Named by the Guardian as ‘the most fascinating country you’ve never been to’, Uzbekistan is a country that will amaze you. If you’re interested in history, beautiful and interesting architecture and world religions, this Central Asian country is ideal for you – and if you’re not interested in the above, reconsider.
Uzbekistan has some of the world’s most impressive madrasas (Muslim education institutes), mosques and minarets, it has a complex web of history from the Silk Road times which is still very visible today, and it has a strikingly different feel to its neighbour, Kazakhstan.
The people of Uzbekistan are some of the friendliest and most helpful I’ve ever met, the trains are (partly) efficient and modern, and as well as the fascinating Silk Road history there’s the Central Asian culture which is seen across the area.
Yet so many people don’t visit. The country is seeing an increase in tourism – visa-free travel for many nationalities including British was introduced this year, but for a long time it was a very closed country. This brings me to the most commonly asked question about travel in Uzbekistan.
Is Uzbekistan Safe for travel?
Yes yes 1000x yes. Uzbekistan is incredibly safe for tourists; I felt MUCH safer there than I feel in Central London.
Since the change in president, Uzbekistan has wanted to attract more tourists, which means that many people are there looking out for them. There are Tourist Police (who travel around on segways) who are hired just to protect tourists, violent crime against tourists is nearly non-existent, and many people have a great level of English and go out of their way to help tourists out.
Pickpocketing does happen, especially in the bazaars (don’t get distracted by anyone putting on a show, they may be acting with a pickpocket as a decoy), but that’s generally the biggest danger that anyone will find themselves in.
The new trains are efficient, clean and safe; the older trains are dusty and slow, but also safe as long as you keep an eye on your valuables. The driving can be a bit hair-raising, but that’s the case in many countries in the world.
Solo female travel in Uzbekistan didn’t, for me, pose any issues. Nearly everyone I met was respectful and kind, and there is much less harassment here than elsewhere in the world. I was asked a bit about my marital status, but it was normally due to curiosity rather than in a creepy way (I was asked by men and women alike). I’ll write a bit more about solo travel in Uzbekistan at some point, but you can check out my solo female travel in Kazakhstan post for an idea about what it’s like to travel as a woman alone through the area.
Borders in Uzbekistan
Travellers crossing into Uzbekistan used to have to fill out lengthy customs forms and declare everything they were bringing in; that’s a thing of the past now, and as of July 2019 all tourists who are visa-free need to supply is their passport.
There are still various banned things in Uzbekistan, like drones and painkillers with codeine, and it’s not worth the risk to take any of these in. But despite that, Uzbekistan was one of the easiest borders I crossed on my entire overland adventure from Bali to London.
The only thing that you do need to remember is to keep all of your registration slips from hotels and hostels – you need these (or at least most of them) to show when leaving the country.
I actually realized upon arrival to the border that one of my slips was the wrong one – it had someone else’s name on – so make sure you check them when you’re given them! I gave over all of my slips bar this one and wasn’t questioned.
How to get to Uzbekistan
Fun fact: Uzbekistan is one of the world’s two double landlocked countries (a landlocked country surrounded by landlocked countries). The other is Lichtenstein.
So there’s no boat travel available to the country (although you can take a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazakhstan and then hop on a direct train to Nukus in Uzbekistan!). But it has convenient land links with every other Central Asian country, so if you’re travelling around Central Asia you’ll have no issue finding your way to Uzbekistan.
- From Kazakhstan, you can take a road or rail route from Almaty to Tashkent. I took the talgo train between the cities, which was a great experience. You can also enter from various points in South Kazakhstan to other Uzbekistan cities.
- From Kyrgyzstan, you can take a train from Bishkek to Tashkent (which is very slow), or cross overland.
- The Tajik border is very close to Samarkand, so many travelers opt to cross from here. There isn’t a train connecting the two countries.
- Not all that many tourists visit Turkmenistan, due to the complicated visa-process and restrictive government, but those who do cross overland near Khiva or Bukhara.
