Ever since I got back from Uzbekistan, the question I get asked the most is “what made you decide to go there?”
As a matter of fact, Uzbekistan is not the most popular travel destination. Prior to my trip there, I knew of absolutely no one who went there – and that is precisely why I wanted to go. Unknown places have always had an irresistible appeal to me. But after spending 10 days in this exotic country with my partner, the question that I now struggle to answer the most is, why aren’t people going there? Amongst all the hidden gems in the world, this Central Asian treasure is undoubtedly one of the most underrated ones. Here are nine reasons why:
It’s The Jewel Of The Silk Road
Caravans crossing miles of unwelcoming deserts from China to the bazaars of Europe found their oasis in the ancient Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. They not only transported ivory and gold, but also religion and philosophies. When Turkish rulers conquered Samarkand, they brought Islamic art and culture to the city. Today, you’ll find these three former Silk Road hubs bustling with ornate mosques, glittering minarets, majestic madrasas and hypnotic mosaics. Which brings us to the next point…
This Country Is A Photographer’s Dream
Every corner I turned, my mouth dropped wide open. Again and again. The amount of times I was blown away by something I saw in Uzbekistan was utterly innumerable. The burst of colours, patterns, architecture and mosaics that surrounded me completely overwhelmed my senses and left me utterly speechless. It wasn’t just mosques and madrasas that killed my camera battery either. Even ordinary places like restaurants and hotels were craftily adorned with traditional embroidery, hand painted walls, and stylish courtyards.
You Will Meet Some Of The Kindest Locals
Uzbek people really go out of their way to make you feel welcomed. On our journey there, we met a tourist who received a complimentary day tour from a local she had met the day before, simply because he wanted to show her the less touristy spots. This same woman also received a free taxi ride from another local who saw her struggling to find one at the airport.
Throughout our trip, we’ve had countless people come up to us and ask us (in basic English) where we’re from, where in Uzbekistan we’ve been and how we were liking it there. The locals there were genuinely curious to get to know us, and many of them also closed the conversation with a heart-warming “welcome to my country.”
On top of that, two encounters I had with Uzbek people particularly stood out to me. On two separate occasions, two different strangers with whom I barely spoke to due to language barriers randomly handed me flowers. One was handpicked from her own garden nearby, and the other one was handmade, from a napkin. They were very simple gestures, but to me, they spoke the world about the people of this country.
The Language Barrier Isn’t As Challenging As You May Expect
A fact that will surprise you: Uzbekistan is actually quite touristy. Although Uzbek and Russian are the two main languages spoken there, very basic English is understood in many tourist attractions. With that said, it all depends on where you are and who you encounter.
From our experience, English is less spoken in the bigger cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, where you’ll find more local tourists than foreigners. The guards in Samarkand’s famous Registan square may be able to tell you the opening hours of the complex and the price of the tickets, but you probably wouldn’t be able to communicate much further than that. Having Uzbek or Russian on Google Translate can come in handy. We also had to rely on hand gestures a couple of times.
Meanwhile, in more compact cities like Khiva and Bukhara, tourism is much more concentrated in the city centers and the vendors there are so used to interacting with foreigners that some of them can even make sales pitches in French or Italian. Overall, while the language barrier in Uzbekistan can pose a fun challenge, from my experience, they weren’t big enough at all to create real obstacles.
You’ll Feel Safer There Than In Many Western Countries
Contrary to what some may think, Uzbekistan is completely safe. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are all fairly small and the vibe in those cities is quiet and relaxing. Crime rate is generally low in this country, and never once did I feel threatened, even when walking around at night. Of course, everyone’s experience is unique, and caution and common sense should obviously be applied no matter where in the world you travel to. But just for the record, I was never worried about pickpockets while I was there, which is a lot more than I can say about many Western countries…
You’ll Be On The Hunt For Uzbek Food When You Come Back
Uzbek cuisine is one of the tastiest I’ve tried, and it’s rich with variety and flavours. Some gems to look out for:
- Plov – an Uzbek national dish made of rice, lamb, carrots and dried fruit
- Manti – steamed dumplings stuffed with either meat or pumpkin (the latter is especially good)
- Somsa – essentially the Uzbek version of samosa, uniquely made with local spices
- Uzbek Naan bread – it comes with every meal in restaurants, whether you want it or not. It is best eaten warm, and made in an oven called “tandyr”, which involves slapping the dough directly onto the oven walls.
