Country Guide: Uzbekistan

IMGP7452Travel in Uzbekistan is surprisingly easy and relatively comfortable. The country has lots to offer but getting in can be a bit difficult at first. This guide is intended to help you understand the country and plan your own trip.

VISA: This is easily the worst part of travel to Uzbekistan. US Citizens can obtain their visa from the US Embassy but it will take a couple of weeks. Obtaining the visa outside of your home country is possible but you will need a Letter of Invitation (LoI)from an Uzbek Travel Agency; we used Stantours. Rules are similar for most western nationalities but these things change regularly. We picked up our visa, once our LoI from Stantours was ready, in Istanbul and only waited a few hours.

LANGUAGE: Several languages are spoken across the country, most are either Russian or Turkic dialects. If you are a native Turkish speaker you will be OK but Russian is Russian probably your best bet. Armed with only English and Spanish, we made it through the country with a combination of charades and pictionary.

MONEY: Don’t use the banks. There are no ATMs. When we were in Uzbekistan, the bank-rate was 1,600 so’m to one U$D but the market rate was 2,200 so’m to one U$D. By using the black market we were able to increase our spending power by a full third. This was simple and not a problem, most places we slept were happy to change our money (at 2,100 so’m) for us. Do be sure to come in with sufficient currency though, dollars are always best but euros are OK too. The only other places we’ve experienced this were Sudan and Malawi, in both instances the market rates were about 20% higher than the bank rate.

IMGP7416TRANSPORTATION: Easy and simple. As you travel from city to city you will generally have a choice of a shared taxi or a bus. The bus will usually take about 40% longer (and therefore much safer) but will often cost half as much as the taxi as the 4-seat shared taxi. Occasionally you will also have the choice of a martshruka (mini-bus) which falls somewhere between the first two options in both speed and cost. Before going to the taxi stand/bus-stop just ask at your hotel about the prices for each. Taxis leave when they are full, catching a bus is often a matter of luck. There are trains, but not as many.

OVIR REGISTRATION: When you stay in a hotel, they will need to register your passport for you. This is simple, but you must keep the itsy-bitsy-tiny-weenie piece of paper they give you as proof of your registration. Technically you only need show proof of lodging/registration every third night of your stay in Uzbekistan but for our money we’d rather have proof for all of our nights. If you mess up you risk fines/bribes and being deported but as you’d only be found out as you’re leaving the country anyhow….chances are you’ll just be faced with fines…err…..bribes. Our final night was spent couchsurfing in Tashkent and this worried us and sent us to the border early, in the end we were just fine. We were told that you are more likely to have problems at the airport rather than at land borders.

SITES: You will visit Bukhara and Samarkand. If you don’t, you probably should not have bothered going to Uzbekistan. In each place you will be asked to pay for each site individually, usually $1-$3…$4 at the most. You will also need to pay extra to use a camera. Most sites do not offer ISIC student discounts…but will do so if you balk at the price and are willing to take the discount in exchange for not receiving a ticket 😉

SAMARKAND: The Samarkand sites more spread out throughout the city than in Bukhara or Khiva. The Registan is the main site and might be the entire reason you came to Uzbekistan. There are other several sites in the vicinity (Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Guri Amir Mausoleum, etc) but we found the Ulugbek Observatory and Shah-I-Zinda to be a bit more interesting in comparison to the other larger sites. We also recommend a day trip to Shakhrisabz if you are tiring of the tourist circuit. The sites are less maintained and more integrated with modern city life. Easy links from Samarkand to both Tashkent and Bukhara via the taxi/bus stand at the Ulugbek Observatory.

BUKHARA: In Bukhara the sites are all located together and are filled with all kinds of souvenir shops. If you are planning to purchase anything in Uzbekistan this is probably the place to do it. Bus is 8 hours to Urgench/Khiva and 5 to Samarkand en route to Tashkent, taxi is shorter for both trips. A guide for the Ark is cheap and worth it, most other sites are fine on your own.

KHIVA: To get here your will need to travel via Urgench, the nearby transportation hub city. All sites you will want to see, and hotels you’re likely to stay in, are inside the old city. If you are without a guidebook, the tourist office in the center of the city will help you and should be able to provide you with maps and transportation information. The bazaar is just outside the walls and worth a stroll for any small supplies or to change money. No matter what, make sure you walk through the old city at night with the stars out…the dark starry sky with the bright minarets is absolutely stunning.

