Uzbekistan; the pearl of the Silk Road

When I think about the Silk Road and Central Asia, Uzbekistan is the country I associate the most with it. The history of the country reaches millennia back, culture is abundant and architecture is simply spectacular with its significant buildings made of marble, richly decorated with mosaic and completed with turquoise domes. But, at the same time bureaucracy is around every corner and the heat can be unbearable this time of year, let alone in the middle of Summer. Nevertheless, welcome to the pearl of the Silk Road!

The plan was to explore Tashkent a little bit before moving on towards the famous cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. The country might have a lot more to offer, but I decided to focus on these cities because of their cultural heritage. And after all, I have seen quite a few mountains and lakes in Kyrgyzstan and I have a feeling a will see some more in Tajikistan…

On Monday May 22, 2017 I flew into Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Getting luggage on the belt and going through immigration and customs took a very long time. When entering this fascinating country one has to declare almost anything other than clothes, and of course in duplicate. The forms were extensive and not straightforward at all. Might Uzbekistan have something to do with bureaucracy? People don’t like to form lines when waiting, they simply keep pushing, as if I enjoyed that. Just before getting into a fight, I squeezed my luggage through the scanner and left the airport. Immediately several taxi drivers wanted my business. I was an obvious target, it reminded me of India. When I told the driver that I was not interested in exchanging money, he got angry. He figured he could compensate a cheap ride by ripping me off with a money exchange. Well, that didn’t work out for him. On arrival at the guest house, it turned out my room was not available. Outside it was only 32 degrees Celsius, at 7 pm that is. Uzbekistan, the pearl of the Silk Road, right?

some kids playing football in front of the Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah in Bukhara just before sunset

Let’s start with some background information first. Uzbekistan is slightly more densely populated than Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan with around 32 million inhabitants spread out over 448,978 squared kilometers. It’s also one of the two (together with Lichtenstein) double landlocked countries in the world, meaning the country is surrounded only by countries who are surrounded by countries. Can you still follow? Well, in short, it means there is no ocean anywhere close. The country doesn’t have the high peaks as Kyrgyzstan, although part of the Tien Shan mountains can be found in the Northeastern corner of Uzbekistan. Well, I wasn’t here for the mountains anyway…

Whereas the other two before-mentioned countries have a Cyrillic script, Uzbek language is a Turkic language written in the Latin alphabet. Even though I couldn’t understand a thing when talking, I felt more at home when reading. However, understanding anything was still a completely different story. Just as anywhere in Central Asia, the vast majority of the people is Muslim (the exact percentage differs depending on which source you use). Uzbekistan is considered a secular state where the government does not impose any restrictions on religious communities.  State and church are officially separated. However, the former president, Islam Karimov (that first name can not be a coincidence!), restricted this freedom. The government permitted the existence of mainstream religions, but fought a harsh campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups it suspected of extremist sentiments or activities. Just as with religion, the economy, which mainly relies on commodity production, also faces certain controls by the government despite the declared objective to transition to a market economy. Karimov died in September 2016, so with the new president it will be interesting to see how things will develop. I guess freedom will still have a different meaning in this part of the world, at least for the coming years…

Islam is a popular religion in Uzbekistan as is shown by the new Minor mosque in Tashkent with a capacity of 2.400 people

When you study the history it’s not that difficult to understand that similarities can be found between Uzbekistan and its surrounding countries or even further. Countries like Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have all been part, together with Central Asia, of several empires in the past. While the Samanid Empire (9th and 10th century) comprised all of Central Asia’s countries and Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, the Timurid Empire (14th and 15th century) also included the Caucasus, Turkey and Syria. In between Mongol ruler and conqueror Genghis Khan took over almost everything in between Eastern Europe and Japan and later the Mughal Empire (16th century), with descendants from both Timur and Khan, was an empire in the Indian subcontinent but, obviously, with roots from Central Asia.

