Uzbekistan Travel Guide for Backpackers
Mouth-watering food, lovely fruits and vegetables, amazing hospitality and enough ancient cities to turn on any history teacher. Truly the historical height of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is home to a captivating group of ancient cities, some being right next to the famed silk road that stretches over 4,000 miles long and helped create trade between a large number of kingdoms and empires.
Does any of the above excite you? Then keep reading. I'm about to splurge some tips and insights on how to go about traveling to Uzbekistan if you're a backpacker based on my experience and extensive research.
Best season to visit Uzbekistan
If you're anything like me, before leaving for a travel destination, you probably can't help but worry as to whether it's the best time of the year to get the most out of the countries and its conditions. Rest assured, when visiting Uzbekistan, make sure that the best season is spring or autumn, this is crucial if your stay is short and you hate hot weather. I made the mistake of visiting this country during summer, and despite all the wonderful delicacies of the country, I couldn't help but keep wiping the sweat off my forehead in that desert heat! During spring and autumn (April-May and September- November) you will find that it is warm but cool enough to walk around without having a self-fabricated shower. Now if you're a cold lover, then visit during November-March, this will test your patience as the temperatures are extreme on both ends in this country, but it will also allow you to take beautiful photos with your camera as during this period the skies clear up and are at their brightest. Here are some itineraries and tours in Uzbekistan to get you inspired.
Best foods in Uzbekistan
The capital and largest city in Uzbekistan, also contains some of the most delicious restaurants and food choices, ranging from their traditional foods to Russian, European and Middle Eastern. If you are someone who loves a good kebab or any of the side dishes included, then you want to navigate towards the old section of the city. Located in the middle of most local cuisines, around here you will find many different options to satisfy your Uzbek tooth, including foods like Shaurmas and Somsas.
The 6th largest city in Uzbekistan, Nukus is contained within the region of Karakalpakstan, and in my experience is the best place to taste the real local food, find your way to the central street of Garezsizlik and continue food hunting from there. One of the most famous dishes located here is the Besbarmaq, which at first is quite is quite daunting if you're a hygiene freak like me as your required to eat it with your hands, to give you an idea of what it feels like, imagine noodles with chopped meat alongside different spices.
It is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, so you can count on absorbing some culture in Samarkand, when visiting the famous Registan Square, make sure you try the local restaurants located around it. There are many traditional dishes to try here, I recommend based off others and my taste, the pilaf. The pilaf is only rice cooked in a seasoned broth, and it can sometimes vary with colors though maintains excellent consistency. I assure you it tastes better than it sounds.
For history lovers, this is the city to be, Bukhara contains over 130 architectural monuments and is also the 5th largest city in Uzbekistan. When traveling here, make sure you visit all historical centers to get the most out of the local delicious food choices. Although the menu is wide with foods that other cities contain, Bukharan big somsa's tend to be one that you will hear the locals talking about frequently when visiting. The name is purely a local term they use to degrade any other city trying to emulate the same food, in my experience, they are just larger and contain more stuffing.
With roughly only 50,000 people, Khiva is a place where you get to know a lot of the locals, in my opinion, it also serves the tastiest foods which are all traditional, ranging from shuvit Yoshi to Khorezm pilaf. My personal favorite being the Tukhum Barak, which is a dumpling with egg filling, I know it sounds simple, but you have to see and taste it to believe it.
Tourist Sights in Uzbekistan
You didn't think I'd end the blog before telling you the best places to visit did you, the following list is in my opinion, and in public viewpoint, the best places to look and be.
For the housewives of Uzbekistan fans (is there such a thing?), this is for you. The 1230 ft Tashkent Tower is truly something to observe. Although it has lost its place, from the time of construction till 1991, it was the 3rd highest tower in the world so that you can count on it still being quite a breathtaking view.
Museum of Geology
A personal favorite of mine, and will be for those who love history, is the museum of geology located in Tashkent. It was first established in 1988 and has undergone reconstruction in 2011. If you are interested in things like geology, country history, old mining, paleontology, mineralogy and more, then this is for you.
When visiting Bukhara, be sure to pay a stop to the Samanid Mausoleum, especially if architecture is your thing. Classified containing some of the most quality pieces of work, the Mausoleum has a very rich history and started construction during 892 CE. It would be a shame to miss the oldest monument of Islamic architecture in Central Asia, be sure to pay a visit.
Another personal favorite and one that anyone reading this will enjoy due to its diverse appeal. The Chor Minor is a mosque located in Bukhara, and also is classified as part of the Historic Centre of Bukhara. If you have any local mosque's around your area, you will recognize this as something familiar with an attractive four pillars to go with it.
For anyone looking to blow some cash (and save some), this is a must. Located next to the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Siyob Bazaar is a central attraction for foreign tourists. The location is the place to be when buying virtually any type of product in the area, and is also convenient as a marketplace when you don't want to go out to restaurants, and would prefer to indulge at home.
