The region’s cradle of culture for more than two millennia, Uzbekistan is the proud home to a spellbinding arsenal of architecture and ancient cities, all deeply infused with the bloody, fascinating history of the Silk Road. In terms of sights alone, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s biggest draw and most impressive showstopper.
Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva never fail to impress visitors with their fabulous mosques, madrassas and mausoleums, while its more eccentric attractions, such as the fast disappearing Aral Sea, the fortresses of desperately remote Karakalpakstan, its boom town capital Tashkent and the ecotourism opportunities of the Nuratau Mountains, mean that even the most diverse tastes can be catered for.
Uzbekistan remains an extremely friendly country where hospitality remains an essential element of daily life and you’ll be made to feel genuinely welcome by the people you meet.
Top experiences in Uzbekistan:
Destination facts and prectical information:
Top experiences in Uzbekistan
Sprawling Tashkent is Central Asia’s hub and the place where everything in Uzbekistan happens. It’s one part newly built national capital, thick with the institutions of power, one part leafy Soviet city, and yet another part sleepy Uzbek town, where traditionally clad farmers cart their wares through a maze of mud-walled houses to the grinding crowds of the bazaar. Tashkent is a fascinating jumble of contradictions that’s well worth exploring over several days.
Like most places that travelers use mainly to get somewhere else, Tashkent doesn’t always immediately charm visitors, but it’s a surprisingly fun and interesting place, with the best restaurants, museums and nightlife in the country. There’s also plenty of opportunity to escape the metropolis for great hiking, rafting and skiing in Ugam-Chatkal National Park, just a 1,5-hour drive away.
Modern Tashkent is a big, sprawling city that’s best appreciated for its whole rather than its parts. If you’re short on time, pick your spots and hone in on them by car. At minimum check out Khast Imom, Chorsu Bazaar and a few museums. If you have a few more days cover as much as you can on foot – you’ll catch random glimpses of city life that are often more rewarding than the sights themselves. Old Town makes for the best wandering.
For detailed information, visit our Tashkent Travel Guide.
Chimgan & Around
Just over an hour northeast of Tashkent by car lies Ugam-Chatkal National Park, an outdoor haven loaded with hiking and adventure-sport opportunities as well as more relaxing pursuits. The mountains here are not quite as extreme or scenic as the higher peaks around Almaty and Bishkek, but certain activities (heli-skiing, trekking and rafting come to mind) are more accessible and at least as challenging.
As a major sanatoria center in Soviet times, Chimgan today boasts a few newer resorts and retreats to complement the usual diet of decrepit yet still-functioning concrete Soviet hulks. And the Charvaq Reservoir offers more mellow outdoor pursuits such as fishing, swimming and canoeing – ask about these at the Chorvok Oromgohi hotel.
Trekking. Ugam-Chatkal National Park covers the mountainous area west and southwest of the Kyrgyzstan border, from the city of Angren in the south all the way up to the Pskem Mountains in the fingerlike, glacierinfested wedge of land jutting into Kyrgyzstan, northeast of Chimgan town. The Pskem top out at 4319m but are off limits to all but well-heeled heli-skiers because of their location in a sensitive border zone.
Should the situation change, this will become prime virgin trekking territory. For now, all of the national park’s accessible terrain lies in the Chatkal Mountains, which stretch into Kyrgyzstan. Lacking the stratospheric height of the big Kyrgyz and Tajik peaks, the appeal of the Chatkals is their accessibility. Escaping civilisation involves
walking just a short way out of the Chimgan or Beldersay ski areas.
A guide is highly recommended for all hikes as the routes are not marked and topographical maps are about as common as Caspian Tigers (which died out from these parts in the 1970s). Guides are mandatory for multiday hikes to secure the necessary border-zone permits and ensure that you don’t inadvertently walk into Kyrgyzstan (highly possible given the jigsaw borders).
Skiing & Heli-skiing. In the winter months, downhill skiing is possible at the Beldersoy and Chimgan ski areas. They encompass both the best and the worst of Soviet-style ski resorts. The best: limited grooming, excellent freeriding, some unexpectedly steep terrain, rock-bottom prices and plenty of hot wine and shashlyk. The worst: crummy lifts, limited total acreage and no snow-making to speak of.
