The Republic of Uzbekistan
History of Uzbekistan:
The area of modern Uzbekistan has been inhabited since the second millennium BC, the remnants of these early dwellers remains in the Afrosiab region near Samarkand, as well as in the more watered regions of Fergana and Bukhara. Conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BC, this fiercely independent region was stilled through ongoing and costly campaigns. It was here that Alexander married the Bactrian chieftain’s daughter Roxana, known to be of amazing beauty and talent.
After being ruled by various neighboring empires Genghis Khan swept through Uzbekistan leaving in his wake the smoldering ruins of generations of art, culture and the bodies of thousands.
Fierce conquest of a region breeds even fiercer resistance, and Timur (Tamerlane) arrived on the scene in the 14th century AD to wipe out the Mongols and reestablished the regions former greatness as a cultural hub. Timur’s conquests swept in all directions and he was known for his cruelty, something he perhaps picked up from the Mongol occupiers. The Timur Empire fell when strong leadership could not be found, and the region again fell under the divisions of nomadic warriors.
The Russian Empire spread into Central Asia in the ‘Great Game’ of the nineteenth century. Russian presence in the area was thick when the Bolshevik Revolution ensued and Central Asia, over time, fell entirely under the sway of the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Uzbekistan declared independence on September first. Former Soviet installed leadership remains in place, and the economy is focuses on exporting cotton, petroleum and mineral—industries the Soviets nourished to supply their vast network in Central Asia and beyond. Because it is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world, Uzbekistan relies on neighbors for water, and much of its food and agriculture supplies.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country with some 27.7 million people (2007).
Culture in Uzbekistan:
Uzbek culture is influenced by its diverse population of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Russians, Koreans and Turkmen. The art is, therefore, diverse and colorful. The most common cultural objects currently produced are: puppets, pottery, silk sheets with embroidered designs called Suzanies, clothing and hats, furs, wood carvings, and especially carpets.
Music is also wildly popular in Uzbekistan, and the traditional instruments specific to the area produce a medley of sounds not common in Western music. As with art, music is heavily influenced by Islam.
Uzbek architecture is astonishing, and one of the real highlights of the region. From towering minarets to vast medrassas and arched mosques, this country has a structure to awe everyone. Common in the region are the blue, white and teal tiles used on religious buildings like the famous Registan, in Samarkand, or the Khiva minaret. Architecture is one of the key reasons to visit Samarkand, where the Registan, Timru’s Tomb and the famed Shah-I-Zinda mausoleums reside. You’ll not want to miss the walled city of Khiva for its architectural feats and renowned preservation. Meanwhile, Bukhara’s adobe alleys and preserved Ark will make your camera shutter need more oil.
Transportation in Uzbekistan:
Transportation in the eastern part of the country is reliable and modernizing. For example, Tashkent’s subway system, originally built by the Soviets, is a work of art as well as transport. The Registan and Sharq trains from Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara are fast, clean and affordable. Buses are also widely in use in the east, and cheaper than the train but slower. If all else fails Uzbekistan has a vast network of taxis, mostly unofficial ones, that can take you between cities for a fee, or inner city for a very small amount.
In the western regions the most likely option is the shared taxi, where you negotiate a price-per-seat and wait with the cab until it fills up with people going in the same direction. These are expensive, but are also the only option in the west. Between Bukhara and Khiva shared taxis take 5 hours and cost $20 USD a seat while the bus takes 12 to 16 hours and costs $8 USD. When driving this road we passed a half dozen broken down buses that testify to the reliability of the bus system.
Money in Uzbekistan:
Uzbek cym, the UZS. Exchange rate, (official) 1,400 UZS to 1 USD (unofficial) 1,800 UZS to 1 USD.
Nearly everything for sale outside of Tashkent is quoted in USD, but you can pay in cym (the local currency, pronounced ‘som’) or in actual US greenbacks.
Be prepared to bargain hard for everything from carpets to dinner and a night at a B&B. Never pay in advance and do not be afraid to walk away from vendors whose prices are ridiculous. If someone makes a deal with you, be aware that it is not shameful in the region to go back on a deal and demand more, this is likely to occur when buying food or paying for your hotel. Always negotiate in advance and insist people keep their word on prices.
