Travel tips about Uzbekistan : what you should know
“What!!!??? You’re in your thirties and you still don’t have kids!? In Uzbekistan we’re all randy devils! At your age, we all have three or four kids!” This is one of the very first sentences I heard when I got in Uzbekistan. Pronounced by the military man I was communicating with, the one who made me cross the border from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan, on the Uzbek side. I was taking my first steps in the country, I was commucating with him to kill the time, waiting for a taxi, and yes that’s what he said. Notice I’m not talking to him, I’m “communicating”. Indeed, he was only speaking Russian and I don’t… But still, we managed to exchange some ideas!
Uzbekistan, a beautiful country, full of history, but unfortunately it doesn’t attract many people. Not just Uzbekistan by the way, Central Asia in general. What a pity, the country is wonderful (Central Asia as a whole is wonderful!), and there are many cities full of historic sites to visit. We are on the silk road, a 2000 years old network of trade routes. For the curious ones who still want to go to Uzbekistan, here are some tips to help you! After reading this, you’ll have all the information needed to have a good stay in this beautiful country.
You’ll probably need a visa to go to Uzbekistan. Indeed, only citizens from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine have visa-free travel. You can go to an Uzbekistan embassy in your home country (if there’s one!), or apply for your visa on the road like I did. You can even apply for your Uzbek visa in one embassy, and pick up your visa in another embassy. That’s what I did! I applied in Baku (Azerbaijan), and I picked up my Uzbek visa in Tehran (Iran). Where can you apply for an Uzbek visa?
Almaty (Kazakhstan), Ankara and Istanbul (Turkey), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), Baku (Azerbaijan), Bangkok (Thailand), Beijing and Shanghai (China), Berlin and Frankfurt (Germany), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Brussels (Belgium), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Islamabad (Pakistan), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), London (United Kingdom), Moscow and Novosibirsk (Russia), New York City and Washington DC (USA), Singapour (Singapour), Tehran (Iran), Tokyo (Japan), Seoul (South Korea) and Vienna (Austria).
And what do they ask for? Your passport (obviously…) valid six months with two empty pages, a photocopy of your passport, two ID photos, one filled-out Uzbekistan visa application form (fill it here and then print it!), and in some cases a letter of invitation. Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Malaysia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, UK and USA do not need a letter of invitation to apply for their Uzbekistan tourist visa at the embassy. All the other ones need a letter of invitation. More info here. They will also ask for your intended dates of stay because the visa is date-specific. The price? I paid 75 US dollars, but it depends on your citizenship. For instance, Americans and Israelis pay 120$ to 165$, Japanese go for free.
Once you have your visa, you can get in the country. I think they’re used to see tourists at the Tashkent airport. If you come overland like me, it’s different. Total we were three people to cross the border, and I could clearly see the customs officers were bored as fuck. They were watching videos on their phones, laughing… They take your passport, search through your bag, like Turkmenistan they take your temperature to check if you’re not sick…
I found out later that in some cases, customs officers check every single thing in your bag, and they also check your phone, your camera… Nothing like this for me but just in case, delete any pictures with official buildings, military men, etc… Don’t bring religious books either or books about the history or politics in Uzbekistan. And above all, most importantly, first and foremost, do not bring porn with you! They’re obsessed with this, and it’s written in big letters at the border, it’s strictly forbidden to import porn in the country! If they check your computer, your phone, your camera… That’s what they’re looking for! I don’t know if they heard about streaming…
Like Turkmenistan, in general they’re also gonna ask you if you have medicine, inspect them… Didn’t happen to me (I guess I was lucky). Painkillers and codeine are forbidden in the country, don’t bring any! Oh and you can’t bring your drone either. You’ll have to fill a form and declare how much money you have with you, all your currencies (example : I have 50 US dollars, 20 manats from Turkmenistan, and 500000 Uzbek soms).
