8 Take-Aways on Uzbekistan from a First-Time Visitor

8 Take-Aways on Uzbekistan from a First-Time Visitor

Marisa Dodd, Tour Specialist at MIR, is a native Virginian with a deep-rooted knowledge of and passion for Russian culture. She recently returned from her first visit to the heart of the Silk Road, Uzbekistan; she found it to be surprisingly modern, incredibly beautiful, and unexpectedly open-minded. Here are some of her first-timer impressions and observations.

Marisa trying her hand at making traditional Uzbek bread Photo: Matt Robertson

Marisa trying her hand at making traditional Uzbek bread
Photo: Matt Robertson

I recently returned from my first trip to Uzbekistan – a country I had long dreamt of visiting – and my experience made a lasting impression on me. I was surprised to discover how smooth, comfortable, and safe the trip felt, for a wide variety of reasons.

Back in the office now, I’m excited to share the knowledge of how fun and easy it was to travel through this ancient land. Travelers should not be intimidated about traveling into the unknown.

Uzbekistan boasts an easy visa process, well-organized Tashkent airport, modern attitudes among those I met, and warm hospitality everywhere I went.

Here are some of the things I found most surprising from my travels through Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan. Photo: Michel Behar

Meeting locals in Uzbekistan
Photo: Michel Behar

#1 Getting In: Easy

Until recently, obtaining an Uzbek visa meant having to physically send your passport to the embassy and wait for several weeks for the visa to be issued and returned. This roadblock has been eliminated with the introduction of electronic visas (e-visas) for U.S. passport holders.

The e-visa process has been significantly streamlined, requiring only the most basic information and a wait time of three business days. Applying for my Uzbek e-visa took less than half an hour on my first attempt. I applied on a Friday and had my visa in hand no later than the following Tuesday.


#2 Getting Around: Easier

Physically arriving in the country was similarly straightforward. Just 15 minutes after disembarking the plane in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s modern capital city, we had our bags and were meeting our driver to set off for our hotel. It was perhaps the most swift and uncomplicated border control and customs process I’ve ever experienced, albeit partly because we traveled in November, the off-season. The airport itself is easy to navigate, even for novice or solo travelers, who would be hard pressed to miss the waiting area and exit doors after clearing customs.

Interior of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand Photo: Marisa Dodd

Interior of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand
Photo: Marisa Dodd

#3 On the Right Track: High-speed Trains

Our tour was a journey of planes, trains, and automobiles. Modern, high-speed trains now connect many of the major cities, such as Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara, making travel between them significantly more pleasant and convenient than driving. I found that the trains in Uzbekistan are on-par with European and American trains in terms of quality and comfort, even in the general economy class. Complimentary coffee is served at the beginning of the journey, as well as complimentary sandwiches and other for-purchase snacks mid-way through.

The next addition to the train system’s repertoire is the high-speed train between Khiva and Bukhara, which is expected to be open sometime in late 2019 or early 2020. In the meantime, direct regular train service between Bukhara and Khiva officially opened in January 2019, which, though slower than the bullet trains, still offers travelers a more convenient and faster alternative to driving across the desert.


#4 Guardian Angels: “Tourist Police”

In the past few years, white booths have popped up around the main sites. Plastered on the side of these sentinels are the words “Tourist Police,” but I believe this is a misnomer. I think a more appropriate term would be “Tourist Guardian Angels,” as these security personnel are stationed less to chastise visiting tourists and more to ensure the comfort and safety of travelers. Their primary purpose appears to be assisting lost or turned-around tourists who may need a hand in locating an excursion or returning to their hotel. They are friendly, helpful, and, in many cases, more than willing to pose for a photo or two.

Golden hour. Photo: Marisa Dodd

Golden hour
Photo: Marisa Dodd

#5 Freedom of Choice: Modern Attitudes

I had to overcome my own misconceptions of what it means to travel here, particularly as a woman. Having traveled much of western and eastern Europe, I was accustomed to covering my head at religious sites, and expected this to be the case in Uzbekistan as well. I was fully prepared, scarf in hand, to cover my head as we visited the majestic mosques and madrassahs. But our guide encouraged me to put my scarf away, noting there was no need unless I personally wanted to cover myself. I and the other women who chose not to cover their heads received the same welcoming spirit and kindness as the women who chose to cover.

