Many people refer to Central Asia, as the Stan countries and know that this is a region, which was under Soviet Union, but not much more. Of course, same goes for Uzbekistan. Many only have heard of Samarkand, as an oriental city on the Silk Road, but I guess that’s about it.
As trips to Central Asia are less popular, information on how to get around in Stan countries is very limited. I had a very hard time finding a lot of things out. I had to find bits a pieces of information through different English or Russian sources to get a comprehensive picture and plan my trip.
There is one plus – Lately, Uzbekistan changed its visa policy allowing many countries to travel visa free, which put it on the tourists’ radar. 53 countries now enjoy the visa free regime, while the citizens of other 77 can obtain a visa in a simplified way electronically. You can find detailed information, if your country is eligible for visa-free entry and for how many days, here: https://mfa.uz/en/consular/visa/ . The easiest is to check the map, if your country is in any shade of green, then you can visit for at least 30 days. If your country is in the shades of blue, you can get an electronic visa.
The only Central Asian country that remains difficult to visit is Turkmenistan.
When to go?
Summers in Uzbekistan are really sweltering and winters – very cold. So, I would suggest choosing spring or autumn, as your best options. Best months would be from mid-September through October and April-May. I believe June and November are not bad either.
We decided to travel in April, as I had several holiday days. For Uzbekistan this is not a bad time, we had a couple of rainy days, but it wasn’t too hot or too warm overall.
How to get there?
Most tourists enter the country by flying into Tashkent. There are no international flights to other cities. Unlike some parts of the world, you don’t have many options for flights to Central Asia. AirAstana is the major and relatively inexpensive airline that flies by stopover to Tashkent. They also offer Stopover holidays, which provide one night accommodation in 3-4 star hotel with breakfast and transfer to and from the airport for only 1-2 dollars. It was a really great way to see Almaty for a day on our way to Tashkent.
Other options would be to fly via Russia, Turkey, etc.
Another option is to cross the border from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, if you are already in the region. We flew into Tashkent, then crossed Panjakent land border to visit Tajikistan and entered back via Oybek border.
In addition to these simplified entrance procedures, the land border crossings between the Stan countries also became far more straightforward, than I hear they used to be. I have read a lot of horror stories about luggage searches and very long waiting times. But nowadays, none of this happens. We easily walked past the borders after answering a couple of short questions about why we were visiting. They didn’t care about our luggage, just passed it through the usual security belt.
Safety in Uzbekistan
Originally, I even forgot to write this section and only remembered, after some people asked. Uzbekistan is quite safe to travel to, even if you are a solo woman. As long as you avoid go out late at night alone, jumping into an unknown car late at night, etc, you should be fine. We took a number of shared taxis, went to all sorts of bus and shared taxi stations and in general, were not too apprehensive.
We also didn’t notice any raised risk of robbery or even pickpocketing, including at crowded places.
As far as I can understand from the blogs written in previous years, corruption used to be more prevalent and some tourists ended up asked to pay a bribe, while crossing borders and in some other situations. Nowadays, this is no longer true. We never noticed anything out of ordinary and tourists no longer report cases of bribery.
Of course, it is best to know approximate prices and be careful, while haggling with the sellers of the taxi drivers, but that’s about it.
Transport in Uzbekistan
The train system is quite good in this country. You even have the fast train option to get to Samarkand and Bukhara. However, in many places, where trains don’t reach, your main mode of transportation will be shared taxis or mini buses.
Here is the detailed post concerning transport options in Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek money is Sums, you won’t be able to use any other currency. Change only a little at the airport, as the rates are rather bad.
It is quite difficult to find any atms or exchange offices, particularly, when you travel outside Tashkent. From exchange offices you won’t get good rates, unlike in some other countries, hotel exchanges have far worse rates, so your best bet is to go to a national bank (most other banks are unable to exchange money). In Samarkand, we looked for the right bank for a while and not finding it anywhere near the Registan, we had to exchange some money at a hotel with a bad exchange rate.
You can also exchange with a taxi driver. Yes, they can do it, but be sure to know the exact official exchange rate at the moment and don’t agree on less. Actually, I am not really sure, if this is entirely legal, but we did it once, when finding a bank turned out to be complicated.
Communicating with locals can be quite difficult for anyone, who doesn’t speak Russian. In this part of the world, most people know Russian and very little English. The best thing would be to know a couple of words in Russian and have offline Google translate handy.