They take one copy of the form and they give you the other one. Keep it until you leave the country. When you’ll leave, in theory you’ll fill the same form again, and they’re gonna compare how much you have this time. If you leave the country with more money than you came in with, they’re gonna think it’s suspicious (you worked there, you came for business purpose…). In my case, I did fill the form when I came in the country. When I left to go to Kazakhstan, they gave me the same form and I started filling it, but then they said “Whatever, you don’t need to do this, it’s ok!”
One last thing. If, by any chance, you come overland like I did from Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan, after the customs, on the Uzbek side, there’s nothing. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Everytime I crossed a border or came in a new country, there was always a bus/subway/train/taxi to take and go where I wanted to. This time, absolutely nothing. I went to see the military man who made me cross the border, and I explained my little problem. He took the phone number of the hostel I was staying at for one night in Nukus, he called them, then he said “A taxi is coming for you in 20 minutes. It will be 10 US dollars“. And as I was waiting for that taxi, we started to “talk” and this is when he told me that in your thirties, they all have three or four kids in Uzbekistan.
The official currency in Uzbekistan is the som. For your information, with one US dollar, you get more or less 8000 soms and with one euro, 9600 soms. You also need to know that the most common bills are the 1000 soms bills. Yes, I think you get it now, you exchange one dollar and you already have eight bills. Imagine if you exchange 100$… Therefore, and I’m serious, you have to bring a bag with you to carry your money (like gangsters in the movies!). It’s pretty much impossible to put all your money in your wallet. Things are slowly getting better, 5000 soms bills circulate more and more, and I heard 50000 soms bills will come soon.
Until September 5th 2017, there were two exchange rates in Uzbekistan, the official one and the black market one. WIth the official one, you could get 5000 soms with one euro, and 4000 soms with one US dollar. Twice more with the black market rate. When I came in the country, I exchanged my money with the black market rate (like everyone!), never at the bank or the foreign exchange counter. I exchanged my money in the back of an internet café, at the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand, at a pizzeria, even at the butcher’s!
Since September 5th 2017, there’s only one exchange rate. The official rate is now the black market rate. Thus you can exchange your money peacefully at the bank or the foreign exchange counter. I was in Uzbekistan when the new law passed, and it created mayhem in the whole country! Now it’s illegal for Uzbeks to exchange money outside like they used to. Otherwise they can get in big trouble, and you as well! Therefore don’t exchange money if someone comes to you outside. They turn their two index fingers around each other to say “Wanna exchange cash?“. Just go to the bank, it’s better!
I remember asking the manager at my hostel “Where can I exchange money around here?”, expecting a response like “At the grocery, at the laundromat, the restaurant around the corner also exchanges money…“. He just said “Go to the bank, or the foreign exchange counter” “Huh? No seriously, I’m a tourist with money, admittedly, but I’m not stupid!“. That’s when he explained me for that new law, I checked on the internet, and he was telling the truth! So I exchanged my money at the foreign exchange counter, with the advantageous black market rate…
You’ll find very easily a place to stay in Uzbekistan, especially in Bukhara where you can find hotels and hostels literally everywhere! Everytime you leave a hotel, they give you a registration paper, testifying you stayed at that hotel, with your dates of stay of course. Do not lose those little papers! When you’ll exit the country, they’re gonna ask you those proofs! Once again, I was lucky. When I left Uzbekistan, a military man in the train did ask me for those registration papers, but he barely looked at them. Anyway, my papers were in order 🙂
Until September 5th 2017, hotels asked to be paid in US dollars only. Now, you must pay in Uzbek soms (lot of changes when I was there!). Oh and avoid couchsurfing, it’s illegal, although some locals host tourists. But you need to know that if you get caught, you’ll be in big trouble, and you’ll get your host in trouble as well.
Unlike Iran or Turkmenistan, there are not numerous blocked websites. You can use the internet more or less freely. However, the internet there is veeery slow. They may say “Free Wi-Fi” when you read the description on booking, you need to wait a good minute just to load the Google homepage… In some cases it’s working during the day, but in the evening when everybody’s there, it’s hard to have fast and reliable internet.
