In times like these where we are mostly locked indoors and confined to our homes, for me catching up on my blogging and revisiting recent trips has been quite therapeutic. Hopefully this gives you a small dose to cure any wanderlust itch you may be feeling and maybe inspire your post-COVID19 travels, if travel is ever to be the same again. This blog post is quite long as I want to both cover my own memorable experience in Uzbekistan but also offer tips and advice on traveling to this wonderful country given that not much information is out there at the moment. Stay Safe. Stay Healthy. Stay Home.
Feel free to scroll through or jump around or even just look at pictures and captions.
Uzbek Cognac Hospitality
Uzbekistan with MIR Corporation
Uzbekistan Travel Tips
With a crackle, we broke through the beautifully crunchy golden-brown crust and into the soft doughy center of the piping hot bread straight out of the mud-brick oven. We are in a dimly lit bread master’s studio learning to make bread in a historic craftsman neighborhood of Samarkand, Uzbekistan where each section is known for a particular craft, there is no mistaking when you’ve stumbled on the bread making zone with chimneys smoking out aromatic freshly baked breads.
The first bite for original taste.
Perfectly crisp on the outside, dense, doughy and chewy but layered on the inside and quite salty that it tastes great on its own but even better with freshly made jams from local fruits. Not a single timer, temperature reader or recipe book used by the master baker. He is able to “read” the bread from its fresh dough form to when it is ready to be taken out of the over, only ever using his hands to measure the temperature of the oven and adjusting accordingly. He knows through instinct and experience just how much water to toss over the bread for the extra golden-brown surface, and is able to teach his apprentice if the next batch requires adjustments in salt, water, or flour content based on how long and how hot the previous batch required to bake or if the next batch of dough needs to thaw for a couple minutes longer than before. I am barely able to use the wooden tool to correctly shape the dough and add the baker’s unique patterned seal (his branding), and yet both apprentice and master seem to give me a forced nod of approval, looks like I may have what it takes to become a bread master someday? His bread, is an extension of him and his Uzbek/ Samarkand heritage and roots as he dawns on his bandana and apron and says a prayer before opening the oven and slapping the bread onto the sides of the oven. Although there are now a handful of modern mixing and weighing equipment to assist in the process, by in large it is still manual and it is definitely an art form that is respected in Uzbekistan. This bread tastes different than that of his neighbor’s, they are competitors but the friendliest of sorts. There is even one family who are the sole bakers of Samarkand Wedding Bread made from a secret recipe with holy water, and only this family is allowed to make this type of bread. His wife comes and goes with giant cart full of freshly made bread to be sold at the dedicated bread bazaar off the main road. It is still a miracle to me that this bread can be kept up to 2 years in Uzbekistan’s climate or frozen when taken back home. Mothers would bake a loaf before their sons head off to military service and keep it untouched until their safe return 2 years later. This is Samarkand Bread. Unique to Samarkand, although bread itself is a ubiquitous dining staple across Uzbekistan and each region/ city has its own iteration but Samarkand may be the most famous one. I take one perfectly baked hefty loaf with me in addition to my ugly and broken load (we did not let it sit out before baking). Thankfully I still have some in my freezer, taking a few slices and putting it in the microwave for around 20-30 seconds every now and then for a reminiscent taste of Uzbekistan and a reminder of the kind and humble souls I encountered in this magical Central Asian nation on the Ancient Silk Road.
Uzbek Cognac Hospitality
Before I knew it, Firdavs and I had finished the entire bottle of 7 year Uzbek Cognac between the two of us, shot after shot followed by slices of lemon. And this was only during the cooking of our Kezan Kebab (lamb, potato, onion) dinner, not the meal itself. This was not part of my itinerary at all. Now let us rewind a bit to explain how we got here. Firdavs had previewed this night when he asked me if I 1) drink 2) like to experience a traditional night of Uzbek cooking and hospitality, both of which I answered yes. My first night in Samarkand, after taking a short break in my room following a full day of touring, I proceeded downstairs to the hotel kitchen where owners Firdavs and Vlad already had the fire and wok set up for tonight’s meal prep. I was already instructed that Uzbek style is: 1 shot of cognac between each step of the cooking process. Our first shot was a welcome to Uzbekistan/ Samarkand shot. Then the jolly cooking began.
Firdavs explained that he chose to use meat from the Lamb’s left side, and left legs because it is closer to the lamb’s heart, metaphorically this is food from the heart and soul of Uzbekistan and Uzbeks. In between each step and shot, they explained to me the cooking as well as showed me some historic and architectural elements of the hotel that they both had devoted many years and sweat to. As the lamb simmered and boiled, we proceeded inside where Firdavs’ wife was prepping the appetizers and side dishes, in our drunken state I was asked to put on some music and some dancing in the kitchen ensued. The second half of cooking entailed a bit of dancing as we stir the kebab in the wok, with some mildly inappropriate conversation, mixed in with cultural and historic notes and exchanges. The jovial, welcoming dinner cooking process culminated in us moving on to Vodka shots when Cognac ran out, and a barely conscious me proceeding into the dining room of the UNESCO registered Historic Jewish Merchant’s home that made up part of the hotel for our dinner with the only other guests (a very sober Japanese mother and daughter pair, who would eventually partake in a few shots of vodka to kick off the dinner) at the hotel that evening and the rest of the staff. Surprisingly I did not wake up hungover and managed to proceed onwards with another full day of fantastic adventures in Samarkand. Upon check-out when I asked how much dinner was, I was told there is no way I was allowed to pay for that as it was their way of welcoming me to Uzbekistan and to show the guests Uzbek culture and traditions.
We entered the house into a large open-air multi-story courtyard. Looking over the railing I see the wood fire stove with rice steaming. The brickwall is adorned with traditional Uzbek pottery and plates. Our hosts invite us down for a closer look at Plov making. The key ingredients are: Cotton, sesame, melon, sunflower, and almond oils. Quince fruit, 12 spices and herbs, mutton or beef, carrots, onions, garlic, chili and raisins. By the time we had arrived our hostess had already completed some initial steps. She had already marinated the sliced carrots, stir fried the beef and onions, then top it with the marinated carrots and raisins to steam. Once that is steamed to tender, she added the rice, salt, chili, sliced quince fruit and whole garlics. She then opened the giant wok where a giant whiff of steam and the aromatic base of plov came spewing out filling the atmosphere with the beautiful smell of garlic and spices. After separating the quince, garlic and chili, she used a long wooden pole to poke holes into the rice to allow the rice to continue steaming but this time to fully absorb the juice from the beef, onions and carrots below.
We let the rice steam and cook. In the meantime we head upstairs to the dining room where one other tour group has joined. Awaiting us on the table are yogurt, beets/potato/carrot salad, fried cauliflower and bread, all traditional Uzbek starters. As well as tea. The Uzbek tea custom is for the host to pour one cup of tea then pour it back into the pot before pouring another glass. This is to show that the tea is ready, pure, and at the right temperature. We are then served beef soup.