What to wear
Due to its Soviet past, Uzbekistan has less strict customs about the clothes for women, than most other Muslim countries. Particularly, in Tashkent, you won’t have problems with wearing whatever you like. However, as you go to other cities, you will find women dressed relatively more conservatively. As a tourist, you will be fine with whatever, but to be more comfortable, you may want to wear trousers or non-miniskirts and t-shirts, instead of sleeveless tops. Carry a scarf with you, preferably even two, to cover up when you visit the mosques. I also always carry thick socks for those places, where I have to take off my shoes.
In Tashkent metro and buses work fine, so as long as you are nearby a metro station or on a bus route, you should be fine. Everywhere else, local public transport is far less developed. So your best bet would be to stay at a walking distance from city centers. Otherwise, haggling with the taxi drivers each time can get tiring.
If you choose to stay with local families, keep in mind that they take off shoes at home. So you can’t walk around with the shoes you wore outside. Even when you book an entire apartment, you may still have to take off your shoes, while entering. Have the slippers and/or socks handy if, like me, you don’t like walking barefoot 😊
Best 10-day Itinerary tips:
You will most probably arrive to Tashkent, if you are coming by air, so this itinerary is geared to that option.
Day 1 – arrive to Tashkent and visit the city. Take metro and marvel at the magnificent stations, like Kosmonavtlar, Alisher Navoy, Mustakillik maydoni, etc. Visit Amir Timur square and museum, walk around the Sailgokh street, where outdoor events are happening, particularly, if you are here on a weekend.
Day 2 – take a train to Samarkand. Visit Gur-e-Amir complex, Rukhobod Mausoleum. Spend time at Registan, check out all three madrasas and climb up the Ulu Bey Madrasa. There are night light shows at the square some of the days, so don’t forget to check with the ticket office, when is the next one planned, it’s something not to be missed.
Day 3 – Samarkand: start at the Observatory of Ulukbek, walk to St Daniel’s Mausoleum, then to Afrasiyab settlement and museum. Walk down to Hazrat Khizr and take in the wonderful views. Continue to Shah-i-Zinda. From here, walk to Siab bazaar and visit Bibi-Khanym mosque and Mausoleum. Around here, Bibi-Khanym teahouse is a popular spot.
Day 4 – Samarkand: take a taxi to the mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari. Take a train to Bukhara. (if you have additional time, you can visit Shahrisabz and even travel south all the way to Termez).
Day 5 – Bukhara: Start with a visit to Chor Minor, walk to the main area – Lyab-i Hauz. Visit Kukaldosh Madrasah, Magoki Attor Mosque. Check out Mausoleum Turki Jandi and maybe walk to Fayzulla Khodjaev House Museum. Walk towards the bazaars and visit the two – Abdulaziz Khan and Ulugbek – madrasas standing in front of each other. Then walk to Kalon square with the Minaret. Visit the Kalon mosque here and the Mir-iArab madrassa, as well as shops inside Amir Alim Khan madrassa. Across the road there is Chasmai-Mirob Restaurant, it has a terrace upstairs with great views over the square. From here walk towards the fortress.
Day 6 – Bukhara: start by visiting the fortress, visit the Bolo Hauz Mosque, then head to the Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum and Samanid mausoleum. Walk around the park here, then visit the Qosh madrassa. Take a taxi to Chor Bakr Memorial Complex, then to Sitori-i-Mokhi Khosa palace and also visit the Naqshband Bokhari Memorial Complex. You can also visit the Emir palace, which is next to the train station, but that’s certainly not too interesting.
Day 7 – travel to Khiva. This trip by train will take about 6 hours, so it’s basically almost the whole day. Use the rest of the day to walk around Khiva and see what you can.
Day 8 – Khiva: visit the Nurullaboy Saroyi, then head to the fortress. Walk around and marvel at Kalta-minor Minaret, Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah and Sayid Allauddin Mausoleum. Next, visit the Juma mosque, Pakhlavan Makhmoud Mausoleum, Medrese Kutlug-Murad Inaka, Allakuli Khan Madrassah and caravanserai, Toshhovli and other numerous mosques and madrasas around.
Day 9 – fly from Urgench airport near Khiva to Tashkent. It’s a short flight and usually they are cheap. Use the rest of the day to visit Hazrati Imam complex – Barakhan Madrasah, Tillya Sheikh Mosque, Hazrati Imam Mosque. Around here you will find the Quran of Caliph Uthman, which for some is the oldest quran, others disagree. Also visit Chorsu bazaar and Kokaldosh Madrasa.
Day 10 – if you still have any time today before flying out, you can go to the Plov center in the morning and then visit the Minor mosque.
If you have more days, it would be great to allocate Fergana valley several days. Train is the best way to travel here too. You can visit Kokand for the palace, Fergana city, Andijan, etc. From Kokand you can continue your trip to Khujand in Tajikistan or to Osh in Kyrgizstan.