IN-DEPTH UZBEKISTAN TRAVEL GUIDE
If you’ve come to this post, chances are you’re thinking about visiting Uzbekistan and what an excellent choice that would be! Uzbekistan sits at the core of the ancient Silk Road. We did some research before we went, but we’ll admit that we didn’t know what to expect. After you travel long enough, it’s exciting to visit a country that not many people have been to. It’s good to confront your ignorance every now and then. After reading blog posts and seeing a few photos on Instagram we just knew we had to see it for ourselves…
We spent our time awe-struck by the beauty of it all, pinching ourselves to remember where we were, baffled by the history and stories hidden between every sandy brick and brightly colored tile. This newly independent country has been a poetic inspiration to writers for many centuries, and suddenly it was easy to understand why.
Most people can’t find Uzbekistan on a map, so when telling our friends and family that it was our next destination it resulted in perplexing looks and questions like…
“Uzbekistan? Where’s that? Never heard of it.”
“Is that part of Russia?”
“Isn’t that close to Afghanistan?”
“Is it safe?”
“Of all the places you could go, why would you go there?”
We’ll explain below…
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This is a very long and extensive post. To help you navigate, we’ve created a table of contents so you can jump to exactly what you’re looking for…
WHY VISIT UZBEKISTAN?
If you don’t have time to travel the entire length of the Great Silk Road you can at least experience the heart of it in Uzbekistan. While Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva are now relatively modern and urban, they all still contain well-preserved portions of their ancient cities. Any travelers interested in world history, art, architecture, or the Silk Road will love it, and aesthetically it’s the perfect destination for photographers!
The timing has never been better! Uzbekistan was under authoritarian rule from 1991-2016 until its first President, Islam Karimov, died in office. Uzbekistan’s new government under his successor, President Mirziyoev, is beginning to open up from isolation and is finally welcoming in travelers. Under the new regime, relations with its neighbors have grown warmer and visa rules for many nationalities are more relaxed than ever before. Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, in comparison to years prior, human rights are improving.
Things are looking up for travel to Uzbekistan! Many of the formerly bureaucratic problems with tourism like difficult visas, black market currency exchange, and heavy-handed Soviet-era rules, have now become hassle-free. It’s an exciting time to visit and experience the history and culture that has been hidden from view for so long.
Where is Uzbekistan?
Uzbekistan is in Central Asia and it’s one of the five ‘Stan’ countries that broke off from the USSR after the collapse in 1991. Kazakhstan borders it to the north, Kyrgyzstan to the east, Tajikistan to the southeast, Afghanistan to the south, and Turkmenistan to the southwest.
Eleven interesting facts about Uzbekistan
- Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country, which means all the countries surrounding it (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan) are also landlocked. It is only one of two countries in the world like this, the other being Liechtenstein.
- Uzbekistan is 80% desert and none of its rivers reach the sea.
- Uzbekistan has five UNESCO sites: the Itchan Kala in Khiva, the entire city of Bukhara, Samarkand, the West Tian Shan Mountains, and Shakhrisabz.
- The country is the world’s second-largest exporter of cotton and has the fourth-largest gold deposits in the world.
- The words algorithm and algebra come from a man named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, born in the 9th century in the Khorezm region of modern-day Uzbekistan.
- Though the Uzbekistan economy is growing, it is still one of the least developed and poorest countries in Asia.
- Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth-largest lake. Now it’s nearly gone after a massive Soviet irrigation project to water cotton fields began in the 1960s.
- One of the world’s forgotten astronomers, Ulugbek, who plotted over 1,000 stars before the invention of the telescope hails from Samarkand.
- Uzbekistan has a population of 30 million, leading all Central Asian countries.
- According to UNESCO Uzbekistan has an adult literacy rate of 99.99%.
- Uzbekistan is known for its Suzani textiles, ceramic art, silk carpets, and ornate wood carvings.