We are then called back downstairs where the wok is uncovered to reveal a now distinctly yellow rice and now the aromas are in full swing as the onions and beef have now steamed to the surface. She firmly yet tenderly circles the rice and pads it down to form a dome, the carrots have peeked out from below. Then she takes a hearty scoop of Plov and plops it on to a serving plate. Topping the rice with the carrots. With a bit of rice and carrots scooped we reveal the juicy and tender beef. She separates the beef and continues to top the rice with more carrots and now raisins have also revealed themselves. It is a beautiful aromatic process that is a gift that keeps on giving, each scoop revealing a different ingredient, color and aroma. We then move to the table on the other side for final plating. She graciously added steamed quail eggs to the sides of the mountain of rice. With the help of her relative, the beef is sliced up and put atop the rice. The final step is to slice up some quince and garlic to top it all off. And then traditional Uzbek Plov is ready to be served.
The first bite in and its an explosion of flavors and textures all working together to create a Uzbek firework inside your mouth. The best part? The rice. Perfectly cook, nice and firm but soft and a hint of sticky. Having fully absorbed all the juices, steam and aromas, the rice itself is a flavor bomb. Plov is filling, but lord is it also addicting, I was full but somehow my hands and mouth could not stop as I continued to shovel, as elegantly as I could, Plov rice into my mouth. Little did I know Baklava awaited us at the end.
“I like countries where there’s no cohesive American [or general] conception of what is there” – Kate McKinnon, Netflix’s Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.
Kate McKinnon’s words accurately sums up one of the reasons why I chose to venture to the ancient Silk Road Central Asian country of Uzbekistan for my 2019 Christmas Trip in December. There are fewer and fewer truly undiscovered countries and destinations left in the world in the age of influencers and social media. While Uzbekistan has slowly gained a presence in this realm, I believe it is still largely an unknown destination, country and culture. I am constantly fascinated by the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East. The culture, people, food, history and architecture in the region have always been colorful, flavorful and wonderfully friendly. But more importantly to me, is that this these countries are either completely misunderstood and misrepresented or people generally have no idea where they are or what even is there. As was the case with Uzbekistan, upon hearing this is where I was heading to, would give me this look of confusion and wonder and ask 1) where is that 2) why?.
The allure of Uzbekistan began for me a couple years ago when I read a featured article in Afar Magazine on Samarkand which featured stunning images of the architecture and blue tiles there as well as noting that Turkish Airlines had begun weekly flights from Istanbul making it easier than ever to visit the former capital of the Silk Road. And in 2019 I became even more determined to visit as more and more articles on Uzbekistan travel began popping up as the country continued to ease entry requirements including another new article in Afar, this time documenting a full trip through Uzbekistan which provided details of the tour company that arranged for the writer’s trip. I decided to reach out to MIR Corporation as featured in the article and asked them about possibly arranging a trip in December, during the low-season in Uzbekistan. Long story short, they were extremely responsive and accommodating and within weeks I had confirmed a brilliant 6 day private journey through parts of Uzbekistan, including one of the same guides that the Afar writer had! Now, to truly see it all of Uzbekistan you really would require at least 10+ days in the vast country. But if you have less, definitely would recommend to stick to East side with Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand.
The below summary of facts on Uzbekistan is primarily from on-the-ground observations as well as conversations with my guides and drivers.
Uzbekistan is one of two double-land-locked countries in the world, the other being Liechtenstein. It has a long and rich history from rich and powerful Silk Road kingdoms to being the center of Islamic culture and education, from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union. It has been an independent Republic since 1991, whose first President, Islam Karimov, ruled with a tight grip until his death in 2016, this itself is a very sensitive and censored topic in Uzbekistan, he is still revered and idolized. It is still very much a criminal act to utter anything negative about Karimov. When asked about Karimov, I was told that he as President had two sides. He was essentially a captain of a ship going into rough waters after the Soviet collapse and as such held a tight grip to ensure the country didnt go into disarray by having too much freedom too suddenly. Sure, he was a dictator but at same time to many Uzbeks, life was peaceful, prices of goods kept stable, now that things are opening up they see inflation. It made me wonder Is there a perfect leader? Is there a perfect system? Doesn’t ever sound like it. The then Prime Minister took over following his death, and has since let loose on some of the grips and as such opened Uzbekistan up to the world from a tourism and global trade standpoint. Since then the nation has gone to e-visas and it is easier than ever to enter the country, more and more global hotels are entering Tashkent and beyond, Spain even invested in the Uzbekistan high speed railway. The number of tourists who have been welcomed by the country has increased annually and the word is slowly getting out about this incredible country.
If you are able to look beyond the contemporary geopolitics and human rights infractions that plagued Uzbekistan from the Soviet era until 2016 (primarily that of Cotton slavery, which has been abolished, since Uzbekistan was the Soviet cotton heartland), you will discover that the nation truly has much to offer and is filled with an incredibly long and rich history and culture and some of the most genuine and hospitable people. I knew little about the country except that it was on the Silk Road and played some role in Islamic history but that was about the extent of it. I had no idea some of the most influential Islamic rulers, scholars and artists from the Islamic Golden Age were from Uzbekistan. Such as Timur (known historically in the West as Tamerlane, a name I learned is considered derogatory in Uzbekistan) who ruled a vast empire and was grandfather to Ulugh Beg, the famed astronomer and mathematician, and this family generations later would produce the rulers of the Mughal Empire of India including Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.
Today Uzbekistan is a melting pot of the region. Depending on where you go in the country you get folks who speak, read and write Uzbek, Tajik, Russian, Latin, Turkic, Persian and/or Arabic languages and even Korean to an extent. Uzbek itself uses Cyrillic as its main form of writing, though latin script is still commonly used throughout the country. The food, dress and traditions are also a mix of the above roots. Though it is a majority Muslim country, it is a secular state and you will still find churches (primarily Orthodox) and synagogues throughout. During the Soviet era, the Korean diaspora of the lands in which the Soviets overtook were displaced and moved to Uzbekistan, as such Uzbekistan is home to one of the largest Korean diasporas in the world. Heck, I was mistaken for a local multiple times, even though I am neither Korean nor Uzbek. South Korea has made lots of investments in Uzbekistan, and Korean food, specifically kimchi and Banchan, are now a staple part of Uzbek cuisine. You will clearly see architecture from the various periods of Uzbekistan’s history from the rich yet minimalist Islamic buildings to the regal Russian Empire facades to the bland yet imposing Soviet blocks. It truly is a very colorful nation.
The Soviet era brought education, access to medicine, affordable access to resources. In the eyes of uzbeks, life under the Soviet regime was not all bad, except during era of revolution in 1920s-30s. Today, public education is free, public healthcare is also free, there are private healthcare and schools that cost money, however, as the country opens up opportunities less and less people going to school. LGBT rights is a thing but very much under the radar given both the Soviet history as well as conservative and traditional values of Uzbek culture. Women’s rights exist as well, and women in Uzbek society are highly regarded and respected, however, women are still often bound by they traditions and religious strings.