The best terrain is way up above the tree line at Beldersoy, accessible by a lone T-bar.
From the base, a long, slow double chairlift leads up to the T-bar. With just one chairlift and two trails, Chimgan is more for beginners, but also has challenging free-riding off-piste. Beldersay has surprisingly passable equipment available for hire.
While the resorts are not worth a special trip to Uzbekistan, the helicopter skiing most definitely is, as the Chatkal and Pskem Mountains are reputed to get some of the driest, fluffiest powder you’ll find anywhere.
Rafting. In the warmer months, white-water rafting trips are possible on the raging gazpacho of the Pskem, Ugam and Chatkal rivers.
The first thought many visitors have on arrival in the Ferghana Valley is, “Where’s the valley?” From this broad (22,000 sq km), flat bowl, the surrounding mountain ranges (Tian Shan to the north and the Pamir Alay to the south) seem to stand back at enormous distances – when you can see them, that is. More often these spectacular peaks are shrouded in a layer of smog, produced by what is both Uzbekistan’s most populous and its most industrial region. The drive here from Tashkent is fairly spectacular, however, passing a huge reservoir and crossing a high mountain pass before descending towards Kokand.
Fergana is also the country’s fruit and cotton basket. Drained by the upper Syr-Darya, the Fergana Valley is one big oasis, with some of the finest soil and climate in Central Asia. Already by the 2nd century BC the Greeks, Persians and Chinese found a prosperous kingdom based on farming, with some 70 towns and villages. The Russians were quick to realize the valley’s fecundity, and Soviet rulers enslaved it to an obsessive raw-cotton monoculture that still exists today. It is also the center of Central Asian silk production.
For detailed information, visit our Ferghana Valley Travel Guide.
No name is so evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. For most people it has the mythical resonance of Atlantis, fixed in the Western popular imagination by poets and playwrights of bygone eras, few of whom saw the city in the flesh.
On the ground the sublime, larger-than life monuments of Timur, the Technicolor bazaar and the city’s long, rich history indeed work some kind of magic. Surrounding these islands of majesty, modern Samarkand sprawls across acres of Soviet-built buildings, parks and broad avenues used by buzzing Chevrolet taxis.
You can visit most of Samarkand’s high-profile attractions in two or three days. If you’re short on time, at least see the Registan, Gur-e-Amir, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda.
Away from the main attractions, Samarkand is a modern, well-groomed city, which has smartened itself up enormously in the past decade. This process has involved building walls around some of the less slightly parts of the old town, which many consider to have made the old city rather sterile, blocking off streets that have been linking quarters for centuries. While this “disneyfication” of this once chaotic place is undeniable, it’s also true to say that Samarkand remains a breathtaking place to visit.
For detailed information, visit our Samarkand Travel Guide.
Shakhrisabz is a small, un-Russified town south of Samarkand, across the hills in the Kashkadarya province, and is a lovely drive from Samarkand with some spectacular views. The town is a pleasant Uzbek backwater and seems to be nothing special – until you start bumping into the ruins dotted around its backstreets, and the megalomaniac ghosts of a wholly different place materialise. This is Timur’s hometown, and once upon a time it probably put Samarkand itself in the shade. It’s an interesting day trip from Samarkand, and a good base for hiking in the mountains.
Timur was born on 9 April 1336 into the Barlas clan of local aristocrats, at the village of Hoja Ilghar, 13km to the south. Ancient even then, Shakhrisabz (called Kesh at the time) was a kind of family seat. As he rose to power, Timur gave it its present name (Tajik for “Green Town”) and turned it into an extended family monument. Most of its current attractions were built here by Timur (including a tomb intended for himself) or his grandson Ulugbek.
For detailed information, visit our Shakhrisabz Travel Guide.
The last stop in Uzbekistan on the way to Afghanistan, Termez is a colourful border town with an edgy, Wild West feel. While the present day city bears few traces of its colorful cosmopolitan history, the surrounding area is full of archaeological finds, many of which come together in Termez’s excellent archeological museum. There are
also several other sights around city that can be visited in a half-day.