NUKUS & ARAL SEA: There is a tourist hotel right next to the art museum you likely came to Nukus to see. Be forewarned, the museum is closed for holidays (as happened to us) and Sundays and Mondays. Trips to the Aral Sea can be arranged from Nukus but you are basically paying a lot of money to drive a very long distance to see several rusty ships on shore (used to be in the water) and the new shoreline. We passed the sea on the train from Kazakhstan and it looked like nothing more than a lake without sufficient water. This is the site of the one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, but that doesn’t mean there is much to see and/or do. A shared taxi to/from Kungrad should cost around 10000-12000 so’m ($6) and onward to Urgench/Khiva should be about the same price.

Foodie Friday: Plov in Khiva

We came in the back door to Uzbekistan and it wasn’t until Khiva that we made it onto the “tourist” track. Old and mysterious, Khiva was a lovely introduction to Uzbekistan’s silk road sites. Wandering out of the old city walls, we were greeted by children and families with a familiar “Saalam aleychum”. Wandering into a mosque, we removed our shoes before poking around. IMGP7237 Deep in the labyrinth of rooms, in an adjoining courtyard, three men stood around a wood fire stirring an enormous cauldron of rice. Chatting through charades and what little Russian we know, we watched them work and were soon invited to return an hour later for food.

When we returned we didn’t really know what to expect. The mosque area was busy with other men filling bowls and retiring to small rooms to eat and at first we didn’t know what to do. The chef charged us for climbing up their minaret, after inviting us to do so, and we were concerned as to what the price of lunch might be. Awkward as this situation can be, the men motioned to the sky indicating the meal, and the chance to provide for a few weary travelers, was a gift from above.

IMGP7256Sitting on cushions and carpets we ate off a low table that was covered in nuts, fruits and Plov. Plov can best be described like rice pilaf, that’s why the name is so similar, but with dried and fresh fruit slow cooked in. Simmered with aromatic oils and fruits, the dish was as delicious as it smelled. It’s often served with meat on top, but its easily adaptable for vegetarians. A big plate fed three of us and we spent a long time afterwards relaxing, digesting and nibbling on the fruit. Deep in the shade of the mosque the meal felt like a throwback to a thousand years ago. Our hosts were incredibly generous and we thanked them profusely for the experience and the food. They were delighted that we enjoyed the meal and after a few pictures we went on our way back to the old town. Like so many things, it was an experience hard to forget.

IF YOU GO: Khiva is the ‘third’ of Uzbekistan’s silk road cities and travelers sometimes give it a miss. Although it is the smallest in magnitude it has the most authentic feel as people still live and work inside the walls of the old city. Walking through the old city at night, with the minarets lit and the sky above a perfect ‘Milky Way’ dark, is probably the best way to enjoy the city. We stayed at the Otabek B&B but rumor has it Meros, for slightly more money, represents better value…both are within the old city’s walls. Souvenirs seemed cheaper in Khiva than in Bukhara as well. To get to Khiva (from either Buchara or Nukus) you will need to travel through Urgench, a $1 bus ride from Khiva.

Who are the Central Asian People?

As the center of the Silk Road, Uzbekistan has a long history of diversity. Not surprising given that traders mingled here for hundreds of years bringing goods from Southeast Asia, China, the Persian Empire, Europe and the Middle East through the region. With their goods of course came people, wives, children, servants and slaves. Then there were the conquerors who ravaged the land looking to cash in on the wealth and—before getting too far into the region’s history—you have probably the most unique melting pot of races, ethnicities and cultures in the ancient world. Uzbekistan was probably the world’s first global society.

IMGP7522Some of that diversity remains today. Populations of Koreans, Chinese, Russians, Persians, Turks, Nomads, Christians, Muslims and Jews live together and although the trading has moved away from silks and spices, the society functions much in the same way. A relatively sizable Jewish population still exists in Bukhara, although more and more move to Israel every year. Sephardic, the population maintains its religious piety, synagogues and community centers still exist. Tashkent even has a few Korean barbecue restaurants and a sizable Western expat population. Mixing the pot a little more, Tashkent’s lingua franca is Russian while in Western Uzbekistan the people mostly speak Karakalpak, a Turkic language.