A brief history
Uzbekistan is a brand new country with a lengthy history. Going into all the details would take forever, but here’s a quick breakdown: Iranian nomads were the first people known to inhabit Uzbekistan. In about 500 B.C. the area became part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. It was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. Arab armies showed up in 650 A.D. and Islam began to take root. Uzbekistan flourished and played an important role in the “Islamic Golden Age” of science.
During this time, many of Uzbekistan’s ancient cities became important stops along the Great Silk Road. Travelers and caravan traders exchanged goods and ideas between China and the Mediterranean. The items that were most commonly traded were silk, carpets, various spices, teas, ceramics and porcelain, ivory, gold and silver, gems, slaves, horses, furs and animal skins, fruit, and fragrances.
That all came crumbling down when Genghis Khan and the Mongols invaded in 1220 A.D. Next came a new warlord and the present-day national hero, Amir Timur who established the Timurid Empire. These are the people responsible for the construction of the Registan and Samarkand’s architectural gems. Family disputes and an invasion from the Uzbek Shaybanids caused the fall of the Timurids in the 16th century. Eventually, ongoing civil wars caused the region to break into khanates and emirates.
In the 1860s the Russian Empire began to colonize the area. After the Russian revolution, the Soviets ruled the country until the USSR collapsed and in 1991 Uzbekistan became an independent country for the first time.
The visa situation in Uzbekistan has become much less complicated since 2018. The country is officially open for business and wants your hard-earned money. Uzbekistan used to require an LOI (letter of invitation), but 65 countries can now enter Uzbekistan visa-free for at least 30 days (including Canada, India, all countries of the European Union, New Zealand and Australia) while 77 nationalities are eligible for an e-visa. Find out if you need to apply for an e-visa, or not.
This is the official website you should use to apply for your e-visa. The process is pretty simple, but it can be finicky, so here are some tips on how to avoid problems:
- E-visas allow entry into Uzbekistan for 30 days, and the visa is valid for 90 days from the date of issue.
- It takes about 2-3 days to be approved, so we suggest applying a week or more before your trip.
- Your letter of approval will be sent to you via email. People have reported that Gmail works best when applying.
- Your picture needs to be on a white background, we had success with it sized to 1.377 x 1.773 inches, cropped so your head takes up most of the frame, .jpg format, @300 dpi and file size of less than 200kb.
- The e-visa costs $20 for all nationalities. Cheap right!?
- Keep a printed copy of your visa.
- For more specific information regarding the visa process see Caravanistan.
In case you’re not eligible for an e-visa, you’ll need an LOI to apply for the visa in person at an Uzbek embassy. You can obtain this letter through a reliable travel agency online. Once you apply to the embassy it takes 1-2 weeks for approval.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
When to go
The best times to visit Uzbekistan are during the fall, from September to early November before the winter is in full swing (it gets really cold), or during the spring, April to May, before the summer when temps can reach 45°C (113 F). We visited in mid-April and it was pretty cold and rainy, but the locals told us that was unusual.
How long do you need: 1-3 weeks
To do the typical Uzbek route (Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva) you need at least a week. Ten days is better to give yourself some flexibility and time to rest. Slow travelers can spend longer, we stayed for 17 days. It was raining a lot on our visit in April so we were happy to have extra time to wait for the sun to come out. It also gave us enough time to revisit our favorite sites and see a few less visited areas of Uzbekistan.
Fly into Tashkent and spend 1-2 days
See the Hazrat Imam complex, Chorsu Bazaar, Minor Mosque, and Plov Center.
Train to Samarkand for 1-2 days
At the very least explore the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-i-Zinda, and Gur-e-Amir mausoleum.
Train to Bukhara for 1-2 days
Don’t miss the Poi-Kalyan complex, the Ark, and Bolo Hauz Mosque.
Train to Khiva 1-2 days
In Khiva, spend most of your time wandering the Itchan Kala (old town) of the city.
