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.
VISAS. This is the most expensive countries in Central Asia to get a visa if you need a letter of invitation.
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. It normally takes 7-10 days to process so plan ahead. 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. 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.
Uzbekistan Tourist Visa
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. 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. It is also possible to apply for a visa in one embassy, and pick it up in another one, like with the Turkmen visa.
My experience. I applied for my LOI though the Cavavanistan.com travel site. The LOI cost US$85 for a 15-day visa and arrived 8 days later by email. The travel company was very thorough and efficient. With the LOI in Dushanbe, a photocopy of my passport and a passport photo, for US$65 (Canada), I had my visa in 5 minutes.
MONEY. The Uzbek som’s official rate is kept artificially high so everyone uses the black market. In October 2015, the official rate was 2500 and the black market rate 4800-4900 to the $US. It is important to bring sufficient US$ 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. 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. Even with 5000som notes, you get a pile of money.
A select few ATMs can be found in Tashkent but you can’t rely on them having cash in them.
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.
I crossed into Uzbekistan from Kandabam/Kanbodom, Tajikistan. To get there was a 7somoni share minibus and a 20somoni taxi. Uzbekistan customs was interesting. I had to fill out a declaration of all the money I had. The forms are all in Russian/Uzbek and would have been impossible to fill out without the help of a tourist at the border post. Then was the most thorough search of my bags I have ever had. I have heard of some people having their computer searched and all medications declared.
I then walked about a kilometer to a store and got a share minivan to Beshank (US$3), changed all my somoni to Uzbek som (am totally uncertain if I got a good rate) and then another van to Kokand (1600som). This is considerably cheaper transportation than if you go from Khojand via Oybek to Tashkent.
Fergana Valley. Where’s the valley? From this broad (22,000sq km) flat bowl, the surrounding mountain ranges (Tian Shan to the north and Pamirs to the south) are invisible in normal atmospheric conditions. There is often smog in this, Uzbekistan’s most populous and most industrial region.
Fergana is also the fruit and cotton basket. Drained by the Syr-Darya, the valley is one big oasis with some of the finest soil and climate in Central Asia. Already in the 2nd century, the Greeks, Persians and Chinese found a prosperous kingdom and some 70 villages and towns. The Soviets enslaved it to an obsessive raw-cotton monoculture that still exists today. It is also the center of Central Asian silk production centered in Margilon.
Of the 8 million people in the valley, 90% are Uzbek and higher in the smaller towns. The province has always yielded a large share of Uzbekistan’s political, economic and religious influence. Fergana was the center of numerous revolts against the tsar and later the Bolsheviks. In the 1990s, the valley gave birth to religious extremism in Central Asia. President Karimov’s brutal crackdown came to a head in the Andijon massacre in 2005, the memory of which still haunts the region today. There is still a significant police presence.
But they are still very hospitable and friendly. Other attractions are crafts and wonderful bazaars. Dress modesty is best. Security is tight with frequent checkpoints where foreigners must register.
Kokand (pop 200,000)
This is the gateway to the valley. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the hotbed and second only to Bukhara as a religious center in Central Asia, with at least 35 madrassas and hundreds of mosques. Today the center is hedged by colonial avenues, bearing little resemblance to Bukhara. Nationalists fed up with empty promises met here in 1918, the Tashkent soviet had the city sacked, most of its holy sites desecrated or destroyed and 14,000 Kokandis slaughtered. Traditionally conservative Kokand today has been made over giving the town a modern fee.
I took a city bus to my hotel (500som). I always try to take city buses. Besides being very cheap, you can have a lot of fun with the locals.
I stayed at the very nice Hotel Kokand, close to the Khan’s Palace. It had great wi-fi, an unusual commodity in Uzbekistan. The price started at $30, but we eventually settled on $20.
Khan’s Palace. Khudayar Khan was a cruel leader forced into exile by his subjects and the Russians snuffed out his Khanate. Roughly half the palace was taken up by his harem. His 43 concubines would wait to be chosen as wife for the night – Islam allows only four wives so the khan kept a mullah at hand for a quick marriage ceremony with the marriage only to last one night.
The palace, built in 1873, had seven courtyards and 114 rooms, but the Russians demolished the harem’s quarters in 1919. Six courtyards remain and their 27 rooms house a museum. The front rooms are gorgeous with tiled half walls, terracotta designs and wonderful ceilings and moldings. The front exterior and minarets have dazzling tile work.
Jami Mosque Museum. Built in 1812, it is Kokand’s most impressive mosque. The 100m-long portico has 98 red-wood columns brought from India. The whole complex has been converted to a museum.
Narbutabey Mosque and Madrassa. Built in 1799, it is now closed as a madrassa. The kid from the hostel wanted to exchange money with his father (I exchanged $100, got 96-5000som bills, a huge wad). so he accompanied me to the last two places and had them opened up so I could visit. The classrooms were tiny dark spaces with seating on the floor. There were no blackboards.
I stayed in Kokand for only one night and took a taxi to the ‘Tashkent taxi stand’. Every car with arriving travelers is mobbed by at least 10 guys courting your business. There were at least 50 waiting to fill their small cars as many are on their way to Tadhkent for work. With all the competition, cars fill slowly and it can be a long wait. The road goes over a high pass that buses aren’t allowed to take so these share taxi’s are the only way to go.
The ride dropped me off at the Vozkal Train Station instead of the Tashkent Main or North Station. I tried to follow my map to my hostel but of course nothing made sense and finally walked back to the station and took a taxi to the Top Chan Hostel. The original hostel in Uzbekistan, it is a great place and very reasonable at $10/night, a good, English-speaking staff. good wi-fi and good facilities.
Uzbekistan is very cheap; city buses 10¢, cheeseburger $1, coffee 10¢, taxi across town 80¢, coke 50¢, share taxi 4 hours to Tashkent $5, gas 45¢/l.
Uzbeks seem friendlier than the rest of Central Asia. While I was waiting for my hotel registration slip, at least 8 guys wanted to talk. None had ever traveled outside Uzbekistan and few had been past Tashkent.
When you get gas, passengers must leave the vehicle and stay outside a fence. Paasports must be registered frequently on highways. They always know where you are.