This country is fast becoming a hotspot for more adventurous travellers and tourists. Check out our ultimate guide of places to see in Uzbekistan in 2020.
After travelling to Central Asia for the first time back in 2017, Malin and I were really curious about visiting Uzbekistan. However, at that time it was still quite a lengthy process to obtain the necessary paperwork in order to get a visa. We also chose not to do this at that point as we were on a crazy hitchhiking journey from Thailand to Spain and just didn’t have enough time to hang around in order to do so.
As it worked out though, we got our chance a few years later, in 2019, to visit Uzbekistan after we had just spent two months in India. We found fairly cheap flights from Amritsar, India, to the capital city of Uzbekistan, Tashkent.
Let us tell you that after spending a few months in India, landing in Tashkent and being met by our couchsurfing host at the airport, it was quite a change in culture, language and infrastructure.
Tashkent seemed so modern and clean compared to the cities of India that we had visited and actually it was a welcome change from the manic streets where we had just spent two months.
Over the following month we got to explore some of the most popular cities in the country as well as some off-the-beaten-path mountain villages.
In this post you will find our personal favourite spots to visit in the country as well as fellow bloggers top recommendations on where to go when you are in Uzbekistan.
Up until February 2019, getting a visa for Uzbekistan was actually quite tricky and costly. The visa itself used to cost 60$ and then the letter of invitation was around another 60$ on top of that. Thankfully, they have done away with this old system for the majority of nationalities and you can now enter Uzbekistan, for free, for up 30 days without being required to obtain a visa.
This is down to the new President’s policy on building a tourism initiative and encouraging more people to visit this historic country. This initiative also encourages the police to be on their best behaviour towards tourists and in our experience, we felt very well treated whenever we met some police officers or immigration officers.
If you have researched visiting Uzbekistan in the past you’ve probably heard about computers being searched, medicines confiscated and many other things. This is now something of the past for the most part and when we entered the country at Tashkent airport we were surprised how easy everything was. No questions were asked, no computers were searched, it was incredibly easy, maybe the easiest arrival in a country we have ever had.
The same went for our departure from the country. We left by land at the border to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and even managed to skip the very long queue just for being foreigners, which we felt terrible about!
One more thing to be aware of are the registration slips you receive when you check-in to a hotel or guest house. In the past you had to keep all of them and you needed one for every three nights.
We have heard from plenty of travellers now that they don’t even ask for them when you leave the country and we also had the same experience. However, that isn’t to say you shouldn’t keep them. You should totally keep them just in case.
By the way, overnight train tickets also count as registration slips so keep them too. Another way to register is by the Emehmon online system, which to be honest is quite confusing.
You can register your whole stay in one go online which was great for us as we were planning on doing plenty of wild camping and couchsurfing. It turned out to be pretty difficult to complete as you need a local person willing to use their bank card which must be linked to their telephone number.
So which option should you do? Well, in all honesty they don’t seem to be checking people’s registration slips at the border posts any more so just grab the ones you get when you do stay at a guest house or take the train and keep those with you until you leave the country.
Is Uzbekistan safe?
So how safe is Uzbekistan? Well, when we tell people that we have been to Central Asia and countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, they look a little shocked and ask ‘but isn’t it dangerous?’. After having spent five months in Central Asia, in total, we can say that it is incredibly safe.
Malin and I never felt like we were in danger or that our things might get stolen. We have even walked around some pretty dark and quiet streets at night in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, without feeling unsafe.
That isn’t to say that something bad can’t happen. Like everywhere you should keep your wits about you. Just use your common sense and you will be fine. People in Uzbekistan are friendly and will be willing to help you out if you have any problems.
Take Malin and I, for example, we have hitchhiked all over Central Asia and never had any problems. The only thing that might happen is that people ask for money or they drive a little crazy!
Religion and people
The main religion in Uzbekistan is Islam and from our experience in three different Central Asian countries that we have visited, Uzbekistan is the most religious country of the three. You get a feeling that religion plays a bigger part in the daily life of its inhabitants. You will definitely see this once you head outside of the bigger cities and into smaller towns and villages and interact with the people in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek people are very friendly and helpful and generally curious about foreigners, and even more so in the less touristy areas of the country. When we were walking through a small village during a hitchhiking day we were invited in to someone’s home for a traditional cup of tea and some freshly picked cherries from his trees in the garden.
He then went on to drive us out of the village to the road in the direction we wanted to go. This is just one example of many acts of generosity that we experienced during our time in this fascinating country.
Transport in Uzbekistan
Getting around in Uzbekistan used to be quite challenging. Thankfully though, in the last few years the public transportation system has been improved dramatically and the trains are now a great way to get to the different cities of Uzbekistan.
Malin and I used the trains several times during our stay in Uzbekistan and found them to be easy to navigate and on the whole, pretty comfortable. We only used the overnight trains between Tashkent and Bukhara and then the next time we travelled from Samarkand to Kokand in the Fergana Valley.
If you would prefer not to take an overnight train when you travel in Uzbekistan there is also the option for the high speed train between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. These are more expensive than the normal trains so it might not be for you if you are backpacking Uzbekistan but they will save you a lot of time.
You have a choice of Economy, business or VIP class. To be honest, the economy seats are pretty comfortable and this class also comes with air-conditioning, tea and biscuit service included and some large windows to allow you to admire the barren landscape whizzing past.
Another way of getting around in Uzbekistan is by hitchhiking. Some people assume that hitchhiking is only about saving money but for us that isn’t the case. We love it as it is a great way to learn about the way people live and to really get those local interactions that you might miss out on if you take a bus or a train.
