We’ve just completed a 10-day visit to Uzbekistan; if off-the-beaten-path destinations appeal to you, then this country needs to get onto your bucket list. We were expecting the country to be chaotic and complicated, but it was absolutely the opposite. The hotels were clean and decent – the cities spotless and organized – the people very welcoming and extremely friendly.
This is not Afghanistan and in fact when we mentioned that country to Uzbeks, they indicated they would not travel there due to concerns over their safety. Uzbekistan is not an extreme country. Both men and women drink alcohol, there is pork on most menus, and women wear western attire (we did not see any women wearing a hijab). There is no call to prayer as this is a secular country and very few people pray 5 times/day.
Khiva city was a major stop on the historic Silk Road where carpets, coffee and camels were traded.
General Observations and Tips:
The new president has made dramatic changes that make visiting the country much easier. A tourist visa can easily be arranged by simply filling out a form and coordinating with a tour agent in Tashkent by email. You will receive a form that you present on arrival and you get your visa within 10 minutes.
The historic town of Samarkand is a crossroad and melting pot of the world’s cultures.
We worked with Shavkat at Advantours. He and his team were absolutely first rate. The drivers provided spoke excellent English and were courteous and always helpful. The city guides were all of a very high calibre and most were former university history professors.
Uzbekistan Airlines flies direct to Tashkent from Hong Kong. The aircraft we flew on was relatively new and the service very good. However, if you want to book online you will need to book via Expedia as the airline website has only Uzbek and Russian language options (unless you read Uzbek and Russian!)
Shop for authentic souvenirs in the Central Bazaar of the ancient city of Bukhara.
Uzbekistan is one of the most affordable destinations we have ever visited. The 10-day tour for two – all internal flights – train – car, driver, guide – and hotels with breakfast cost USD1600 each. Meals are extra however it is difficult to spend more than USD10 for two in any restaurant. As a reference point, I went to a gym in Samarkand and the day pass cost … twenty cents!
Uzbek plov: a symbol of Uzbek hospitality
We opted for a 10-day itinerary however we would recommend taking a pass on the Tashkent portion. It is a very nice city but in terms of sites there is not anything of great significance. I would recommend the following: Arrive Tashkent – fly to Khiva asap. Two full days in Khiva would be sufficient. Drive to Bukhara – again two full days will do – drive to Samarkand stopping in Shakhrisabz (take a one-hour tour of various ancient sites). Two full days in Samarkand is sufficient. You can then take the train to Tashkent (2 hours) and take a car to the airport (depending on your flight times). Alternatively if the train schedule does not allow you to connect you can take a car (4 hours to the airport from Samarkand).
The internet in hotels outside of Tashkent and Samarkand can be spotty and I would recommend purchasing a chip from Ucell and using that for data (I bought 16 meg for around USD30 and didn’t even use half of the data). Mobile internet was fast and reliable in all locations including the very remote Khiva.
You can’t leave Uzbekistan without buying a carpet. There are excellent silk and wool carpets BUT, as is generally the situation in countries that produce carpets, vendors looking to take advantage of the average tourists’ ignorance to rip them off. Do your research!
Silk Carpets – a decent sized authentic hand-knotted silk carpet (say 2M x 1.5M) is going to cost you in the region of USD10,000. Shops will generally inform you of that when you walk in – and if you tell them your budget is nowhere near that – they will roll out the fakes (usually made in China – often machine made – synthetic) and try to sell them to you for a fraction of the price of a real silk carpet. You may also be presented with silk on a cotton base. If you don’t have the budget for silk on silk, my recommendation is to buy a high-quality hand-knotted wool carpet. Wool is a fraction of the price of silk and the amount of time to knot a wool carpet is a fraction compared to that of silk, so there is not really any incentive to cheat.
If you opt for wool – you will be told that the best quality wool carpets are made from the neck of the camel – this is a tall-tale – almost all the wool carpets are made from sheep wool — the softer ones are made from the neck of the sheep. Knot count is important – 80 knots is the best – 50 is good quality – you want double knots. Higher knot count with good wool will feel better and the colors will be more vivid.
The best place to buy a carpet (silk or wool) is Hudzum in Samarkand / Advantours recommended them and we were told by many people including our guides that they will never rip you off with fakes). They operate a silk carpet factory that you can tour before visiting their showrooms. Their wool carpets are made in northern Afghanistan (check out the family history– fascinating). You will still need to negotiate the final price. I recommend getting in touch with Farik and organizing your buying trip when there are no tour groups in the showroom (we visited at 7pm)
In terms of shipping, we were quoted by DHL over USD400 to ship an 18kg wool carpet to New Zealand (it would cost significantly less to ship to Hong Kong). We opted to take the carpet and another 20kg of items we purchased with us on the plane. The VERY friendly Uzbekistan airlines check-in agent agreed to reduce our overweight from 40kg down to 26kg (USD57) and with a smile informed us that the reduction was a ‘gift for tourists from our new president’
The author, Paul Luciw, is the Founder and Managing Director of AsiaXPAT.