Uzbekistan: Inside the heart of the Silk Road
I remember during the end of 2016 an informal talk with my friends from India, Nikhil and Suraj, lovers of adventures around the world, about the possibility to visit central Asia. For me living in Brazil, it would be an exotic destination and opportunity to know the country of the capital of silk road Samarkand which Alexander the Great from Macedonia said that this city was the most beautiful of that age. Also would be an opportunity to practice Russian which I learnt in Brazil in the Russian community....it's theme for another story.
Then we started this plan and in October 2018 we flew to Uzbekistan, four friends, two from India and two from Brazil.
The first advice for new travellers is be prepared for Uzbek bureaucracy, almost all countries need to request a visa and it is exempted only for some countries which have a more deep relationship with this country. Even in 2018 Uzbekistan applied some rules to this process be more flexible, however I advise to take care seriously on preparation to visit this country. Usually is necessary request visa at the Uzbek embassy in your country, and if it is not possible you request the visa "in transit"; it means that you need request it on arrival at Tashket airport, however you need to submit a petition to the government. Yeah it gets hard, but don't worry if your travel agency hasa partnership with suppliers in Uzbekistan, they can get your data and submit it to the government, and with this document together with the hotel reservation and flight tickets , beyond the passport which you present to the Uzbek customs.
Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and who has visited other countries in eastern Europe will perceive the Soviet influence and Russian style in architecture, because of Russian influence basically all people speak Russian, beyond that the Uzbek is the official language but is completely different from Russian and it is a mix of Turkish languages, nomadic languages and Slavic, usually they understand Tajik and Kazakh languages spoken by their neighbours. People in tourist services such as transfer drivers and employees of hotels speak English, but in many cases with not much quality, so it is recommended to know a little bit of Russian that certainly will give you the possibility to get a more deep immersion in this culture and trip experience.
During the preparation to come to these countries of central Asia, always take into consideration to bring cash in USD with you. Almost all places do not accept credit cards or travelers' checks. Certainly, most traditional hotels accept cards, and in some stores of Tashkent, however outside Tashkent going to the touristic cities of Bukhara, Samarkand or Khiva you need to bring money in cash with you. Also, I recommend not to change many US dollars to "Som", the money of Uzbekistan, the exchange rate of this coin is deteriorated in comparison with the US dollar and 50 dollars can be changed in a package of "Som". You will feel rich with 100 USD, as you will be able to eat in restaurants, purchase souvenirs and pay for additional trip packages of 1 day for example relatively without paying much money for that.
In Tashkent it is possible to cover in 1 or 2 days the most important places to visit like Independence Square, the Teleshayakh Mosque, the Amir Temur square and museum, the Chorsu bazaar and take the experience to get a ride on the local metro. These places are not so popular as touristic destinations, then the benefit is not so crowded which gives the opportunity to take more photos with quality and spend more time exploring in detail the museum and buildings.
The negative point is related to cleanness, the street food is not so clean and is the same with the water, then it is necessary be in alert with these situations when you visit markets, and places with street food and things to drink. An example of that is the meat sold at Chorsu bazaar which is clearly not well refrigerated. This advice is applied to whole country and if you travel with kids, be careful!! Taking the preventive behaviour, the experience is amazing.
We explored the main points of Tashkent and went to Bukhara, a traditional city of Uzbekitan and located in the extreme west of the country close to the border of Turkmenistan. The access to this city can be made by air, train or car. We decided to use the traditional train Afrosiyob ( it means city of black water, Afro- city, siy - water and ob - black) that departs from Tashkent to the main cities of the country and the Uzbek people are proud of this train. In fact, the quality is good, and the government concentrates efforts to improve the quality and services inside the train and makes a lot of propaganda with the population and foreign visitors. Without paying much it is possible to purchase a ticket in the first class and enjoy the landscape during 4 hours from Tashkent to Bukhara. In the train they have TV and show Uzbek traditional dance shows and offer traditional breads and beverages.