All of these empires are relevant to the history of Uzbekistan but two of them in particular. The Samanids promoted arts, science and literature and spread Islamic religion deep into the heart of Central Asia. In the beginning its capital was Samarkand, later followed by Bukhara. So it can not come as a surprise that many madrasahs (Islamic schools) can be found in both cities. During the Timurid Empire, with Samarkand as its capital, the for Uzbekistan so characteristic architecture was introduced. Timurid architecture is known for turquoise and blue tiles forming complex linear and geometric patterns decorating the facades of buildings. Many of such examples can still be found nowadays in the main cities of Uzbekistan, the cities I visited during this trip.

former rulers are honored in Uzbekistan, left the mausoleum of Ismail Samanid in Bukhara and right the mausoleum of Amir Timur in Samarkand

I started my trip in the capital city, Tashkent. Most visitors seem to be rather negative about this city with roughly 2.3 million inhabitants and stay for only one night and move on the following day. In fact, I had not heard a positive thing about Tashkent before my arrival. Despite all the negatives, I booked two nights and hoped for the best. I had to arrange my train tickets anyway but also wanted to give it a chance. At the start of any visit to a new country it’s convenient if not necessary to have some local currency. In case of Uzbekistan it’s not recommended to use the ATMs. As it turned out there is an official rate of the Uzbek som and a black market rate. The official rate gives you around 3.800 som for one US dollar while the black market rate fluctuated between 7.600 and 8.400 during my stay. Better to change the dollars at the black market, this was Argentina all over again…

In Argentina you had to be careful not to get fake money and obtaining the money from the black market (or blue market as they called it) was not as easy. In Uzbekistan everybody uses the black market and every hotel manager is more than happy to help you out. Of course, he or she will make some money with every exchange, but that’s fine with me. However, another problem arises with the money in Uzbekistan. The notes come in values of one thousand som and if you’re lucky 5 or 10 thousand som. Because 50 dollar will give you roughly UZS 400.000, notes of one thousand result in a huge pile of paper. Fitting that into your wallet is simply impossible and for the first time in my life I was happy to spend money so I could hopefully fold my wallet again!

becoming a millionaire is quite easy in Uzbekistan (that’s 480.000 som (USD 60) in the picture), but how do you fit all that paper into your wallet?

With some money in my pocket, I could finally start exploring. First I had to visit the train station to arrange my transport for the trip. According to several travel agencies these tickets had to be ordered at least two weeks in advance or otherwise everything would be sold out. My plan was to take the train the next day and with a note listing all the trains I wanted to take, I had my tickets in less than 15 minutes. No problemo!

In the remaining time of the day I decided to visit several areas of the city by using the subway. Some impressive stations were all heavily guarded by policemen and women. They always greeted me nicely, so no issues here at all. I visited the Minor mosque, a recently built largest mosque of the country with a capacity of 2.400 people and the Kukeldash Madrasah which is an Islamic school in the heart of the city near the Chorsu bazaar, a popular market for the locals. Possibly because I arrived in Tashkent with extremely low expectations, I really enjoyed these sights. Perhaps they were just really good and other visitors never took the effort to explore the city…

Of course, a visit to a capital city would not be complete without checking out the local food. Very close to my guest house, the Sunrise Caravan Stay, was a great restaurant (Anhor), serving all sorts of local food. I have visited this restaurant twice. The first time I ordered Mastava, a rather heavy soup filled with meat and rice, together with some local bread. This bread is really a hit and miss but mostly a miss. When you do get this bread fresh and warm, it’s a real treat though. The second time I visited Anhor, I enjoyed a dish called Dolma, meat rolls with grape leaves. These dishes are definitely more tasty than the local food from neighboring countries and, in addition to the cultural heritage, tickled my senses even more!

