UZBEKISTAN: A FUSION BETWEEN ISLAM AND SOVIET UNION
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Take a high speed train to the nineties, explore the remains of the Silk Road and eat the most delicious watermelon in the world!
Just before going to Morocco, I remember seeing a picture on Instagram with a bright turquoise mosaic door. I stared at it for a while, thinking it was from Morocco and wondering if I can go there as well. Few seconds later I realized it was actually from Uzbekistan, a country I didn`t know much of at that time.
The only thing that came into my mind when I was thinking of this country, was the image of a trainer that I had in my previous airline: a pretty girl with a strange accent, black hair and almond eyes, not too European, not too Asian.
Metaphorically speaking, this is what Uzbekistan is all about: a combination between the Soviet Russia, the Arabic architecture, Middle Eastern cuisine and Mongolian people. And still, with all this mix, there is a strange feel of authenticity.
A quick introduction
When it comes to Uzbekistan or any other country that ends in "stan", usually the people`s reaction is: "Is it safe?!"
And we must say: DEFINITELY YES! Actually, we can say now that Uzbekistan is one of the safest countries we`ve been to. According to Google, the border areas around Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan ( pretty much Southeast of the country ) tend to be less safe but we cannot tell how bad it is.
Uzbekistan, officially The Republic of Uzbekistan is a double landlocked country in Central Asia. Actually Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein are the only two doubly landlocked countries in the world; all their neighbors are landlocked.
It is a rather big country, stretching 1425 km from East to West and 930 km from North to South. It is divided into 5 regions: Northern Uzbekistan, Southern Uzbekistan, Central Uzbebistan, Fergana Valley and Samarkand through Bukhara. The capital is Tashkent, home to the first metro system in Central Asia and one of the most interesting in the world, having each station decorated in a different way.
The population has almost reached 33 millions and most of the people are Uzbek which are generally Muslims.
There are a lot of flavors and turning points in the country`s history: from the wealth of the Silk Route to the Persian conquest soon after, then the conquest of the Arabs and Mongols. Just after the First World War, the Bolsheviks took over all Central Asia, including Uzbekistan and nothing changed until 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Throughout this period, the Soviets took advantage of the country`s agricultural potential and they exploited the cotton so heavily that they dried up the Aral sea. :(
Despite this struggling past, after the fell of the Soviets, Uzbekistan is on a growing curve and made a lot of progress. First thing after their independence was to rebuild their history and everything that was destroyed by the Communists, especially the Silk Road cities: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva.
At the moment there are regulations in respect to the environment and cotton growing is restricted to a low percentage.
They have a super cheap and super civilized high speed train linking Tashkent and Bukhara and they are working on extending the railway to Khiva in the near future.
The roads are similar to Romania, our country, but less crowded.
People felt "more humans" than in many other parts of the world, apart from our first experience after landing in Tashkent, when we were approached by 2 insistent taxi drivers and we ended up taking a ride with the second one. Long story short: the first one went out of his mind and tried to stop us to enter the car, then he entered the car himself and started shouting at the second driver in their language for the whole duration of our ride.
Bear in mind that there are not many airlines flying into Uzbekistan. The biggest of them are: Uzbekistan Airways ( their national company ), Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot. A full list and further information can be found on skyscanner.net.
In terms of visa policy, most of the European Union countries are visa free but you can check either your own country`s Ministry of Foreign Affairs information or the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan website.
Romanian citizens can enter without a visa and stay up to 30 days. The only requirement is the validity of the passport: minimum 3 months. Official info about this here.
Uzbekistan is a big country and when it comes to moving around, distances can be a problem. Most of the Silk Road cities are 400 km to 1000 km away from Tashkent, so, unless you have an awful amount of time, getting from one place to another will be a hassle.
We had only six days over there and we had to make the most of everything. So, we experienced pretty much everything that saved us time: flying, taxi and train.
In conclusion, for long distances, such as from Tashkent to Khiva or Nukus, we recommend flying. Uzbekistan Airways has a lot of domestic routes per day to various cities and the ticket prices are really affordable.