The main sights lurk northwest of the city on the road to Karshi. Driving out here you’ll notice various piles of rubble in the cotton fields of what used to be Termez (and is now known as Old Termiz). These are Buddhist ruins, levelled by Chinggis Khan along with the rest of Old Termiz in 1220. Termez’s other main sights are clustered
northeast of town off the airport road.
For detailed information, visit our Termez Travel Guide.
To the north of the featureless Samarkand–Bukhara “Royal Road”, the Pamir-Alay Mountains produce one final blip on the map before fading unceremoniously into desertified insignificance. The Nuratau Mountains, which top out at 2169m, have in recent years become the center of Uzbekistan’s growing ecotourism movement.
Modest Nurata town makes a logical base for jumping off to the mountains or to one of several nearby yurt camps. Nurata itself is most famous for its old, circle-patterned suzani, which can sell for thousands of dollars at international auctions, but it also has a few quirky tourist attractions, most notably an old fortress of Alexander the Great. Behind the fortress, a path leads 4km to the Zukarnay Petroglyphs, which date to the Bronze Age.
Beneath Alexander’s fortress you’ll encounter the anomaly of several hundred trout occupying a pool and well next to a 16th-century mosque and a 9th-century mausoleum. This is the Chashma Spring, formed, it is said, where the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground. The “holy” fish live off the mineral-laden waters of the spring and canals that feed it.
Yurt Camps in Yangikazgan
After briefly taking in Nurata’s sights, you’ll want to hightail it to the yurt camps to the north of Nurata. There are four within shooting distance. Two are about 60km due north of Nurata in Yangikazgan; two others are further east in Dungalok near the shores of manmade Lake Aidarkul, formed from the diverted waters of the Syr-Darya in 1969.
All yurt camps include short camel trekking rides in their rates, but the Safari Camp in Dungalok offer also fishing in Aidarkul. With 40 colorfully decorated, Kazakh-style yurts, this place is popular with groups and has electricity, hot showers and plenty of creature comforts.
The comfortable camel-hair yurts, most of them tastefully decorated with carpets and suzani, sleep six to eight people. Prices vary from camp to camp according to the level of comfort. Rates include three meals a day, as there’s no option but to eat in camp.
Camps close from November to mid-March, and sometimes during July and August.
Central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and a thoroughly lived-in old center that hasn’t changed too much in two centuries. It is one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan.
Most of the center is an architectural preserve, full of madrassas, minarets, a massive royal fortress and the remnants of a once-vast market complex. Government restoration efforts have been more subtle and less indiscriminate than in flashier Samarkand, and the city’s accommodation options are by far the best and most atmospheric in the country.
Until a century ago Bukhara was watered by a network of canals and some 200 stone pools where people gathered and gossiped, drank and washed. As the water wasn’t changed often, Bukhara was famous for plagues; the average 19th-century Bukharan is said to have died by the age of 32. The Bolsheviks modernized the system and drained the pools, although it’s most famous, Lyabi-Hauz, remains a cool, mulberry-tree shaded oasis at the heart of the city.
You’ll need at least two days to look around. Try to allow time to lose yourself in the old town; it’s easy to overdose on the 140-odd protected buildings and miss the whole for its many parts.
For detailed information, visit our Bukhara Travel Guide.
Khiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th-century hearts. Nowadays it’s a friendly and welcoming Silk Road old town that’s very well set up for tourism, and a mere 35km southwest of the major transport hub of Urgench.
The historic heart of Khiva has been so well preserved that it’s often criticized as lifeless – a “museum city”. Even if you subscribe to that theory, you’ll have to admit that it’s one helluva museum. To walk through the walls and catch that first glimpse of the fabled Ichon-Qala (inner walled city) in all its monotoned, mud-walled glory is like stepping into another era.
You can see it all in a daytrip from Urgench, but you’ll absorb it better by staying longer. Khiva is at its best at dawn, sunset and by night, when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and madrassas, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic.
For detailed information, visit our Khiva Travel Guide.
