This is Central Asia’s cradle of culture for more than 2 millennia, the home of an arsenal of architecture and ancient cities, all deeply infused with the bloody, fascinating history of the Silk Road. In terms of sites alone, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s biggest draw.
Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva impress visitors with fabulous mosques, madrassas and mausoleums. Other sites include the fast disappearing Aral Sea, the fortresses of remote Karakalpakstan, and the boom town capital of Tashkent.
Despite being a harshly governed police state, Uzbeks are extremely friendly where hospitality is an essential element of daily life.
Area. 447,400 sq km
Population. 30 million.
Languages. Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Karakalpak. Uzbek, a Turkic language, is official, has 15 million speakers and is the most widely spoken non-Slavic language from the former Soviet states. It was first written in Arabic, then in Roman letters, and since 1941, in a modified Cyrillic alphabet, but has been moving back to Roman.
When to travel. April to June has clear skies and cool temperatures for perfect travel conditions. July and August experience extreme heat and hotels can be a bargain. September and October remain warm.
Famous for plov, carpets, cotton. Pomegranates, Timor.
The Uzbek som. The official rate is kept artificially high so everyone uses the black market. Pay for everything with som bought on the black market – including items priced in dollars – rather than with US dollars or credit cards. So it is important to bring sufficient US$ for the duration of your trip as using an ATM will cost you 50% of the value of your money. Most businesses charge black market values. Hotels list prices in dollars but convert their room rates to som at the official exchange rates. Most travel agencies and private hotels outside of Tashkent – such as B&Bs of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva – also list prices in dollars but convert their prices to som at the black-market rates. At these places you will not save anything by paying in som. All internal flights must be paid in cash US dollars by foreigners. There is no risk in exchanging money on the black market. Money changes may put 500 som notes in the middle of wads of cash so count carefully before parting with your US dollars. The best money-exhange headquarters is the central bazaar, but almost anybody and everybody are eager to exchange at black market rates
In early 2014, the official exchange rate was 2100 to the $US and the black market rate was 2800. In October 2015, the official rate was 2500 and the black market rate close to 4900. When exchanging money, it is important to get 5000 som notes, the largest value available. Money changers will try to give you 1000 som bills and you will end up with pockets of cash. One US$100 bill gets a bag full of ragged bills usually held together with a rubber band.
A select few ATMs can be found in Tashkent but you can’t rely on them having cash in them.
Letter of Invitation. Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Malaysia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, UK and USA do not need a letter of invitation to apply for their Uzbekistan tourist visa. Citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine have visa-free travel. All other nationals need a letter of invitation from a tour company.
The LOI is processed by the Uzbekistan government with the application
submitted by the tour company. Like the visa itself, it is date specific. It normally takes 7-10 days to process so plan ahead. The consulate only processes the visas before noon, so again to save time, make sure you deal with the tour company in the mornings. The tour company was very helpful and answered emails promptly.
I applied for my LOI though the Cavavanistan.com travel site. It cost US$85 for a 15-day visa ($70 for 7 days and $115 for 30 days, $10 for express service but double the consular fee, and $10 for each additional entry).
If you have a LOI, you can usually get the Uzbek visa the same day or the next day, but embassies may differ. If you do not have a LOI (meaning, if you are from a country that does not need one), it will take much longer. 1 week? 10 days? 2 weeks? It depends on your embassy. For this reason, many travelers who don’t need the letter of invitation decide to get one anyway so as not to get stuck too long if they are applying on the road.
The Uzbekistan tourist visa is issued for 7, 15 or 30 days. It is date-specific, meaning that entry and exit dates are set on the visa. You can enter after the visa entry date and leave before the exit date. It is possible to get a double entry Uzbek visa simply by paying 10$ extra.
For your Uzbekistan visa application you will need:
1. Your passport with 6 months validity after expiry of the visa and 2 empty pages
2. A copy of your passport (you can keep your passport during processing)
3. 1 filled-out Uzbekistan visa application form (download and print it from here)
4. 2 passport pictures
5. For a transit visa, proof of onward travel is needed.
Cost of the visa is around $55 for 15 days, 90$ for 1 month, double entry is 10$ extra. Americans and Israelis pay 120$ to 165$, Japanese go for free. A double-entry visa is also valid for 30 days. We’re not sure how this works, but it seems you can only stay 15 consecutive days in Uzbekistan on a double entry visa if you get it without LOI, but that you can stay as long as you want within the 30-day window, go out of the country and come back for the remaining time on your double entry tourist visa if you get it with LOI.