Uzbek cuisine does not have a lot of variety but the dishes they do have can be quite good

From Tashkent it took me around six hours to reach Bukhara. Yes, it’s possible to do this faster but I ended up in the so-called Sharq train, not to be confused with a fast train. So, after passing two police checks and collecting eight (yes, eight!) stamps, I finally sat down next to a rather corpulent old lady while listening to the clickety clack of the Uzbek railways in 37 degrees Celsius without the presence of any form of air conditioning, what a delight…

Just before passing out, I reached Bukhara. On arrival a large group of taxi drivers couldn’t wait to offer me their services. It reminded me of my trips to India and unfortunately, it’s also a strong indication that mass tourism has arrived in Uzbekistan. I escaped to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch and afterwards, when the herd had disappeared, I enjoyed a convenient and cheap ride to the old town of Bukhara.

Located on the Silk Road, the city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion. Bukhara has been one of the main centers of world civilization from its early days in the 6th century BC. Although the city is roughly 2.500 years old, the area has been inhabited by people for around 5.000 years. As mentioned before, Bukhara became a major intellectual center of the Islamic world during the Samanid Empire in the 9th and 10th century.

the Po-i-Kalyan complex in Bukhara with the Mir-i Arab Madrasah on the left and the Kalyan minaret and Kalyan mosque on the right

Having been both a popular stop on the Silk Road and a center of Islamic religion, it’s easy to understand why the city is full of madrasahs and caravanserais. The old town of Bukhara is actually full of historic sights, so some planning of the day is recommended since seeing everything is simply impossible. Another restriction was imposed by the weather. A mere 38 degrees Celsius during the day, in the shadow that is, made any activity rather unpleasant. So, I applied a ‘safari-schedule’ during my stay in Bukhara, meaning I explored the old town during the early morning and late afternoon and took quite a long break in between. In the late afternoon and beginning of the evening wandering around town was particularly nice because of the colors created by the low sun…

The antiquity of Bukhara is evident when exploring the old town with its high concentration of historic sights, all part of a UNESCO world heritage site. Among the sights I visited were the Po-i-Kalyan complex (see picture above), several madrasahs and caravanserais, two mausolea and even a synagogue. My guest house was located near the Lyab-i Hauz complex, often considered the social heart of the city. The complex consists of a large pool lined with very old trees and several madrasahs. Pools played an important role in the history of Bukhara. Until a century ago Bukhara was watered by a network of canals and some 200 stone pools where people gathered to gossip, drink and wash. 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. Nowadays the system is modernized and the pools are drained. The people are becoming slightly older too…

the Kalyan mosque, a beautiful example of typical Timurid architecture

Throughout Bukhara, you’ll notice that monuments are often arranged in pairs, called a kosh. It creates a nice visual space but also makes sightseeing more efficient, two (or more) for one would be appropriate in this case. The Po-i Kalyan complex, a remarkable sight, is such an example. It consists of a madrasah, named Mir-i Arab, a huge minaret and the Kalyan mosque, also known as Djuma mosque. The madrasah was closed for visitors unlike the mosque which I visited one morning. A huge inner courtyard is surrounded by pillar-domed galleries (288 little domes are resting on 208 pillars) and the mosque is characterized by a large blue tiled dome. Decoration of the mosque is relatively subtle and limited to the entrance to the gallery and the main facade. Nevertheless the colors and geometric patterns were a fine example of some typical Timurid architecture.

The Kalyan minaret has a fascinating history. It was built in 1127 in order to call Muslims to prayer five times a day. In times of war the minaret was also used as a watchtower to lookout for enemies but its most striking use can be derived from its nickname. Another name for the minaret is the Tower of Death following its use in the nineteenth century, when criminals were executed by marching them up its 105 steps, stitching them into sacks so they wouldn’t make a mess before eventually being thrown from the top. It’s actually a small miracle that the tallest minaret of East Asia is still standing. In 1220 Genghis Khan, the brutal and ruthless warrior of the Mongol Empire, conquered Bukhara and destroyed about everything in his sight. For some reason he ordered the minaret to be spared. Legend says Khan was so awe-struck with the exquisiteness of the tower that he specifically forbade its destruction. So thanks to one of the biggest mass murderers in history, we can still enjoy the beauty of this minaret…

Bukhara has so many beautiful sights, Chor Minor (left) and the Abdullah Khan Madrasah from the Kosh Ensemble (right) are just two examples