Mutton is the primary meat stock of this Muslim country. Kebabs are popular and tasty, but you can also find langman (a noodle dish with mixed vegetables) or the world famous plov (rice with vegetables). Meals come with non (bread) and usually tea. For other refreshments, try the locally produced beers and the non-alcoholic katyk, or yoghurt juice.
Many travelers in this region get food poisoning; be careful not to consume any water and if you eat the delicious salads, make sure you are in a place with a sanitary kitchen. Bring medicine along just in case, as it will likely come in handy.
Interaction with residents:Medium.
The primary tourist areas are Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, local residents of these areas may speak some English, but they are driven to these areas to make money, not to make friends. Be aware that prices in these cities are inflated and the vendors have made agreements here to inflate all prices in informal non-competition clauses.
Interaction with residents outside of shopping, bargaining and staying in B&Bs is limited. You’ll find that everyone is eager to talk with you about where you are from and what you do for a living, but be forewarned that everyone is selling something, and don’t be offended when a new friend suddenly demands money for their time or services. Many travelers in the area hire a guide, this is a good recommendation because your guide can protect you from hagglers and deliver witty historical quips about the places you visit.
Suggestions for Traveling in Uzbekistan:
We have heard stories from other travelers in the area that children and the elderly will lure you into their homes with promises of a home cooked meal, tea or just to meet their family. There, it is reported, you may be robbed or ridiculous sums of money demanded from you after you have partaken in their hospitality. It is best (and locals advised us of this as well) not to enter anyone’s home and to always ask the price of every item or service in advance.
We also suggest you bring alone a fistful of USD, as it is difficult to change any other currency to UZS once in Uzbekistan. Everyone here wants dollars, so bring those and a calculator along with a bag for carrying your thousands of cym when you do your first currency exchange.
Finally, the mosquitoes are harsh and the sun is unforgiving in this desert country with oasis towns. Bring bug repellant, sunscreen and a large-brimmed hat. You might also bring vitamins, since variety in food is lacking, and stomach medicine, since food poisoning is common.
Recommendation level: 7
Uzbekistan is a country full of awe-inspiring sites and history that still seems alive. From ruins that are teeming with artifacts, birds and wild critters to cities of ancient splendor – Uzbekistan will not disappoint. Teal, white and blue tiled domes stretch into the sky around Samarkand and Khiva while Bukhara’s adobe huts and bathing pool built in 1477 will astonish even the most accomplished travelers. In Uzbekistan you are afforded the feeling of traveling via time machine into distant places and distant times—though with other travelers, as the cities are teeming with tourists. Rich, colorful carpets, dancing girls and singing boys, plentiful supply of wine and beer and clear, crisp desert skies make this a place you’ll not easily forget.
On the downside, it is not an easy place to travel on a budget. Prices are inflated due to tourism and the regional standard for negotiating is dissimilar to international standards. A deal reached prior to a purchase can be changed by the vendor at any time, for example if you settle on a fare for a cab ride in advance the driver may stop the car in the middle of nowhere and demand more to continue- this is common practice and will happen to you multiple times a day in Uzbekistan. A deal reached for the price of a hotel room can be changed when you go to check out. Meanwhile, outside of Tashkent it is rare for any restaurant to have a menu, so prices vary depending on how wealthy you appear to your server and how much they think they can get out of you for a plate of plov. Many travelers find that traveling in a group is best in this area because you pay one lump sum and then do not need to think about money again until you arrive at your next destination.
Visas for Uzbekistan:
You can apply for a Uzbek visa from the consulate in your area. For Americans the cost is $130 for a single entry, one-month visa. Expect to wait about a month, though their website says it can be processed in a week. Additionally, ensure that your visa is signed by the issuer, and stamped upon entering and leaving the country.
Routes to Travel in Uzbekistan:
Though we saw an untold amount in Uzbekistan, the map below gives a general outline of our route in 2009.