The geography of the country is just as varied and diverse as the people and cultures. You’ve got the desert in the south, the plains throughout, high mountains (and even ski resorts) to the East, and the Aral Sea to the northwest, although sadly we all know that has all but dried up. Thus it has the weather and 4 seasons to match as well, dont be fooled by the seemingly desert like climate of cities like Bukhara, everywhere can get quite cold during deep winter and windy. During peak summers expect extreme heat and dry weather.
Entering Uzbekistan may be a lot easier than before and there may be cheap and accessible domestic flights and high speed rails that link major cities. However, getting around each city remains a challenge. Currency exchange, though less reliant on the former black market, is still a bit difficult once outside of Tashkent. And global hotel chains/ luxury hotels are sparse and mainly in Tashkent as well. That being said, I almost hope it stays that way as I love the local owned and run boutique guest houses. As such, while I highly recommend visiting Uzbekistan before it too gets overrun by tourism, it is definitely place that requires some planning and understanding before you go. It does not have the infrastructure nor system for the spontaneous backpacker style trip or the ultra-luxe style trips but that is why it offers such a genuine travel experience. Feel free to scroll past my itinerary to the travel tips at the end of this post.
Uzbekistan with MIR Corporation
Upon deciding that I would finally plan to visit Uzbekistan, I reached out to MIR corporation to assist me in arranging for a tour. MIR Corporation is what I would describe as a bespoke adventure travel agency, mix between your classic bespoke travel agency and a National Geographic adventure type agency. Their focus is on lesser traveled destinations in Central Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe, they even do tours in Iran (also on my list for one day). MIR mainly has a few multi-day group tours through Uzbekistan and/or Central Asia, however they also arrange for private tours as well, and yes the minimum headcount is 1 person.
After a wobbly start, somehow my first general inquiry was lost and no one ever responded, but I figured I would try my luck again given the type of agency I deduced MIR was based on their website and the AFAR Article. Once they did respond though, communication was easy and responsive and within weeks my trip was set and confirmed. The process began with a phone call with your dedicated planner who asks why MIR, why said destination(s) and what you are looking to do, see and most importantly gain out of your trip. If your goal is simply to go take photos and hit another country, MIR is not for you. Single occupancy private tours are obviously a lot more expensive than multi-person private or group tours, but going during low-season definitely helped. Nonetheless, I felt MIR understood exactly what I was looking for and gave good advise based on the short timeline I had, I really wanted to squeeze everything, including Khiva out west and a short day trip to Tajikistan, but ultimately they recommended I keep those for another trip and really do a deep dive in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand over the 6 days I had. No regrets.
Before your departure they send you a packet including all local contacts, your final itinerary and confirmed tour guides as well as luggage tags and any documentation you may need to show authorities, including your visa print out.
NOTE: parts of the below itinerary descriptions I take directly from MIR’s itinerary.
Tashkent: Day 1
I landed at around 6:30AM on Friday December 20, 2019 following a 4.5 hour redeye fight from Istanbul aboard Turkish Airlines. Thanks to e-visa, although the website itself is a tad glitchy and very picky about photo dimensions…etc, the arrival process was easy and smooth. Hand them your e-visa print out, your passport, answer the usual questions (purpose of your visit), and then passport stamped! I walked through the arrivals area in search of the currency exchange but was unable to find it. Thankfully international data works in Uzbekistan and I was able to quickly contact my MIR local contact who was also my Tashkent driver, Alex.
Tashkent International Airport terminal is on one side of the airport while the domestic terminal is on the other. Your arrival is quite grand I must say, as you step outside to a fenced off roadway and proceed to the small exit opening to the hoards of taxi driver and tour operators waiting. Non-passengers are not allowed inside the fenced off areas or buildings of the airports or train stations in Uzbekistan. I was able to find Alex, and soon we were off to Lotte City Hotel. One the way Alex and I got to know each other a bit and he also gave a brief over view of my trip and a very general introduction to Uzbekistan and Tashkent. Including a fun fact, there is a massive General Motors plant just outside of Tashkent, which is why most cars in Uzbekistan are actually Chevy sedans, GM took over Daewoo Korean car plant.
Checked-in, exchanged money, had some breakfast (you know its a Korean establishment when there is a banchan assortment and noodle soup at breakfast) and proceeded to my room to take a much needed 3 hour nap, MIR had left my morning free to give me time to either rest or explore on my own. At noon, Alex and my guide met me in the lobby and off we went on our tour.
From MIR: Although it doesn’t look it today, Tashkent is one of the oldest cities in Uzbekistan. Rock paintings in the Chatkal Mountains about 50 miles away show that humans have been here since perhaps 2000 BC. In the 2nd century BC the town was known as Ming Uryuk. A major caravan crossroads, it was taken by the Arabs in 751 and by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Tamerlane feasted here in the 14th century and the Shaibanid khans in the 15th and 16th. The Russian Empire arrived in 1865, and Uzbekistan was not an autonomous country again until 1991.
Tashkent lost much of its architectural history in a huge earthquake in 1966, and although it is an old city, most of it has been built since then. Today, the city is a jumble of wide tree- lined boulevards, oversized 20th century Soviet buildings and reconstructed traces of the old city with mud-walled houses, narrow winding lanes, mosques and madrassahs (Islamic religious schools).
First up was the Shahid Memorial Complex. The Shahid Memorial Complex honors the innocent martyrs (shahid) who were killed during Stalin’s purges in 1938. Followed by the Courage Monument, monument honoring the 1966 7.5 magnitude Earthquake that struck Tashkent and essentially flattened the city, it is built near the dividing line of old and new Tashkent. It honors the Soviets from all over the USSR who were ordered to come help rebuild the city, many young folks decided to stay because they liked it so much. A reason why so many people from across the USSR were willing to come to Tashkent and help rebuild was that they saw it as a return for Tashkent’s kindness in WWII. Uzbekistan and Tashkent didnt see the frontlines, largely due to it being double-landlocked. It was still in poverty since everything was rationed. But Tashkent came to be known as the City of Bread as citizens took in refugees and orphans from all over the Soviet Union, one family even took in 14 kids. This is why modern Tashkent feels very Soviet and why its population is so diverse.
While not on the books, Alex and my guide proposed for a quick stop for a lunch. We stopped at a local spot called Sal-Sal, serving up refined traditional Uzbek food. We had Chuchvara (fried mini dumplings), Uzbek steamed dumplings, Manti, usually filled with mutton or beef, Uzbek Naryn, fresh hand rolled noodles with shredded beef and horse and horse sausage served with broth, and Mastava soup.