Bukhara is a city that can not be left out from any itinerary regarding a trip to Uzbekistan. The city plays a significant role in the history of the country and the sights are both abundant and beautiful. For me a big downside of a visit to Bukhara was the fact that everything is concentrated in the old town. As a result all the tourists are together in one part of the city, in some sort of an open air museum, whereas real life takes place somewhere else in Bukhara. Because all the tourists are concentrated in a small part of the city, business is focused on this specific target group. Souvenir shops are abundant in order to sell their crafts to the many tour groups consisting of seniors from mainly Germany, France and the UK. Some sights are in fact transformed to souvenir shop or restaurant on the inside. This in particular, I found rather disappointing. I understand money has to be made in order to maintain the cultural heritage but there must be better ways to do so. I’d rather pay an entrance fee to the old town and see the sights as they used to be, without souvenirs…

After a few days in Bukhara it was time to move on. The Afrosiyob train, a convenient fast train with air conditioning, took me to the former capital of both the Samanid as well as the Timurid Empire in just over an hour. With a population of about 420.000 Samarkand is the second city of Uzbekistan. Unlike Bukhara, this city doesn’t have an old town where all the sights are concentrated. No, wandering around Samarkand as a tourist or traveler means you’ll get an actual feel of the city, something I enjoy much more!

the railway station in Samarkand

Samarkand is mainly known amongst tourists for the Registan which was the heart of the city during the Timurid dynasty, a public square where people gathered to hear royal statements and a place of public executions. Because of the importance of the city during that era, the Timurids are honored in Samarkand as well. But because I had visited so many sights in Bukhara already, I figured it would be nice to focus on other features of the city too. I walked around quite a bit to experience some nice local cuisine and I explored the local market, home to many colorful saleswomen.

The Registan is the absolute highlight of Samarkand. It’s a large square surrounded by three madrasahs. The Ulugh Beg Madrasah, named after the ruler of the Timurid Empire between 1409 and 1449, on the Western side of the square was built first. At the time it was a clergy university of high quality. Other buildings were constructed too in the 15th century but the madrasah is the only one remaining from that era. Later, in the 17th century, Yalangtush Bakhodur who ruled Samarkand at the time, ordered the construction of two more madrasahs: Tilya-Kori, which operated both as college for students as well as a mosque, on the Northern side and Sher-Dor on the Eastern side of the square. Nowadays, many tourists wander around the sight and admire the architectural piece of art the Registan without a doubt is. Unfortunately the Ulugh Beg and Sher-Dor madrasahs are full of souvenir shops, transforming any exploration into a rather unsatisfying one. Luckily the facades of the buildings alone were impressive enough to make a visit worthwhile. In the evening I bribed one of the police officers in order to climb a minaret and enjoy the sunset from up high for about a minute or ten…

the Registan in all its glory in the early morning sun

Since Samarkand is a larger city, there is more choice in terms of food, unlike Bukhara. After quite a few Uzbek dishes, I was looking forward to some foreign cuisine. Unfortunately there are no Indian restaurants here but after some research online I found a Korean restaurant with good reviews. The name of the restaurant, “Korean Restaurant”, suggested not a lot of creativity. Nevertheless I had to give it a go. A decent walk was required to reach the restaurant, creating a nice appetite. That turned out to be perfect because the amount of food I got after ordering my “Beef Bulgogi & Yukgaejang” was immense. The “Beef Bulgogi” alone would be enough for many but then there was also the “Yukgaejang” which is some sort of a soup slash stew, not that light of a meal either. To top it all off, the main dishes were accompanied by six side dishes, a bowl of rice and a salad. Bon appetite!

