Salam! Planning on backpacking in Uzbekistan? If you are a history buff, marvel at ancient architecture, drool at delicious food and get excited exploring the roads less traveled, this Central Asian beauty is definitely the right choice for you.
Once a mystical hermit kingdom, Uzbekistan is slowly opening up to the world to showcase its beauty. Its vast landscape, diverse cultures and ancient mosques provide insight into a land that's been around for thousands of years as a playground for traders, intellectuals, explorers and tyrants alike.
Our 15 day country-wide expedition of nearly 1500kms from Margilan in the East to Moynaq in the West took us to so many lovely people, beautiful monuments, great food and even eerie ships. It was a culturally immersive experience of a land of which we did not know the language, nor customs yet felt completely at ease.
In this blog, we try to provide quite an accurate description of our experiences of backpacking in Uzbekistan, which should help you in planning your own trip. These include suggested itineraries, top things to do, traveling between and around the cities, approximate costs, food to try as well as other details such as visas, insurance, and expenses.
Here's a detailed Uzbekistan travel guide for any of you that's looking to visit this once-mysterious land.
UZBEKISTAN - A PRIMER
What and Where?
Uzbekistan has been around for centuries, bang in the middle of the Silk Route, one of humanity's oldest frontiers of communication and trade. Yes, the one way way before the computers, internet, Google, Facebook et al.
The history of the land goes as back as the 8th century BC and has been ruled over by Persians, Greeks, Arabs and Mongols amongst several others. Centuries ago, the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were key trading centres and halt-spots for travellers from the East and West dealing in a variety of goods such as spices, livestock, slaves, pottery, jewels, fruits, fabrics, ceramics and silk, obviously.
History books say the trade started in as early as the 4th century BC, when the Chinese imported mighty horses from Fergana to Xi'an to boost their armies. From horses, the trade ventured out into other goods and the Silk Road expanded over the next few centuries.
In the West, it went through ancient Khorezm right upto the Caspian Sea, eventually out into Persia, Syria and the Mediterranean Sea which enabled trade with ancient Greece and Rome. In the East, trade flourished across Termez into norther Afghanistan and north India. Silk Road cities flourished immensely.
The most recent of foreign rule was of the Soviet Union, who had a stronghold in the region right unto the breakup of the USSR in 1991, which is when Uzbekistan was born, making it one of the youngest countries in the world. Today, it is one of 5 Central Asian nations, the others being Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The Soviet hangover had remained for a good 25 years, till the death of the 1st President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov in 2016. Largely unknown to the outer world, Karimov had a poor human rights record and freedom of the press was limited under his rule. He, however, helped stabilise the nation post years of Soviet misrule.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, his successor, has bought with him a much more relaxed outlook. This has led to a loosening of a lot of rules, many of which encouraged tourism into the fabled land.
The camels of yore have been replaced by cars, and noisy bazaars today are souvenir shops. However, these cities still retain so many of the relics of ancient Islamic architecture with a multitude of influences, which have traveled far and wide over the centuries.
The major ethnic group in Uzbekistan are the Uzbeks themselves. However, you will find a lot of diversity across the country. The fertile Fergana valley is a melting potpourri of Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Russians and even 3rd generation Koreans (Stalin deported Koreans out of Russia into Central Asia in the 1930's).
While Uzbek is the official language, you will find the accent change all the way from the capital Tashkent to the far reach of Karakalpakstan, which is inhabited by ethnic Karakalpaks. Russian, however is widely understood and read in the Cyrillic alphabet. You will rarely find someone who knows English.
Islam is the major religion. Uzbeks are quite moderate and don't really follow a strict version - in fact the government frowns against it. Women dress freely in skirts and dresses and it is not mandatory for women to cover their heads even in religious places like mosques and madrassas. Needless to say, visitors are recommended to dress modestly.
The best times to visit Uzbekistan are the periods from March-April and September-October. The period from November-February is the winter and it can get extremely cold in some places. The period between mid-April to August is when it starts to get extremely hot. However, these are also the periods when crowds are considerably less, and if you are okay with extreme temperatures, you should travel then.
Our trip was from mid-April when the winter was still shedding off to get warmer, with sprinkled showers throughout.
This is my favourite question to answer. Uzbekistan can mean something different to everyone, be it a history buff, a backpacker, a photogapher and even an anthropologist. Here are our top 3 reasons to travel to Uzbekistan -
History - The country is teeming with history. From Samarkand, whose history goes as far back as the 8th century BC, to conquests of Alexander, to the seat of Tamerlane to the heart of the Silk Road right up to Soviet brutalism, the country has a rich history. The architecture (while being highly restored in some places) is diverse and mesmerising. Food - The myriad plovs, soups, dumplings, teas and noodles made us fall in love with the country. The cuisine, while being slightly limited, is still quite unique and flavorful. People - Our favourite part of the trip was getting to interact with locals. From getting free taxi rides to being invited to homes for a meal, Uzbeks are generally very friendly and curious people. Our trip was filled with many such memorable encounters. What's great is they love Indians (not going to lie, we loved the attention) and they watch a lot of Bollywood movies. They refer to India as 'Hindustan' and we were asked for a lot of photos, making us feel like some sort of mini-celebs!