Following lunch, we headed to old Tashkent, primarily visiting Khast-Imam Plaza. Home to the Muy Muborok Madrassah complex. On the edges of the Madrassah is Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, dedicated to the master architect of the Madrassah. A quick hop into al-Bukhari Madrassah, most Madrassahs in Uzbekistan you visit for the stunning architecture, they no longer serve or function as they once did, a center for Islamic learning, instead local souvenir shops line the inner courtyards, but a simple no, thanks to the friendly owners will suffice when they try to get you to buy something or check out their store. They are also all more than willing to just show you their art/craft.
The highlight of my day in Tashkent was probably seeing the Uthman Quran, considered by Sunni Muslims to be the oldest Quran in the world. It is housed in the Tillya Sheikh Mosque, written on calfskins and transcribed by the third caliph of Islam. It is massive, and truly a surreal sight to behold. Photography and recordings of any kind are strictly forbidden, it is safely housed in an airtight secure encasing, and the pages are flipped every so often to ensure they breathe. The profoundness of seeing this original Quran, whether or not it truly is the oldest in the world, is hard to describe, I can only say, definitely make time for it. The rest of the tiny mosque houses various Qurans, as such it serves as a Quran museum.
We were supposed to go to another Madrassah and mosque but instead spent more time here and took some time for a nice Uzbek lunch. Following the Quran we headed to Chorsu Bazaar. Google Tashkent, and I guarantee you one of the first images is of Chorsu Bazaar’s main dome housing vendors for dairy/ pickles/ dried fruits and nuts. The bazaar itself is a massive market that extends far beyond the main dome. It is sectioned off by type of produce and products (from woodwork to embroidery to traditional Uzbek baby cribs).
The last stop of my halfday tour was the Tashkent Metro, the first metro system in Central Asia. Tashkent’s metro system is famed for its stations that are decorated and themed. And yes, it evokes Soviet engineering and design. The stations themselves were meant to be “art galleries for the people.” My favorite was probably the Kosmonavtlar subway station, with its Soviet space exploration and lunar theme.
After returning to the hotel, I went on out to walk about myself and check out some buildings we had only driven past, such as the Clock Tower and Uzbekistan Hotel, a historic hotel that hosted mobs, agents, journalists and celebrities. I then had some dinner, I learned quickly that in Tashkent, reservations are required at many of the top rated and recommended restaurants on a weekend. I tried going to one highly regarded one and was turned away, the next one I tried made an exception and let me dine given I was alone but I was restricted to a 1 hour window in between reservations. I had dinner at Navvat Lounge Bar, and ordered Uzbek beer, Shurpa Kuza (mutton soup), Samsa (Uzbek samosa, this one filled with Mutton) Beshbarmak (dough noodles with beef broth, tomatoes, onions served with beef and horse meat). I capped the night off at Speakeasy Bar and had some Tashkent Sour made with Plum infused whisky.
Bukhara: Days 2-3
Bright and early the next morning I checked out of the hotel, they kindly packed a breakfast to go. Alex met me at the lobby at 6AM to take me to Tashkent Airport Domestic Terminal for my 8:20AM flight on Uzbekistan Airways to Bukhara. I will cover the airport experience and inflight experience of Uzbekistan Airwaysin more detail in a separate post. Generally, the experience was fascinating but not because of amazing service.
I was onboard the plane with many people wearing lanyards with their pictures, names and what looked like a Uzbek government seal. I learned these were representatives from various countries and organizations invited to monitor local municipal elections for chamber members in parliament. Uzbekistan hosts them and take them on tours and host lunches, very fascinating. And article came out shortly after I left Uzbekistan noting that these representatives observed questionable election processes.
I arrived and met my driver Firdavs, who happened to be the owner of the hotel I would stay at in Samarkand, and guide. We dropped my bags off and checked into the Safiya Boutique Hotel.
From MIR: An oasis in the desert, UNESCO-listed Bukhara offers cool shade and rest to the modern traveler as it did to the camel caravans that plied the Silk Road hundreds of years ago. Bukhara is as old as Samarkand, and has preserved its ancient architecture and design to an arguably larger extent than that city. The Old Town in Bukhara has a unified feel, drawn together by a central reflecting pool and plaza, by commonality in the structure of the domed bazaars and by the major monuments ringing the Old Town: the Kalon Assembly, the Zindan Prison, and the Ark Citadel.
Bukhara was the site of one of the best-known episodes (to westerners) in Central Asian history, the 19th century capture and ultimate execution of two British spies posing as explorers. They were involved in what was then known as the Great Game between Russia and England for control over Central Asia, and access to India. The last emir of Bukhara was a notoriously brutal and crafty leader, and kept the men imprisoned at great length before their public execution.
First up was The Ark Citadel is the original fortress and residence of the Emir of Bukhara and likely dates back two thousand years or more. The halls and residences of the fortress are now home to various small museums depicting the history of both Bukhara and Uzbekistan. A short drive around the Ark Citadel is the infamous Zindan Prison and the even more infamous “bug pit” or “black hole,” the cell of the aforementioned Western episode in Central Asian history. Across from the ark is the Bolo Hauz Mosque, colloquially called C the forty-pillar mosque because of the reflection of its colonnades in the pool.
Lunch would be at Bukhara Suzana, a family home doubling as a restaurant and cooking class establishment for traditional Uzbek Plov, the nation’s national dish. As described at the start of this post.
Following lunch we headed to Chashma Ayub Mausoleum (Job’s Well), a qadamdjoy, or site visited by a holy person. Across the plaza is Memorial and museum of Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari, who wrote Qurans and the building is in the shape of a Quran as well as the halfmoon Islamic symbol. Then we arrived at a small plaza in a park, home to the Ismael Samani Mausoleum. Final resting place of Ismael Samani, founder of the Persian Samanid Dynasty, the mausoleum featuring intricate brickwork was buried under sand and not discovered until the 20th century.
Next up was one of Bukhara’s main sites, and definitely my favorite. The Poi Kalon, or the Bukhara Forum. This is home to the Kalon Mosque, Minaret and the the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah. The Madrassah’s facade features a stunning blue and gold mosaic. The mosque’s entry arch is also adorned with a similar work. Islamic architectural symmetry and minimalism is on full display in Bukhara and Samarkand. Walking through the vast open courtyard of the mosque and meandering the colonnades of the open prayer halls is such a serene and calming experience. Across the street from the main plaza of the forum we walk into a carpet making warehouse and shop to see some seamstresses at work weaving Uzbek silk and wool carpets. Again, no pressure at all to purchase or shop for the actual carpets. Down the street was one of the 3 remaining ancient bazaars of Bukhara, or trading centers, no longer fully functioning as bazaars but simply home to a handful of shops and as major meeting points in the old town.
Across from the bazaar is the Ulugbek Madrassah, the first of 3 Madrassah built by Ulugbek in Uzbekistan. Across from this is the Abdul Aziz Madrassah, larger and more lavishly decorated, per Persian style, than its neighbor. This is also where you can get a glimpse into an original Madrassah student dormitory, which gives you insights into what living and studying conditions were like for these Islamic scholars. Down the street we visit the Museum of Blacksmith’s Art, another traditional Uzbek art form.
