Uzbekistan has to be, so far at least, the most rewarding country I have travelled through on this trip. It has countless splendid sights (more on these later) ridiculously friendly people, and enough quirks to make it endearingly different to what I have been used to on the road so far.
Uzbekistan is actually the most touristy of the countries in Central Asia, but it’s still not exactly high on everyone’s list of places to visit. Getting a Visa is fairly painless, but once inside the country you have to make sure each hotel you stay at registers you with the authorities and gives you a small stamped paper registration slip for each night you stay in Uzbekistan. You need to carry these around with you in your passport to show member of the police or army who might take an interest in it. You also need them to be able to leave the country unless you plan on paying a “fine” to get out.
Money is another aspect that might but people off. Until recently the highest denomination note available was the 1,000 Som note. On the black market this is barely worth 33 US Cents. Trips to the shops or train stations to buy tickets etc therefore result in you carrying with you stacks of largely worthless pieces of paper. You cannot get Som’s outside of Uzbekistan and once inside you are unlikely to find a ATM issuing them, and even if you did you would be a fool to use it, as changing US dollars on the black market gets you 30% more than the official rate. Finding people to do this is easy, although it feels slightly wierd to hand over a single $100 note and in return, receive 3,000 notes back….You are therefore adviced to bring all the cash you need in US dollars into the country with you. You have to declare this as you enter the country and when you leave the country you must have less foreign currency than you entered in. The declaration of all the money you bring into the country seems pointless at first when you read about how difficult getting hold of US dollars is inside of Uzbekistan, but in actual fact in most of the main tourist cities it’s reasonably easy to find a bank that will do a cash advance for a1-3% commission. Ideally though you need to have a MasterCard and a Visa Card with you as banks generally only accept one or the other.
Once in Uzbekistan, your first impressions will likely depend on where you entered. I entered into a town called Nukus in Western Uzbekistan. If Aktau in Kazakhstan was the city where the streets have no name, Nukus is the city where the streets have no cars. Or shops. Getting food without having to trek all the way over to the main bazaar was basically impossible and the whole place had a weird ghost town like Wild West feeling. In the main bazaar you could buy pretty much everything. Especially if you wanted melons or in particular water melons. Melons are everywhere in Uzbekistan. Taking up vast swaths of space in the towns bazaars being sold from the sides of roads and being hawked out of the back of random minivans. They are very nice, but you can’t help but be left with the opinon that there must be enough watermelons for every Uzbek to eat one a day. And that’s probably too many watermelons.
When you do see cars, you will be struck by two things. Firstly, due to fuel shortages, lots of minuses etc have been converted to run off gas. By which I mean actual gas as in a condensed mix of propane and methane not just gasoline. (Maybe they need to find a way to make their cars run off watermelon?)
Secondly, that the soviet era Lada’s are vastly outnumbered by fleets of Chevrolet’s of all shapes and sizes. They’ve got a factory in Uzbekistan and definitely seem to have the market tied up.
Moving on from Nukus, I made my way to Khiva, an ancient walled city, offering a first glimpse at the splendours Uzbekistan has to offer. It’s clearly geared to tourists, but in July at least, with the mercury often pushing past 40 degrees centigrade, its less busy and the heat was not a major barrier to sight-seeing and provided a good excuse to spend high noon having a bit of a siesta until it cooled down a bit. (It probably helped that I had air conditioning as well….) You can take in most of the sites or free, as the most impressive facades of the buildings are on the outside, but if you want to see a few small museums or climb a minaret for a view of the whole town then you need to pay a bit. It feels like you are paying a lot, as does paying for most things in Uzbekistan as you hand over great wads of cash, but in reality it’s all very reasonable. Khiva is the smallest of the 3 major cities on Uzbekistan Silk Road and lacks the monumental sites of its bigger brothers in Bukhara and Samarkand, but makes up for this with a preserved city wall encircling the old town and with some fascinating smaller sites such as the fat stump of what was planned to be an enormous minarets. The city wall of Khiva, (and the much more ruined stretches of what was once Bukharas own walls) were actually one of the highlights of the trip, even if they were not covered in fantastically intricate tile and mosaic work like everything else. They look particularly stunning at sunset, when they almost glowed orange as the skies darkened above them and felt, frankly, otherworldly.
Bukhara was even hotter, but here was where the sights in Uzbekistan really stepped up to the mark and lived up to Uzbekistan reputation as the place to visit in Uzbekistan. The pictures will hopefully do a much better job of explaining this than I can do with words, but I will say that the main mosque in the centre of old Bukhara is possibly the most beautiful man-made thing I have seen.
I cannot decide if I preferred Bukhara or Samarkand. Samarakand is best reached with a short (well 3.5 hours which is short by Central Asian standards anyway) air-conditioned train ride, in which if you are (un?)lucky friendly locals with ply you with ridiculously large measures of vodka so early in the morning that you feel like the sun has barely risen, let alone past the yard-arm. Uzbekistan considers Samarkand to be the jewel in its crown, and it’s where the majority of tourists head too. Capital of the empire of the great Tamerlane, Uzbekistan’s national hero (quite why you want a national hero whose conquests likely resulted in the deaths in the 1400’s of around 17 million people is another mater entirely) started the trend of building sumptuously glazed mosques and madrasa’s here. And whilst its true that many were little more than ruins until the Soviets decided to rebuild and repair them I didn’t feel this took away from the beauty and awe they inspire. If you tire of buildings covered in blue tiles then it’s perhaps not an ideal destination to visit, but it does contain some other interesting sights, although the tomb of the Prophet Daniel was slightly underwhelming. (several places make claim to being the Tomb of Daniel, including Susa in Iran from which the remains at Samarkand were apparently taken.) You can also see the remains of the Observatory of the Ulugh Beg, Tamerlanes’s grandson and eventual successor as ruler who was also an avid scientists, teacher and astronomer. You might think he would make a better national hero than his grandfather, but perhaps the fact he was ultimately defeated and beheaded on the orders of his own son, rather disqualifies him.
As I mentioned the fact that many of the sights in Samarkand were reconstructed/restored fairly recently is an issue for many people, but frankly having seen the photos of the state some of them were left in it would probably be a choice, of restored monuments and sights, or no sights at all. And if everything was just left to ruin then frankly that would get boring. People want to know what things looked like to contemporaries as well as being able to walk around ruins like Indiana Jones. And full restoration and reconstruction like has occurred in many of the sights in Uzbekistan is a much better way of getting that experience over to the public than a crappy bit of CGI or an artists re-imaginings. And besides, monuments and buildings from whichever era, must after a while, undergo some repair and restoration work. Is there really a significant difference because in this event it was done by the USSR in the second half of the 20th Century instead of by the successor Khanates of the Timurid empire in the 19th Century?
So maybe now having read this post you are already searching Skyscanner for the next available flights to Tashkent. But if your still not convinced, don’t forget Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, has a railway museum!