IMGP7545A look at the people tells the land’s history. The Uzbek people are a complete racial mix, and its unlikely that you can pick out a predominate feature. Their features are mixed: a handful of faces topped with blond hair, seem to shout “Alexander the Great was here,” while most others, with straight black hair and distinctly Asian features are definitely relatives of the nomadic peoples that populated this area. Some look like they belong in India or Pakistan while others just defy profiling. Traditional clothing ranges from highly patterned Asian silks to sparkling velours and square hats that remind us of Turkey and other Islamic states.

Their way of life may be different than our own, but their faces tell the history of the world.

The Center of the Silk Road

It’s hard to believe, but we made it to the center of the silk road, or at least the cross roads where all the silk roads came together. At one time it was the center of an empire (and then another and another and another and another) and was a bustling bazaar filled city with the widest array of goods available in the world at that time. For centuries, fabrics, exotic spices, teas, foods, metalwork, crafts, animals and slaves were all traded in the bazaars of Bukhara and Samarkand. He who ruled those cities ran the trade, and profitable that it was, it’s no surprise Bukhara and Samarkand were a sought after war prize.

IMGP7440What’s left in Bukhara today is a surprisingly good amount of the old city- madrassas, caravanserai’s (silk road inns), several mosques, minarets and even a fortress. Having been sacked by Genghis Khan in the 14th Century, the city was completely destroyed except for one minaret, 40m high, which Genghis himself couldn’t bear to bring down and neither could the Russian Red Army in the 1920s when they took over the city. Although there are throngs of French tour groups (oh la la!), in the evening Bukhara quiets down and we found ourselves alone at sunset in the Kalon Mosque. Peaceful as it was, it wasn’t hard to imagine a courtyard full of merchants (like modern day souvenir sellers) hawking their goods, camels resting near by, trying to unload and reload before continuing their journey.

IMGP7460Samarkand however was a different story. While the buildings that are left are striking in size and design, there is no “old city” left. Everything near the sites has seemingly been torn down, sanitized, landscaped and paved. The architecture that is left is absolutely stunning, the tiled designs are for the most part in excellent condition and the “Registan” area is probably the most impressive single area that we’ve seen thus far. That being said, there’s an entrance fee for everything and its not a pleasurable wander, it feels more like tourist site to tourist site amidst a bustling city.

IMGP7518We also found a few sites, not right in downtown Samarkand, to be more interesting and a different than most of the larger sites we had visited so far. One, the Ulugbek Observatory featured the site that pioneered the science of Astronomy hundreds of years before Galeleo and Newton, and housed a museum detailing much of what was done there. We also took a day trip (shared taxi across the street from the Registan) to escape the “just for tourist” feel of Samarkand to Shakhrisabz, where the buildings haven’t been completely renovated and there is still life to it all. We were in Shakhrisabz on a Wednesday and counted at least 12 brides in full puffy gowns.

To our great dismay the atmosphere in Bukhara and Samarkand is a bit like Disney World. The main square of old Bukhara, with its mangrove shaded pool, was surrounded by upmarket tourist restaurants with Christmas lights strung about. IMGP7491The entire old city of Bukhara has been sanitized by the government (literally, much of the old has been bulldozed) and although we were in Central Asia, there weren’t any signs of that developing world vitality- local vendors, children playing in the streets, animals grazing in the grass. Samarkand was similar, the historical sites have all been turned into souvenir shops and the former classrooms and dormitories of the Madrassas now house mass produced souvenirs from China.

Last year the government knocked down the main pedestrian street in Samarkand and rebuilt a beautiful shop lined boulevard. A decorative wall blocks tourists view of real-life. Even the market had been torn down and renovated, and its gleaming gate and newly decorated walls shout new rather than old. Our couchsurfing host in Tashkent lamented the government changes, and frankly we couldn’t agree more. It’s as though the government has come through with a huge checkbook, cleaned, renovated and made the whole place “perfect” for all those French tourists. It’s a real shame, in our opinion the sites we came all this way to see have lost their sense of place.

IF YOU GO: Transportation between the cities of Uzbekistan is easy with shared taxis making the trip for twice as much as the bus. The taxi is faster (and therefore a dangerous roller coaster ride) but is still cheap. We traveled between these cities, mostly via bus, for approximately $5 each with some rides lasting 8 hours. Food is similarly priced and we generally paid $16-$20 for a private room. In Samarkand we recommend the Bahodir B&B; despite the plumbing problems mentioned in the guidebooks it was a very comfortable and cozy place to stay.