We criss-cross another bazaar and emerge to the fringes of old town again where we visit the Magoki Attori Mosque, now home to the carpet museum. Because of how early it was built, it is actually “sunken” below ground level, and was actually built on a Zoroastrian temple.
The final stop of the day was he Lyabi-Hauz Ensemble, an oasis in the midst of old-town. A reflection pool, formerly one of the many large wells found throughout Bukhara where residents used to gather waters that streamed in from the canal system. This was and still is a major gathering ground for locals. It is flanked by the The Khanaka of Nadir Divan-Begi, a caravanserai (caravan hotel for traveling Sufis) turned Madrassah. In front in the plaza is aa statue of the Uzbek version of Don Quixote: Nasruddin Khoja, who used wit to solve problems and is a popular photo op for locals. And the The Kukeldash Madrassah.
The concluded a full day of sightseeing in Bukhara. After a quick break, I ventured back to the Bukhara Forum for a peaceful sunset, luckily there is no entry fee here as it is still a functioning mosque. I then headed to a 16th century Hammam or bathhouse, across from the blacksmith museum. Low season meant no appointment was needed and I was the only one there at 6PM. I have come to learn that there are indeed subtle differences in hammam culture and rituals across the region from Turkey to Azerbaijan to Georgia and now Uzbekistan. Following the usual bathing and massage process, I was given a fresh ginger scrub, my skin and body has never burned yet felt so great at the same time before. It was very relaxing, followed by Uzbek tea. the near 1.5 hour session, including your own relaxation time was around USD$20, one of the cheapest hammams I’ve been to. They have one day dedicated to women. Being a Saturday and low season, not too many restaurants were open. I ended up at Ayvan restaurant, serving more Euro-centric cuisine with local ingredients. Pumpkin Soup, Uzbek beef Sausage, Lamb tongue with cream of mushroom sauce, and capped it off with Samarkand Cognac, tasted like chocolate, but later learned its because it is a blended cognac with some artificial flavoring. End of day 2.
After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, my guide met me at 9AM for another full day of touring in Bukhara before my mid-afternoon high speed rail trip to Samarkand.
About a half hour drive outside of Bukhara is the Bahauddin Naqshband Mausoleum. Bahauddin Naqushband was a 14th century Sufi mystic and founder of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis. His mausoleum complex grew from a simple tomb over his grave to a 16th century hostel for visiting dervishes, then to a spiritual complex. It is considered a very important holy and pilgrimage site for Sufis and Muslims alike. The entire complex is quite vast and mostly outdoors on the far side is the tomb of Bahauddin’s mother and aunt. One a nice day out it is a very tranquil place to visit and reflect.
Also located on the outskirts of central Bukhara is the Emir’s Summer Palace, known as The Palace of Moon and Stars. The location was selected where there would be least amount of sun in the summer, how was this determined? They hung meat at each of the city’s 4 main gates, the one where the meat rotted the least was the direction in which they would choose the palace location. Many peacocks roam the palace grounds that consist of many gardens. The main hall is mix of Imperial Russian and Uzbek architecture and design, a central plaza fountain provided power to the electric generator, first building in Uzbekistan to have full electricity. The palaces and residences acted as showpieces for the Emir’s wealth, collections and art. The harem at the back of the grounds is now home to the Museum of National Crafts, primarily showcasing Suzani.
Another drive back into town and we visit Chor Minor Madrassah, quietly tucked away in the middle of a cluster of historic homes. A very unique madrassah. Each of the four minarets, the namesake, represents one of the master builder’s 4 daughters
We then head to the Jewish quarters to visit the Bukhara Synagogue. Bukhara was also an important merchant center of Sephardic Jewry. The term “Bukharan Jews” refers to a large community of Jews originally from Persia who lived in the lands formerly ruled by the emir of Bukhara. Now only around 500 Jews remain in Bukhara.
Down the street we pop into a Uzbek paper mache puppet making workshop, another traditional art and craft form.
Following a bit of shopping for woodwork and popping into a few other historic caravanserai and seeing the Khoja Gaukushan Ensemble, it was time for lunch at Chinar Restaurant, probably the highest rated spot in town. Lunch started with some aubergine salad, carrot salad, soup, grilled steak with rice and fries, and chocolate cake. The multi-story restaurant was packed, mostly with the international representatives coming in for Election monitoring.
High Speed Rail
Following lunch, I parted with my guide and Firdavs took me to the Samarkand railway station. I would take the high speed rail, while Firdavs would drive back to Samarkand. Train ticket and bags in hand, I clear the first security check at the gate, then walk across the plaza to enter the main building for another security check before having my ticket stamped and checked, as well as checking my passport, not at any official office or stand, just a person in uniform at a fold out table. I sit down and await my 3:50PM train. There is a small souvenir and concession shop as well as bathrooms and vending machines. I say you are at your own vices to stay close to the clock as the announcements are barely audible and primarily in Uzbek and Russian. At around 3:30PM I started seeing lots of people move towards the platform. I then make my way as well and show my ticket and ask if this is for my train, the agent said yes, so I proceeded to the platform. The trains are new, Spanish built and comfortable. There are 3 classes, economy, business and VIP. MIR had booked me into VIP, which if I am not reading my ticket incorrectly is around 130000UZS or USD$13 for the 2.5 hour train to Samarkand. Uniformed agents in very Soviet like outfits stand outside each car welcoming guests and checking their tickets. VIP class comes with a small cabin, reclining seats, power outlets, shared dining table and tea/water/hot towel service. There is a small TV that shows the speed as well as GPS map.
Right on time at 3:50PM the train departs for a one-stop journey to Samarkand, and onwards to Tashkent. We pass undulating mountains and hills that then flatten to plains. Just as the sun fell below the horizon, we pull into Samarkand station where I meet my driver.
Samarkand: Days 4-6
I arrive at Rabat Boutique Hotel, settle in and head out to town for dinner. Rabat Boutique only has 8 rooms in the summer and 6 in the winter, 2 of the rooms are in the historic UNESCO Jewish Merchant’s Home part of the property and has no heating. The main dining room is housed in what used to be the Jewish Merchant’s living room. In fact, if you look closely at the decal, you will see Hebrew writing.
Vlad, co-owner of the hotel recommended Stariy Gorod, or Old Town Grill, tucked away in a small alley off the main street in Samarkand. This was a fantastic local kebab joint, where only locals ate and each kebab skewer was USD$1! The menu is not in English, but the staff do speak good English and are super helpful. In addition to bread, they bring out a platter to choose some salads and apps from, I went with Mushroom salad, beet salad, onion, hot sauce, and ordered lemon tea, beer. Then I came the Lagman, dough pasta with beef soup, so good. Followed by Lamb, Beef and Napoleon (lamb and beef mix) kebab. My entire meal including the beer was less than USD$10. It was fantastic.
