What Has Happened to Uzbekistan?
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. His import store in Langley on Washington State’s Whidbey Island, Music for the Eyes, is filled with exotic treasures personally collected from foreign lands, especially the Silk Road countries of Central Asia.
Fred and his wife Sharon recently returned from a trip to Uzbekistan with fascinating observations on how much it has changed in the last few years. They shared their thoughts in a blog post on the Music for the Eyes travel blog, which we have republished with their permission.
What has happened to Uzbekistan? Recent headlines note it is “one of the 12 happiest places in the world.” Lonely Planet lists it as one of the three “must see” destinations of 2018. Another notes it is “one of the ten safest places to travel.”
Fred recently traveled to Uzbekistan with a small Seattle-Tashkent Sister City delegation celebrating the 45th anniversary of the oldest sister-city relationship between a Soviet and a U.S. city. He was flabbergasted.
Fred and Sharon have lived in and visited Uzbekistan since 1995. Although one of our favorite countries due to its wonderful people, amazing history and great handicrafts, Uzbekistan had always been a Soviet-style dictatorship that clamped numerous restrictions on both tourists and its own people. This might have made it safe to travel, but it didn’t make it much fun to be an Uzbek.
Then the long-time dictator President Karimov died. In the 20 months since that momentous event, the new president, former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, swept aside the old order. He sacked ministers, imprisoned senior officials for corruption and torture, and virtually removed the entire entrenched bureaucracy. He replaced the corrupt system of bureaucrats with modern, western-educated officials with backgrounds in business.
Mirziyoyev de-clawed the notorious KGB, sacked or imprisoned its senior officials and even changed its name. He held contests to change the old Soviet-style uniforms of various police forces. In a largely Muslim country plagued by a small fringe of radical islamists for decades, he has allowed moderate Islam to bloom. Now women can wear headscarves if they wish (although few do). The call to prayer is now allowed from mosques around the country.
Mirziyoyev has ended Soviet-era rules for registration of your place of residence and has encouraged domestic travel and tourism. The recent Independence Day celebrations took place in neighborhoods, rather than in a central, massive, hours-long show. The people enjoyed the day, rather than the officials, and the government gave a week-long 50 percent discount on all national transportation.
Even without that extra benefit, local travel is more affordable. A new bullet train shortens the former six-hour train trip from Tashkent to Samarkand. It now takes two hours (at 230 kilometers per hour) and costs $8.00. Within the next year or two, these new bullet trains will service the entire country.
Ironically, all this domestic tourism has made it more difficult for the exploding number of foreign tourists to grab seats on the bullet trains. Now foreign travelers can apply for e-visas and pick up the visa upon arrival. No more need to send your passport off to an embassy for the visa. Instead of the old frowning scrutiny of incoming visitors and luggage searches on the way out, the new expanded international terminal has a hugely increased staff of smiling immigration officials who welcome you to Uzbekistan and thank you for visiting when you depart.
The large numbers of foreign tourist groups were probably not aware of the huge significance of being encouraged, rather than arrested, for taking photos in Tashkent’s stunning multi-themed metro stations.
Yet another example of change is the new “tourist police.” Statuesque young men and women in green uniforms wander around tourist locations genuinely assisting tourists with language help and tips on what to see. They willingly pose for thousands of tourist photos.
A very personal example of this change for the better happened to our favorite handicraft market in the small town of Urgut. In the early 2000’s the dictator’s notorious daughter closed the old Urgut market. She and her cronies built a Chinese-style mall in place of the market and forced the handicraft sellers, who couldn’t afford to rent stalls, out into the muddy parking lot. In the last year, however, the government has now provided the local handicraft sellers with their own covered, rent-free kiosks alongside the mall. The only cost is for them to belong to the regional handicraft guild.
Mirziyoyev is also making good on his promises to mend broken ties with Uzbekistan’s neighbors. Fred had a chance to chat with 15 museum curators from different ‘Stans who were happily attending a U.S.-government sponsored workshop run by the University of Chicago. The attendees said that this was the first time they had been in the same room since the Soviet Union broke up.
One of the Uzbek participants said that his life had improved more in the past 20 months than in the previous 20 years!
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:
by Abdu Samadov
by Marisa Dodd
Travel to Uzbekistan with MIR
MIR has more than 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’s list 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
- NEW! Silk Road Backroads & Byways
- Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘Stans
- Silk Route Odyssey: Caravan Across Uzbekistan
- Once Forbidden Lands of Central Asia & Iran
- Backstreets & Bazaars of Uzbekistan
RAIL JOURNEYS BY PRIVATE TRAIN
- NEW! Persia & the Silk Road by Private Train (Westbound)
- Jewels of Persia & The Silk Route by Private Train (Westbound)
- Iran & The ‘Stans by Private Train (Eastbound)
- Essence of the Silk Road by Private Train (Eastbound / Westbound)
- Essence of the Silk Road & Beyond by Private Train
- Caspian Odyssey by Private Train
A PERSONALIZED PRIVATE TRIP
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 about travel to Uzbekistan 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: Fred with a local family in Samarkand. Photo credit: Fred Lundahl)
PUBLISHED: January 16, 2019