Uzbekistan- The “New Improved” Stan.

Ask any American to point out Uzbekistan on a map or tell you one random fact about it and you’ll discover most know very little or nothing about this wonderful country. The “Stans” have always been a geographical challenge with their long names and confusing images. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my travels, stereotypes are almost always completely wrong. Uzbekistan has been one of the most delightful surprises I’ve found in years. It’s full of a rich history, great food, stunning architecture, and beautiful people. Now is the perfect time to visit. 

A few years ago, Uzbekistan wasn’t quite so tourist friendly. Visas were complicated, phone and computer searches at the border were common and it was illegal to take photographs of anything even remotely related to the government. Then things suddenly changed; you no longer had to hide pictures on your phone, e-visas became possible and the entire attitude of the government towards tourism changed. It’s almost as if a brand new tourist destination was created. Imagine a place where taxi drivers don’t try to cheat you, people genuinely want to help you, and strangers will approach you to take a selfie with you. There’s lots to see in this country, but I had a week here, which was barely enough to crack the top highlights.

Tashkent– This capital city is your most likely portal into the country. To get around, use the Yandex app, which is similar to Über, except you pay the driver after the ride in cash. There’s not really any place in the city that’s going to cost more than $1.50, so skip the car rental. You can also use the 3-line metro system that will get you around the city center for pennies. 

Tashkent took a serious hit in the 1966 earthquake, but the Soviets rebuilt the metro as only the USSR can, and it can be quite entertaining visiting these different time-capsule subway stops. There’s art and history on the walls of many, as well as chandeliers and decorative columns. There’s 50 stops, but some are more exciting than others. I spent about 4 fun-filled hours popping out of trains, snapping photos and changing lines. It only cost 15 cents!

Stop in the Plov center to discover the national dish. Outside the dining area, giant woks full of rice, horse meat, spices and other secret ingredients are constantly being stirred to feed the locals. Share a plov with some new friends and try the ubiquitous Shakarob salad.  Chorsu market is the place to shop for produce, meats, bread and everything else you want to buy. The bread, nuts and fruits are amazing. Tashkent also has some international restaurants if you need a change from the local dishes.

Amirsoy Ski Resort Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Amirsoy- If you find yourself in Uzbekistan during winter months, you need grab your jacket and head to Amirsoy about 90 minutes east of Tashkent. Amirsoy is a modern new ski resort with low prices you’ll never find in the western world. It’s not Aspen, but there’s some nice runs, great lifts and you can get a ski pass and rent some nice equipment for about $30! If you’re there in warmer months, there are some fantastic hikes as well as captivating Lake Charvak.

Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis Samarkand, Uzbekistan Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Samarkand– the jewel of Uzbekistan is only a 2 hour train ride from Tashkent. The city’s history goes back thousands of years to the Silk Road and is full of beautiful blue-tiled tombs, mosques and madrasahs (Islamic schools). Visit the Ulugh Beg observatory, the possible tomb of Daniel (from the Old Testament) and Shah-i-Zinda necropolis for it’s stunning complex of tombs. The Registan is the most iconic set of buildings in Samarkand with it’s three madrasahs facing the immense central square.

Posing with a camel outside the Ark Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Bukhara– With it’s desert feel, colossal fort and Jabba the Hutt vibe, I felt I was in a Star Wars filming location when I first arrived in this picturesque town. The Ark of Bukhara is the most distinctive monument in the city center with it’s giant spiked walls and fortress that once housed the entire town. A short walk brings you past the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa, Kalan Mosque, and to the Toqi Zaragon Bazaar with it’s multiple dome roofs and shops. These amazing feats of architecture are clustered together so that you don’t really need transport to see the main highlights in this town. Stay in Hotel Old Bukhara for an inexpensive authentic Uzbek experience and try the traditional local foods at the Old Bukhara Restaurant (not related) near the bazaar.

Lake Charvak, near Amirsoy Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Beyond– My one week trip allowed just enough time to quickly visit the above locations and were easily done with the high-speed train that connects Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent together. Two other popular stops that require a little more effort are Khiva, another gem on the silk road and a trip to the now nearly non-existent Aral Sea to see the Moynaq ship graveyard. Khiva can be reached by shared taxi (around 5 hours) or tri-weekly train (7 hours). Moynaq is a 3 hour drive from Nuku which has airport service to Tashkent or can be reached from Khiva with a 3 hour drive.

I absolutely loved my visit to Uzbekistan and found myself wanting more. I’ll definitely be going back.