- Shurpa – a traditional soup with lamb, potatoes, chickpeas and carrots; a great appetizer
- Shashlik – delicious meat skewers which depending on the region, can come minced too
- Shivit Oshi – dill infused noodles with toppings of fried meat, peppers and tomatoes; a specialty of Khiva. Fun fact: it looks like green spaghetti!
Note: As you may have gathered already, you might have a hard time in Uzbekistan if you’re vegan or vegetarian. This country is extremely big on meat, which is included or used in the making of most of their dishes. However, you can definitely find restaurants that offer vegetarian options, and most of them also have a wide range of salads to choose from.
Tip for Vegetarians: Say “bez myasa” (it means “without meat”) if you order salads, as occasionally the plate may contain sliced meat (just a sign of how much Uzbeks love their meat).
Pro Tip: If you’re in Tashkent and want to try some very authentic and well-made plov, be sure to stop by Plov Center – it’s where the locals go, and the plov there is absolutely phenomenal.
It’s Easy To Get Around On Your Own
You don’t need a tour group nor a car to get around in Uzbekistan. You’d in fact be saving a lot of money by navigating this country on your own, and the good news is that it’s easy to do so as well.
Fast-speed trains connect Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent, with several of them leaving per day. We took the Afrosiyob high-speed train and it was very comfortable, punctual and clean. The ancient town of Khiva is a bit more remote, and there are two common ways to reach it:
- A flight from Tashkent to Urgench, which is about a 30 minute drive from Khiva. The flight time is 1.5 hours, and it’s costs around $50 one way.
- A taxi from Bukhara, which will take around 7 hours. It costs $50 if you hire a private one, but only $20 if you don’t mind sharing the ride with others. You can arrange the taxi very easily through your hotel; the reception staff will help book it for you.
Like many, we took the latter route as it fit our itinerary better. 7 hours may seem long, but it was less tiring than expected as you can make frequent stops along the way.
Tip: If you’re taking a taxi, ask your driver to take a little detour along the way to bring you to the ancient fortress of Tuprakkala, not too far from Khiva. This fortress is in the middle of the desert, and walking amongst its ruins is an experience not to miss. The visit will cost $10 more and will prolong your trip for about 1-2 hours, but it’s very worth it.
Your Trip Won’t Make Your Wallet Cry
Uzbekistan is very affordable. You can find good quality hotels & guesthouses for around $20 – $30 a night, and a typical full-course meal complete with 2 appetizers, 2-3 mains and drinks only totals up to around $6 on average. Transportation was budget-friendly as well, with most taxis within cities costing $1.25 for a 10-15 minute ride, and fast-speed trains connecting Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent are around $7 if you buy them at the station.
The only thing that may be pricey is the flight getting in. Round trip flights from Europe typically go through Moscow or Istanbul, and can cost up to $600. That number would also be a lot higher if you’re flying from somewhere like North America, in which case it may be a good idea to visit Uzbekistan as part of a bigger trip to Europe or Asia.
You Will Be Questioning Reality The Whole Time You’re There
Though I’ve traveled to 50+ countries, I’ve never been somewhere that felt so surreal, to the extent that I can’t even properly put it into words. From watching concerts against the sparkly backdrop of madrasas to climbing 400 year-old minarets in the dark; from walking empty roads that date back to 400 BC to stargazing in a sand castle city, it’s hard to tell whether I really did spend 10 days in Uzbekistan, or if I simply stepped into the most magical chapter of One Thousand and One Nights.
I cannot emphasize enough how much of a hidden gem this country is. The fact that it’s not as “famous” as Petra or Machu Picchu is completely mind-blowing to me. If you open your heart and mind to Uzbekistan, you will experience things you’ll find hard to believe and make some truly unique memories here.
I’ll end with an extract from our last night in Samarkand, where we stood silently in Registan square, gazing at the lit-up madrasas standing majestically against the dim sky. Tears started rolling down my eyes as I tried to process what I was looking at. I was frozen in place, completely swept away by the breathtaking scene in front of me. I simply could not understand how something so ravishing and enchanting could even exist, and how much effort and work must have gone into building such a masterpiece.
That’s how much Uzbekistan has moved me. That’s what this country has meant to me.
And to this day, I’m still trying to figure out whether it was all just a dream.