Actually getting to Central Asia

This is part two in a series on how we actually planed and traveled to Central Asia. If you haven’t read the first post you should probably do so before reading this post.

Ultimately we decided against going to Azerbaijan entirely for a variety of issues not least of which was a visa. Upon our arrival in Tbilisi, we walked into every travel agent we could find. On Day 2 of this, we walked into an office that directed us to the only person in the city that could actually issue a ticket for SCAT airways, which was not possible online even if we could have read the Russian website. We also learned that all flights from Tbilisi to Aktau for the next two weeks were full. This upset us, but we continued to search for information on Georgian International Airways, after having the tourist office call at least 7 disconnected phone numbers for them, we determined they either did not exist or did not want our business.

The ticket we purchased was for one week later from Yerevan, Armenia to Aktau, Kazakhstan on SCAT Airlines. This was good because we had wanted to go to Armenia but weren’t sure if we could. Had we gone to Azerbaijan, having Armenian visas in our passports could have been problematic. Officially, travel to the area of land claimed by Azerbaijan, controlled by Armenia, will get you the boot from Azerbaijan….but we’ve heard of people having all sorts of problems for having even a regular Armenian visa in their passports.

The 90 minute flight cost us $250, no small sum. It was however less than the combined total of a $120 ferry ride across the Caspian Sea, waiting (and paying for lodging) for another expensive visa, and then waiting still longer for an unscheduled ferry in the expensive port city of Baku, Azerbaijan. The most amusing part the ticket was that it was completely handwritten and by a woman who spoke little English and preferred to use her German with us. Somehow we managed to purchase it, but up until takeoff I was waiting to be alerted to some mistake having been made. I don’t believe is planning to start operations in the region anytime soon.

We flew to Aktau and landed at 3am and then waited until sunrise to leave the airport on a very expensive taxi to the train station to get our onward train ticket to Kungrad, Uzbekistan. We knew this train ran daily but we had heard (via other travelers) that we might have trouble getting a train out on the same day of arrival. We had no problems with this and both trains (there was a transfer in Beineyu) were sleeper plotzclass trains, phenomenally better than nearly any overnight bus we’ve ever been on but distinctly ‘soviet’ and not luxurious by any means. Aktau, as promised, was not a place we wanted to waste anytime in…both expensive and boring. We used this site to find train times in advance, but the Aktau station is called Mangyshlak and not knowing this little tidbit caused us all sorts of stress for several weeks as we painstakingly tried to purchase tickets in advance.

After arriving in Uzbekistan from Aktau we learned what might have happened to us had we crossed the Caspian Sea via one of our ferry options. An Englishman we met had taken the ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. He arrived in Baku one day early, was nearly ushered onto the ferry but pointed out that his visa wouldn’t be valid yet, then waited a day. The following day he took the ferry and had no problems getting into Turkmenistan and to Uzbekistan in the allotted 5 days. He did note though that no one in Turkmenistan was willing to talk to him, a potentially illegal act, given there were police everywhere. We were the first westerners he’d seen in over a week.

While waiting for the Turkmenbashi ferry, he met a Frenchman who had waited for 10 days for the Aktau ferry—the one we would have likely taken—then once it had been loaded with oil and gas, was told it was too dangerous and he would have to wait for the next ferry. Had we gotten the 5 day transit visa for Azerbaijan we would have been in the same boat as this Frenchman, pun intended, and would have likely violated the terms of our visa. Rumor has it though, that he had already missed the ferry once before, but that was his own fault.

IF YOU GO: Aktau is not a place you should plan to spend time in. There are some underground mosques about 400 km south, but unfortunately visits can only be arranged as part of a very expensive tour. No public transportation runs from the airport to town, its a distance of 25km. An airport taxi costs 2000T (set price) and 3800T to the train station. Local bus #101 runs from the WWII memorial to the train station, but it takes about an hour (price: 50T, $0.30). Taking the ferry to Baku from Aktau, it’s necessary to go to T@gu tours, near the WWII memorial to put your name on a list. Once in Uzbekistan, take the train all the way to Kungrad where you can take a shared taxi for about $6 per person to Nukus.