For medium distances, if you have a high speed train available and the time table is convenient ( such as from Tashkent to Samarkand or from Samarkand to Bukhara ), definitely go for the train. Here, the high speed train is really nice and civilized and the tickets are super cheap! For example, 2 business class tickets from Samarkand to Bukhara ( almost 300 km by road ) we only paid about 25 $!!! The journey was super short, the train was super clean and comfortable, the staff were really nice and it even had bar and snack service! For a moment we had the feeling that we were in Japan!
The high speed train name is Afrosiyob and apparently you can also buy tickets online. We bought them from the train station on the same day but sometimes they sell out pretty fast.
For medium distances, if you don`t have a high speed train available, there are only 2 options left: taxi or shared taxi.
The bad news is that here is not possible to rent a car on your own. The good news is that you can rent a car with a driver or even rent a taxi and it will not cost you a fortune. Also, hiring a cab in the city is super cheap!
For example, we paid for a car with a driver from Bukhara to Khiva ( 450 km ) 130$. From Bukhara to Samarkand ( 280 km ) we paid about 80$. Both cars had AC and the price was per car.
If you opt for a shared taxi, the price will be around 15-20$ per person for a long distance, but bear in mind that you will have to wait until the car gets full and most of the times the car won`t have AC. We didn`t consider this option as the time was too short for us.
Taxis within the cities literally will not cost you more than 5$. Usually it`s 1-3$.
When to go
Uzbekistan's climate is classified as continental, with hot summers and cool winters. Summer temperatures often surpass 40 °C (104 °F); winter temperatures average about −2 °C (28 °F), but may fall as low as −40 °C (−40 °F).
According to Google Uzbekistan is best visited during spring and autumn (April to May, and September to early November). During these periods, it's typically warm and dry, and you can enjoy the heat of this desert region without it being uncomfortably hot, as it can be during the summer months.
The downside of these peak times is that you will encounter more tourists.
We went there at the beginning of August, not necessarily by choice but mainly by opportunity, and we must say that it was hot but it was still acceptable. I don`t know if it was because we expected worse or if we are more adaptable to heat.
Being surrounded by desert, the humidity is very low and even 35-37 degrees Celsius won`t be felt so badly. On top of this, the mornings and evenings are really pleasant, the temperatures dropping to 23-24 degrees. And the good news is that there are not too many tourists and you will have all the places just for yourself! 😃
We must say that accommodation in Uzbekistan is fairly cheap and fairly good. On top of that, the food was delicious, and the fruits and vegetables had their original taste and flavor. So what more can you possible ask for? 😃
We planned to spend 1 night in Tashkent, 2 nights in Bukhara and 2 nights in Khiva. Unfortunately, we missed our connection to Tashkent and we ended up spending the first night in Istanbul, but we still managed to make the most of it.
The accommodation is Bukhara was really gorgeous, right in the city center. We paid about 50$ per night, breakfast included. The rooms were super clean and cozy, we had plenty of toiletries, AC and the breakfast was really good. Whenever we wanted to buy something from them, such as water or fruits, they offered to us free of charge. There was reception 24/7 and the staff were super helpful.
We definitely recommend it. The name of the hotel is Kukaldosh Boutique and it can be found on Booking.com.
The accommodation in Khiva was slightly worse than in Bukhara, but still decent and comfortable.
The rooms were older and a bit more communistic but we had everything we needed. Breakfast was better, though, buffet type with plenty of options to choose from.
The staff were also friendly and helpful.
The name of the hotel is Arkanchi hotel and it can also be found on Booking.com.
There is another local family bed and breakfast - Meros B&B - which was highly recommended on a lot of blogs. Unfortunately we didn`t find a room available but we did stop over for some drinks on their rooftop terrace and we the hosts were very nice with us. You should definitely try it. You can find it on Booking.com, as well.
Where to go
Uzbekistan is an amazing country and has a lot of places to explore, if you have enough time!
We will briefly post what is the most important and will get into more details a bit later in the article.
Whether you like it or not, you will, most probably, be landing in Tashkent. Since you will be there, it`s worth spending a day or two in order to feel the pulse of the city.
The reason you`re coming to Uzbekistan, though, are the old Silk Road`s cities: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
As you go to the West, about 180 km from Khiva, there is Nukus, which is pretty much at the end of the world. In Nukus actually there is an museum which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest collections of Soviet avant-garde art.🙂
Around Nukus and Khiva, there are plenty of places to see: the dried Aral sea, Muynak fishing village, the ancient fortresses of ancient Khorezm, and the Kyzylkum desert.