Uzbekistan is a country where you’ll have absolultely no problems. I heard before “Don’t go there, it’s dangerous!“, but coming from people who don’t travel much. Truth is, it’s a country where people are very happy to see tourists visiting their land, and they’re really pleased. They’re also very welcoming, I was invited several times to have tea at their places. People still stare at me here, especially when I take my camera out of my bag. They think I’m from the US…
A girl can travel by herself in this country with no problems at all, actually I met several solo female travelers and they all told me the same thing “No I didn’t have any problems, it’s safe here“. Just like me, the locals ask them if they are married, if they have kids… They’re shocked when they find out you’re over 25 and you still don’t have kids. I met an Uzbek girl, 25, no kids, and she didn’t feel bad about it. But she told me she was having a hard time at every family reunion…
To go to one city to another one, you can either take a bus, a train or a shared taxi (you’re with the driver and two or three people). Sometimes, shared taxis are the cheapest ones, so do not hesitate to check the prices of all different means of transport.
If you take the bus for a long ride, (for instance Nukus-Tashkent, 22-hours ride), you need to know buses stop often if you need to go to the toilets, but not to eat something! So bring some food and snacks! For your information, buses are forbidden to ride during the night (from what I remember from midnight to 5am), too many accidents in the past. You’ll stop at a service area with a small dorm for the drivers, a bar, some snacks… Waiting for 5am to set off again.
If you take the train, bring your passport with you to buy train tickets, they need it to give you your ticket. At Vokzal, the Tashkent train station, it’s always crowded. And Uzbeks lose all their civic spirit. They jostle one another, they nudge each other… Be prepared!
Vegetarians, vegans… I think you can skip this country. They eat a lot of meat. I met a vegan girl and she told me “Everytime I tell ’em I don’t eat meat, they stare at me with bewilderment and ask ‘Why? What’s the purpose of not eating meat?‘”
The national dish, the most popular, is the plov, this rice with vegetables, meat, sometimes eggs. They also eat a lot of manty (dumplings), and shashlik (kebab). Lagman (noodle soup) is also popular there. You’re going to drink a lot of tea in Uzbekistan, even under 35°C/95°F. I got used to it. They tap the back of their cheek with their index. That means “You want to drink (alcohol)?“. And before and after meals, they hold their hands out, pray, then pat their hands on their face. I saw this in Tajikistan, too.
The official language is Uzbek, which sound similar to Turkish. If you speak Turkish, you’ll be able to understand them a bit. Otherwise there’s still Russian. Almost of all them speak Russian. Very handy, really. However, if you only speak English, it’s gonna be complicated… They don’t talk English well, even the young generation (we’re in ex-USSR…). Oh, if you speak German, then you’ll be able to talk with the elderly. They learned that language at school, during the USSR era.
Almost all the population is Muslim. But truthfully speaking, I tended to forget it, and it happened more than once. All those guys I saw downing vodka shots, drinking beers… But also women who don’t dress like in other Muslim countries : no headscarf to cover their head, sometimes skirts and dresses…
The country is dependent on cotton. You’ll see many fields of cotton in the countryside, if you take a bus or a shared taxi. Around September, students have to harvest the cotton during three months. Unpaid job, they work every day except on Fridays, 12 hours a day from 6am to 6pm. Maybe it’s gonna stop with the new president coming…
Tashkent will probably be your first stop in Uzbekistan. From there you can go to Samarkand, then Bukhara, Khiva and Nukus. You can do all this in about two weeks, and those are the cities most tourists visit (this is where there are more things to see!). With more time, you can go to the Fergana Valley on the east part of the country, wonderful from what I heard. But also Andjian, still east, Termez in the south, and the Aral Sea on the northwest, a few hours away from Nukus.
All right, it was my guide for Uzbekistan! I gathered all the information I have about this country. Do not hesitate to comment if the article has been useful for you.