You can, of course, fly into Tashkent – but I visited Uzbekistan as part of my overland trip and didn’t meet any other travelers who flew in. Another option would be to fly into Almaty (where there are cheaper flights) and see Almaty (it’s wonderful!) for a few days and then take a train or overland it to Tashkent.
If you do end up flying to the region, I would recommend taking train between the cities – they’re well connected and the trains are either really good or a very unique experience – and offsetting any flights that you do take using Carbon Offset Programmes. We’ve only got one world, and taking flights damages it a lot. Click here for more sustainable travel tips.
WiFi in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan won’t be becoming the new digital nomad destination for a while. The WiFi ranges from passable to unusable. In Tashkent it sometimes works well, but does drop out quite a lot. In Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva I had constant WiFi outages, and sometimes even power outages. Weirdly, the WiFi worked best in Nukus, one of the most isolated and non-touristy parts of the country.
You should be able to have enough WiFi to check your messages, but don’t rely on having any more than that. Anything else is just a nice surprise!
Health in Uzbekistan
You can’t drink the tap water in Uzbekistan, but some guesthouses and hostels have filters attached to their taps making the tap water potable. You can also use a Water to Go Bottle – click here to purchase.
Fit for travel recommends that tetanus boosters be up to date, and hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid and rabies vaccinations be considered.
Tashkent International Clinic is an international hospital – but regarded to be the only one in the country. Outside of the capital there are less health services, and especially less that will speak English.
Where to stay in Uzbekistan
There are a range of places to stay in Uzbekistan, from guesthouses to hotels to hostels. The hostel scene is increasing, and I stayed in good hostels with other backpackers in Tashkent and Samarkand. There are some more high-end hotels in these cities as well.
Otherwise, guesthouses are the way to go. They will generally offer you a comfy room, a colossal breakfast, and friendly service – even if the WiFi and A/C may be a bit more sporadic. You’ll get a sense of local life when staying in Uzbek guesthouses that you won’t experience so much in hostels and hotels. I highly recommend them.
Costs in Uzbekistan
Prices in Uzbekistan vary. Some things are incredibly cheap, but there is more tourism here than than other countries in Central Asia, making other activities, food and accommodation a little expensive comparitively. You’ll get a fair amount for your money here, especially if you are frugal.
When to Visit Uzbekistan
Probably not July. This is when I was in Uzbekistan, and I felt heat like I’d never felt before. Bukhara got to a whopping 47 degrees one day – and of course, I decided that it would be a fantastic idea to walk around in the middle of the day, much to every local’s bemusement.
The rest of the year, Uzbekistan is pretty decent to visit. Unlike its neighbours, it doesn’t get too cold in the winter – rarely below zero in the cities – and autumn and spring are nice times to go. Or so the locals I met said, at least, I’ve only ever been there in helpmeimmelting kinda temperatures.
How to Travel in Uzbekistan
Train is without a doubt, the best way to get around in Uzbekistan (even when you look as unimpressed as me below). Pictured below is Platzkart, the third class sleepers, at about 4am (hence the unimpressed look), BUT trains connecting Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara are actually very modern and fast. They’re relatively cheap, too. The only catch with trains in Uzbekistan is that you must book your tickets in advance – especially in summer, they sell out very quickly.
You can also get around Uzbekistan by shared or private taxi. These are affordable, but generally take a long ol’ time to organise. I only took a shared taxi once, from Urgench to Nukus, which ended up being a private taxi because we waited for 2 hours without finding anyone else to join. We then drove at about 150 kmph the whole way listening to Russian hip hop, so that was quite the experience…
1 Week in Uzbekistan Itinerary: Tashkent
One day in Tashkent is all you really need to see the city, but if you want to go at a slower pace, by all means take longer – I spent three days there in total.
Things to do in Tashkent
- Chorsu Bazaar – this is a very Central Asian market, selling spices, dried fruits and plenty of other products. It’s worth visiting for the atmosphere alone, however. Chorsu Bazaar is safe, but beware of pickpockets and for some reason, the only creepy men I met in the whole of Central Asia were congregated upstairs in the dried fruit section. They were harmless though.
