The next stop in our tour of the “new” backpacker circuit in Central Asia is Uzbekistan. Landlocked nation with the exception of the bordering Aral Sea, the Uzbek countryside is a series of deserts and dunes. It has a reputation for being unfriendly to foreigners (and perhaps unfriendly to locals too), but there’s still some gems to be unearthed. Let’s explore what Uzbek has to offer.
The Silk Road
Many wonderful sights can be explored following the route of the former Silk Road as it passes through Uzbekistan and is a good start to exploring the flat and seemingly endless countryside. Khiva is a top stop; formerly a capital city (at the time a kingdom called Khorezm), it’s now a wonderful open-air museum on a city that flourished in riches from the Silk road trade. Check out the East Gate, which was once home to a slave trade market. There’s the Tash Havli palace, with rooms for all of the different suitors and concubines. And of course, the iconic Kalta Minaret, a tower intended to be Central Asia’s tallest minaret. It stands unfinished to this day.
Smarkand is another important Silk Road destination. The gorgeous dome of the Gur Emir building is a must for all photographers (it’s actually a mausoleum), as is the Registan square. From here the gates and pillars feel as authentic and iconic as more famed backdrops, like the Taj Mahal.
Lastly but certainly not least is Bukhara, full of visitor attractions. The Ark, a palace, features a museum on the city’s history and the nearby Zindan is a hot spot to see the Bug Pit, a torture chamber which needs little explanation. But the real star of the show is the Kalyan Minaret, once the tallest building in Central Asia and the oldest monument in Bukhara (built around 1127). The first time it was built, it collapsed due to some mis-engineering, but it was finally erected properly and was spared by Genghis Khan when he destroyed the city in the 1200s.
The Uzbek capital of Tashkent was destroyed in 1966 after a strong earthquake. Because the city was under strong Soviet control at the time, today the city looks far more Soviet than elsewhere in the region. Everything from traffic signs to monuments and parks have that “look” (hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it). But you simply must take in the Soviet influence on the Tashkent subway. The highlight is the Cosmonaut station but nearly every stop is like a museum.
Food and Drinks
I can’t seem to talk about anywhere without talking about the food. But first, let’s mention something that many travelers complain about: getting ripped off. You’ll find many restaurants don’t have menus. This is so they can charge you an unreasonable fee after you’ve already eaten. To avoid this, ask for price information up front if it isn’t available, and be firm in asking for an itemized bill. Challenge it if it contradicts what you were told (though you’ll likely get footed with it anyway).
Manti is a huge Uzbek favorite, no surprise as you’ll find manti in both Turkey as well as the other Central Asian states. It’s a dumpling filled with lamb (and a lot of lamb fat), then steamed. It’s delicious. Somsas are another tasty treat that you’ll find in restaurants or even on the street; they can be filled with potatoes or pumpkin or meat. In summer you’ll see ‘spring’ somsas, which are filled with a special grass that grows in the mountains. If they’re made traditionally they’ll be put into a clay tandoori, which adds to the flavour.
To wash it all down, you’ll have plenty of choice for drink (though be careful with tap water, which is usually to be avoided). Tea is a popular option, and tradition states the tea be poured from the pot to the cup and back three times, then the fourth time it is offered to the guests. Hospitality plays a huge role in Uzbek tradition, so tea cups do not stay empty for long.
Uzbek also has some great wines, believe it or not. Khovrenko Winery is one of the most well known, but there’s several in the country. You can even go to a wine tasting in Bukhara in the west.
If You Go
You’ll of course need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website explains the process and fees in detail. For many, you’ll need a Letter of Invitation, which your travel agent or accommodation can obtain for you. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll need to register your local address, but if you stay at a respectable hotel they’ll handle this for you, but just be sure that it is taken care of.
If you’re flying in, the main entry point is through Tashkent, served by several European and International carriers, as well as Middle-Eastern Airlines such as Turkish Airlines and Uzbekistan Airways. Check out CheapFlights.co.uk for some excellent flight deals heading to Tashkent.
