Land-locked and Stan-locked, Uzbekistan was once one of the most vital hubs on the world’s most important trade route – the Silk Road.
There are few more evocative place names than Samarkand, a city of caravanserais, dazzling mosques and monuments – not least the legendary Registan – but it’s far from alone in Uzbekistan. Bukhara and Khiva also gleam with the architectural bounty of the country’s medieval wealth: palaces, minarets, mausoleums and medressas (Islamic schools), all intricately decorated with blue-toned tiles, grace the squares.
There are plenty of other historical relics of past glories, too – roam the ancient Khorezm region around Urgench to explore the remains of two-milliennia-old qalas (fortresses). But don’t miss the wood for the trees: the Uzbeks themselves, friendly and hospitable.
The best times to visit are the shoulder months of spring (mid-March to end May), which is mild and rainy and autumn (September to start of November), which has light frost and rain. Summer is hot and dry with an average temperature of 32ºC and winter temperatures get below zero with snow.
Tashkent International Airport (TAS), 6km south of the city.
Most major towns and tourist attractions are serviced by domestic flights. Book tickets at least three days in advance. Driving is possible but there are no car–rental agencies. The old state bus service is starting to give way to private buses: newer and more comfortable, but generally slower and less punctual. Trains are the most comfortable and safest mode of transport, though not very fast. The fastest option is the ‘high speed’ commuter train operating between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
Uzbekistan has an increasing number of Western-influenced top-end and mid-range hotels, more comfortable alternatives to the state-run hotels. There are a growing number of B&Bs, especially in Bukhara.
The national dish is plov (pilaf): rice and fried vegetables. Shashlyk – skewered meat roasted over hot coals – is also popular, as is manty, small dumplings of chopped mutton and onion topped with sour cream. Another favourite is dulma: stuffed cabbage or vine leaves. Fresh fruit can be found in the markets, along with varieties of non bread. Vegetarians beware: Central Asia isn’t the ideal destination for you – you’ll struggle to find strictly meat-free meals.
Travelling in Uzbekistan is relatively safe; one problem long encountered by travellers (though now subsiding) is the handing out of ‘fines’ by police. Avoid border areas which are heavily patrolled and usually off-limits. Health care is basic at best and any serious problems will require evacuation; buy comprehensive travel insurance. The main health risks are stomach upsets – don’t drink the tap water.
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