- Barak-Khan Madrasah – is Tashkent’s most impressive Madrasah; although if you’re visiting from other Silk Road cities, you might be slightly underwhelmed. Nontheless, it’s really nice and worth checking out!
- The Library Museum – here you have an option to visit the oldest and largest Qua’ran in the country.
- Tashkent Metro Station Tour – Tashkent has arugably the grandest metro stations in the world, and you can take a self-guided metro station tour to see some of the best.
- Hotel Uzbekistan – this is one of the best examples of Soviet architecture in all of Central Asia. It looks pretty grim from the outside, but it’s actually a fairly fancy hotel. You can even stay here if you so desire – although it doesn’t have the best reviews on Booking.com…
- Independence Museum – Tashkent’s museum tells the story of the city and the country, and is a good place to visit if you’re just starting a trip to Uzbekistan.
How to get from Tashkent to Samarkand
Take a train from Tashkent to Samarkand; a fast train will only take you two hours. You can look up times online on Uzbek rail, but when I was there it wasn’t possible to book them in advance.
My advice? Go to Tashkent station, and book all of your tickets at once. Otherwise you may spend waaay too much time at the train station ticket office, which although a very pleasant place, is probably not going to make it onto any best things to do in Uzbekistan lists.
Uzbekistan Itinerary: Samarkand
Beautiful Samarkand is somewhere that should be on everyone’s bucket list. It has spectacular architecture with the wonderful Registan, the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis the Amir Temur Mausoleum, and a fascinating observatory. Aim to spend two days here to see all the spectacular architecture and soak in the atmosphere.
Best Things to do in Samarkand
- Marvel at the impressive architecture of the Registan, and visit it by day.
- Go back after dark for the light show, which takes place at 9pm every night.
- See the elaborate Shah-I-Zinda, which is one of the most religious sites in Tashkent
- Visit Amir Temur’s Mausoleum
- Go to the Uzbek wine factory
- Admire the Bibi Khanym Mosque, which was built by Amir Temur’s wife
How to Get from Samarkand to Bukhara
The high-speed trains are super quick, and really comfy and modern. It takes only about 1.5 hours to reach Bukhara from Samarkand. I took an evening train, which gave me the whole day in Samarkand, and I arrived in Bukhara at about 11pm.
Uzbekistan Itinerary: Bukhara
Bukhara may well have been the hottest place I’ve ever been to. This was in July – a time when I would highly not recommend visiting scorching Uzbekistan – and the thermometer reached 47 degrees one afternoon.
However, Bukhara is still a well worthy stop on your Uzbekistan itinerary. It’s another beautiful Silk Road City, a place of education for centuries, and has plenty of stunning mosques, madrasahs and minarets. You could probably see all of Bukhara in a day, but I’d recommend taking two to see it all.
And if you’re unable to spend too much time outside for fear of instantly melting, and need to seek refuge in an airconditioned room between the hours of 10 and 4, you might need three days to see all of Bukhara.
Things to do in Bukhara
- Hang around at Lyabi Haus, the centre of the city with lots of restaurants and bars
- Enjoy the covered bazaars
- See the Poi Kalyan Complex, which includes a mosque, madrasah and a minaret (it was so beautiful it made me cry!)
- See Chor Minor, a small mosque which now is home to a minutre market
- Cool off in the photo museum
- Enjoy an authentic Uzbek puppet show
- See the Ark, a fortress which dates from the 5th Century AD
- Enjoy the different architecture of the Bolo-Hauz Mosque
How to Get from Bukhara to Khiva
It’s a six hour train journey from Bukhara to Khiva. I took a train at about 4am that got me into Khiva at 10am. I was in Platzkart (third class) and had a sleeper, so managed to catch up on some zzzz’s after the 2:45am wake up!
2 Weeks Uzbekistan Itinerary Extra: Khiva
If you want to spend 2 weeks in Uzbekistan, follow the first week in Uzbekistan itinerary listed above, and then continue on to Khiva, Nukus and the Aral Sea. You might also want to consider visiting the Fernangha Valley from Tashkent, if you have more time.
