There are few countries left in this world that are mostly undiscovered by westerners. Places where the locals go about their daily business, dressed in brightly colored traditional clothing. Places where there are no Starbucks or Mcdonalds on every corner. Central Asia is one of those pockets of the world where this is true. In particular, Uzbekistan, an amazing place, just waiting to be discovered, and once it is, it will be hard to keep people away. You get all the beautiful architecture stemming from its roots in the Silk road, combined with modern infrastructure that makes getting around a breeze. You can still find traditional market places and bazaars, where you can wander around and watch as locals buy, sell, and trade goods. You can sleep in an ornately decorated madrassah that has been converted into a hotel, or a family run inn with a beautiful central courtyard for relaxing. Most of all, you get amazing people, ready to help you find your way around, curious to meet you and always ready to share a cup of tea with you. Here are just a few reasons you have to visit Uzbekistan today:
The People – Uzbek’s are super warm and friendly. In 3 out of the 4 places I stayed the owners sat down with me to talk and drink tea together. They were super curious about where I was from and what being an American was all about. Everywhere I went locals came up to me and wanted to talk with me, take my picture and find out where I was from. Most of the people still wear traditional clothing so wandering in markets and through the streets was a treat to see the splash of color everywhere. You will always be greeted with a smile and made to feel at home wherever you go.
Uzbeki women at the market. Greetings with a golden smile.
The History – Uzbekistan was part of the ancient Silk Road. A route that spanned from China all the way to Europe. Many of the cities are still home to ancient buildings that served as caravan stops and market places for people to stop, rest and trade their goods. Genghis Khan and Alexander the great were two famous conquerors and pioneers who traveled this famous route. Many minarets, madrassahs, and mosques where built during this important time in history. Everywhere you go there are beautiful buildings with ornate tile work.
Ornate tile work of the Registan in Samarkand
No Tourists – Most of the tourists in Uzbekistan are locals or from one of the neighboring countries of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan or Tajikistan. The local tourists dress in traditional clothes and in my opinion add to the atmosphere of the site. Not that there aren’t western tourists, but they are few and far between and you feel as if you have the whole place to yourself. Most tourist seem to be retirees on packages bus tours through Central Asia so the sight of a single young woman was a novelty for many of the people. Be prepared to have people stare at you and come up to ask to take pictures with you or practice English. If you have blonde hair, blue eyes, or are African American, this is especially so. If you like interacting with the locals it will be a fun experience, where you will get to meet lots of people and feel like a movie star. I even got a few marriage proposals!
Hanging with the locals in Bukhara
Ease Of Travel – Uzbekistan was once part of the former Soviet Union. Similar to Moscow, the capital of Tashkent has an elaborate and ornate subway system. You can use it to see all of the major sites in the capital city. At each subway stop you could see tile mosaics, beautiful chandlers or paintings on the walls. The stations are meticulously maintained and it is super cheap to get around. There is also an extensive train network covering all of the major cities. A fast train goes from the capital of Tashkent to Samarkand in under 2 hours. Smartly dressed staff helps you find your seat, and serves you a meal along the way. Trains which are a little slower, also go to the other major tourist stops of Khiva and Bukara. Anywhere that trains don’t run you can take a shared taxi for a very reasonable price.
The train to Samarkand, fast, clean and comfortable
Cost – Uzbekistan is a steal of a deal. The official exchange rate is around 3000 Som for 1$ USD but if you exchange your money on the black market in the bazaars you can get around 6000 Som per 1$ USD. With a typical meal costing 4500 Som – you are paying between 1.5$-0.75$ a meal. Accommodation can run the gamut, but in general you can find a really nice place for about 35$ a night. If you are willing to stay in home stays or hostels that price goes down even more to around 5-10$ USD a night.
A comfortable room for 35$ a night
The Sights – Uzbekistan is packed with jaw dropping architecture and beautiful landscapes. Even if you just hit up the 4 main cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, you will get your fill of some of the most amazing Islamic architecture around. The tile work on the mosques, madrassahs and minarets is some of the most colorful and beautiful I have laid eyes on. There are so many beautiful examples in this country, you might even hit architectural burnout!
So, if you are looking for a true adventure, in a country rich in cultural and architectural heritage, put Uzbekistan on your bucket list now! It’s an amazing place just waiting to be discovered!
Logistics: Most people need a visa to enter Uzbekistan and the process can take quite a while. Make sure you give yourself at least 8 weeks to obtain your visa ahead of time. I made the mistake of not giving myself enough time, and almost didn’t get my passport back in time. Check out the Embassy of Uzbekistan to find out visa prices and where to apply.
Depending on what consular office you apply through, you might need a Letter of Invitation (LOI) to accompany your visa application. The cheapest and fastest place to get one is from Stantours. Since I live in Minnesota, I got to apply for my visa through the New York consular office and a LOI was not needed. If you are traveling to Uzbekistan from the USA, I found the cheapest way to fly there was through Russia. Since Uzbekistan was part of the former Soviet Union, there are direct flights from Moscow into Tashkent. Check out Aeroflot and Kayak for the best itineraries.
Exchanging money on the black market: I found the best rate in the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent. You will get approached by people asking to “change money” and you can ask for their rate before you make a transaction. Taxi drivers also change money, but their rate is not as good. Since I arrived late at night into Tashkent, I just exchanged a little bit of money in the taxi to get me through the first day. It will feel unsettling having bricks of money in your backpack, but most people carry around a pretty big stash and it isn’t uncommon for men to have a little “murse” (man purse) for their dough. It is technically illegal to exchange money this way, but everyone does it. Just be on the lookout for the police before hand and make your exchange as incognito as possible. Make sure your money is in pristine condition. Old, ripped, or folded dollars are hard to exchange. Bring US dollars with you to Uzbekistan. Euros can also be changed, but it’s not as easy. Outside a few larger banks in Tashkent other currencies are totally useless. 100$ USD will pretty much get you though a weeks long trip through the country if you are on a backpacker budget.
Get used to traveling with bricks of cash!
Registration: While in Uzbekistan you are required to ‘register’ at each place you stay over night. You have 72 hours to get registered. When you check in at your hotel or hostel the host will take your passport and write down the dates that you intend to stay along with your passport number in their book. They will give you a slip of paper showing this registration and you are supposed to save all of these slips to show customs and immigration when you depart the country. I dutifully saved all of my slips and receipts for everything–when I left by airplane, I was never asked to show them. People have had mixed experienced with this registration. I have heard that the problems arise when you try to stay with a local (couchsurf) or you spend the night on a sleeper train (save your receipt for the train ticket). I have also heard that land borders are more strict with this registration than the airports. Visitors without proper registration are subject to fines, imprisonment, and deportation; the fines range from USD $1,000 to USD $12,000. Do yourself a favor, pay the money to stay in a hostel/hotel, so that you can have all of the proper registrations when you leave! The money you save on accommodation isn’t worth the hassle or risk or getting fined and deported!