Ancient cities where brilliant aqua domes push towards bright blue skies, exotic and colourful markets, shared taxi adventures, cashless ATMs and black market negotiations, a fascinating history and locals who greet you with a gold-tooth smile. This is Uzbekistan and it is one of the most unique and unusual countries in the world.
In September 2014 I tavelled in Uzbekistan for nearly 4 weeks. Below is my destination guide and overview of my time there together with a few tips for traveling in this little visited country.
Where Is Uzbekistan?
Uzbekistan is in the centre of Central Asia and is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world meaning it’s completely surrounded by other landlocked countries. They are Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Uzbekistan is a rewarding destination for history buffs like me. With history ranging from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, to the brutal and bloody reign of Timur (Tamerlane), to the manoeuvres of the Great Game, to falling under the rule of the Russian Empire and the USSR ,to independence, to the highly authoritarian state that is it today.
Uzbekistan’s history and architecture is also greatly influenced by the fact it lies on the ancient Silk Road. In fact it could possibly be considered the heart of the Silk Road where the old trade routes crossed from exotic locations such as China, India, and the Mediterrean.
As a result Uzbekistan is home to three of the Silk Road’s most spectacular cities of all time, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. This stunning Silk Road architecture is a stark contrast to the many ex-soviet buildings of the rest of the country.
To travel here today is to step back in time.
Uzbekistan’s Travel Highlights
- Samarkand – the ultimate Silk Road city is home to so many impressive buildings saturated in tiles of intense blue ranging from cobalt, azure, aqua and turquoise tiles. I may be a little obsessed with these gorgeous tiles! From the famous Registan, the most dramatic architectural site in all of Central Asia, to the the enormous Bibi-Khanym Mosque, to Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, the resting place for Timur and the stunning Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums). Samarkand absolutely exceeded my expectations. You can read why here.
- Bukhara – in the 9th century Bukhara was one of the great centres of Islamic art and learning, and today the centre of Bukhara is jammed full of mosques, medressas and minarets. Exotic old dome-covered bazaars are now filled with gorgeous textiles and fabrics. I loved simply wandering around the evocative and beautiful Bukhara. To read about my wanderings in beautiful Bukhara visit here.
- Khiva – in the past Khiva was infamous as one of the most brutal slaving trading centres of it’s time. Today Khiva is often described as a museum city, a perfectly preserved Silk Road city, and it’s easy to see why. The old city, Ichon-Qala, is full of stunning architectural gems all enclosed by impressive walls. But what makes Khiva really special is the wonderful harmony of the city and you can read more about it here.
- The Markets of Uzbekistan – colourful, fascinating and bursting with life a visit to the markets of Uzbekistan is one of the best ways to catch a glimpse of local life. Why not take a photo journey of the markets of Uzbekistan, just click here.
But there is so much more to Uzbekistan than these beautiful buildings and a fascinating past. Uzbekistan is also one of the most unusual destinations I’ve ever travelled to. Here’s why unique and unusual Uzbekistan is so interesting:
- Cashless ATMs & Black Market – In Uzbekistan ATMs often have no money whatsoever and navigating the black market was an unavoidable necessity. The local currency (Uzbek som) is so worthless 100USD would purchase 300,000 som on the black market and given the majority of money only came in 1,000 som notes you quickly realise why the ATMs have no cash! It also means keeping your stash of cash in plastic bags is totally normal. See below for more on some tips on cash and money in Uzbekistan.
- Cardboard cut out police cars – Seriously!! These would be placed on the side of highways to presumably encourage drivers to slow down thinking it was an actual police car. One of the funniest and strangest things I’ve ever seen in my travels and I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo as I was always ironically speeding past one in a taxi.
- Hand on Heart Greetings – when the men of Uzbekistan met each other they would place their hand over their heart in a warm, lovely greeting.
- Shared Taxi Adventures – just like Kyrgyzstan shared taxis are the common way to travel in Uzbekistan. From driving crazy fast on dubious roads, to cars with cracked windscreens to negotiating the price with your driver a shared taxi journey is far from ordinary.
- Local Fashion/Dress – Uzbek women typically wear long tunics over loose trousers from matching colourful and loud fabrics absolutely unique to this region.
Below are a few tips I picked up from my travels in Uzbekistan.
- Visas – The majority of nationalities will need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. The requirement for each nationality differs. I found it difficult to confirm if Australians did in fact require a letter of invitation or not. However, I did establish that the Uzbek embassy in Kyrgyzstan did require Australians to obtain a letter of invitation before applying for the visa. For more info check out my post ‘Chasing Visas in Bishkek’ and also keep an eye out for my upcoming post about Central Asian visas.
- Money – as I mentioned ATMs in Uzbekistan are notorious for having no cash. I therefore strongly recommend travellers bring USD for their travels here. If you do need an ATM I found the ATM at Hotel Uzbekistan was dispensing USD in September 2014, albeit only 100USD at a time. I was also able to successfully get money via a cash advance in Bukhara just off…….. Money changers using the black market rate could be found at the local market and would usually be carrying plastic bags stuffed with cash. But remember using the black market is in fact illegal and carries the associated risks. There is also definite possibility you could be ripped off (I was my first time changing money!). It’s also important to note that Uzbekistan requires all travellers to declare how much money they are bringing into the country. When you leave the country you need to to declare all the money you have on you again. You cannot have more money with you when you exit Uzbekistan than when you entered.
- Registration – Uzbekistan requires you to register your stay. Hotels licensed to take foreigners will automatically register you and provide a registration slip. You are technically required to have registration slips for your entire stay and may be asked to produce these when exiting the country.
- Border Crossings – Entering Uzbekistan, particularly overland, is not completely straightforward. As I mentioned ensure you complete the declaration form listing all the money you are bringing into the country and expect to be questioned about what mediations you are also bringing into the country. Customs officials may also want to look at your photos on your camera, phone or computer and check your reading material to ensure it isn’t religious or pornographic.
- Female Travellers – I travelled in Uzbekistan as a solo female and believe Uzbekistan is a safe country for other solo female travellers provided a few precautions are kept in mind. Uzbekistan is a conservative country where traditional gender roles remain. Uzbekistan also has a large Muslim population. As a result of these two factors I recommend modest clothes for female travellers. You are still likely to attract some attention, welcome or not, simply by the fact you’re different. For me this attention was no different or worse than in countries in the Middle East or South America. I would also be wary of walking around late at night on your own.
For more useful tips and helpful information I recommend http://caravanistan.com
So there it is! My travel destination guide for unique and unusual Uzbekistan. I hope you find it helpful.
Have you been to Uzbekistan? Do you have some helpful tips to share?