The smallest of the Silk Road Cities of Uzbekistan, you only really need a day to explore Khiva, although many travellers take a couple. While I really enjoyed walking around Khiva, I’ll admit that I found it a bit lacking in attractions; the mosques and various museums were a bit samey on the inside, and it doesn’t have anything quite as striking as Samarkand’s Registan or Bukhara’s Ark.
Nonetheless, Khiva is still a worthwhile stop on your Uzbekistan itinerary, and I definitely would recommend visiting for the town’s atmosphere. If you have 2 weeks in Uzbekistan, this itinerary carries on further west, so it is definitely a worthwhile stopover.
Things to do in Khiva
- Walk around the streets – to be honest, this was my favourite thing to do in Khiva, just walk around the old town and take photos.
- See the kind of underwhelming Juma Mosque, which is included in your town ticket. It’s kind of cool – you can peer through the pillars and it’s a good photo opportunity – but it’s only a five minute attraction!
- Venture outside the city walls and see the Isfandiyar Palace and its collections
- Catch the view from a rooftop restaurant
- Climb a minaret
- See the museums – these are a bit odd, you’ll likely be the only person there and may be followed around the whole time, but it’s all part of the experience!
How to Get from Khiva to Nukus
The best way to get from Khiva to Nukus is by shared taxi. First you’ll need to take one to Urgench, and then another to Nukus. If you’re lucky you’ll find people to ride with you – if you’re not, you might have to fork out for an individual fare. However, it still doesn’t cost the world. You’ll also get to see some beautiful desert scenery en route!
2 Weeks in Uzbekistan Itinerary: Nukus
Nukus is a funny old place. It’s not one of the historic Silk Road cities, and sees a lot less tourism because of this. But it’s still a random city in the middle of the desert, and while there’s really not a huge amount to do here, you can spend a day or so seeing the sights, and it’s a good jumping point for other destinations.
Things to do in Nukus
- Nukus Museum of Art has the second largest collection of Soviet Art in the world, as well as Central Asian Art. It also has a collection of Karakalpak culture – Karakalpak people being natives of Nukus, who are very different culturally and linguistically to Uzbek people. I’m not normally a fan of art galleries, but this one was quite impressive – it is regarded to be the best in Uzbekistan. It was collected rebelliously by Igor Savitsky; some of the styles were condemned by the Soviet Union. You can read more about its story here.
- Mizdakhan Necropolis is an ancient tomb site, still in use today but has been a site of burials for millenniums. Opposite is the Qala Qala Fortress, of which not much is known about but does have a fantastic view from the top.
How to Get from Nukus to the Aral Sea
From Nukus, you can take a shared taxi to Kungrad and then Moynaq, but it’s recommended to spend a night in Kungrad to avoid travelling for excess time during the day.
2 Weeks in Uzbekistan Itinerary: Aral Sea
I never actually visited the Aral Sea, but I really wanted to go. It’s a bit of a sombre activity – it’s a dried-up sea due to being exploited for its oil – but it’s meant to be eerily beautiful, and the ship graveyard is supposed to be pretty interesting. There’s also a museum in the area.
Optional Extra: Fergana Valley
Somewhere else I didn’t make it to, and a place that I’d like to return to when I eventually reach Kyrgyzstan (as it’s right near the border!) is the beautiful Fergana Valley. It’s a politically diverse region and has had its troubles – namely that it has been the home of Central Asia’s only radical Islamist group. Without visiting, I can’t say that it’s definitely safe for travellers, but people I’ve met didn’t have trouble there.
There are a few mosques, silk factories, lots of local experiences and hiking in the Tien Shan Mountains.
Where to from Uzbekistan?
The best place to visit from Uzbekistan largely depends on where you end up. It has the privilege of bordering all of the Central Asian countries, as well as Afghanistan, so you have quite a few options!
- If you’re in Tashkent, the most obvious place to go is into Kazakhstan, with Almaty being a short (in this part of the world, at least!) 16 hour train ride away. You could also get a train to Bishkek, but it does pass through Kazakhstan (meaning that you’ll need to cross through customs twice, which is a bit of a pain in Central Asia!).
