We got a lot of blank looks and horrified stares when we told our friends and family we were going to travel to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan travel isn’t on most people’s bucket lists. People who have heard of the country might think it is dangerous because it ends with -stan! On the contrary, Uzbekistan travel is safe, straightforward, and highly rewarding.
Uzbekistan is recovering from a bad reputation among independent travelers. In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign travelers to Uzbekistan were routinely harassed by police. I had always wanted to visit the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan. When I mentioned my dream to a group of seasoned travelers in a European hostel in the year 2000, they warned me off with horror stories of corruption, bureaucracy, and dodgy Soviet hotels. Those problems have since disappeared and Uzbekistan is a surprisingly easy travel destination. It’s also a well-kept secret. When we were in Uzbekistan, we felt smug that we were visiting this fascinating country at the perfect time. It’s an underrated gem that should be on every independent traveler’s bucket list. Here are some of the things that we think make Uzbekistan worth visiting now.
Uzbekistan’s typical tourist trifecta consists of the historic Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. They lie in a roughly east-west axis with Khiva in the west and Samarkand in the east. As you go from west to east, the cities get bigger and have more famous sights but less character. Khiva, the smallest of the Silk Road cities, was our favorite. It’s the one city that lives up to your most exotic Silk Road dreams.
Many travelers only spend a day in Khiva, or skip it because it’s a bit out of the way from Bukhara and Samarkand. We spent five nights there on a much-needed break after our fast-paced trip through Iran and Turkmenistan. Our guesthouse, the Meros B&B, was the perfect place to unwind. It’s a family-run guesthouse in the old town with a fantastic rooftop view.
The entire old town of Khiva has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and living museum. Nearly every building in the old town was once a mosque, medressa, or palace. Many of them have been tastefully restored. Some people might find the city a bit fossilized, but we think that preservation is better than ugly development. There are no Coca-Cola banners in the old town! Khiva is tiny but rewards wandering in the early morning or late afternoon when the souvenir sellers have packed up. It’s the most atmospheric place in Uzbekistan. It was easy to imagine the streets full of caravan merchants, slave traders, cruel emirs, and Great Game characters.
Khiva is also a great base to explore the desert fortresses of Khorezm. This desert empire flourished for several centuries before Genghis Khan conquered it, leaving a string of ruined fortresses. A taxi for a half-day tour of several castles costs $50 and can be shared between four people. Not a lot remains of the fortresses, but archaeology buffs will have a great time scrambling around the ruins.
One of the highlights of Uzbekistan travel is the high quality budget accommodation in family-run guesthouses. $35-$45 will get you a comfortable, air-conditioned double room, lavish breakfast, and extremely friendly service. We stayed at the Lonely Planet’s starred recommendation in each city and were never disappointed. Meros B&B in Khiva just about edged out the others for its location, home-cooked dinners, and friendly family.
Silk Road architecture
This is the reason to come to Uzbekistan. The cities are studded with turquoise domes, sandy minarets, and imposing blue-tiled medressas. Khiva and Bukhara bristle with minarets, all in varying shades of mud brick and blue tiles. The Kalta Minar and Islam Khoja minaret in Khiva are standouts for their fantastic tile work.
The Kalta Minar and Islam Khoja minarets in Khiva.
The most famous sight in Uzbekistan is the Registan complex in Samarkand, built by Tamerlane. To be honest, we thought it was the least rewarding monument to visit. The interior of the Registan’s mosques and medressas are completely given over to tacky souvenir stalls, and we found the tilework less beautiful than some other spots in the country. It didn’t help that the complex was closed all day except for 11AM until 3 PM all summer for rehearsals for the opening ceremony of the Oriental Music Festival. This is the hottest time of day and worst time for photography. However, on our first night we were able to walk around the perimeter of the complex and photograph the golden light from behind the barrier.
Left: a dome on the Registan. Right: Mosaics at the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleums.
Our favorite sight in Samarkand was the Shah-e-Zinda mausoleum complex. The tile work is incredible and it’s still a place of pilgrimage.
