Mention the country Uzbekistan and more often than not, one gets a mixed reaction. What is there to see? Why go there? Where is that? These were the most common responses I received when people heard that I was going to Uzbekistan. Ask me my opinions on Uzbekistan 5 years ago and I would probably ask the first two questions as well.
As one of the -Stans (i.e. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc), people normally associate it with vast cotton fields, cold, impersonal Soviet architecture and perhaps tall, blonde receptionists all seemingly named Svetlana. In more recent times, Borat came into the picture to portray what is a backward and inaccurate depiction of the -Stans (notably Kazakhstan). Nevertheless, it did put this rarely explored region in the limelight.
What separates Uzbekistan from the other -Stans however, is that Soviet-era drawn boundaries (which are still in effect today) gifted this country with at least three legendary cities. Cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva all evoke thoughts of epic imperial conquests, romantic escapades and most importantly – the silk road. As the link between China and Europe, these cities were important urban centers in their own right a few centuries ago, and traces of this can still be found today.
Uzbekistan is not as remote as I thought. There are regular flights between its capital, Tashkent, and some major East/Southeast Asian cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. In our case, we flew via Kuala Lumpur where there are convenient connections to Manila and Singapore. It was a 7-hour flight via Uzbekistan Airways in an Airbus A310 (yes, an A310 and not an A320). The flight was not so memorable – the space was a bit cramped and we only had 1 meal service despite the long flight duration. However, I was treated with some clear views of Afghanistan’s snow-capped mountains from the plane. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to that war-torn country.
Uzbekistan requires a visa for all nationalities except for former Soviet countries. Before the visa can be issued, a letter of invitation (LOI) needs to be presented, however. Travel agents based in Uzbekistan can issue this for a small fee. With the letter of invitation, visitors can then apply at the nearest Uzbekistan embassy or in the case where there is no embassy, the visa can be acquired at the airport in Tashkent.
In our case, we were 10 in a group and got a group visa. This meant that a single visa costing $160 was issued for the 10 of us, and was stamped on to the invitation letter instead of the passport upon arrival at the airport in Tashkent. This was more cost effective, our visa fee per person came in at just $16. Sweet.
Arriving in Uzbekistan
As the capital of Uzbekistan, those arriving by air most probably have little choice but to arrive via Tashkent Airport. Soviet countries are notorious for bureacracy – and although Georgia shattered that perception for me, the arrival procedure in Uzbekistan had a bit more red tape.
First, visitors had to fill out a long customs declaration form where everything from cash (down to the last cent) had to be declared as well as cameras, cellphones, jewelry and other valuables. Then, this will have to be presented and declared at the customs booth at the airport, causing the queue to be unnecessarily long.
For someone who had just been mildly traumatized by the bureaucratic arrival procedures at the airport, I found Tashkent to be a surprisingly pleasant city with wide avenues, lots of open and green spaces as well as notable European-looking buildings. Although it’s an old city, many of the buildings in Tashkent were built during the Soviet era due to a massive earthquake in the 1960’s. This makes Tashkent a showpiece of the cold, impersonal architecture which the Soviet Union is known for. It is definitely much more Soviet looking than Tbilisi or even Moscow which nowadays pattern themselves after Europe.
Most people make Tashkent a quick pitstop on the way to the three great silk road cities but there are a few notable sights. This is a quick rundown:
statue of Tamerlane in amir timur square
The Amir Timur Square marks the center of town. Many of the major government buildings are nearby as well as some of the city’s poshest hotels.
tashkent’s main shopping drag… they call this street as broadway
There is also a shopping street filled with some well-known international brands. I was surprised to see even Chinese-brand Li Ning having a store there!
the amir timur museum in tashkent
Navoi Theater, just a few blocks from Amir Timur Square, offers some of the cheapest opera tickets. For $5 or less, one can watch a show. Doesn’t matter if the language can’t be understood. It’s a real bargain!
can’t get any more local than this!
steaming in the cauldrons… i wonder if that’s what I had for dinner
For local eats, one can have a first glimpse of local Uzbek food at a restaurant called National Food, located just off the old city area. They have the ubiquitous shashlyk (kebab), laghman (local noodles) and plov (pilaf rice and meat). For those adventurous enough, you can try their horse meat. I had a sample of it and it tasted like beef jerky, but with a much stronger smell.
I will be blogging about the highlight of my Uzbekistan trip next – the 3 great silk road cities. Watch out for it!
My Tips for Traveling to Uzbekistan
- Plan early. For Uzbekistan, you don’t just to the nearest Uzbek embassy and apply for a visa – a letter of invitation is necessary before they even look at your application. In Singapore, there is an Uzbek Embassy but there is none in Manila. For those living in the Philippines, your best bet is to get the visa at the airport. A letter of invitation is still necessary in this case and this needs to be presented at the visa section upon arriving at the airport in Uzbekistan, presumably in Tashkent (the largest city)
- Count your money to the last cent and declare it at customs upon arrival. In Uzbekistan this is necessary. You cannot leave Uzbekistan with more money than you brought in, otherwise the difference could be confiscated.
- A little Russian will come in handy. Although Uzbek is now the official language, Russian is still spoken by almost all. Very few people can speak English in Uzbekistan and this can be a real struggle. At least know the Russian words for some basic food items, ordering meals, getting accommodations, etc
- The best time to visit Uzbekistan is from September to October. This is autumn season and you’ll find an abundance of local fruits and vegetables. Uzbekistan is known for its melons / watermelons which ripen at around this time. The next best time to visit is from April to June. Avoid visiting during July and August unless you do not mind the sweltering heat.
- In Uzbekistan, you will need to register yourself when you move from city to city. This is done at the hotels / guesthouses where the staff does the registration on your behalf. Each hotel will issue a slip which you will need to keep for the duration of the trip.
- Avoid changing money at the official rate. The black market rate offers 30 – 40% better exchange rate and it is easy to find money changers hanging around bazaars or the major tourist sights.
- Do carry a bag with you instead of a wallet – you will need it as the largest banknote denomination is just 1000 Som, which is equivalent to USD 0.36 at current black market exchange rates. You’ll need to carry a wad of these bills to pay for meals, hotels and admission fees.