RegistanThis complex of three medressas and a mosque is truly fascinating and just beautiful. Take your time here. It is even worth taking a local guide which you can find at the entrance where the ticket office is. After showing you around and telling you the history, the guide probably will ask you if you want to climb up one of the minarets for a great view of the Registan square. This is also an extra service and costs around 15’000 som per person. It is worth climbing it although it is not easy because the stairs are really steep. Don't do it if you have any knee or back problems. Otherwise, it is a nice view out of a little hole at the top of the minaret.
Safety and convenience in traveling in Uzbekistan
Taking precautionary measures before visiting any foreign place are always a must, and like you, I also conducted my research on what to be aware of. Fortunately, I'm speaking mostly of extensive knowledge from research rather than experience. However, you will find that the locals offer the same advice when visiting, I'm not by any means saying the country is dangerous, because it's not, it is a beautiful and safe place. Like any location, there are always things to watch out for, and these are it.
You want to stay away from remote border regions, especially in the regions close to Afghanistan. It is a landlocked country and encourages the people to remain towards the middle for safety measures, to further warn you, all borders have the possibility of being land-mined outside the roads. Cash on hand: One of the most important things to know, and one that I did not anticipate, is cash. I cannot overstate this enough, Uzbekistan's transactions and marketplaces primarily function with cash, so make sure you don't store all your money on cards or any processes that don't involve fun paper.
Always have credentials on you to prove that you are a tourist, this could mean a photocopied passport or visa. Police are prevalent in the country, and if trying to hassle you for a bribe, as soon as you make it evident you're a tourist, they will leave you alone.
This is a weird caution, but one I must mention. Homosexuality is frowned upon in the country, and can even get you in trouble. I'm not judging your preferences in genders, but a word of warning, don't show public affection. Even if you're not attracted to the same sex and just show brotherly love with strong hugs, you can draw strange looks. It's bad I know. In addition to mentioning the above cautions, Uzbekistan, in general, is quite a safe place compared to its neighbors, and for anyone looking to travel to Central Asia, it is the country that is the most "family-friendly" and has the most well-being.
Getting Around in Uzbekistan
Like other countries, Uzbekistan has many methods of transport, though there are means of travel that you want to choose instead of others for both comfort and convenience.
During my stay, I used trains and found them to be a clear winner out of every transport channel regarding ease of changing cities during your trip, though don't mistake this with the quality of travel. If you are a person who values class in service and equipment, then this could get a little hard, especially on long trips. Plan your trip to ensure you take long train rides during the cold, as there is no shower or air conditioning on board, along with very unclean equipment, i.e. toilets. There is an incredibly simple and quite comfortable main line of transport that goes around from Tashkent through to Bukhara, passing Samarkand on the way. The line consists of two main express trains. The optimal time to take these is at night, especially if you're traveling all the way from Tashkent to Bukhara, or in the morning to Samarkand. The trains provide comfortable sleeping cars, and the sound of the train stops will awaken you in the morning. If you're travelling in the main season, make sure to book your tickets in advance as the speed trains are sold out quickly. Make sure to bring your passport and cash for buying your tickets. As a bonus, if you plan on traveling to Russia afterward, you can hop on a train from Tashkent and go all the way to Moscow, which takes three days.
If you have a lot of money, Taxis are the best option. There is some negotiating that has to be involved, as you might have guessed there is a lot of drivers who take advantage of tourists and will rip you off. One of the best recommendations I can give is to share a trip with a local friend you met before getting into the taxi (so the driver and friend aren't doing a hustle), this way he can look out for you if your getting ripped off. When taking a taxi in a public place, expect there always to be a shared seat. I took two taxi's during my whole stay, purely for getting around the city, and in both situations, the drivers were willing to wait up to 30 minutes for another passenger. Also in regards to being ripped off, learn some of the language so you can interpret the price that the driver is charging the new passengers, often they will demand from you a high rate while charging locals regular payment due to language barriers.
Cars seem like the appropriate option, but be wary. When I visited Uzbekistan, I was planning to rent a vehicle until some nice people recommended me not to unless I knew the country landscape. If you do choose to rent a car, always be sure to bring credentials, as previously mentioned there is a lot of patrols, when being stopped it isn't uncommon to be in a situation requiring a bribe, as soon as you validate your identity you will be left alone. A very good alternative is to hire a local driver in Uzbekistan.
Since buses don't operate interstate that often, they don't serve many purposes for backpackers or anyone visiting. If you do plan to take the bus, it is more of a scheduling process rather than spontaneous; it is quite hard to find information on the dates and times, which are also known to change based on the fluctuation of transport holdings and stops. When taking a bus, ensure that you buy tickets in advance, the reason being is that a lot of locals are on due to the low prices in comparison to other forms of transport, so make sure you plan, or you risk being left out.
There you have it. You now possess extensive knowledge about being a backpacker or traveler visiting Uzbekistan, from the best season to visit, to the most delicious foods to taste. Most importantly, do not over-stress it, you're meant to have fun, in fact before I visited I was aware of a quarter of the above information and managed to get around safely!