If you visit my blog more often, then you have read quite a bit about my trip to Uzbekistan. This country surprised me, and I noticed that people around me that I showed my photos to were also surprised. The reactions I got were: ‘Wow, I did not expect that at all!’ or ‘It’s so colorful!’ and ‘It almost looks like the Middle East’. A lot of people have no clue what Uzbekistan looks like and that makes the surprise even bigger. I traveled for ten days in Uzbekistan. Just enough to see the highlights. In this article I tell about the route I took and I will give a couple of tips in case Uzbekistan is also on your list.
Our route in Uzbekistan
Day 1 and 2: Tashkent
Day one was a short one. After a long travel day from Amsterdam via Istanbul we arrived in Tashkent at 2 in the morning. The next day we had to get up early for a pre-arranged guided tour through the Uzbek capital. We walked across the Barak-khan madrassa, wandered through the streets of old Tashkent, took a ride along the beautiful metro stations (taking photos here is forbidden) and walked across the Chorsi Bazaar. Here we tasted delicious somsa (the Uzbek version of samosa), dried fruits and nuts and a couple of strong white cheeses. We quickly noticed during the tour that Tashkent isn’t as busy as you might expect from a capital. It is surprisingly quiet and easy-going.
Day 3 and 4: Khiva
Again a short night in Tashkent. Early in the morning we got on a plane to Urgench to drive from there to Khiva. This is the open air museum of Uzbekistan. The old inner city (Itchan Kala) is surrounded by a winding wall and contains a lot of little museums, palaces and madrassas. My favorite highlight of this city was the Kalta Minor, the the thick and small minaret that has never been finished. It is a real pleasure to wander around Khiva, especially at sunset when the golden light strikes the sandy walls.
Read more: Along the Uzbek Silk Road: museum city Khiva
Day 5, 6 and 7: Bukhara
From Khiva we drove across the Kyzylkum desert to Bukhara. My favorite city in Uzbekistan. The atmosphere is great, the people are super friendly and I loved walking around the bazaars. Moreover, we spent three days in this city so we had a lot more time to get to know it. My favorite places were the Chor Minor with the quirky four towers, the Poi Kalon complex and the alleys of Lyab-i-Hauz.
Read more: Bukhara, my favorite city in Uzbekistan
Day 8 and 9: Samarkand
Time to catch a train. In Bukhara we took an old slow train on the way to Samarkand. Our compartment came with a group television with some loud Uzbek soap opera on it. So there was no resting for us, we were forced to watch this. Samarkand was our last stop on the Uzbek silk road. And it was one with nothing but highlights. We visited the heritage of Tamerlane: the impressive Registan, the extremely high Bibi Khanum mosque and the great mausoleum of Timur himself (Gur i Mir). But the true highlight for us was the Shah-i-Zinda, the most colorful crave yard of Central Asia.
Day 10: Tashkent
One more time we got on a train, but this time it was a modern train. Between Samarkand and Tashkent there is a high-speed train with air-conditioning, catering and earplugs so you can choose if you want to watch the Uzbek soap or not. They say Uzbekistan is working on a same train between Bukhara and Samarkand, so maybe in the future there will one there too. The last hours in Tashkent we spent eating. The next day –again early in the morning- we flew back to the Netherlands.
What you should know before visiting Uzbekistan
- Bring euros or dollars in cash: using the ATM in Uzbekistan is not possible and your credit card won’t bring you far. The best thing you could do is bring a lot of money with you to Uzbekistan and exchange it there into Uzbek sum. We brought mostly euros and some dollars, but we used the euros. Uzbekistan is a pretty cheap country. For a lunch for two you pay around 15.000 to 20.000 sum (4 – 7 euro) and for dinner for two you pay 30.000 to 60.000 sum (10 – 20 euros).
- A millionaire within a day: Uzbekistan is a country where you could become a millionaire with one day. When you exchange a couple of hundred euros you will receive a million Uzbek sum. Expect a lot of bank notes, because the biggest bank note is only 5.000 sum. So you might want to consider bringing a couple of wallets to put the money in and divide it around your luggage.
- A vivid black market: in Uzbekistan there is a big difference between the official and the unofficial exchange rate. During my visit to Uzbekistan one euro was 3.300 sum according to the official exchange rate, but on the black market one euro was 5.000 sum. A big difference! So I advise you to exchange your money on the black market, even though it is illegal. Tip: ask a local guide to exchange your money. They know which moneychanger they can trust and that way you don’t have to check all those banknotes yourself.
- Safety for tourists: during my visit I felt complety safe. Like a local guide said to me: you are probably safer here than in your own country. Crime is fiercely punished in the dictatorial Uzbekistan of president Karimov. Of course, things can always go wrong when you exchange money or you are not too careful with your stuff. Just keep paying attention and you will be fine.
- Uzbekistan as a Islamic country: the majority of the population is Muslim, but a lot of people in the cities do not practice the Islam. This is something I noticed during the Ramadan: a lot of people continued drinking and eating throughout the day. Of course, this could be a different story on the countryside. Also most women in the cities don’t wear headscarves.
- Uzbek bureaucracy: registration slips: tourists have to register on a daily basis. This sounds like a hassle, but most hotels do this for you. When you check out they will give you a stamped slip. At the end of the trip you will have a bunch of these colored stamped slips. When you leave country you might be asked to show these slips. For me, this did not happen. But I would still recommend collecting these slips, because you don’t want to be in trouble.
- More Uzbek bureaucracy: the custom form: when arriving and departing Uzbekistan you will have to fill in a custom form (double). Here you have to state how much cash money and devices you are bringing to the country. At customs we soon discovered that it does not matter what you fill in. They just want to see if you filled in all the required fields and then they can stamp it. One copy stays with customs and one copy is for you. Do not lose this copy! You will have to give this stamped copy back to customs when you depart, along with a new custom form.
Yes, there are a lot of rules, but don’t forget to be happy!
- Be careful with bringing medicine: if you have a chronic medical condition and you have to take medicine, you have to declare this with the receipt of the doctor and the receipt of the pharmacy. Uzbekistan even has a black list of narcotics that aren’t allowed inside the country. Personally, I do not take any medicine, but if you do I would suggest reading this list very carefully.
- Your English won’t bring you far: in Uzbekistan there are several languages spoken, but English is not one of them. These are Uzbek, Russian and Tajik. I would be easy if you speak a little bit of Russian or at least understand it.
- Be prepared for the food: don’t expect haute cuisine in Uzbekistan, because the Uzbek kitchen is mainly based around meat and it is greasy and bland (no flavoring). Popular dishes are plov (rice with sheap meat, onion and carrots), manti (pastry filled with greasy minced meat) and shashlik (meat skewers). The vegetarian options are cold cucumber soap with egg, non (round flat bread) and Korean carrot salad. Yes, that’s right: Korean. There is a small Korean minority in Uzbekistan as a result of Stalin’s deportations. Though eating the carrot salad is a bit risky, because it stands in a – probably hot – kitchen (no fridge) quite a while before it is served. So it could cause food poisoning (speaking from experience). That’s why you should also bring some Imodium or buy it in Uzbekistan. Luckily, there are also some good Uzbek dishes you can eat, like somsa, sweet pumpkin soup and nougat bars with pistache.
And.. is Uzbekistan on your list?