Underrated Uzbekistan: Tashkent and beyond
When I first told my friends that my boyfriend and I were going to Uzbekistan for a holiday, the reactions were less than encouraging.
“I hear they boil people alive in Uzbekistan.”
“Be careful you don’t get kidnapped.”
“Why on earth would you want to go there?”
To me the reasons to visit Central Asia seemed obvious.
Despite being a major stop on the Silk Road, the old stomping ground of Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and Genghis Khan, it could hardly be further from the modern-day tourist trail.
That's not to say they aren't encouraging visitors.
When we picked up our visas at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Bangkok prior to our two-week journey, the ambassador himself told us, “You will have GREAT time in Uzbekistan, GREAT time!"
A number of airlines make the trip from various Asian and European cities, though we went with the flag carrier, Uzbekistan Airways.
The flight arrived in the capital, Tashkent, on time, an excellent journey save for the tough Russian flight attendants who, instead of using the standard “Please raise your tray tables,” pointed and yelled “UP!”
The immigration officer in Tashkent was far more enthusiastic –- “You are American? America very good!”
Then we were led to a money changer who traded our US$100 for a massive wad of Uzbek currency. If you're curious, the rate at the time was US$1 to UZS1,924 (Uzbekistani som).
It made us feel rich.
Until the taxi drivers outside the airport said we could have got a 40 percent better exchange rate through them (them = the black market), and an even better rate if we would have ventured two blocks away from the airport.
As for the city itself, most visitors will immediately be taken with Tashkent’s mash up of Asian, Middle Eastern and Russian culture, the wide European boulevards, ancient mosques and grand, yet bleak, Soviet architecture.
Still, the highlight of the Uzbek capital is not above ground, but below.
The Tashkent metro is a site to behold -- an underground odyssey of 29 stations all ornately designed in the 1970s by prominent Uzbek artists and architects.
Rides cost just US$0.30 a ticket. Sadly, no photos. Snapping inside the stations is illegal, as they are considered military installations.
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Next stop: Samarkand
Pulling ourselves out of the underground, we chanced a shared taxi and took the five-hour journey to the mythical city of Samarkand accompanied by a skinny pharmacist, two middle-aged women in babushkas, and our driver, Bobosher.
Samarkand, founded in the 7th century BC, was the most important city on the Silk Road and once the most fabled place on earth.
The best time to arrive is dusk, when the minarets and mosques glow in blue light as the calls for evening prayer beckon.
The Registan is one of the most impressive spots in the city -- a grand complex of exquisite madressas (religious schools), all with Samarkand’s characteristic sea foam, dark blue and cream-colored tiling.
The entrance fee is a hefty US$12 for non-Uzbeks. Hardly worth it, given the only thing the ticket gets you is entrance to the courtyards of Islamic schoolrooms that were turned into souvenir shops. The rest of the complex can be toured for free.
Shopping on the tourist trail
Traveling on Uzbekistan Railways’ Sharq train, we continued along the Silk Road to Bukhara, another 2,000-year-old city with buildings dating back to the 11th century and quiet stone streets.
Highly recommended: eating plov -- an Uzbek one-pot rice dish -- under the watch of the beautiful, yet infamous, Kaylan Minaret (aka “The Tower of Death”), or exploring the ancient and earthy trading domes, which hawk over-priced paintings, textiles and rugs.
Shopping is a disappointment. Too many vendors in Uzbekistan sell only made-in-China mementos. The famous silks and handicrafts of the country are very hard to find, and anything worth buying usually comes with a hefty price tag.
To get around this, venture out at daybreak to the Urgut Bazaar, where you can pick up some classic blue and white Uzbek pottery for about a dollar apiece.
Almost as uninspiring as the shopping was Khiva, an archaic walled city with a charm nearly ruined by a suffocating tourist trade and overdone preservationism.
Lacking the romance of Bukhara or Samarkand, the streets of Khiva were filled with Russian and Uzbek tourists buying plastic backscratchers, rubber snakes and neon prayer beads.
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But it's a starting point for adventures in ancient Khorezm, making it an unavoidable stopover.
From Khiva, travelers can hire a driver to visit the Ayaz-qala yurt camp, stopping on the way at ruins of 7th-century desert fortresses.
Ayaz-Qala's vast sandy landscape allows visitors a chance to enjoy the company of camels, donkeys and wild horses, while giving them an opportunity to sleep in a yurt straight out of Arabian Nights.
Avant-garde art, stashed in the desert
Next up was a grueling 12-hour taxi ride through the Kyzylkum desert that led us to Nukus, our final destination -- an eerie little town known for its proximity to the rapidly dying Aral Sea.
Passing on the opportunity to visit the site of a horrific environmental disaster, we spent our time at the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, where the legendary Savitsky Collection resides.
Here, in the middle of one of the most desolate places on earth, sits the world’s second-largest collection of Russian Avant-garde art, alongside various works connected to Central Asia.
Vivid and expressionistic paintings as modern and relevant today as they were 60 years ago hang from the walls on every inch of the museum -- a rotating selection of 50,000 paintings banned by the Soviet Union and saved from destruction by the renegade art collector Igor Savitsky from 1957–1966.
For more on the museum check out "The Desert of Forbidden Art," a documentary that highlights the incredible story of how this treasure trove of banned Soviet art worth millions of dollars came to be stashed in a far-off desert of Uzbekistan.
This extraordinary museum in the middle of nowhere captures all the quirky, mysterious and unique beauty of Central Asia.
And, like Uzbekistan itself, is a prize in the middle of nowhere that you have to travel a great distance to get to.
Uzbekistan travel advice
Flights: Direct flights are available to Tashkent from several major cities including London, Munich, Beijing and Bangkok.
Hotels: Guidebooks are almost useless. The prices listed were mostly inaccurate -- hotels were about 30 percent more than what they quoted, and transportation was sometimes 10 times more costly than listed.
Guesthouses on average range between US$35 and US$50 per night.
What to buy: If you don't want to spend a fortune on overpriced silks and suzanis, or have little time to venture out to the local markets to get a good deal, there's one thing you can find everywhere -- vodka.
Uzbek vodka is excellent and will cost you about US$3 a bottle.
Local transportation: Traveling around Uzbekistan without a tour group is not for the impatient or faint of heart. But your experience will be much richer for it.
When it comes to booking local transportation, you have to wing it. Options are bus, train and shared taxi.
The train system is great, but not extensive, and gets booked up well ahead of time. Also, staff usually speak only Russian or Uzbek at the stations, making it a challenge to arrange a ticket.
The bus is a nightmare -- it's the cheapest way to travel but good luck finding out where any coach is going.
Again, no bus drivers speak English and "friendly" locals at the bus station tend to charge tourists five times what the regular price should be.
Private and shared taxis are the easiest option, though you have to negotiate the price and sometimes wait a long time until they find other passengers.
And you are usually squashed in the back like a sardine with three other hardy travelers.
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