Uzbekistan is one of the hottest destinations for 2020. Don’t believe me? Everyone from Lonely Planet to CNN has rated it as one of the top places to visit this year. I was fortunate enough to beat the masses and spent a couple of weeks zigzag across the country last year. I wanted to share the most up-to-date information in my 2020 Uzbekistan travel guide.
Why Travel to Uzbekistan?
In a word, adventure. Visit Uzbekistan and you’ll be following the ancient Silk Roue as well as the footsteps of legendary travellers and conquerors. Marco Polo and Alexander the Great were beguiled by Uzbekistan in centuries past. In recent years, it has become an overlooked travel destination. This means it’s an undiscovered gem. Exploring ancient sites with only a handful of other people is a luxury that most destinations can’t offer. Less than 1000 Brits visit Uzbekistan per year, showing just how under the radar it is.
Like any true hidden gem, there’s much more to Central Asia than you may think. I’m glad the light is finally shining on this fascinating region. Uzbekistan is the jewel of Central Asia’s crown, with incredibly well preserved historical sites dating back millennia serving as the highlight. A trip to Uzbekistan is like a trip back in time.
As the cultural centre for the region, you can expect to see an overwhelming amount of awe-inspiring mosques, mausoleums and madrassas situated in ancient cities which date back thousands of years. You will be walking in the footsteps of Genghis Khan and Timur, who were left enamoured with Uzbekistan throughout their conquests across the world.
So how did I end up booking a trip to Uzbekistan? I stumbled upon a Pin of the resplendent Registan square on Pinterest, which piqued my interest. I’d barely heard of the country before but after a quick search on Google, I was captivated by its historical significance and its pivotal role on the ancient Silk Road. Three of the route’s most significant cities – Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand – are found in Uzbekistan. The capital Tashkent, by contrast, is a mish-mash of ancient mosques and stark Soviet architecture, a remnant of the country’s recent history under Soviet rule.
Uzbekistan has been an outstanding destination for millennia but for the last few decades, the process to get a visa were incredibly convoluted. However, in a bid to increase tourism, it’s now extremely easy for Brits to travel to Uzbekistan, we’re among a small number of countries that can travel visa-free – check the latest information here. The infrastructure is constantly improving too and I found it super easy to travel around the country independently.
Uzbekistan is poised to become a leading travel hotspot and my advice is to visit as soon as possible, before the hoards descend. There’s beauty in seeing a country relatively unspoilt by tourism.
Uzbekistan as a Solo Female Traveller
The first question I was asked when I told people I was travelling to Uzbekistan, after asking why(!), is whether it was safe to go on my own. Like my trip to Cuba, I spent a couple of weeks blissfully exploring the country solo with no real issues. Both countries are strict police states which also enjoy a friendly culture of hospitality. I was made to feel very welcome by hotel staff, particularly in Khiva and Samarkand. Restaurant staff were friendly on the whole and I always felt safe walking home in the dark along dimly lit streets.
I did experience a couple of incidents in Samarkand while visiting Registan Square. A few men tried to take pictures and videos of me. The incidents happened one after another and I was left quite shaken. I hadn’t experienced anything like this the entire time I had been travelling around Uzbekistan. I feel it’s important to mention this happened but please don’t let this put you off visiting. As with any city, remain vigilant and prioritise your safety. I wouldn’t hesitate to visit Uzbekistan solo again.
Travelling to Uzbekistan
Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and will likely be your point of entry. As of 2020, there are a limited amount of airlines that fly to Tashkent from London. Only Uzbekistan Airways offers direct flights.
I chose Kazakhstan’s national airline, Air Astana, as the reviews I read were positive and they offer a very attractive layover deal – for the princely sum of $1, you’ll get a night at a 4* hotel, breakfast and return transfers to the airport. Unfortunately, I found the service on Air Astana pretty poor so I would recommend flying via another carrier. My 6.5-hour flight from London to Astana, Kazakhstan was just ok. The seats were fairly comfortable but there was no in-flight entertainment and no USB charging points for your phone.
My journey back was horrendous. My flight from Almaty, Kazakhstan was delayed, which I only found out at the airport. I was given no information and there was no vegetarian food offered during my 3-hour delay – there were, of course, plenty of meat options available. Also, staff were very rude and unhelpful, at one point two Air Astana staff simply walked away from me when I tried to get some information about my flight.
There is a lot of information online about how strict the airport procedure is at Tashkent. I read that you had to fill in a registration card and declare all the money you have with you. You then must keep this card, along with registration cards provided by your hotels, and present them at the airport when you are departing.
I didn’t get a card or have to declare my money when I landed but I kept my hotel registration cards, which I wasn’t asked to present on departure.
How to Get a Visa for Uzbekistan 2020
As mentioned above, it used to be extremely difficult to get your hands on a visa for Uzbekistan. You had to book your accommodation or a tour to acquire a ‘letter of invitation’ from either a hotel or tour provider before applying for a visa and being interviewed. As of 1st February 2019, UK citizens are now able to travel to Uzbekistan for up to 30 days visa-free. Please check here for the most up to date information for all countries.