It is possible to get a 30-day visa valid within a 60-day timeframe. Ask your consul and say that you are cycling for increased success rates. Normally you cannot apply more than 3 months in advance for your visa, but on several occasions, some travelers get a visa further in advance. It is also possible to apply for a visa in one embassy, and pick it up in another one, like with the Turkmen visa.
Another exception for exceptional travelers: 2 visas at the same time, but you will still have to exit the country, for the exceptional price of 500$.
Visa on Arrival. It is possible to get a visa on arrival in Uzbekistan, but only at the airport of Tashkent. Single or double entry is possible. There are several requirements though. You need to have a letter of invitation and there is no Uzbek embassy in the country where you are coming from (where your airplane is coming from, not your country of residence). When entering from a land border into Uzbekistan, visa on arrival is not possible.
Extending Visas – February 2015: Extending your visa is no longer possible in Uzbekistan, according to one Uzbek travel agent.
Registration. It is required that you register somewhere within 3 days of arriving. Theoretically you don’t need to register if staying in a town for less than 3 nights but it is best to register more often. Failure to do so can result in a small bribe to a fine of up to a thousand dollars and deportation. If you go without registering for several consecutive days, you are asking for trouble. A hotel licensed to take foreigners automatically registers you. If you stay in a private home, you are supposed to register with the local Office of Visas and Registration (OVIR), but this causes more problems than it solves for you and your hosts.
When you leave the country, border officials may thoroughly scrutinize your registration slips or may not look at them at all. Campers must resign themselves to stay in a hotel at least every 3 nights.
The land along the upper Amu-Darya, Sur-Darya Rivers and their tributaries has always been different from the rest of Central Asia – more settled than nomadic with patterns of land use that has changed little since the 6th century BC. An attitude of permanence still sets the people of this area apart.
Ancient Empires. The region was part of some very old Persian states. Alexander the Great stopped near Samarkand, conquered the Sogdians and married Rosana, the daughter of a local chieftain.
The Western Turks arrived in the 6th century AD, gave up their nomadic ways and maintained the Silk Road. The 8th century brought the Arabs, Islam and a written alphabet, but they found the region too big and restless to govern. The Persian Samanid dynasty arrived in the 9th and 10th centuries with its capital, Bukhara becoming the center of an intellectual, religious and cultural renaissance. In the 11th century, the Ghaznavids and then the Turkic Khorezmshahs (In Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan) controlled the region, but their reign was cut short by Chinggis Khan in the early 13th century.
Central Asia again became truly ‘central with Timur, the ruthless warrior and patron of the arts, who fashioned a glittering Islamic capital at Samarkand.
Uzbeks. Probably descended from the Mongol Golden Horde in northern Kazakhstan and adjacent Russia, Ozbeg (Uzbek ruled 1313-40) was the greatest khan and the tribes had begun to name themselves after him. They moved southeast mixing with sedentary Turkic tribes, adopted the Turkic language and reached the Syr-Darya in the mid-15th century. The came to control the remnants of Timur’s empire – all of Tranoxiana from the Amu-Darya to the Syr-Darya. Abdullah II (1538-1598), the greatest and last Shaybanid khan was responsible for some of Bukhara’s finest architecture. After this, the Silk Road fell into disuse and the empire unravelled. By the start of the 19th century, the entire region was dominated by 3 weak, feuding Uzbek city-states – Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand.
Russians. 4000 were slaughtered in Khiva in 1717. In 1801, the mentally unstable Tsar Paul sent 22,000 Cossacks to drive the British out of India, but Paul was assassinated and the army recalled. Tsar Nicholas I in 1839 tried to stop Britain’s expansion in Central Asia who had just taken Afghanistan. 25 years later, towns fell like dominoes – Tashkent in 1865, Samarkand and Bukhara in 1868, Khiva in 1873, and Kokand in 1873.
Even into the 20th century, most Central Asians identified themselves as Turks or Persians. The connection between Uzbek and Uzbekistan was a Soviet idea. Kokand was sacked in 1918, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkestan to be replaced by ‘People’s Republics’ two years later. In 1924, the whole map was redrawn on ethnic grounds, and the Uzbeks suddenly had a ‘homeland’, an official identity and a literary language. Composition changed as it suited Moscow – losing Tajikstan in 1929, acquired Karakalpakstan from Russia n 1936, taking parts of the steppe from Kazakhstan in 1956 and 1963, then losing some ni 1971.