There are many day trips and even 2-3 days trips around the desert area that can be taken from Khiva on the spot.
More info and photos about ancient Khorezm fortresses here.
North of Samarkand and Bukhara, there is the town of Nurota ( or Nurata ). Here you can visit the Asraf village.
Not far from Tashkent, if you go Northeast, you`ll find Ugam - Chatkal National Park, a mountainous green region, unusual to the area, apparently.
East of Tashkent, there is Fergana Valley region, where you can visit the cities of Fergana, Kokand and Margilan.
Some more brief ideas to get inspired can be found here.
The city of Samarkand has been at the crossroads of world cultures for over two and a half millennia and is one of the most important sites on the Silk Routes traversing Central Asia. Located in the Zerafshan River valley, in north-eastern Uzbekistan, the city enjoys the benefits of abundant natural resources and settlement in the region can be traced back to 1,500 BC.
Samarkand is the biggest city in comparison to Bukhara and Khiva and it was the least favorite in our top. However, it is still an authentic city and, if you have time, these are the main highlights:
Registon Square, Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum, Gur-e Amir Mausoleum and Siab Bazaar.
Bukhara (also spelled Bokhara, Bukhoro, or Buxoro) was historically one of the great trading cities along the Silk Road. The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Sanskrit the word Bukhara means "abbey".
Bukhara, "The city of museums", contains more than 140 architectural monuments of the Middle Ages. Buildings such as Poi - Kalan, Kosh Madras, Mausoleum of Ismail Samoni, Minaret of Kalyan and others were built 2,300 years ago, and today are popular with tourists.
Unfortunately, the original buildings were destroyed by the Soviets, but everything has been reconstructed in order to preserve the heritage.
Bukhara was our favorite stop in Uzbekistan. It is a small and cozy town, where everything is within walking distance. In August, it was not popular with tourists and we had most of the places just for ourselves. It is also a nice place to wander on the side streets and get lost in.
Must see places are: Po-i-Kalyan complex ( with Mir-i-Arab Madrasa and Kalan Minaret ), Ark of Bukhara, Lyab-i-Hauz area, Bolo Hauz Mosque and Chor Minor. Everything can be seen in a day.
There is a nice rooftop terrace - Chasmai Mirob Restaurant - where you can grab a bite while watching Po-i-Kalyan complex.
Along with Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is an important and often overlooked historical site on what was once the Great Silk Road. Famous for its long and brutal history as a slave trading post sandwiched in between the vast Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, Khiva is now a quiet, sleepy oasis.
It's difficult to imagine what exactly ancient Khiva was like, considering the historical areas were restored to a scrubbed and squeaky-clean look by the Soviets in the 1970s.
Today, the city’s population is about 40,000 people. It's a quick 35 km from the regional capital of Urgench and 5 km from the border of Turkmenistan.
Khiva is divided into two distinct sections; one being the older, museum-like Ichon-Qala or Itchan Kala (literally: within the wall) and the modern Dichon-Qala (literally: outside the wall).
It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Khiva is even smaller than Bukhara and in the older part ( Itchan Kala ) everything is 10 minutes away. It can easily be explored in one day but it`s really relaxing to just take your time at one of the terraces, enjoy a delicious slice of watermelon or try the funny local green noodles shivit-oshi.
Even it`s further away, we found it a bit more crowded with tourists, even in the August heat.
Everything inside Itchan Kala feels like a museum but the highlights of the town are: Kalta Minor minaret, Islam Khoja minaret, Juma Mosque, Tura Murad Minaret or Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum. Anyway, everything is so close here that you will find your way around even without the this list. 🙂
Nice rooftop terraces: Terassa Cafe ( pretty crowded ) and Meros B&B ( mostly chill ). Shivit oshi green noodles can be tried pretty much at every restaurant but is better to ask first.
Tashkent is the capital and largest city of Uzbekistan, as well as the most populated city in ex-Soviet Central Asia, with a population of 2,485,900 ( In 2018 ). It is located in the north-east of the country close to the Khazakstan border. Much of the city was destroyed in the 1966 earthquake, though it was rebuilt afterwards as a model Soviet city.
Being a metropolis, it`s obviously the least authentic from all Uzbek cities but, if you have time, it is still nice to try the pulse of the place.
