddhism, Islam) were circulating along these paths.
The Uzbek language and people
Uzbek language belongs to the Turkic family of languages. The Uzbek people originally descend from Turko-Mongolian tribes who converted to Islam. These tribes progressively migrated South of Siberia into central Asian steppes and stopped being nomadic. They collided with people of Persian culture.
With the Soviet rule in the 20th century, Russian and Cyrillic alphabet became official language and writing for decades. Today, most Uzbek are still fluent in Uzbek and Russian.
Uzbek is now officially written in the Latin alphabet but is often found in Cyrillic. In the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, the Farsi Persian language is still spoken because there is a significant Tajik community.
The official statistics do not reflect correctly their size. Tajikistan actually believes that these cities should be part of their country, causing tensions with Uzbekistan. Tajiks have a Persian cultural background. Regarding English, many hotels and restaurants are English-speaking.
The Russian and Soviet domination
i) The Russian conquest:
Current Uzbekistan territory was progressively invaded by Russian troops in the 1860s which called the broad territory “Turkestan”. Their goal was to prevent England’s colonization of the region from their base India.
At the beginning, Russian presence was mainly a military occupation. In some places, they created protectorates such as the Emirate of Bukhara governed by a local Emir. The construction of railways connecting the region with Russia in the early 20th century marked the start of a Russian ethnic immigration.
After the Communist revolution, Stalin transformed the area into a Socialist Soviet Republic in 1924. The other Central Asia republics were created at the same time: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan.
Russian transferred factories in Uzbekistan during World War II when the country faced the invasion of Hitler and his allies. Millions of Uzbek men were sent to the war front to fight for the USSR.
The next decades of rules from Moscow deeply impacted the country. First, the language: most Uzbek had to learn and speak Russian. There was also a size-able number of Russian immigrants settling there. Today around 5% of the population is labelled as “Russian”. In Tashkent, there are Orthodox churches and the urban planing reminds of Russian Soviet cities. Indeed an earthquake destroyed Tashkent in 1966 and thousands of Russian workers helped to rebuild it in the Soviet style. Many workers stayed in Tashkent to live afterwards.
Then the religion: Communism doctrine was against religion and the USSR made sure to prevent expressions of Islam including closing mosques and forbidding women from wearing burkas.
ii) Russian saved the architectural heritage
Many mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs were in ruins because of the earthquakes hitting the region and the effect of time.
Moscow first gave little attention to them on purpose because Communists wanted to build a “new man” and a “new society”. This meant letting go any remembrance of the past.
Starting in the 1960s, a new policy was put in place to start saving the heritage of Uzbekistan. Russians were instrumental in the effort to save and restore the Islamic marvels of the country. Their intent was also to offer touristic sites to their fellow citizens at a time when travel was limited in the Communist block. The restoration effort in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva was intense until the 1990s. Uzbket authorities have continued this restoration effort.
iii) The modern times:
After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Communist block in Eastern Europe, the country became independent in 1991. It switched to another regime led by Islam Karimov. Karimov has governed for 25 years and died in 2016.
The new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev is opening the economy to foreign investments and trying to diversify the economy, for instance by promoting tourism.
We hope that these practical tips and cultural insights on Uzbekistan help you to prepare your adventure!