The main impact of Soviet rule on rural Uzbeks were the forced and often bloody collectivisation of agriculture and the massive shift to cotton cultivation. Stalin purged the intelligentsia and much of the republics leadership. This and the traditional Central Asian respect for authority meant that by the 1980s, glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) would hardly trickle down and few structural reforms took place.
Independence. Tashkent intellectuals from the first serious non-communist popular movement, Birtek (Unity) in 1989 promoted Uzbec as the official language and protested the cotton monoculture. But they were barred from participating in the 1990 election. The resulting communist-dominated legislature elected Islam Karimov as the executive president. He declared Uzbekistan independent in 1991. In December 1991, Karimov won the first presidential election with 86% of the vote. His only opponent was driven into exile where he remains today. All other opponents were forbidden to take part. A new constitution declared Uzbekistan ‘a secular, democratic presidential republic’. It remains secular but far from democratic.
After independence. Karimov consolidated his power by eliminating dissent, controlling the media, police harassment and imprisonment of activists. But economic stagnation and the devastating cotton monoculture continued.
In 1999, bomb attacks in Tashkent led to a crackdown on radical Islamic fundamentalists that extended to all opponents.
Karimov won a second term in January 2000 with 92% of the votes. International condemnation was widespread. The 9/11 attacks resulted in opening bases in Termiz and Karchi to the US and NATO for use in Afghanistan and US aid money (US$500 million in 2002). Solidarity with the US ‘War on Terror’ gave Karimov license to ratchet up his campaign against the fundamentalists. Anyone he wanted to silence was branded a terrorist. Another rigged election in 2004 drew only modest international criticism.
The cozy relationship with the US ended with the ‘Andijon Massacre’ in 2005 when 24 powerful local businessmen were jailed for allegedly being part of an extremist Islamic movement. At a largely peaceful demonstration in Andijon’s main square, government troops killed between 155 and 1000 civilians. International condemnation resulted in Karimov evicting American forces from Karshi and the US Peace Corps and American NGOs were forced to leave.
Karimov launched a crackdown against opposition political activists and independent journalists. Western journalists have great difficulty getting a visa to Uzbekistan.
Relations gradually improved and the EU lifted sanctions in 2008 and its arms embargo in 2009. In 2009, the US resumed transporting supplies through the country to Afghanistan.
Despite a constitutional two-term limit, Karimov won 3rd and 4th terms in 2007 and 2014. In his mid 70’s he shows few signs of relinquishing his grip on power. His glamorous pop-singer, businesswoman and diplomatic daughter, Gulnara Karimova is claimed to be his successor for years. In 2013 she was involved in corruption investigations by her rivals for power, most notably Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National security Service.
After 25 years of power with no other nationally prominent politician being allowed to develop a significant power base, a power vacuum will be left by Karimov’s death. Few Uzbeks view Karimov with much fondness but think it is a case of ‘better the devil you know’.
Cotton is a poor match for much of Uzbekistan – it’s a thirsty crop in a parched land. The drying up of the Aral Sea has saturated the land with salt. Poor yields and low government-controlled prices leave farmers too poor to pay from machinery or labour. Yet the government won’t let them rotate their crops or convert to fruit. It’s all cotton, all the time. The whole system would collapse entirely but for the country’s policy of sending school children, students and adults into the fields every autumn to harvest cotton. The practice has resulted in boycotts of Uzbec cotton by international companies including Wal-Mart. Under pressure, the government, in 2009, banned the forced labour of kids under 16, but slave labour continues and several workers died.
Centuries of tradition as settled people left the Uzbeks in a better position than their nomadic neighbors to fend off Soviet attempts to modify their culture. They consider themselves good traders, hospitable hosts and tied to the land. Women are second class citizens at work and at home (more so than their Kazakh and Kyrgyz neighbors). They are expected to be subservient to their husbands and marriages are traditionally arranged.
Population. With 30 million people, it is by far the most populous Central Asian country. Uzbeks make up 80%, Tajiks 5% and Russians, Kazakhs, Koreans, Tatars, Karakalpaks and Ukrainians the rest. There is a miniscule Jewish population in Bukhara and Samarkand,
The Fergana valley is the most populous area. Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik-speaking. The further west one goes, the more sparsely populated it is
90% are Muslim but the vast majority are not practicing with most moderate Hanafi Sunni and some Sufism with the Fergana valley the most conservative. 9% are Christian, mostly Eastern Orthodox. Since the 1999 bomb attacks in Tashkent, mosques are banned from broadcasting calls to prayer and mullahs are pressured to praise the government in their sermons. Attendance at mosques fell drastically after the 2005 Andijon incident.