We planned for a day and a half but we ended up with only 4 hours so we didn`t have time for a lot. We headed to the famous Uzbekistan hotel and then took several metro rides to photograph the unique metro stations. Which, by the way, are a paradise if you are into photography, like us. More pictures of Tashkent Metro in National Geographic`s article. 🙂
Apart from that, other highlights of the city are: Chorsu Bazaar, Kukeldash Madrasah, Dzhuma Mosque, Tashkent Tower, Minor Mosque, Hazrat Imam Complex.
Both taxis and metro are incredibly cheap. Actually the metro ticket is one of the cheapest in the world. A 12 Euros cents ticket allows you to travel from one side of the city to the other.
For taxis, it`s handly to download the Yandex app, it`s like an Uber, just you pay cash.
Good to know: Tashkent airport is pretty small, but bear in mind that the international terminal and the domestic terminal are on opposite sides of the same runway.
So, if you have a flight to catch, the quickest option is to take a taxi, which will definitely charge you extra ( will be maximum 5 $ ). The taxi ride is about 3 km and will take approximately 10 minutes in normal traffic.
How much time you need
Uzbekistan is a big country so no matter how much time you have, you`ll find something to do. The main problem is that the distances are long and, if you`re time limited, is quite difficult to make the most of everything.
If you`re only into seeing the main highlights of Uzbekistan: Bhukara, Khiva, Samarkand and maybe Tashkent, 5 to 7 days are enough.
We stayed there 5 days and we are happy with our experience. All of these cities are fairly small
( apart from Tashkent ) and 1-2 days in each is what you need.
If you want to go a bit further away from these cities, we would add another 2-3 days in Khiva to explore the surroundings and maybe 2-3 days in Nukus to explore the city and to go to Muynak village. So, 9 to 11 days in total.
If you are into going off the beaten path and you want to really taste the flavor of the country, 2 weeks should be what you`re looking for.
Our recommendation: plan for a week there ( without the days you`re flying ) and you`ll get the most of it.
We did quite a few mistakes in going back and forth and wasting quite some precious time.
- we planned to land in Tashkent in the morning, spend the day and the night in Tashkent but our flight was delayed and arrived the following morning
- on day 2 we took a flight to Bukhara ( 1 hour ) in the morning, spent the first day over there
- next day we decided on the spot to hire a driver to take us to Samarkand in the morning, spent 5-6 hrs there and took the high speed train back to Bukhara ( so a lot of waste of time )
- day 3 we went by taxi in the morning to Khiva ( 6 hrs ), spent the rest of the day plus the next day in Khiva
- day 5 we took the flight from Urgench ( 30 min by car from Khiva ) back to Tashkent, where we had about 4 hours so we decided to see the famous metro stations and Uzbekistan hotel.
Our suggested trip:
- land in Tashkent, spend a day or two ( depending how much time you have )
- take the high speed train to train to Samarkand in the morning ( 2 - 4 hours ), spend the rest of the day in Samarkand ( and possibly the following day, if you have time )
- then take the high speed train to Bukhara ( 2 hours ), spend 1-2 days in Bukhara
- take a taxi to Khiva ( 6 hours ), spend 1-2 days over there
- fly back to Tashkent from Urgench
Uzbekistan is a less known but yet an amazing country and impressed both of us. Probably the fact that it is not so popular helped it keep its authenticity. It`s one of the few countries that make you feel an outsider ( because there are no tourists ) but at the same time you feel welcomed by its warm people.
The moment we stepped out of the plane we had the feeling we returned back to the eastern European nineties: old well kept cars, old fashioned people, no brands at all, communist buildings and grocery stores. An era where people actually repair and respect everything they have and not just throw it away and look for a replacement.
But now, more than ever, we could see everything with different eyes and we appreciate the lack of consumerism and the fact that everything felt so natural: from human communities to organic vegetables. And all of these are not happening because of the poverty, no. The people are not poor at all and we could feel the country was even more developed than ours, which is an EU state.
So, if you have the time and you`re willing to learn a lesson about life, we strongly recommend a journey to Uzbekistan.
Next, feel inspired by our photo gallery, shot entirely with Sony A7III using a Tamron 28-75 mm and a Sony 135 mm. And , by the way, Uzbekistan is the heaven of the photographers!!!