Fly or take the night train back to Tashkent
*This route can be done in reverse. Depending on where you’re coming in from, some people fly into Urgench (near Khiva) to start there and end in Tashkent.
Extending your itinerary
If you’re not short on time you can add a day in both Samarkand and Bukhara. Outside of the above-mentioned places, there are far fewer tourists. If you want to take the road less traveled consider visiting the Fergana Valley, Nukus (Savitsky Museum), Moynaq and the Aral Sea, or go south to Termez to see ancient relics of Buddhism. People we spoke with told us that the Fergana region is the best place to see authentic Uzbek culture.
MONEY & BUDGET
Som is the currency in Uzbekistan. It was 8,400 som to $1 when we visited in April 2019. Bring plenty of cash in USD. We repeat, bring cash! There are a few ATMs, but they’re not always reliable. When you use the ATM, you’ll be given USD. Exchange the USD to som at a bank or cash exchange machine. Unfortunately, it’s still not common for places to accept credit cards.
Understand that it’s not an expensive country overall so if something seems overpriced, it probably is. Taxi drivers are generally honest and if they ever do overcharge you it’s likely only by a few thousand som (less than a dollar). Follow your instincts.
Traveling to Uzbekistan is budget-friendly, but don’t expect it to be as cheap as Southeast Asia. We’ve read that Uzbekistan is a bit more expensive than the rest of the Stans. If you aren’t already in Central Asia, your biggest expense will be your flight.
Food: depending on how much you eat and if you’re drinking alcohol, a typical meal costs between $4-6 per person, with a nicer meal costing $10-12 per person. A snack of tea and bread will only be around $1-2.
Accommodation: this will vary depending on what kind of budget you’re on. We spent an average of $25 a night for both of us, with hostels costing an average of $8-10 per person and guesthouses being closer to $30 per room. Nicer hotels go up from there.
Transportation: taxis in town shouldn’t be more than $1-2, while longer journeys in trains or shared taxis can range between $8-20.
Attractions: entrance into the major sites range from $1-5.
Breakdown: We spent $1200 for 2 people for 17 days, $70 per day for 2 people, or $35 per day per person (not including airfare). That includes food, accommodation, transportation, and souvenirs. We could’ve easily doubled that total if we stayed at luxurious hotels and ate at nicer restaurants more. We probably could have done it for less too, but some experiences cost more and were worth it to us (yurt camping and visiting the ship graveyard in Moynaq). Our airfare (the cheapest we could find) cost us an additional $1200 for two roundtrip tickets.
Getting to Uzbekistan
Most travelers flying into Uzbekistan will land in Tashkent. Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines are the two major airlines flying into Uzbekistan, so you will have a stopover in either Moscow or Istanbul depending on where you are coming from. Uzbekistan Airways also has direct flights to Rome and Paris.
*Upon arrival, we weren’t required to show any evidence of an outbound flight.
Trains connect several international destinations to Uzbekistan. For more info see this post on Seat 61.
*We didn’t do any border crossings because we flew in and out of the country. In case you’re doing Uzbekistan as part of a larger overland Stan journey, you can find border info on Caravanistan.
Getting around Uzbekistan
Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Urgench (30 minutes from Khiva), Andijan, Navoi, Nukus, Fergana, and Termez all have airports. Uzbekistan Airways is in charge of most of the domestic flights around Uzbekistan.
In our opinion, the best and most inexpensive way to get around Uzbekistan is by train. They’re comfortable and clean, a great way to meet locals, and see more of the countryside.
There are three primary options for train travel: the Spanish designed Afrosiyob bullet train, the slower Soviet Sharq train, and the night train. In our experience, tickets for the Afrosiyob trains sell out in advance because of tour groups, so be sure to book ahead online during peak seasons! *There is not Afrosiyob service to Khiva yet (summer 2019).
To book train tickets online you can use the Uzbek Railways website, although some people complain that the site is confusing and buggy, or use a reliable Uzbek travel agency, but understand you’ll pay a commission fee.