Two centers of progressive art were allowed to survive: Igor Navitsky’s collection of lost art from the 1930s stashed in the Nukus Savitsky Museum and Mark weil’s Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent. Otherwise, contemporary art is tightly controlled by the state. Photographer Umida Ahmedova captures the lives and traditions of ordinary Uzbeks, but he was arrested and convicted of slandering the Uzbek nation. Although eventually pardoned by Karimov, the harmless photos reveal much about the presidents artistic ideal – Uzbekistan should be portrayed as clean, orderly, prosperous and modern.
Samarkand’s old town has been cordoned off from tourist’s view and Amir Timur’s maydoni was demolished in Tashkent. In 2013, five totally unthreatening pop acts were banned from giving live performances for the crime of failing to ‘praise the motherland, our people and their happiness’. The country’s most famous singer is actually Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, better known by here stage name, Googoosha. Check out here wonderfully awful duet with Gerard Depardieu on YouTube.
Rugged mountains are in the eastern fringes (Tashkent’s Chatkal and Pskem Mountains and Samarkands Zarafshon Mountains) and in the southeast. West of here are vast plains of desert or steppe. The Amu-Darya drops out of Tajikistan and forms the border of Turkmenistan for over 2000kms dividing the land into two halves: the Karakum desert and the Ustyurt plateau to the west, and the Kyzylkum to the east. Gazelles, raptors, monitors, scorpions and venomous snakes reside here.
There are 15 natural reserves but much is threatened by lacklustre environmental protection laws. The national park system lacks the finds to prevent illegal logging and poaching. But this pales compared to the Aral Sea disaster, maybe the greatest man-made environmental disaster in history.
FOOD & DRINK
plov – a pilaf of rice and vegetables is the national staple.
laghman – long flat noodles.
beshbarmak – noodles with horse meat and broth
halim – porridge of boiled meat and wheat
naryn – horsemeat sausage with cold noodles
moshkichiri – meat gruel
moshhurda – mung-bean gruel
dimlama – meat, potatoes, onions and vegetables braised slowly in fat
buglama – steamed pumpkin
karut – small balls of tart and dried yoghurt
noz – finely crushed chewing tobacco
somsa – puff pastry stuffed with lamb meat and onion
beer, wine and spirits common despite its Muslim veneer; no taboo about drinking.
B&Bs – more common here than elsewhere in Central Asia.
Yurtstays and community based tourism in Nuratau Mountains.
Usually rooms have en suite bathrooms and include breakfast.
Homestays and camping possible for only one night or so as registration required at least every third night in a hotel.
Camel trekking. Usually combined with yurt stays and usually of short distance around the camps.
Rafting, skiing and trekking are accessible from Tashkent.
Walking in the Nuratau Mountains and mountains around Boysun and Shakhrisabz in SE Uzbekistan.
DANGERS and ANNOYANCES
As in totalitarian states, the main danger is the overzealous police but this is less of a problem in recent years with less shaking down of tourists for bribes. Taxis prefer having tourists in the car to provide ‘protection’ against spurious roadside checks. Petty crime and armed robbery are rare.
The main irritation is the need to collect flimsy and pointless registration slips and the need to carry around huge piles of cash due to the worthlessness of the som.
The government blocks sensitive Uzbek-language websites but most English language sites (Facebook, Twitter) are accessible. Cable and satellite TV is common but few channels are in English (BBC, CNN).
Internet access is unreliable and wi-fi slow but common in most hotels in bigger places but practically nonexistent elsewhere.
Air. Very cheap and a great way to cover big distances between big cities. Flights tend to get booked up in high season. You can only book domestic flights directly with the airline which basically means going to the airport.
Buses and Marshrutkas. Bad state buses are disappearing. Private buses are newer and more comfortable but leave when full so don’t keep a schedule. Drivers and touts oversell seats and are obsessed with carrying cargo.
Car. There are no car-rental companies but hiking a vehicle (with a driver) is possible but you need insurance from home and an international driving license. There are lots of random stops and traffic cops fishing for bribes.
Shared and ordinary taxi. They save time but cost more than buses and ply all the main intercity routes and borders. They leave when full from set locations usually near bus stations. Prices are low.
Train. Are perhaps the most comfortable, fastest and safest especially the express trains between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, but are popular and should be booked a few days in advance. Second class is as comfortable as first class. Other long-haul trains are slow but comfortable Soviet-style trains with hard and soft sleepers. Local trains are slow and dirt cheap with bench-style seats and cover middle distance routes such as Samarkand/Bukhara.