I’m going to cut to the chase, the food in Uzbekistan is not good. It’s not renowned as a foodie destination and Uzbek cuisine is meat-heavy, so as a vegetarian I knew I’s struggle. I went with low expectations and did always manage to find vegetarian options. They were often heavy and oily but it was food. Whether you have specific dietary requirements or not, I’d advise researching restaurants beforehand so you have a plan of where you want to eat.
In the past, it was difficult to get the local currency, Uzbek Som. I read that there were no ATMs in cities like Khiva and it was difficult to find money changers, it was normal practice to seek out currency on the black market. The government have put an end to this practice and it is now very, very easy. Rates are consistent across the country and fairly static. There are money changers and working ATMs available everywhere I visited, even in Khiva.
While you can use ATMs or pay on your card, I preferred to have cash with me. The best currency is US dollars, make sure you have pristine, crisp notes with no tears. I had some notes rejected by money changers but other places accepted them so don’t give up! British Pounds were also accepted but US dollars were more widely used.
The main language is Uzbek followed by Russian, but like most countries, you can usually find someone who speaks English. I tried to learn the basics (hello, please, thank you etc) as I went along and making an effort goes a long way.
Where to Travel in Uzbekistan 2020
I recommend the following itinerary as a guide:
One week: Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand
This is the typical tourist trail, taking in two of the most significant cities on the Silk Route. You’re likely to land in Tashkent so spend a couple of days taking in the Soviet Era architecture before heading off to visit Uzbekistan’s ancient sites.
Tashkent is modern compared to the rest of Uzbekistan, it was devastated by an earthquake in April 1966 and was rebuilt when it was under Soviet rule, hence the stark architecture. Make sure you the formidable Hotel Uzbekistan and the subways, which were the architectural highlight in my opinion. Chorsu Bazaar is also not to be missed, for a slice of authentic Uzbek life.
Bukhara is one of Central Asia’s holiest cities and it is utterly magnificent. It’s home significant sites such as Magok-i-Attari, the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia and Ulugh Beg Madrasa, which became the blueprint for other madrasas across the region. The accommodation in Bukhara is just as beautiful as the sites, hotels often occupy the site of old merchant houses, complete with original architectural details.
Samarkand is, without doubt, the shining jewel in Uzbekistan’s crown. It’s home to one of the country’s most recognisable sites – Registan. Once the heart of the medieval city, this square used to be filled with buzzing bazaars selling the finest fabrics and textiles on the Silk Route. Also home the sprawling Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, home to palatial tombs with the finest collection of Timurid-era tilework. It’s worth planning a trip to Uzbekistan just to take in Samarkand’s wonders.
Two weeks: Also visit Khiva and Fergana Valley
With a little extra time, you can also take in a couple of far-flung spots to experience a slightly different take on Uzbekistan.
Khiva is also a significant stop on the Silk Route, however, most people have found it too difficult to get to. I opted to take a 1.5-hour flight to Urgench then take a 30-minute taxi rather than an overnight train. I was richly rewarded with an unforgettable couple of days exploring the UNESCO-listed old city, Ichan Kala. Home to the imposing Ark fort as well as beautiful madrassas and rooftop restaurants, you would be remiss to skip this lovely town.
I didn’t visit Fergana Valley, which is known as one of the most troubled regions in Central Asia. It has a historic record of conflict between the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek people and more recently it was the birthplace of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, so it’s fairly unstable. The main draws for the region are the bazaars, crafts and locally produced silk – a lasting remnant of the Silk Route.
Uzbekistan Travel: Train vs Taxi
Uzbekistan has an excellent train infrastructure and it was my prefered method of travel across the country. It’s extremely easy to travel between Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. I pre-planned my itinerary using Seat61, which has the most reliable timetable online. A lot of other resources I found were out of date. It seems like trains are running more frequently so always double-check locally.
On the whole, trains are clean, comfortable and run on time. The train from Khiva to Bukhara took 8 hours and I found the train cabin pretty dusty. It was clean and comfortable though. I took Sharq and Afrosiyob trains between Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. They were noticeably newer and much more comfortable.
Most train stations are located a couple of kilometres outside of the city centre. My top tip is to buy a ticket for your next train journey before you leave the train station. It’ll save you a needless journey and secure your seat in advance. There are two classes available, I travelled in “tourist” class and “local” class for my shorter journeys and they were both fine.
Security is fairly strict when entering the train station. Your luggage is scanned at least once and security guards will check your passport and ticket before you are admitted entrance. Hotel staff will advise you to arrive an hour before your train but realistically 30 minutes will suffice. You can usually grab a snack and water while you wait. Most stations have a money changer so you can also get some more Som.
It’s easy to get a taxi but trains are much cheaper, quicker and convenient if you are a solo traveller. I only used taxis to get to and from the train stations. Train stations always have a taxi rank outside and hotels can help find a taxi.
Phew. That’s my bumper Uzbekistan travel guide, which hopefully has everything you need to know about Uzbekistan before booking your holiday. I’m going to share my exact two-week itinerary in my next post. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. You can also tweet me or reach out on IG.