Karakalpakstan, Nukus & Savitsky Museum
If you’re attracted to desolation, you’ll love the Republic of Karakalpakstan. The Karakalpaks, are a formerly nomadic and fishing people who are struggling to recapture a sense of national identity after being collectivized or urbanized in Soviet times. Karakalpak, the official language of the republic, is Turkic, close to Kazakh and less so to Uzbek.
The destruction of the Aral Sea has rendered Karakalpakstan one of Uzbekistan’s most depressed regions. The capital, Nukus, feels half deserted, and a drive into outlying areas reveals a region of dying towns and blighted landscapes.
The isolated, Soviet creation of Nukus is definitely one of Uzbekistan’s least appealing cities and gets few visitors relative to its attractive Silk Road cousins. However, as the gateway to the fast-disappearing Aral Sea and home to the remarkable Savitsky Museum – one of the best collections of Soviet art in the world – there is actually a reason to come here, other than taking in the general sense of hopelessness and desolation.
The Savitsky Museum houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the former Soviet Union. The museum owns some 90,000 artefacts and pieces of art – including more than 15,000 paintings – only a fraction of which are actually on display. About half of the paintings were brought here in Soviet times by renegade artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky, who managed to work within the system to preserve an entire generation of avant-garde work that was proscribed and destroyed elsewhere in the country for not conforming to the socialist realism of the times. The paintings found protection in these isolated backwaters (Nukus, after all, being literally the last place you’d look for anything) and it’s interesting to hear how this nonconformist museum survived during the Soviet era. An English-language guided tour can really help to contextualize the collection and acts as an introduction to the fascinating stories behind many of the paintings.
The museum has impressive archaeological, ethnographic and folk art collections to match its collection of paintings, as well as high-quality temporary exhibits. The huge collection is rotated every few months, so you could visit many times and continue to see new works. The Savitsky Museum’s warehouse of stored works, many in the process of restoration, is also open for viewing.
For detailed information, visit our Nukus & West Area Travel Guide.
Moynaq, 210km north of Nukus, encapsulates more visibly than anywhere else the absurd tragedy of the Aral Sea. Once one of the sea’s two major fishing ports, it now stands almost 200km from the water. What remains of Moynaq’s fishing fleet lies rusting on the sand in the former seabed.
The mostly Kazakh residents have moved away in droves, and today Moynaq is a virtual ghost town populated by livestock herders and the elderly looking after grandchildren whose parents have left to find work elsewhere. The few who remain suffer the full force of the Aral Sea disaster, with hotter summers, colder winters, debilitating sand-salt-dust storms, and a gamut of health problems.
Poignant reminders of Moynaq’s tragedy are everywhere: the sign at the entrance to the town has a fish on it; a fishing boat stands as a kind of monument on a makeshift pedestal near Government House. From the Aral Sea memorial you can spot a lake southeast of town, created in an attempt to restore the formerly mild local climate. It didn’t quite work, but it’s at least given the locals a source of recreation.
Destination facts and practical information
The climate of Uzbekistan is hot and dry in the summer and fall with temperatures ranging from +26°C to +45°C throughout the country. The winters are humid, with temperatures ranging from +5°C to -30°C in different parts of the country. The best time to visit Uzbekistan is during the spring and autumn months when the temperatures are mild, although Uzbekistan is also known for its renowned winter ski resorts.
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan form Central Asia, a cradle of ancient culture and civilization. The first ancient states appeared in VIII – VII B.C. In IV B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Central Asia and made it a part of his empire. In I-IV A.D., the Kushan State spread from the Indus to Balkh. With the Arab invasion in VII, Central Asia’s new history began. Arabic literature, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and architecture (Islamic madrassahs, mosques, minarets and geometrical, epigraphic and vegetative ornaments) changed the face of this region forever.
The Turkic States of Karakhanid, Seldjurkid and Gaznevid were formed in the XI-XII centuries. This empire stretched from China to the modern Afghanistan. The Mongols led by Chenghiz Khan in 1220 overthrew this empire. Towns, settlements and irrigations systems were destroyed, while the population was slaughtered or dispersed. A century later, the weakening of the central power led to chaos in the country fueled by constant war until Tamerlane took over power in 1370.