Uzbek textiles, crafts and design
Fashionistas and interior decorators, Uzbekistan travel is for you. Traditional crafts such as silk, embroidery, and wood carving are alive and well. Museums in Nukus and Khiva showcase typical Uzbek clothing and crafts from the past century. This is a great place to buy handmade silk scarves and embroidered bedspreads.
Many buildings in Khiva and Bukhara have porches and interiors held up with wood pillars carved in a style called ghanch. It reminded us of the Newari style of wood carving of the Kathmandu Valley, and the brightly painted roofs made us think of Tibet.
Uzbek people are the nicest in Central Asia
“Otkuda?” If you travel through Uzbekistan, you’ll often hear this phrase (“where are you from?”) as the overture to a conversation. The local people are the friendliest in Central Asia. Not many Uzbeks outside the tourist industry speak English, but that didn’t stop them from making conversation with us. The more Russian you can dredge up, the better. My rudimentary Russian was sufficient for basic getting-to-know-you conversations. Proficient Russian speakers will be able to have much more rewarding interactions with Uzbeks. Just don’t be surprised when your new friend asks you how much money you earn. It’s a normal question in Uzbekistan!
Uzbekistan travel is at its sweet spot
Go to Uzbekistan now! Uzbekistan travel is at the sweet spot where the tourist infrastructure is well developed but the culture hasn’t been overly impacted by mass tourism. Uzbekistan travel is safe, easy and fairly hassle-free. Our visas were easy to obtain, there are good hotels and restaurants, and the autocratic president has stopped police from shaking down tourists. In many ways, travel in Uzbekistan is easier than in much more popular India and Nepal: touts, scams, and hassle are almost nonexistent.
Travel logistics in Uzbekistan are straightforward. Transportation around the country is fairly easy to arrange. The rail network connects Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. Shared taxis make the run through the desert between Bukhara and Khiva. The main cities have plenty of good-value accommodation and food options. Guesthouse owners can give advice and help arrange onward travel.
The only real annoyance is around money exchange. ATMs are almost nonexistent so you need to bring all the money you will need in cash US dollars. You will get a much better rate by changing money on the black market. Ask your hotel for a trustworthy money changer. The black market rate ranged from 3900 to 4300 som to the US dollar during our trip. The most common denomination of the Uzbek som is worth US$0.25, which means you end up carrying around bricks of cash. Locals have developed a technique for rapidly counting stacks of bills.
Despite the ease of travel, Uzbekistan feels like a well-kept secret. Everywhere we went, we marveled at how few tourists there were. Forget the hordes of tour groups in Istanbul. In Uzbekistan it was possible to have some of the sights completely to ourselves. The cities we visited felt fairly authentic (Samarkand a little less so, having cordoned off the main tourist sights into a manicured version of Silk Road history). The people of Uzbekistan are very friendly and appear to be unjaded by tourism.
Those tourists who do make it to Uzbekistan are fun to hang out with. Uzbekistan is far from the typical backpacker banana pancake trail through India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. There are no drunk gap year students or annoying spiritual seekers here! The other travelers we met in Uzbekistan were all interesting people. We had some great conversations and got useful information about onward travel in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Uzbek food (sort of…)
Let’s get this straight: you don’t come to Central Asia for the food. Central Asian cuisine is heavy on mutton and starch and low on flavor and spice. Dill is usually the only flavoring, and chunks of fat are considered a delicacy. However, Uzbekistan is the best country to sample Central Asian cuisine. The ingredients are fresher and the mutton less gamey than in other Central Asian countries. The best food we had were the home-cooked dinners at Meros B&B in Khiva, with the bonus of sunset views over the old town. We should also mention the melons, which Uzbekistan grows and exports all over the region.
Add Uzbekistan to your bucket list!
When travelers ask us where to go in Central Asia, we tell them that if they could only choose one country, to choose Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan travel doesn’t have everything: for example, the hiking pales in comparison to Kyrgyzstan. But independent travelers with a taste for the offbeat should add Uzbekistan to their bucket list. Another great reason to come to Uzbekistan is that with a fairly limited number of places to visit, it would be easy to see the highlights in a two-week vacation without being rushed.
Have you been to Uzbekistan? Do you agree that it’s a pleasure to travel there? Let us know in the comments!