Security and safety is a mixed bag in Uzbekistan. It is technically a police state, which has made it quite safe, but visitors should be alert at all times and use a heavy dose of common sense. Some tips:
• You’re required to carry documentation with you at all times and may be asked to see it by a police officer. Most embassy websites state that it is sufficient to carry copies of your passport (and Uzbek visa!) and leave the originals at the hotel and offer to take the officer there upon request. They won’t usually bother.
• You’ll often be propositioned to check out the “night life” – either by local tour guides or just those on the streets. Trust us, you aren’t interested in what they have to offer, just say no.
• Otherwise, just use common sense for safety. Don’t wear expensive jewellery or carry bags/purses that could be easily stolen. Street crime is just as big of a problem as overall violent crime in the region.
Unearthing Asia is a travel zine focusing on Lifestyle, Culture and Attractions all over Asia. Don’t miss out on the best travel ideas and inspirations in the region of Asia, such as this list of top Vietnamese noodle treats.
About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.
“Tashkent,” I whispered. An exotic, soulful name that conjured images of magical kingdoms filled with Genies, flying carpets and architecture that blends with the sand. I expected a great caravanserai city in the midst of the scorching desert sun with sprawling bazaars, slender minarets and serpentine desert caravans. I was pleasantly surprised however, to find Tashkent a modern, cosmopolitan city with an impressive infrastructure and various luxury hotels and shops. Uzbek’s capital city has certainly defied expectations.
Tashkent sits on the Central Asian steppe, right on the banks of the Chirchik River just southwest of the Chatkal Mountains. For centuries, this ancient city was a crossroad for traders passing between East and West on the Great Silk Road, the most illustrious trade route ever. One of the few respite of the desert, the gates of Tashkent was a welcome sight for traders, a refuge where one could rest and recover between the mountains and the sand.
Little remains of the ancient city after the 1966 earthquake that leveled most of the buildings.
Since then, the government embarked on a major renovation program in the center of the city that has seen roads, buildings and parks being completely reconstructed. The result is an impressive upscale city with large parading avenues, heroic statues and towering office blocks. However, most locals have yet to see any improvement in their respective residences. Drive further out from the city center and Tashkent slowly transforms back into the desert town of old.
The essence of ancient Tashkent remains in the various bazaars held throughout the city. More than anywhere else, the sprawling Chorsu Bazaar (Old City) conjures up memories of the Great Silk Road. It was picturesque, noisy and full of local colour, a large open-air market which has pretty much everything the urban uzbek might require – carpets, cotton goods, knives, ceramics and food. Trays of spices, vegetables, fruits and assorted animal parts lined up in the agricultural section. Although foreigners are probably paying a premium price, it is still a friendly and welcoming place, perfect for simply wandering around and immersing yourself in the local culture.
The Uzbek culture is blessed with a proud history that sees them become one of the ancient centers of Eastern Civilization.
The armies of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, the caravans of the Great Silk Road, and the relocation of populations during World War II. All these major events and characters in the history of the world passed through Uzbekistan one way or the other. Not surprisingly, Tashkent as its capital boasts numerous museums and monuments of history such as the State Museum of History and the Amir Timur Museum.
The former, like its name implies, charts the flow and ebb of the state’s long history. Exhibits here showcases the rich cultural heritage of the Uzbek people, and more. With Uzbekistan long being a center for shipment between the East and the West, there are also collections of coins from the Hellenic state from the 3th century BC, Bactrian drachmas and Chinese coins from the Tang Dynasty. The latter, the Amir Timur Museum, chronicles the life of Timur, known to the wider world as Tamerlane, an all-conquering tyrant now resurrected as Uzbekistan’s national hero.
At the heart of the city, Saligokh Street – known locally as Broadway – is lined with various bars and restaurants that are popular with the locals. Various street artists selling their wares add to the unique atmosphere of the street. There are also plenty of entertainment at night, numerous modern pubs and nightclubs with unique themes catering to their perspective clientele.
Tashkent has been patiently waiting for a boom.
The infrastructure, hotels and shiny new shops are there, as well as the fascinating history and colorful local culture. The expected influx of people and businesses however, has been slow to materialize. It is high time for for Tashkent to emerge from this obscurity and reclaim its status as a cultural and commercial capital.