Following a very filling dinner, I walked across the street, there may be streetlight for cars, but a lot of the zebra cross-walks do not, so you just find a free moment to start crossing and most cars will stop for pedestrians here, to Registan Square. This is probably Samarkand and maybe even Uzbekistan’s most famous sites and likely most photographed location. A central square majestically flanked by three Madrassahs built in different eras, each uniquely designed and decorated, all equally stunning. The square is lit up at night, and usually there is a lazer light show around 8PM as well. I just admired the square from the viewing platform and steps (in the summers there are live performances in front of the square) as the next day’s tour would take me on a deeper dive into this place.
I returned to the hotel where I was offered green tea, cookies and a persimmon.
Following a very hearty Uzbek breakfast spread of fruits, cookies, nuts, cheese and ham, coffee, tea, fried cheese, pancakes, fresh apricot preserves, yogurt and honey and a cheese omelette, I was ready to explore Samarkand. Alex and a team from MIR happened to be staying there as well on their way to check out more sites and hotels for future MIR trip planning.
I met Abdu, my fantastic guide and the guide featured in the Oct. 2019 Afar article, and Firdavs.
From MIR: Perhaps the most well known of Silk Road towns, Samarkand, fabled oasis on the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, has been settled since the 6th century BC. Because of its location on the plains where the Zeravshan River spills out from the Pamir Mountains, Samarkand became a major Silk Road crossroads.
A World Heritage Site, Samarkand is called “Crossroad of Cultures” by UNESCO. It has been visited through time by many of the world’s conquerors — Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Alexander said of Samarkand, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined.” Tamerlane made it his capital city and gathered the finest architects, builders and artisans of the time to enhance its beauty.
First stop was Gur-Emir Mausoleum is the final resting place of Timur, but was originally built for his grandson after the latter’s death, at the turn of the 15th century. The most impressive part of this mausoleum is without a doubt blue stone and gold inlaid/painted walls and dome of the main hall. There is also a small museum that describe’s Timur’s life and his conquests, which stretched as far as modern day Iran, India and Turkey.
Next was a deep dive into Registan Square and its three Madrassahs. The central plaza used to be known as “the sandy plaza” as it was the ancient central gathering place of visitors and locals alike with a sprawling bazaar. It is flanked by the Ulug Bek, Tillya-Kori, and Shir Dor madrassahs. Most of the buildings have been reconstructed and restored as a few earthquakes and passage of time lead to their eventual collapse and demise. While each madrassah has its own unique history, design and decal, every single one is equally grand and impressive yet tranquil and simple at the same time. The highlight for me though is the interior dome of the mosque inside the third and final maddrasah built, Tillya-Kori Madrassah. It overtook the ceiling of the Gur-Emir Mausoleum for the magnitude and brightness. It is mostly gold with a very bright dark blue. Just standing underneath and looking up was simply unreal. I enjoyed it so much, I returned at sunset on my final night in Uzbekistan. Because of the heavy weight of the facades, the madrassahs do lightly lean, as such standing at the center of the plaza with the facades leaning in over you feels so imposing, yet gives you a greater appreciation of the imposing and majestic yet tranquil and sophisticated Islamic architecture.
A short walk from Registan along a pedestrian walkway is the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built by Timur to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world, and dedicated to the memory of his favorite wife, who was first married to the former Mongol ruler of Uzbekistan before Timur overtook him. But they built it too fast and it crumbled shortly after the construction and really crumbled after an earthquake, the mosque today is mostly restored. The interior of the mosque remains unfinished, but the plan is to fully restore it as well.
Across from the mosque is Samarkand’s main bazaar, the Siab Bazaar. But since it was a Monday, most vendors were not there, we did sample some Uzbek nuts and dried fruits including dried melon rolls with raisins and walnut filled apricot. I found out that pistachios are not native to Uzbekistan though it is commonly used. There were sweets such as Halva, a sweet made of condensed milk and nuts. We even saw the Samarkand Wedding Bread family selling freshly made wedding breads. But Abdu would bring me back the next day to see the bazaar in full swing.
After this we drove to another side of town to The National House of Shakhnoza, a private home where tourists can come sample a traditional Uzbek home meal and even take classes to learn how to make a typical Uzbek household meal. The backstory is fairly cool. The husband is a tour bus driver and wife was a teacher. One day their in-law asked if their tour group could stop by for a meal, they said yes and then the idea came about to open up their house as a traditional meal experience, as well as host classes on cooking and other Uzbek traditions. Guests dine in what was once their main living room, it is more of a Russian/Soviet style Uzbek house. The food though, is fantastic. Bread, salads, Noodle Soup, Pumpkin Samsa, Fried Cauliflower, Pumpkin and Beef manti, and Baklava. All handmade by our hostess. After lunch, their daughter gave a dance performance, which felt a tad weird given I was the only tourist, but definitely fun and nice if you were part of a larger group. At the end of the meal everyone did a prayer/blessing where we extended our two hands palms up, then did a gesture from the forehead over sides of nose down the face.
We then drove to the other side of town to visit the Afghan-Uzbek Silk Carpet Factory, a Uzbek joint venture with Afghanistan, most of the women and the owner are Afghan. The grounds are home to gardens of indigo and other natural dyes. The tour goes from dye making all the way to finished product. They even let me try a hand at weaving a couple knots, suffice to say I am no carpet weaver. It is really something to see these weavers work their hands are break-neck speeds to create these intricate carpets, the largest of which can take up to 4 women many years to complete. Then came the showroom, where almost every single carpet was a little out of budget, but man were the nice and to quality. Dont want to buy? No problem, unlike many countries known for carpets, this place wont get made or annoyed that your toured without buying.
About a half hour drive outside of town to the village of Koni Gil, we arrive at the papermaking workshop of Abdurakhim Mukhtarov. A workshop founded with the support of UNESCO. The art of paper making was learned by the Arab world when Arabs captured Chinese prisoners, they earned their freedom by doing work and one of those tasks was making paper. Samarkand paper was once world renowned, and throughout the kingdoms it became a status symbol to have and write on Samarkand paper. I was walked through the entire process from shaving the wood, to boiling it, to pounding the pulp using traditional methods, meaning no modern equipment, only apparatuses used in the 8th century, to drying and finished product. The workshop employs local men and mostly women to come make the paper, they are given free reign to design the products or to put whatever design they want on the postcards/greeting cards. This creates a sustainable source of income for the women but also helps promote traditional craft and creativity. I bought myself a few cards, postcards and a notebook.
End of Samarkand day 1 touring.
I returned to the hotel, and then the rest of the night has been described above under Uzbek Cognac Hospitality.
Following another fantastic breakfast, we headed off to the Ulug Bek Observatory, though today it would be Vlad who would drive as Firdavs seemed to had suffered more from than alcohol than I did. Ulug Bek, the astronomer-king grandson of Timur was fascinated by the stars and the cosmos and built one of the most advanced observatories of the ancient world. The observations, which he undertook with the naked eye only, predated the telescope by over 150 years. They were aided by the building itself, which housed a large vertical half-circle, only a quarter of which remains today. Ulug Bek calculated the length of the year to within a minute of the modern accepted value. He also created the most comprehensive (to that date) catalog of the heavens, earning his place in history. The observatory is home to a museum dedicated to Ulug Bek’s life, conquests and contributions to the world of science and astronomy. The small remain of the original observatory can also be visited.