If you’re taking the Sharq train or night train, tickets are easier to come by, but should still be booked in advance whether at the train station, online or through your accommodation. The cheapest way is to do it yourself at the train station. Keep in mind that your passport is required for the purchase of tickets. For more in-depth train info see this Advantour page.
By shared taxi
Shared taxis are another way to get from city to city. You can usually arrange a shared taxi with your accommodation and they’ll often pick you up from your hotel and drop you off directly at your next hotel. If you catch a shared taxi in another location (like a train or bus station) it’ll leave once it’s full.
Make sure your driver doesn’t leave until it’s full, otherwise they might charge you the price of a private taxi. Keep in mind that shared taxis can be cramped, so it can be challenging if you have lots of luggage or you’re traveling in a group.
There are a variety of hotels and small guesthouses in Uzbekistan. Budget hostels are not in abundance yet, but can still be found. Couchsurfing is illegal, however, we met travelers who did it without any problems.
In Uzbekistan, hotels give registration slips indicating the dates of your stay. Technically, immigration could ask to see them before leaving the country, although we were never asked. Still, hold on to them until you leave just in case. If you’re taking an overnight train, keep your ticket for proof of stay. Hotels charge a $2 “registration fee” per night.
We use booking.com to search for current prices and places to stay. They have properties in all of the main cities including Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Use this link and save up to $18 on your stay.
IS UZBEKISTAN SAFE?
You should follow the same common sense you would anywhere else. You don’t have to worry about pickpockets as you do in Europe. Overall, the crime rate is very low. Violence is rare, and guns are virtually nonexistent. There hasn’t been a significant terrorist attack in 15 years.
It might seem like an obscure place, but it’s more touristy than you’d expect. We felt completely safe on our visit and met many solo female travelers who said the same. Unfortunately, we’re sad to say that homosexuality is still illegal in Uzbekistan.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Ethnicity & hospitality
Uzbekistan is a multinational and multiethnic area. Uzbeks make up 80% of the demographic, but you’ll also find Tajiks, Russians, Kazakhs, and others. The people we met in Uzbekistan are genuine and warmhearted. We encountered some incredible hospitality along our journey, especially on the train.
Many will go out of their way to help you without expecting anything in return. In typical Asian fashion, they love to overfeed you. One thing we found endearing was that people place their hand over their heart when saying goodbye and thank you.
Generally, people are not out to rip you off. There are plenty of vendors, but we didn’t find them to be that aggressive. Capitalism is still new here so people have yet to become hyper-obsessed with money.
Uzbek is the official language and Russian is the most widely spoken. A Tajik dialect of Persian is spoken in Bukhara. Most people don’t speak English, but you’ll have the best luck with the younger generation. Almost all signs and menus will be in the Cyrillic alphabet unless you’re at a tourist place, so it’d be wise to learn basic pleasantries in Russian or Uzbek before you go. Here are a few Uzbek phrases that locals appreciate (and are fun to try):
- As-salamu alaikum = hello/peace be with you
- Wa alaikum assalaam = appropriate response/and peace be with you too
- Rahmat = thank you
- Choyxona = teahouse
Religion and how to dress
Uzbekistan is a secular, Muslim-majority state. About 88% of Uzbeks are Sunni Muslim, however, because of the strong Soviet influence of their past, they practice in a much more relaxed way. Although there was fear that Uzbekistan would fall victim to Islamic radicalization after it parted from the Soviet Union, this never materialized. It’s a fantastic destination for that reason alone, allowing you to learn about Islam as an outsider without many restrictions.
Even though it’s not a strict Muslim country we wouldn’t recommend walking around in tight clothing, short shorts, and tank tops. Dressing conservatively is a respectful way to go. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees. Most religious sites don’t require women to cover their heads.
FOOD & DRINK
Uncovering Uzbek food
- We would describe food in Uzbekistan as carb heavy with lots of meat.
