A Practical Guide to Uzbekistan
The Golden Road to Samarkand
‘For lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the golden road to Samarkand’
Given that Central Asia isn’t exactly a bustling tourist hub, it’s good to prepare yourself for a little bit of culture shock before you set off. English-speakers are reasonably rare, with Uzbek and Russian being the languages typically found in tourist areas, cross-country travel can be arduous, and the currency is an absolute nightmare. It’s also incredibly beautiful, rich in history and culture, and full of wonderfully friendly people.
Language & Communication
Being a former soviet state, many people in Uzbekistan speak Russian as well as their own language. The vast majority of tourist sites, hotels and popular restaurants will have Russian-speaking employees. We opted to hire a multi-lingual guide for our trip, which was a bit of a life saver. If you aren’t on a massively restricted budget I would recommend taking the same route, considering just how cheap everything in Uzbekistan is. As well as being able to elaborate on the history behind the beautiful local sites, you won’t have to resort to crude sign language when your Russian or Ubzek knowledge falls through.
I’ve tried to learn some basically Russian vocabulary a few times when travelling in Central Asia or the Caucuses. It’s never gone too well for me, hopefully you’re more linguistically talented.
Travel & Transportation
I can’t emphasise enough how bitter I was after taking the train from Samarkand to Tashkent. As someone that was taking a lot of long distance trains in the UK at the time, I was fairly pissed off about how superior Uzbek trains were. For maybe 5% of the price. Though the UK had set a fairly low bar, the trains in Uzbekistan are reliably alright. Timely, comfortable enough seats, and, in typical Uzbek fashion, inexpensive.
We flew from Tashkent to Nukus for the start of our overland journey through the south of the country. It’s a big place. It’s a big desert. Driving through it is long, and it can be rough terrain. However, if you’re interested in local cultural experiences, it’s the best way to travel. We spent our nights in yurts with local nomadic people, and our days visiting sites well off the grid to the less intrepid tourist- from multiple Zoroastrian ‘Towers of Silence’, to the ruins of cities built by Alexander the Great, to endless ancient caravanserai’s that house the practical history of the Silk Road.
I’ve never talked about a currency more than I talk about Uzbek Soms. They have the maddest system I have ever seen. They don’t use credit cards, debit cards, or any general non-cash based transactions. As a result, you travel everywhere with a backpack stuffed full of cash. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can withdraw from regular ATMs. We saw 1 ATM in in an upscale hotel in the capital, Tashkent, and beyond that our guide helped us trade our USD on the black market.
Given how inexpensive everything is, and how inflated the currency is, you pay for your $2 dinner in a stacked handful of cash. Although it goes against all my budget-minded, safety first, backpacking principles, the best option is to take out or exchange as much as you can at the start of your trip and carry it in a tightly secured day bag. It’s a pain, but it’s better than being stuck with no means of payment.
My visit was in Summer 2015, so if the situation has changed here please let me know!
Safety & Security
Uzbekistan is a very safe country for travellers. It’s incredibly dangerous if you happen to be trying to illegally cross a border, as there is pretty much no regard for the Geneva convention along the heavily mine-strewn borders. This precaution is for preventing radicalised Islamists from entering Uzbekistan to spread their ideology, so it does serve to protect tourists.
I wore whatever I wanted throughout the trip without attracting attention from the locals. I had packed typical gear for travel in the Middle East, but when I arrived I realised tourists were wearing shorts, strappy tops, the kinds of clothes you wouldn’t dream of wearing a few borders south. Obviously cover up if you’re entering a religious site, as is customary for all holy places, but other than that there is no need to be concerned about safety as a female traveller.
As always, keep an eye on your belongings. Don’t flash expensive gadgets. Don’t, in general, look like a rich tourist. These rules apply across the entire world.
Uzbekistan is the least Muslim Muslim country I’ve ever been to. In 2.5 weeks, I saw 1 hijabi. The religious history in Uzbekistan is incredibly interesting, and Bukhara is considered one of the most important sites for Islamic education in the world, but laws were made lax under secular soviet occupation, and the people continue to practice in a less strict fashion than their southern neighbours.
It’s hot. It’s really, really hot. It’s a desert, the sun is intense and unyielding and there’s next to no cover outside of the cities. As a very pale Irish girl with a tendency towards fairly severe heat stroke, it was a struggle. Although, the time I passed out from the heat in Khiva I was nursed by a friendly elderly local, who fed me tea in her house. She also had solid gold teeth, a fun common quirk amongst older Uzbeks.
Try to do activities in the early morning or the late afternoon to avoid the worst of the sun.
Uzbekistan is beautiful and relatively undiscovered. If you love culture and history and getting off the beaten track, it’s a perfect destination for you.