The architecture in the Uzbek cities had been so overwhelming that I needed some ‘time off’ the next morning. A visit to a bazaar seemed like a great getaway. Markets in Asian countries are often quite fascinating because of the chaos, abundance of colors and vibrant atmosphere. What makes markets in Uzbekistan different to many others is the fact that salesmen are more or less restricted to the meat-section and that mainly women sell the other goods. The combination of fruit and vegetables with local women in their colorful dresses was enough to draw my attention. It was time to get the camera out and get to work. In order to get the best photos at the Siyob bazaar, I first went on a little exploratory mission…

colorful women selling their goods at the Siyob bazaar

After a first round at the Siyob bazaar, I had selected a few candidates to shoot, with my camera of course. However, I was not too comfortable to take the photos from up close (I really had to get within a few meters to get a good shot). They might get angry or I might get in the way of their business. So, I left the market both defeated and disappointed. After a lunch and some time to think, I gathered all my courage and went back to the Siyob bazaar for round number two. I wanted these photos so badly, I had no choice. Simply asking the women whether I could take a photo or not was the only possible strategy. As a way of warming up, I first asked a woman I had not selected during the first round. Nothing to lose, right? This really differs per country so you never know. Guess what, she started posing and felt like the star of the market! This little confidence booster made it easier to approach my targets who were also quite happy to have their picture taken by this strange photographer from the flatlands. Ideally the ladies proudly showed their golden teeth, but that seemed too much to ask. Nevertheless, I left the bazaar this time in a victorious state and I gained some new energy for more sightseeing, history and impressive architecture…

As it should be clear by now, the Timurids played a significant role in the history of Samarkand. This can be seen at the Registan but also at the mausoleum of Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid Empire. He was considered by many a very intelligent and intellectual man and is also recognized as a great preserver of art and architecture. However, the man who is still honored all over Samarkand, is also responsible for 17 million deaths, 5% of the global population at the time. He mainly used religion in order to justify his deeds. Do you see a certain parallel with recent years?

Shah-i-Zinda, not a bad place to be buried…

The Timurids are honored at two places in particular. Gur-e-Amir, meaning “Tomb of the king” in Persian, is a mausoleum of Amir Timur. The mausoleum was initially constructed for one of Timur’s beloved grandsons and Timur was supposed to be buried in nearby Shahrisabz but due to weather conditions, he ended up here. However, he is not alone. The complex also contains the tombs of two of his sons, two of his grandsons and his teacher. The architecture is impressive; it has a classic dome and is richly decorated with carved bricks and various mosaics. The sight turned out to be quite popular among Uzbeks, during my visit the mausoleum was packed with locals. Despite the rather turbulent history, many locals still wanted to pay homage to the man who put Samarkand on the map.

About a 15-minute walk from Gur-e-Amir another, at least as impressive, sight can be found in the name of Shah-i-Zinda, meaning “The living king”. It’s a necropolis, which is a large designed cemetery (it means “city of the dead” in Greek), formed over nine (11 – 19th) centuries and now includes more than twenty buildings. Shah-i Zinda is the burial place of royal persons and nobles.

The sight consists of three groups. The lower group contains a mausoleum devoted to Kazi Zade Rumi, a scientist and astronomer who lived in Samarkand during the Timurid Empire. The middle group consists of mausolea of Timur’s relatives and military. But the main mausoleum seems to be the imaginary grave of prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas which can be found in the upper part.

the decoration of Shah-i-Zinda is simply incredible

Just like Gur-e-Amir, the necropolis attracts many tourists, both local as well as international. Among the local tourists there were many children too. The international tourists seem to come for a general visit because this sight is simply unique. Locals seem to visit Shah-i Zinda for more specific reasons, namely to visit the grave of Kusam ibn Abbas. Even in the Middle Ages this was considered a pilgrimage equated to Mecca. The uniqueness of the sight combined with the impressive architecture was what fascinated me about this place. It was a sight unlike anything I have ever visited before. The decoration with the many majolica tiles and carved mosaic simply blew my mind!