- Plov is the national dish, it’s rice fried in animal fat with other things like carrots, onions, raisins, and garlic.
- Bread (non) is sacred to Uzbeks. It’s never cut with a knife but instead ripped into pieces by hand. Never place the bread upside down, it’s bad luck!
- Tea culture is a charming aspect of travel in Uzbekistan, you’ll drink mostly green and black tea without milk.
- Shashlik is meat kebab, somsa resembles Indian samosas, lagman is a meaty noodle soup, and manti or barak are dumplings.
- Dill is used heavily in Uzbek cuisine, which we enjoyed because we love dill (hopefully, you do too)!
- Uzbekistan has the best melons in the world! Unfortunately, we weren’t there during the right season, which is in the summer months of June-September. We’ve heard amazing things and are seriously considering going back just to try them.
- Vegetarian options do exist. We had some of the best salads (and tomatoes) we’ve ever had in Uzbekistan. If you’re not a meat-eater go for the carrot, cucumber cabbage, beet, or eggplant salads and pumpkin manti (pumpkin-filled dumplings) they’re all delicious!
Is Uzbekistan a dry country?
No, there is plenty of alcohol available to drink to your heart’s content, just don’t expect the same kind of variety you get back home. Think lots of Russian vodkas and light European style beers. Wine is also available, but it’s probably not something you’ll swoon over.
Can you drink the water?
It’s not advised to drink the water in Uzbekistan without a filter. Some people say it’s safe to drink the tap water in Tashkent, but sticking to filtered water is best. If you’re like us and have concerns about the overuse of plastic consider getting the Grayl Ultralight Water Purifier Bottle. It effectively cleans tap water and removes 99.9% of harmful bacteria. It’s better for the environment and cheaper than purchasing water bottles every time you’re thirsty. It’s a win-win!
The best time to take photos is the same as it always is anywhere else, around sunrise or sunset. Just be sure to check the hours of where you’re shooting first in case it’s not open early or late. If you have a DSLR it’s best to bring a variety of lenses, but wide angles seem to be the most useful when shooting the magnificent buildings in Uzbekistan.
A fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is ideal for interiors. They do allow tripods at most sites. Don’t take pictures of police, guards, government buildings, or military personnel. We heard horror stories about people being asked to delete memory cards.
SIM cards in Uzbekistan are inexpensive. Upon arrival try to buy a UMS sim card at the airport or railway station. However, they were sold out when we arrived. If you can’t buy them at the tourist information centers try to get one from Beeline shops (yellow and black) or Ucell stores (purple).
You can purchase a card that covers calls, texts, and internet for the duration of your trip for $10 or less. 4G is available in the bigger cities (Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara), but the signal decreases outside of these.
Bring your passport at the time of purchase with a registration slip from your accommodation. If one shop says they can’t sell to tourists, try another. The cards are valid for 30 days. For more detailed information on phone service in Uzbekistan visit the prepaid data SIM card wiki.
Expect Western toilets in most hotels and guesthouses and squat toilets in public places. The toilets on the trains aren’t the cleanest, but we’ve seen worse. Carry a roll of toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you.
What you won’t find
If you’re looking for nightlife, clubs, or beaches this isn’t your destination. We didn’t see any vegan restaurants anywhere. You won’t find ATMs everywhere and strong consistent Wi-Fi signals are rare. Don’t depend on either one of them too much. Public display of affection is not common.
Additional resources and helpful books
Useful website for all things Silk Road – Caravanistan
Practice basic Russian – Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook
Guidebook for Central Asia – Lonely Planet Central Asia
Excellent read before visiting – Carpet Ride to Khiva
Still reading? You’ve got some serious patience! That was a ridiculous amount of information, but we hope you found it useful! Uzbekistan has to be one of the most underrated countries in the world. If you have the chance to visit, please do. If you’re anything like us, you’ll leave feeling intrigued to learn more about it long after you return home.
Are you considering a trip to Uzbekistan? Let us know in the comments…