A short drive away is the Afrosiab History Museum. This is the hilltop ancient ruins (though really not much left but small holes within the hills that indicate the foundations of the city) and museum of Afrosiab. It was once a central capital of the region, hosting guests from China, Korean, Turkey and even as far as Indonesia. This is also the namesake of the Uzbek high speed rail. The most important and fascinating part of the museum is the central hall housing the excavated original frescoes that adorned the main Palace halls. The frescoes depict foreign dignitaries coming, from Turks to Koreans to Chinese. From here we take a quick visit to Islam Karimov’s Mausoleum, where no photos are allowed and you must keep silent, but from here there is a beautiful panorama of Samarkand, of which you can take photos. the Siab Bazaar again, this time bustling with all sorts of vendors and shoppers. From colorful exotic fruits to Uzbek traditional hates and gowns.
We then walked to the old town quarters for the Bread Making. Originally this was scheduled for day 1 but the bread master had to postpone as he needed to take his ill mother to the hospital the day before. Not detailed above is the ingredients: salt, kazhak wheat flour, yeast, water. For one batch, it takes one 50kg bag of Kazakh flour, 1kg of salt, 1 bucket and half of water, 2 spoon of yeast.
Originally lunch was scheduled for a place called Platan restaurant. However, Abdu having gotten to know me, chose instead to take me to a local spot in a local area. Shashlikhona is a local kebab restaurant. We had pickled veggies and shallots, beef soup, Uzbek black sausage, internal organs stuffed in lamb stomach and once again lamb, beef, napoleon kebabs.
The final site I’d visit with Abdu in Samarkand was the Shah-i-Zinda Complex (“Place of a Living King”). This is another popular photograph when googling Uzbekistan. And upon visiting I see why. Just past the first archway I spot an Imam just sitting on one of the wooden benches under the imposing blue tiled facade of the first mausoleum awaiting devotees to visit and guide them in prayer. The blue tiles that make up a majority of the facades of the multiple royal mausoleums in this complex glisten and shine under the sun. Not a single facade is the same and not a single interior is the same, the decorated ones that is. A truly regal, stunning and calming place to meander and explore. Most tombs are of royal family members or loyal high ranking officials. At its front is living Samarkand, and at its back the dusty slopes at the edge of ancient Afrosiab. Behind the complex and set into the hill lies an active cemetery with grave sites dating back as far as the 9th century, and as recently as the present day.
Then came time for Abdu and I to part ways. Vlad would then take me to purchase some Uzbek Cognac, a 25 year aged bottle cost just USD$20! We then headed back to the hotel.
I decided to return to Registan Square at sunset and return to the mosque to take in the golden dome again, and on this visit there were some folks who were actually praying, which added to the full ambiance of the place. I then proceeded to the steps and awaited for the light show. Every single person I asked, from the kiosk clerk to the security guards all said the show would start “soon,” one even said 5:30PM. I sat, stood and waited for nearly an hour and half and nothing. As such I decided it was time to go eat dinner. My last dinner, which was my Christmas Eve feast consisted of carrot salad, tomato salad, plov and lagman at the Bibihanum teahouse. While still delicious, certainly not as good as the other plov and lagman I had on the trip. Following dinner I walked back to Registan and managed to catch the last half of the lazer light show. It was pretty cool, but not worth scheduling your evening around…if you ever find out what time it actually starts. But it was nonetheless quite cool and what a way to celebrate Christmas Eve.
I woke up at 3:30AM for a 4AM drive to the Samarkand Airport for my 6:35AM Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. Vlad was beyond kind to wake up and prepare a quick breakfast for me. Firdavs drove me to the airport and I parted ways with him at the security gate.
The departure process at Samarkand Airport was easy and straightforward, no real questions asked except for my duration of stay and I was given my exit stamp. Other parts of the process were a tad chaotic but I shall detail that in my post on my Turkish Airlines business class experience from Samarkand to Istanbul to Atlanta.
As we jetted away to Istanbul, Uzbekistan was still dark and snoozing. A bittersweet Christmas morning.
Uzbekistan Travel Tips
Planning and Getting there:
High season in Uzbekistan is usually around the fall and spring months as peak summer can get extremely hot here and winters are very cold and windy. However, for less crowds and near daily clear-blue-sky days, winter can be a fantastic time to visit. Definitely did not regret coming in December. Plus, it is easier to land a room at some of the top small boutiques in historic cities like Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand. In more desert climates like Bukhara, the days can be a bit warm with the sun shining through on a clear day even in the dead of winter but at night the temperatures will drop significantly.
There are a variety of tour companies that operate tours in Uzbekistan. From day trips, to helping you simply arrange for transport (Group or private) and/or a guide to full itineraries. Prices also vary but there are tours for every budget. I highly recommend you go through a tour company to assist in arranging logistics and transportation, especially if you choose to go in low-season. Ultimately there are still a lot of red tape and bureaucratic processes one has to go through to get even a high speed rail ticket. There basically isnt a way to just buy online and download on to your phone and go, and even at the train station you must have all forms of identification and payment to get your booked ticket. At airports and train stations you pass through 2-3 security checks even before you arrive into the departure lounge. Only ticketed passengers are allowed through. There are no kiosks to purchase tickets either, only a single ticketing office, without clear signage. I go into more detail in the next section on getting around, but suffice to say in low season you will be hard pressed to find a single taxi waiting outside of any of the sites.
The main international airport is Tashkent which serves the capital city. There are daily flights to Istanbul on both Turkish Airlines and Uzbekistan Airways. Daily flights to Moscow. Weekly flights to Astana and Nur-Sultan. And a weekly nonstop Uzbekistan Airways service to New York JFK, if you fly on this flight you are eligible for visa-on-arrival. Uzbekistan Airways also operates weekly service to key European cities like London, Frankfurt and Pairs. There are also weekly flights to Seoul on both Korean carriers and Uzbekistan Airways. And weekly flights to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Singapore. Flights are pretty much at fixed costs given it is a state run airline. From the U.S. you have options to go in either direction given that Uzbekistan is literally smack in the middle and total flying time is pretty much the same. I chose to fly through Istanbul given the better connection and arrival time compared to flying through Seoul.
Most people couple Uzbekistan with other Central Asian countries to and from which there are flights as well.