I finished my stay in Samarkand with a nice dinner. I had to walk quite a bit to reach Karimbek restaurant but it turned out to be worth the effort. Just when I was about to leave the restaurant – I had been waiting for more than 40 minutes while others had their dinners served in the meantime – I got my delicious beef in red sauce. It was a perfect way to leave Samarkand behind me and continue the journey towards Khiva…

Itchan Kala, the old town of Khiva with its many monuments

A night train took me to Urgench from where the final leg of the journey was covered by taxi. I was not looking forward to taking the night train because of the immense heat and lack of air conditioning but I somehow managed to get a good night sleep in my 4-berth coupé. The taxi driver on the other hand turned out to be quite exhausting. We clearly didn’t have any language in common but he kept asking questions and telling me stuff. What he actually asked and said will remain a mystery…

Khiva is a small city with approximately 50 thousand inhabitants. The vast majority of them live in the outer town called “Dichan Kala”. Visitors to Khiva however prefer to stay in the inner town which is also known as “Itchan Kala” because that’s where the sights are located. I had booked a few nights at the Islambek hotel. On arrival I received another registration card. When you travel in Uzbekistan registration of every single night is required. In case you “miss” a night, problems may arise when a police officer asks for your documents…

isn’t bureaucracy a great thing?!?!

Just as in Bukhara the sights are concentrated in one area. Because of the required logistics to get to Khiva, the number of international tourists is a bit lower compared to the other popular cities. Nevertheless the old town feels packed with tourists. It’s an actual open air museum filled with souvenir stalls and restaurants. To top it off almost every monument is turned into a museum itself. And the quality of these museums is really ridiculous. Most of the time the descriptions, if any, are only available in Uzbek. This of course is great for foreign visitors who all seem to be fluent in Uzbek or anything closely related. The content of the museums is also fascinating. One particular museum that blew my mind is about animals. Pictures of a cow and a sheep with the corresponding description “cow” and “ugly sheep” were the highlights of the museum. Besides the annoyance of little children walking around screaming and yelling, you could sincerely ask yourself why such a museum is there…

Of course not all was bad in Khiva. A few monuments were not turned into museums (they could be counted on the fingers of one hand but still…). A fine example of a monument that was still untouched, was the Kunya-Ark fortress, the residence of the Khiva rulers. Being untouched for tourism purposes doesn’t mean it’s still in its original form. Construction of the Ark began in 1686 but nowadays only several buildings of the complex can be seen. The reception hall and the summer mosque were the most obvious remains. From the fortress one also has access to a watch tower, where a great view of the old town awaits…

the Kunya-Ark fortress, former residence of the Khiva rulers, is nowadays guarded by a cat…

Another beautiful monument of Khiva is the Islam Khoja minaret which can be seen from every corner of the old town. The minaret is 44 meters high with a diameter on the foundation of 10 meters. The shaft of the minaret diminishes in its diameter as it rises, producing an unusual impression. Being the highest structure in Khiva, it has become the symbol of the city even though it has only been built in the beginning of the twentieth century. Climbing the minaret is a nice little adventure since it’s quite dark making the steps almost impossible to see. Of course, the minaret is not designed for tall Dutch people either…

From the top one has a great view of the old town and beyond. For that reason alone it is highly recommended to climb to the top of this minaret when you find yourself in Khiva. Another beautiful view can be had from the Terrassa Cafe. In order to escape from the souvenir stalls and tourists, a tea break on the rooftop of this little cafe slash restaurant, was always more than welcome. I enjoyed several masala chais while looking at the nearby madrasahs and palaces…

climbing the Islam Khoja minaret in Khiva is highly recommended!

After about ten days in Uzbekistan and having seen so many beautiful buildings I was, as they say, “madrasahed out”, referring to the overkill of monuments. As a change of scenery I therefore decided to visit the desert. Several fortresses are located in the vicinity of Khiva, in the Kyzylkum desert. Together with another Dutch traveler, I visited three of them. Only the last two, Toprak Kala and Ayaz Kala, are worth mentioning. The first one, Toprak Kala, was built in the 3rd century and served as the residence of the governors of the country of Khorezm, an historic region in Turkistan in the territories of present-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. That’s all very interesting but nowadays a lot of imagination is required to appreciate the fortress. The fortress of Ayaz Kala on the other hand is quite spectacular from a distance. Located on a hill and consisting of several sights, it’s difficult not to be impressed in the low sunlight of the late afternoon. Once inside however, even more imagination is required than at the Toprak Kala fortress in order to enjoy it. A visit to these fortresses offers a nice break from the mosques and madrasahs but, to be honest, that’s about it.