Warm greetings from Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Bill Thornton

Warm greetings from Uzbekistan
Photo credit: Bill Thornton

#6 Chowing Down: The Sweetest Fruit

I was surprised by the wonderful variety of food that was offered to us throughout the country. In particular, the fresh fruit was some of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. The grapes that were invariably set on the table were so sweet you could have been forgiven for thinking that they were candy – or dessert put on the table too soon. I found it difficult not to gorge myself on the melon that usually appeared at the end of a meal. As one of our dinner hosts explained to me, there are dozens of varieties of melon that have been grown in Uzbekistan since the days of the Silk Route and earlier. The winter melon that we found everywhere was refreshing and bright and syrupy – I couldn’t get enough. This melon alone is reason enough to travel during the off-peak winter season.


#7 Travel by Foot: Medieval Urban Planning

After years of reading and hearing about travel to Uzbekistan, the images I had conjured were of vast, sprawling cities with miles between notable sites. I was thoroughly surprised when we arrived in Bukhara to find that the city is actually relatively compact and that the gorgeous mosques and madrassahs are in fact directly facing each other. The same was true in Samarkand, Tamerlane’s beautiful capital. The close proximity of these impressive landmarks makes touring these cities a breeze.

Samarkand alleyway Photo: Marisa Dodd

Alleyway at Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand
Photo: Marisa Dodd

#8 Open Arms: Welcome to Uzbekistan

During my time in Uzbekistan, I felt a generosity of spirit and hospitality in every corner that we visited. People smiled at one another on the street. Market vendors freely offered us samples of their wares. The Uzbeks that I met during my time in their country were universally welcoming, quick to strike up a conversation in a public market or ask us about our impressions of their homeland.


I loved my introduction to Central Asia and its star, Uzbekistan. A world away from Europe, it felt exotic, yet familiar. I’m still dazzled by the tilework in every shade of blue, by the mudbrick domes and arches of the mosques, mausoleums, and madrassahs, by the delicious food, and by the friendly people I met throughout the country. I’m looking forward to my return.

Read More About Why NOW is the Best Time to Travel to Uzbekistan

To give you more perspective on this dynamic destination, we’ve published a series of blog posts about what it’s like to travel to Uzbekistan now, and why it’s never been a better time to do so:

What Has Happened to Uzbekistan?
by Fred and Sharon Lundahl
Fred Lundahl spent 30 years serving in U.S. embassies abroad with the Foreign Service. He fell in love with Central Asia, and still travels there every couple of years. Fred and his wife Sharon just recently returned from a trip to Uzbekistan and returned with a fascinating look at how much it has recently changed (read more).

Up-and-Coming Uzbekistan: 7 Reasons Why a Local Recommends You Visit Now
by Abdu Samadov
Born and raised in Samarkand, Abdu Samadov is full of inside information about Uzbekistan. Abdu guides MIR travelers throughout Central Asia, and enjoys sharing his knowledge with other travelers. In this article, Abdu offers five reasons why Uzbekistan should be at the top of your 2019 travel bucket list (read more).


Why 2019 is the Best Time Travel to UzbekistanSince the first-ever International Tourism Forum, Uzbekistan is gearing up to raise the level of comfort, accessibility, and amenities for the more than 5 million travelers expected in 2019. There were a lot of exciting firsts in Uzbekistan in 2018 and a few marvelous updates already set for 2019 – all of which makes now the best time to travel to this fabled land (read more).

 

Aerial view of Khiva, Uzbekistan Photo: Marisa Dodd

Aerial view of Khiva, Uzbekistan
Photo: Marisa Dodd

Travel to Uzbekistan with MIR

MIR has nearly 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’slist of Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

You can visit Uzbekistan in a number of ways: on a small group tour, on a rail journey by private train, or on an independent trip put together just the way you want it.

SMALL GROUP TOURS

RAIL JOURNEYS BY PRIVATE TRAIN

A PERSONALIZED PRIVATE TRIP

You can also travel on one of MIR’s handcrafted private independent travel itineraries, Essential Uzbekistan or Essential Central Asia, or book a custom private journey

MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

Chat with a MIR destination specialist by phone
(1-800-424-7289) or email today.

We’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip
tailored especially for you.

 

(Top Photo: Samarkand’s Registan Square, the centerpiece of the city, and the most recognizable landmark for visitors; Photo credit: Abdu Samadov)

PUBLISHED: January 17, 2019

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