Tamerlane is one of the most significant individuals in the history of Central Asia. He created a huge and powerful empire and established the Timurid dynasty. His reign lasted for 45 years. It was an epoch of centralization of the state, development of diplomacy, construction and improvement of cities and their infrastructures especially Samarkand and Shakhrisabz (Kesh, Tamerlane’s birthplace). Small towns and settlements were built around Samarkand and named after the capitals of the Muslim world such as Bagdad, Damask, and Cairo. Tamerlane’s descendants of the Timurid dynasty also assisted in the development of sciences (Ulugbek), literature (Alisher Navoi, Djami) and the arts (Kamaliddin Bekzod).
At the beginning of the XVI century the nomadic tribes led by Sheibani-Khan invaded and conquered the Timurid empire. These Turkic tribes called themselves Uzbek and later this name became the name of the entire empire. Afterward the three states built under the Uzbek’s, namely the Bukhara Emirate, Khiva and Kokand khanates, were replaced by the Soviets in the XX century. It was during this time that political centralization, economic development and national policy began taking place in Central Asia although some of the heritage and religion of the area were inhibited.
The breakup of the Soviet Union brought five new republics in Central Asia.
Independence was declared by each of the five republics: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, September 1, 1991; Turkmenistan, October 27, 1991; Kazakhstan, December 16, 1991; and Tajikistan, September 9, 1991. All five republics have been members of NUO since March 2, 1992 as well as many other international organizations. The transition to independence has demanded adaptation to new political conditions such as market economy and democratic rule, changes in the culture and alphabets and the establishment of many new institutions.
The population of Uzbekistan is nearly 26 million. The density of the population is 52.8 people per km2. There are various ethnicities in Uzbekistan including Uzbeks (80%), Russians (5.5%), Tajiks (5.3%), Karakalpaks (2.5%), Tatars (1.5%), Kazakhs (0.3%) and others. Urbanization of the population is 38 %.
The official language is Uzbek (Turkic origin), with a large part of the population speaking Russian (Slavonic origin). In some areas of Uzbekistan such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Namangan, Tajik (Persian origin) is also spoken. English is spoken to a degree in Uzbekistan and the language has taken a larger role of the curriculum of schools and universities.
Centuries of tradition as settled people left the Uzbeks in a better position than their nomadic neighbors to fend off Soviet attempts to modify their culture. Traditions of the Silk Road still linger as Uzbeks consider themselves good traders, hospitable hosts and tied to the land. While Uzbek men toil to make ends meet, women struggle for equality. Considered second-class citizens in the workplace and in the home, women are not given the same rights as their Western counterparts, or even their Kyrgyz and Kazakh neighbors for that matter. Although the Soviets did much to bring women into the mainstream of society, no amount of propaganda could entirely defeat sexist attitudes. There are some signs of change – dress codes continue to liberalize, for example, but old habits die hard and women in conservative families are expected to be subservient to their husbands. Marriages in Uzbek society are traditionally arranged.
The main religion of Uzbekistan is Islam. Ninety percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, while the remaining religions of the population include Christianity (Russian Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism), Judaism and Buddhism.
Food & Drinks
The main dish of Uzbekistan is “pilaf”, is made mainly from rice, carrots and mutton and has over 40 different variations of preparation throughout Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Other traditional Uzbek dishes are shorva (soup made of meat and vegetables), shashlik (kebab cooked over coals), manti (steamed dumplings) and samsa (meat or vegetables baked dough wraps). The local traditional drink is green tea.
For detailed information, visit our Uzbek Traditional Cuisine Traveler’s Guide.
Visa to Uzbekistan
According to the legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan foreign citizens and stateless persons can enter Uzbekistan or travel through its territory for transit on the basis of entrance visas only.
Foreign citizens and stateless persons can get visas at the diplomatic representations and consular missions of the Republic of Uzbekistan abroad on the basis of the visa support (confirmation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan).
Visa support is issued on the basis of application of the inviting organization, company and persons who are permanently or temporarily residing in Uzbekistan and submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
For detailed information, visit our Visa to Uzbekistan Processing Guide