All in all, Khiva could have easily been left out of my itinerary. The setup of the old town is rather pathetic if you’d ask me. Of course, this is a matter of taste and other people might really enjoy it. Because of the many souvenir stalls and terrible museums, I was more than happy to leave. Spending so much time to get there and only drink masala chai is not really worth it…

the fortresses of Ayaz Kala, being in the desert means it attracts all kinds of interesting species besides tourists…

After a long story, due to the rich history of the country and many experiences, it’s time to wrap things up. In general it’s quite easy: if you’re interested in architecture or history, or both, a visit to Uzbekistan is an absolute must! But, let’s do not jump to conclusions to quickly and go into a bit more detail first.

Uzbekistan has two faces. The first is one about historic buildings and monuments where everything is ancient with mosaic decorations and turquoise domes. This is the one we see in advertising and marketing campaigns. As a result, this is where the tourists go and for good reason. But there is also another side of the country. That is where ‘normal’ life takes place. No beautifully decorated buildings to be found here. What can be found in this side of Uzbekistan is working people, chaotic traffic, some poverty and a lack of tourists. I feel it’s important to be aware of this distinction.

As I mentioned before, tourists visit only one side of the country and for good reason. They are attracted to beautiful buildings and monuments with a significant historic value. That is what makes Uzbekistan unique. But don’t be fooled, not the whole country is filled with mosaic and turquoise domes. In Tashkent and Samarkand it’s possible to see both faces of the country, that is probably why I enjoyed these cities the most. Sights are not concentrated in one area, so going from one monument to the other automatically confront you with the other side, the non-touristy one. Bukhara and Khiva are turned into open air museums (Bukhara in a much better way than Khiva in my opinion) with souvenir stalls, bars and restaurants everywhere. As a result you’re surrounded by Western tourists all day. It’s good to notice that a lot of local tourists are around too. They explore their country and seems to value the national cultural heritage very much.

Most people who travel to Uzbekistan visit the same cities. Some leave out Khiva from their itinerary because it requires some logistics to get there but everybody seems to visit Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Of course, the country has so many more destinations to visit but nobody does. There will be no mosaic or spectacular domes but only real life. I have to admit, I haven’t visited any place other than the typical ones myself too. Based on my experience in Uzbekistan, I would not visit Khiva because it truly feels like a tourist trap. The other destinations are highly recommended. The monuments are unlike any I have seen before anywhere else. In order to appreciate what you’re looking at, quite a bit of homework is required. Unless, you already know everything about the different empires from the 9th century till now…

The country also involves some practical issues. Internet connectivity is extremely bad, the worst I have experienced anywhere in the world. This is particularly annoying when you’re used to travel by using the internet. I don’t like to carry around a guidebook, especially the Lonely Planet, in order to avoid ending up with the same backpackers and hipsters everywhere. But using the most comprehensive guidebook there is, the internet, becomes quite problematic without a connection. Another annoyance was paying the bill in a restaurant. First, you usually get screwed. They tend to give you only a total amount without any specification. And of course, this total is higher than the actual total amount. In case you do get a specification, the individual amounts don’t correspond with the prices in the menu. They round prices up and add a mandatory 15% service charge, whether you like their service or not. Luckily, we are still talking about marginal numbers here because of the low prices in general but it’s still frustrating to realize you’re getting ripped off. Finally, you’ll have to take care of a lot of stuff when traveling in Uzbekistan. Changing money, buying train tickets together with hundreds of other people and managing your registrations are all part of the adventure. So, you’d better stay focused and relaxed in the heat during your visit to Uzbekistan!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Uzbekistan!

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