Wanderlust readers voted Uzbekistan as their Top Emerging Destination for 2019. Sophie Ibbotson spends a day in its eclectic and overlooked capital, Tashkent – the gateway to the Silk Road...
Tashkent is overlooked all too frequently. In the clamour to reach the UNESCO treasures of Samarkand and Bukhara, most visitors skip the eclectic sights of Central Asia’s largest city.
But Tashkent boasts more than 2,500 years of history. On this Silk Road crossroads you’ll not only find superb museums and striking architecture, but also vast markets and green parks.
Tashkent Metro is a subterranean art gallery as much as it is a transport system, and as you survey the gleaming public buildings and swish apartment blocks shooting up across the city, you’ll have a strong sense of where modern Uzbekistan is headed. So plan in at least a day in this cosmopolitan, vibrant capital on your Silk Road adventure: it’s time this secret was leaked.
The new terminal of Tashkent International Airport is situated just seven km from the city centre. If you qualify for the visa waiver (which all EU nationals do), you’ll breeze through immigration.
Should you need it, there is a large, well-marked tourist information desk right in the centre of the arrivals hall.
Before you leave the airport, use the ATM or buy some Uzbekistani So’m at the foreign exchange desk. The rates are consistent; you won’t pay any more for changing money here, so take advantage of the convenient location.
There are two ways to get from the airport into the centre of Tashkent. Buses leave from the edge of the terminal’s car park: bus 40 goes to the train station and costs UZS1,200 (UK£0.11). You pay for tickets onboard, and the trip takes 15 minutes.
If you prefer to travel by taxi to the city centre, there’s a pre-pay booth as you exit customs. Booked here, a taxi will cost you UZS50,000 (UK£4.66).
Or, you can head to the official taxi rank (50m from the arrivals exit) and agree a rate directly with a driver. Ignore the usual crowd of taxi touts hanging around.
Get a feel for the city with a self-guided walking tour around downtown Tashkent. Start at Amir Timur Square, with its vast statue of Timur – founder of the Timurid Empire and Uzbekistan’s national hero – as well as the mighty Soviet facade of Hotel Uzbekistan.
Stroll along the Broadway (Sailgokh Street), browsing its art and craft stalls, and stopping to admire thePalace of Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich Romanov.
Descend into Mustakillik Maydoni Station to discover a subterranean beauty: Tashkent Metro.
It opened in 1977, and each station is decorated with murals, mosaics and chandeliers. Ride the metro to Chorsu, looking out for the striking platforms of Paxtakor, Alisher Navoiy and Gafur Gulom along the way.
Chorsu Bazaar is one of the largest markets in Central Asia, and dates back to the 16th century.
Follow your nose to the bakers cooking fresh non (flat bread) in vast ovens, and feast on grilledshashlik (kebabs) and samsa (meat- or vegetable-filled pastries).
Finally, call at Kukeldash Madrasah, near the bazaar. Few of Tashkent’s historic buildings survived the 1966 earthquake because of their mudbrick construction, but this attractive complex has lasted 450 years in various guises – as a religious school, fortress, caravanserai, and folk music museum in Soviet times.
Dine tonight at Caravan (caravangroup.uz): it’s stuffed with antiques, and the menu features plenty of Uzbek favourites.
Finish the day with a nightcap at Sette (hyatt.com), looking down from the rooftop terrace across the city. The Bagizagan wines from Samarkand are very drinkable.
Top end: Currently the Hyatt Regency is the only true five-star hotel in Uzbekistan.
The immaculate rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and modern décor – and many have their own terraces and views across Park Odo. Twin/King rooms from UZS2,158,000pn (£205).
Budget: Gulnara Guesthouse is conveniently located in the centre of the city.
It's a family-run hostel set around an attractive courtyard, where a complimentary breakfast is served. Dorm beds from USZ158,000pn (£15).
Take advantage of Uzbekistan’s excellent high-speed train network and head west to see the UNESCO World Heritage treasures of Samarkand.
The air-conditioned journey takes two hours, and will transport you to the capital of the Timurid Empire – where the glittering tilework of the Registan, Shah-i-Zinda, and Gur-i Amirdazzles all who see it. Samarkand is also famed for its handicrafts, so ensure there’s plenty of space in your bags to stock up on painted ceramics, hand-woven silks, and perhaps even a carpet.
Ugam-Chatkal National Park is a two-and-a-half hour drive to the northeast of Tashkent. In winter, you can ski at Chimgan and Amirsoy; in summer, plan a day hike aroundLake Charvak, a reservoir surrounded by sandy beaches anddachas (holiday homes). The peaks of the Western Tian Shan provide a dramatic backdrop to the turquoise water, which makes for a cooling dip on hot days.
Population: 2.14 million
Languages: Uzbek, Russian; some English is spoken in larger hotels.
Time zone: GMT+5
International dialling code: +998
Visas: Visa-free for UK passport holders and other EU nationals.
Currency: Uzbekistani So’m (UZS), currently around 10,700 to the UK£.
ATMs: ATMs accepting Mastercard and Visa are not widely available in Tashkent, though you can find them at the airport and in the lobbies of larger hotels. However, these ATMs are not always working – and they frequently run out of cash.
Where available, ATMs typically dispense both UZS and US$: the latter can then be swapped at a foreign exchange counter for So’m. If you prefer not to use ATMs, you can get a cash advance on your card at the major banks located in the city.
Credit cards: Visa and Mastercard are accepted in larger hotels, some restaurants, and high-end shops. Elsewhere, UZS cash is required.
Recommended guidebook: The third and fully- updated edition of Bradt Travel Guides’ Uzbekistan(by this author) will be published in Dec 2019.
Climate: Tashkent is hot and dry from May to October, but cooler with occasional rain in winter. In January, temperatures can drop below freezing.
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