In Bukhara there are some nice hotels inside traditional Uzbek buildings and the immersion in Uzbek culture can be felt. In this area in 2 days it is to possible cover basically all main points without transport, it is possible to walk and visit all madrasas, museums and restaurants. Lyabi Haus located in the centre of Bukhara looks like an oasis in the desert and gives access to the local traditional market (trading domes) in this place I recommend visiting an old blacksmith that is still in operation, Kalon minaret, Poi Kalyan Mosque , Mir I Arab Madrasah and Abdulaziz madrasah. All these places are traditionally Islamic and during the day they stop to pray according to Islamic traditions, it is possible to participate in that a as tourist but following some rules, such as for women the mosques have specific places for them. On Lyabi Hauz usually there are traditional dances presentation, violin presentations and easy access to markets.
After visiting these places and eating the traditional shaslik, the barbecued lamb make on skewer and eating samsa, the bread stuffed with meat (horse), or potatoes we went to Shakhrisabz. Usually the travel agencies offer packages with tours from Bukhara to Khiva or to Shakhrisabz. Khiva is located in the north west of country close to Turkmenistan border and part of autonomous region of Kara Kalpakstan is a beautiful place to visit with a mixed culture Uzbek and Turkmenistan. But my friends and I decided visit Shakhrisabz in the south of Uzbekistan close to the Afghanistan border.
In terms of safety, Uzbekistan is relatively safe, it is registered by the authorities the activities of some extremist groups in the east of the country, and if you look for recommendations from your embassy to visit or not Uzbekistan probably the advice will be to not visit or visit with care. We had chosen a transfer from Bukhara to Shakhrisabz and the trip took 3 hours crossing the main highways of south Uzbekistan. We crossed the regions of Qarshi, Qoson, Qorovulbazar and Qashqadarya, all these places we crossed through checking points managed by the Uzbek army. From Bukhara to Shakhrisabz there are around 6 check points in a distance of 265 Km and from the city of Termez to the border of Afghanistan there are 10 check points in a distance of 20 Km, on this way we can understand the behaviour of the Uzbek army against threats on the border with Afghanistan.
Shakhrisabz is the city of Amir Temur the conqueror of Uzbekistan and in this city it is possible to find the garden of Timur and madrasas, the architecture is similar to other regions and it is possible to be more inserted in the history of Uzbekistan. Beyond that there are some local restaurants that offer dishes with high quality at affordable prices, however, get tips from locals, this will help to figure out the best option. As I speak Russian we established a friendship with the transfer driver who offered to us a visit to a restaurant belonging to his friend, then we had an amazing and personal opportunity to enjoy a traditional Uzbek cuisine of plov and shashlik.
From Shakhrisabz we went to the capital of the silk road, the city of Samarkand, crossing by car the mountains was a unique experience to have interaction with street markets and local people and visit places outside the tourist routes.
Samarkand is the most iconic city in Uzbekistan and place of the tomb of Amir Temur located in Gur Emir, the tomb of Saint Daniel and a great complex of temples, madrasas, mosques and places of silk road influence. The square of Registan the most popular postcard of Uzbekistan the three more important mosques are located in this place. There are a lot of houses with good quality in this region that are possible to use as a base to visit these places, taxis are available in this region but the communication can be a problem as the drivers do not speak English very well. Ideally having a transfer available is the best. Outside the main touristic places there are also hotels however the public lightings, markets and restaurants have less quality. The best option for this place to get more deep in the history of the region and get a guide to explain all points which are rich in culture and history.
Around 20 km from the centre of Samarkand it is possible to visit the museum of the silk road that has a lot of info about the history of silk road, this museum has guided visits and info in many languages, beyond this place there are the village of Konigim where there is produced paper in the old style like papyrus. From Samarkand to Tashkent it is possible to get flights or use the traditional train afrosiyob. The trip by train takes around 2,5 hours.
Nothing will prepare you for Uzbekistan, this amazing country will feed your soul with feelings, flavours and smells that you will never forget. This ancient country is not so explored by tourism but your rich history and tradition is an indispensable route for global trekkers.
Dimas Wiegerinck Dimas is a global trekker passionate of travel, and is business manager of the travel agency Bons tempos viagens on the sunny coast of Cascais in Portugal. [email protected] e www.bonstemposviagens.com
By Vasily Vereshchagin - Tretyakov Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18176774
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