When it comes to transportation within cities, Tashkent has a cheap, well-connected and historic metro system that is worth using as the stations are sites themselves. There are no automated kiosks for tickets, but you purchase tickets with the ticket booth and it is a whopping…1,400UZS per person one-way, correct just over 10cents. The metro will get you to most major sites in Tashkent. To/From the airport, your only choice is really a taxi, they should be metered but sometimes they are not and you just need to negotiate, or rent a car. Outside of Tashkent, your choices of getting to and from railway stations or airports are taxi or renting a car. Cities like Bukhara are walkable within the old-town parts, anything further out requires a taxi. There are shared vans/ bus systems but the schedules are sparse. Samarkand is a massive city but doesnt have a metro, it does have an above ground tram but that is mainly for local commuters and does not really reach the sites, as such taxi is recommended. However, like I said, from your hotel or railway station or airport you might easily get a taxi, but at the sites you likely wont see a single one, especially during low-season. I noticed this in figuring out how I’d go about traveling here had I not arranged everything in advance. You can definitely negotiate and arrange for a taxi driver you hail to drive you around and wait for you at each site for the day and pay him/her a fixed price at the end, or simply rent a car. Driving in Uzbekistan is not as chaotic as some places in the world as there are streetlights and signals but nonetheless rules are loosely followed.
As such, to maximize time, minimize effort and be cost-effective at the end of the day, I recommend arranging for at the very least, transportation before your arrival in Uzbekistan. Whether your hire a car and driver or rent your own, have the that ready to go will make your trip a lot smoother.
I covered the high-speed rail above. This is a fantastic, comfortable, scenic way to get around the country and the rail hits the major cities. Further, there are domestic flights operated by Uzbekistan Airways, mostly from Tashkent. These flights are very cheap, a one-way economy class ticket from Tashkent to Bukhara for example cost USD$35 and business class was USD$100, but just stick to economy class as the domestic flights dont come with any extra service. And yes, Uzbekistan Airways is safe.
Money remains one of the more challenging bits of traveling in Uzbekistan. Specifically in regards to gauging the correct amount to exchange and knowing in your itinerary where along the way you will likely have another opportunity to exchange more, which is the way to go v. over exchanging at the start and figuring out how to change it back (you most likely wont be able to).
The currency used is the Uzbek Som, as of now it is about 9700UZS to 1USD, I basically rounded up to 10,000UZS=$1. USD is not accepted as an alternative, and credit cards are not widely accepted nor are there widely available ATMs, and ones that exist usually dont take foreign ATM cards. Supposedly there is a currency exchange on arrival at Tashkent Airport but I did not see one upon my arrival, perhaps it was because I landed at 6:30AM. Otherwise, major hotels around Tashkent and larger cities like Samarkand have currency exchange, as did the one I stayed at, the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent. They can exchange any major foreign currency, including USD, Euros, Francs, Pounds, Korean Won and Turkish Lira. NOTE: it is a one-way exchange only, unless you end up at the same hotel or go back to the exact same exchange place upon your arrival with the receipt from your first transaction, and even then there is not guarantee you can change back from UZS. I was only able to change my USD$50 worth of UZS back to USD with the help of my local driver in Samarkand before my departure, it was the old-school “black market” method. UZS are essentially worthless outside Uzbekistan and you wont be able to exchange to UZS or back from it outside of the country (I tried in Istanbul and failed).
So then how much should you exchange? If you have pre-booked guides and transport, then your main expense will be food/beverage and maybe entry fees. On average my meals, for 1 person, from the food to 1 non-alcoholic beverage, 1 alcoholic beverage and tea was between 10,000UZS to 30000UZS so USD$1-USD$3. I barely had a meal above 30,000UZS. Outside of Tashkent, your meals will likely be in the 10,000-20,000 UZS range per person. If your tour includes entry fees to museums, great, if not or you choose to return during your free time to explore some more, most entry fees for foreigners was between 40,000 to 50,000 UZS. Then there are gifts and souvenirs. The most expensive souvenir one can get are carpets that can go for thousands of dollars, dont worry carpet workshops and stores take credit cards. A small to medium hand embroidered Suzani pillow case or table liner is around USD$30, hand carved Ubzek woodworks can range from USD$10 to hundreds of dollars, and some of these workshops also take credit cards.
I had exchanged around USD$500 for 6 days, which ended up being way too much. I had 5 dinners on my own as breakfasts were included with my hotels and lunch prepaid with my tours, and bought about USD$200 worth of souvenirs from a small woodwork piece, a few suzani decorations, Uzbek cognac and handmade Uzbek paper (notebooks and cards). Most of my meals were under USD$2. For me, tips for my guides and drivers included, I could have been fine with USD$400 for 6 days 5 nights.
The most important thing to note about accommodations in Uzbekistan is that upon check-in you must hand in your passport and have the staff fill out a registration card or form. Some places might keep your passport for the duration of your stay others will return it to you with the form. You must keep these forms with your passport at all times in case you are asked to show proof of your stay and hotel registrations upon departure or by say the airport/train station security checks. I was never asked to see these even upon my exit from the country. Nonetheless this is an important process to adhere to for both your sake and the hotel’s sake as they are also held accountable.
There are no ultra-luxe hotels in Uzbekistan. The fanciest property these days is likely the shiny new Hilton Tashkent. There are a handful of international chains in Tashkent such as the Hilton, Radisson Blu, Hyatt Regency and Lotte. Outside of Tashkent in cities like Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand there are either larger local hotels or, the route I recommend, small locally owned boutiques that are full of character. Accommodations in Uzbekistan are not expensive, the nicest options of Hyatt Regency and Hilton were around $200++/night and then everything else falls below that range. Most boutiques during low-season are under USD$100, and in high season they dont go up by more than $50-$100. What is great is that most are bookable via any online agency such as booking.com, tripadvisor and hotels.com. Hostels exist throughout each of these cities as well and are definitely another great option. For Samarkand, I without a doubt recommend Rabat Boutique Hotel.
Uzbekistan is totally worth your time for a visit. Out of all the Central Asian Countries it is now emerging as the least controversial one, even despite its own modern history. The minimal old-school type travel inconveniences that require more planning, make traveling through Uzbekistan that much more real and authentic. It is not overrun by backpackers or travelers trying to find themselves as it simply lacks the infrastructure for that type of more spontaneous traveling, and it doesnt have the overly large tour groups here to take pictures only (though increasingly seeing that) nor does it cater to the ultra-rich as it once again does not have the infrastructure for it. What it is, is Uzbekistan. Pure, raw, barely touched or influenced, a place where local arts, crafts and historic traditions are still respected. It truly feels undiscovered in modern times even though it was at the center of the confluence of vast Empires, cultures and religions during its golden age as the epicenter of the Silk Road.
As more and more articles promote Uzbekistan and more and more people venture out here, I can only hope Uzbekistan is able to sustain its authenticity. I certainly want people to discover this beautiful place and the rich history and culture and wonderful people it has to offer but at the same time I selfishly want it to remain as is. Nonetheless, I can only hope and trust that logistics of getting a trip planned and together for Uzbekistan will only get easier as the country continues to open up to the world.
Anyways, this was a long post, hopefully you read through it, if not, hopefully you scrolled through the pictures and read on some of the highlights. And I hope this has inspired you to add Uzbekistan on your list of future travels when the world, hopefully, returns to “normal.”