We feel that we got a great perspective of life in Uzbekistan because of the hitchhiking that we did. We do just want to say that it was quite challenging at times and people didn’t really understand what we were doing. This was especially true because local people are always waving down cars and paying some money towards the cost.
Languages in Uzbekistan
As travellers in Central Asia we have had our fair share of language barriers over the months and Uzbekistan was no exception to this. You will only really encounter people that speak English around the tourist hotspots.
We were occasionally surprised when someone started speaking to us in perfect English though. It happened a few times over the month we spent in the country. Often these people have spent some time living in a foreign country.
There are many languages spoken in Uzbekistan but the official language is Uzbek and actually it is easier to read than its Kyrgyz and Kazakh counter parts as the language changed to the Latin alphabet in 1992. Still, that didn’t help us too much unless we were ordering food!
Most of the older generations still know how to speak Russian and read it as well. The younger generations tend not to be able to read Russian and their spoken Russian language skills are limited.
If you are struggling to communicate with people you can try to use Google Translate which works really well for Russian but when it comes to Uzbek, unfortunately, it just isn’t that good and often doesn’t help too much. We visited Uzbekistan in April 2019, so hopefully the translation application has improved.
Best places to see in Uzbekistan
When people visit Uzbekistan and are choosing which places they want to visit, the capital city, Tashkent, is unfortunately often overlooked in favour of the more popular tourist hotspots. Of course these other places to visit in Uzbekistan such as Khiva or Samarkand are incredible but don’t let that stop you from visiting this ancient capital city.
There are plenty of places to see in Tashkent but one of the most famous things to do is actually quite surprising. People come here just to ride the subway system! That sounds kind of crazy, but let me tell you why this is a big deal.
Up until the middle of 2018 it was forbidden to take pictures in the metro system and you could end up in some pretty serious trouble. This was because the metro system also functioned as a nuclear bomb shelter among other things.
So what is all the fuss about? The metro system is quite honestly, one of the most impressive we have ever seen. The ornate style resonates USSR architecture mixed with Uzbek culture as local artists and architects took part in the design of the metro system.
There are plenty of activities and things to see in Tashkent apart from the metro system including the famous Chorsu Bazaar as well as some pretty impressive Mausoleums and Mosques. We really recommend spending at least two or three days in the largest city in Uzbekistan.
We spent almost a week in Samarkand towards the end of our trip in Uzbekistan and by this point we were pretty tiled out! Having spent three weeks exploring the country we felt that we had already seen enough mosques and mausoleums to keep us going for a while. That said, Samarkand’s architectural highlights are some of Uzbekistan’s must see sights. The Registan was immense and really grabs your attention.
We did feel however, that the city’s famous landmarks were overly restored and we found it hard to get a feeling of the history of this ancient city. This is actually quite a shame considering that this city is older than Rome itself and dates back to the 7th Century BC and was a key link on the ancient silk route and between the different cities in Uzbekistan.
Our favourite spot to visit in Samarkand was Shah-i-Zinda due to the remarkable blue tile work that you can see on the facades, minarets and domes and is definitely one of the best things to see in Samarkand. The complex runs along an avenue and the tombs are clustered together in some parts to create an amazing atmosphere. Some pretty important people have been buried here and it is considered a place of pilgrimage so remember to be respectful when visiting.
A top tip for visiting this magical place is waiting until sunset as the golden light moves slowly along the mesmerizing blue tiled tombs and mausoleums. Another bonus of visiting at this time is that it will be pretty quiet and you will have it almost completely to yourself.
To get to Samarkand just jump on the high-speed trains that run throughout the country or take make a journey out of it by taking an overnight train with the locals. Overnight trains can be a great way to make some new friends.
The ancient city of Bukhara is full of beautiful mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs. Some of them are in perfect condition after the restoration projects and others in a pretty dilapidated state. In particular areas of the city you will find it to be so renovated that it looks like a newly built area.
However, with a little walk outside of the city centre, even off of the main tourist trap you will find a city alive with local people and plenty of old buildings looking very rough around the edges.
Here, at Timezone Junkies, we want to be completely transparent. We were totally overwhelmed and surprised by the amount of tourists that were wandering around the historic part of this city.
It seemed like there were bus loads of people all in big groups and we just didn’t expect this at all. When you think of Uzbekistan, you don’t tend to think of group tours from France and Spain (for some reason they were the majority nationalities on these tours).
Another thing that took the magical feeling away from these impressive buildings were all the souvenir shops popping up in every available space near the big attractions. Not only in Bukhara, but also Samarkand, Khiva and even Tashkent.
Negatives aside, wandering around this historic city and leaving the touristy area we discovered small dusty streets with kids playing and normal life all around.
Reaching Bukhara is easy from any city in the country if you are using the train network. There are high-speed trains available as well as over-night trains.
Hidden up a small valley, the village of Sentob (or Sentyab) is somewhat an oasis just kilometres away from the harsh life on the Uzbek steppe. Following the river upstream you will find yourself under the cover of walnut trees giving the area a brilliant green glow and laid back feeling. You will pass locals riding donkeys and herding sheep and goats.
Entering this small village is a passage to the past. On the hillsides you can see old stone buildings, some in good condition, others falling apart but still being used for livestock. This really is off-the-beaten-path!
The inhabitants of Sentob are mostly Tajik due to Alexander the Great’s raid in Tajikistan causing them to flee to what is now Uzbekistan. If you, like us, get a little dazzled by visiting endless amounts of mausoleums, mosques and madrasahs then this is a great place to relax and get a feel of the country life that this village cannot help sucking you into.