GETTING IN (FLIGHTS, VISAS, INSURANCE & REGISTRATION)
You can enter Uzbekistan by air, road or railway. We chose air and flew Uzbekistan Airways as we were traveling from Mumbai, India.
However, if you choose to enter Uzbekistan by train, you can do so from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. If you choose to cross over by land, you can enter from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. When doing land crossings, keep an eye out on opening and closing times of borders. The border nearing Andijan on the Uzbekistan side and Dostyk on the Kyrgyzstan side is famed for random closures.
The main international airport is in Tashkent - the Islam Karimov International Airport. The national carrier, Uzbekistan Airways connects Central Asia's largest cities to most major airports in the world - Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Jeddah, London, Paris, New York, Seoul etc.
There are international airports in Samarkand, Urgench and Nukus too. However, these have limited connectivity. You can book your flight tickets directly on the Uzbekistan Airways website (which is now totally revamped from it's previously agonisingly slow version). We did not find enough details of flights on Google Flights/Skyscanner etc., and the prices there seemed higher. Also, they took us to not-so-popular booking websites, which we weren't sure was reliable. Hence, ideal to book directly with the airline. The website only accepts a Visa debit/credit card, so keep one handy.
Apparently, till as recently as July 2018, getting into Uzbekistan wasn't quite easy. You would need a letter of invitation via the embassy in your local country.
HOWEVER, since then things have changed for the better. Check out the new visa rules here. You can simply refer to the colored map at the bottom to see what kind of visa you need to travel to Uzbekistan.
Citizens of 77 countries, including India (Woohoo!), China and USA can apply for the e-visa which costs as little as $20 (₹1400/- approx.). You should ideally receive it within 7-14 working days. P.S - You can apply only if your travel plan is within the next 90 days. Here's the link to apply for the e-visa - https://e-visa.gov.uz/main.
We chose Policybazaar for our travel insurance, since it allows you to search by countries, and gives you a plethora of providers to choose from while buying your travel insurance. Our insurance covered stuff like loss of passport, loss of baggage, personal accident, possible hospitalisation etc., and cost us a total of ₹1400 for 2 people ($20).
At the time of checkout from every hotel/hostel you stay in - ensure to collect the registration slips. Registration slips are like a simple paper receipt (sometimes hand-written) of where you have stayed and on what dates for verification purposes when you exit the country, to ensure you haven't been upto anything suspicious. Most places will diligently provide you one to account for your stay.
This seems more like a carry-forward from the stricter regimes and things are more relaxed now - you will most likely not be asked to produce them. That said, you never know. Deepali was asked for her registration slips only once - at the Nukus airport, prior to our flight to Tashkent and our slips were all in good order.
Your Uzbekistan itinerary will usually depend on how many days you are willing to spare for traveling around the country. Right from the fertile Fergana valley all through the Silk Route to the dry Karakalpakstan region - Uzbekistan is massive.
However, the train system is quite excellent making it easy to travel from city to city. Within cities itself, you will find yourself hailing a mashrutka (a mini-van that can take around 15 people or a shared taxi or public transport like buses.
If you are still planning how many days to spend in each city, this rough breakdown should help you -
Fergana Valley (Kokand, Fergana, Margilan & Andijan) - 2-3 daysTashkent - 2-3 daysSamarkand - 2-3 daysBukhara - 2-3 daysKhiva - 2-3 daysKarakalpakstan (Nukus & Moynaq) - 2-3 days
If you have more days to spare, you could also consider visiting -
Chimgan mountains and Charvak Reservoir (off Tashkent) - 1-3 daysShahrisabz (off Samarkand) - 1 dayNavoi (between Samarkand and Bukhara) - 1 day
We will shortly publish a detailed blog on planning your own Uzbekistan itinerary.
We had 15 days, and here's how we spent them -
If you are flying into Uzbekistan, it is highly likely that your port of arrival will be Tashkent. We landed in Tashkent on a Wednesday night and left for Margilan in the Fergana Valley the very next day. However, we returned to Tashkent after completing the Silk Road cities for the final 2 days before departing for home.
Much of the city was razed down in an earthquake in 1966, and was rebuilt by the Soviets as a modern city with wide roads, numerous parks, spaced out buildings and bazaars.
Today, Tashkent is the modern capital of Uzbekistan, and honestly is much less touristy than the other Silk Road cities. However, there's still plenty of stuff you can do. From taking in the sights at possibly the most beautiful metro stations in the world to tasting some really good plov, Tashkent has something for everyone.
Read more about the 7 best things to do in Tashkent.