- The closest place to cross into Kyrgyzstan is Osh – buses are available from Tashkent to Osh.
- From Samarkand, Dunshanbe (Tajikistan) is close, and many travellers choose to take a shared taxi between the two cities. Samarkand is only 40 minutes from the border.
- Bukhara and Khiva are both close to Turkmenistan, however be aware that you need a visa to visit the country, tourist visas are only administered to people who are on government-approved tours, and transit visas must also be applied for in advance and can only be used if you’re transitting to Iran or Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea ferry.
- From Nukus, you can take a long, slow train to Mangystau in Kazakhstan, which is a short taxi ride to Aktau, the gateway to the Caspian Sea and another place to take the Caspian Sea ferry to Baku.
- If you end up by the Aral Sea, you can also cross from there into Kazakhstan.
- For the more intrepid among you – and I have no idea about the safety of this, although I did meet some people who had done/ were planning to do it, Termez is on the border of Afghanistan, and apparently it’s feasible to go just past the border and check out some ruins there, provided you have a visa. I’d highly recommend doing some more research on this if it piques your interest, but it does seem to be possible.
Uzbekistan Group Tours
If this all sounds great, but you’d rather do it as an organised tour, then that’s an option too. G Adventures offer group tours to Uzbekistan, focusing on all the highlights I’ve mentioned above. Click here for more information.
What to Pack for Uzbekistan
What to pack for Uzbekistan largely depends on the season you’re visiting in, as it’s scorching in the summer, but chillier in the winter.
- In the summer, you’ll want to wear light, loose trousers and shoulder-covering tops. Headscarves are not needed – it’s very rare that you’ll see a Muslim Uzbek woman wearing a headscarf.
- In the winter, you’ll probably need another few layers. It doesn’t get quite as cold in Uzbekistan as other places in the region (like Astana, for example), but it can still snow and be a bit brisk. You’ll need a coat.
- I would highly recommend a camera (I use and recommend the Fuji X-A3 – the new model is the Fuji X-A5) and maybe a GoPro.
- An Central Asia Lonely Planet will give you more information about the region.
- Don’t forget a power bank for long train journeys, as well as a Kindle to keep you occupied!
Food in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan has a few famous dishes, but many bear resemblance to other dishes in the region. It is famous for its Plov, which is a rice dish cooked with dried fruit and meat – vegetarian versions are available in some more touristy restaurants. Other traditional fare is samsas, which is like a Central Asian samosa (really good) and of course, lots of dumplings!
Vegetarian and vegan food is easy enough to find in the tourist areas, as long as you don’t mind it being a bit repetitive (I ate so many potatoes and grilled vegetables while I was there!). Outside of the tourist areas, it becomes a little bit trickier. I’m vegan as much as I can be, but while I’m not 100% sure that all my food was vegan in Uzbekistan.
Like the rest of Central Asia, Uzbekistan uses Russian as a ‘lingua franca’ and nearly everyone speaks the language fluently. Central Asia is a very diverse place, and many people living in the country aren’t ethnically Uzbek, so many interactions are made in Russian.
That being said, if you can speak Turkish or any Turkik languages, you might find Uzbek easier to pick up.
One thing that I noticed in Uzbekistan was that people generally presumed I was a tourist, whereas in Kazakhstan it was assumed I was Russian. More people in Uzbekistan speak English than in Kazakhstan, so most people would speak to me first in English.
However, there are still a lot of people who don’t speak English, so knowing some Russian will come in very handy.
Books to Read About Central Asia
- The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
- A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Christopher Alexander
- Turkestan Solo: A Journey Through Central Asia by Ella K. Maillart
Your Ultimate Uzbekistan Itinerary
This Uzbekistan itinerary has taken you around the best tourist spots of the country, including the main Silk Road cities and some off the beaten path spots. I hope it helps when you’re planning your Uzbekistan trip!
Other Central Asia Posts
- How to Spend a Great Day in Tashkent
- Solo Female Travel in Kazakhstan
- Travelling from Mongolia to Kazakhstan by train
- Taking the Caspian Sea Ferry from Aktau to Baku