Travelling to Uzbekistan in 2019

Travelling to Uzbekistan in 2019

Uzbekistan has been a rather difficult country to travel in the past.  Most of us would need to apply for a visa, customs rules were extremely strict, immigration was difficult. And once there, you had to change currency at an unfavourable official rate in a bank only. As of  early 2019, these stories appear to be tales from the past, as Uzbekistan grants visa-free access to citizens from many countries, including most of Europe. A high-speed rail has been linking the major cities for years, and tourism is up by 40% in the past year alone.

What is it like to travel in Uzbekistan in 2019?

Finally, in early 2019, the fortuitous combination of a week off and a reasonably priced flight happened upon me, and I visited Samarkand and Bukhara. I checked many websites before I even booked my flight, and got somewhat worried about having to count out my Ibuprofen on immigration, finding nowhere to change money and having trouble with my passport. But the lure of the Silk Road made me book a very reasonably priced flight from Berlin to Samarkand, changing in Moscow, on Aeroflot.  Turns out most of my worries were unfounded, and I share with you my experiences of visiting Uzbekistan in 2019. I will add a map with most places of (practical) interest at the end of this post, but if you have any specific question or suggestion, please feel free to drop me a line or a comment.

Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links.  In this case, this post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com and Amazon. This means that I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you if you  book through the affiliate links. More details on my affiliate link policy are here

Bukhara or Samarkand?

Well, ideally, both, as well as Tashkent, Chiwa, the Fergana Valley and the mountains, Which easily takes you to two weeks. I had four full days, and had to restrict myself a bit.

Samarkand  has over half a million inhabitants – the Silk Road sights are just a tiny part of the second largest city of Uzbekistan. It has an international airport and makes a good starting point on a shorter trip, and it is connected to Tashkent and Bukhara by high-speed train. Samarkand has the more monumental and singly impressive sights compared to Bukhara and for cultural significance,  has a small edge over Bukhara.

Registan Samarkand
Most importantly, Samarkand has the very impressive Registan with three monumental medresas.
The Bibi Khanym Mosque
Shah-i-Zinda
The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis: a solemn pilgrimage site yet a riot of colour
soviet mural in Samarkand
There are many other sights – and a modern city around them.

Bukhara is less than half the size of Samarkand, and you can easily visit the most famous sights on foot. Everything is somewhat smaller in scale, less polished than in Samarkand. On the other side, it is much more geared up towards tourists, with beautiful hotels and guesthouses, more ATMs, more restaurants, and  some great shopping. The cities are completely distinct from each other. Since Bukhara has a high-speed rail link, it takes 2 hours to Samarkand and 4 hours to Bukhara, making a multi-city itinerary feasible even on a shorter trip.

Samanid Mausoleum in the outskirts of historic Bukhara, one of the oldest Persian buildings in the country
Silk Road City Bukhara Trading Domes
One of the historic bazaars of Bukhara now taken over by souvenirs
The pretty little Chor Minor – originally a gatehouse to a never-finished medresa

Immigration and Visa-Free entry

I flew with Aeroflot and most of the questioning occurred upon departure in Berlin. The Aeroflot check-in agent had to go speak to a supervisor to check its okay for me to enter without a visa – apparently the new rule hadn’t filtered through to them yet. I landed in the small airport of Samarkand in the morning. Our Airbus was half empty were welcomed by many men in uniform, and ushered into the tiny Arrivals Section, were three or four immigration booths were in full operation. The immigration officers were friendly and leafed through my passport quickly before issuing me with the stamp and waved me through. No questioning, nothing. With the new visa-free rule, you can stay in the country as a tourist for 30 days If there was a Customs Check, I didn’t notice it. Within five minutes of leaving the aircraft, I was out on the road. Tip: the only bathroom in Arrivals is just before Immigration, and if you missed that one, you would need to bed the Security Officer at the entry to Departures to let you in for five minutes.

Landing in Samarkand
Landing in Samarkand

Transport

I just had five days in total- not enough to see Uzbekistan properly, but fine to get a good glimpse of the UNESCO World Heritage Silk Road Cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. This was made possible by a high-speed rail connection, which was extended to Bukhara in 2016. If you are short of time, I highly recommend taking the High-Speed train (called Afrosiyob). It makes the journey between Bukhara and Samarkand in just under two hours twice daily. You can find a timetable . If you travel during high season or festivals, it is advisable to book train tickets in advance. You can do this directly with Uzbekistan Railways in the station or city booking offices, where it is cheapest. Uzbekistan Railways now also sells tickets online, though I find their English website challenging. A company called Advantour has the easier website to navigate but charges a significant markup. However, these companies tend to deliver in Uzbekistan only. Many hotels and guesthouses offer to purchase tickets for you with some markup, too.

I just went to the Railway Station in Samarkand the day before travel, and this being March, the train was well filled but with plenty of seats available. The ticket office in Samarkand is just outside the station, to the right if you stand in front of the station. Their opening hours are something like 8-18 with a hour break for lunch. There is also a train ticket office in town, a block from the convenient “Bulvar” Bus Stop where  many bus routes congregate, called Temir Yo’l Kassalari. Trying to be on the safe side, I just caught Bus No. 73 from the Registan bus Stop and made the 25min bus ride to the station – interesting because Samarkand is a big city and this ride certainly takes you away from the touristy bits. A taxi takes about 10 minutes and should cost no more than 15-20000 sum (about 2 EURO)

If there are no buses in plain sight, it probably means taxi… none of the ones I encountered are metered, and you have to negotiate a fare. Expect to pay around 15000-20000 Sum for a ride from the train station or airport in Samarkand, and around 30000 from the train station in Bukhara.

Afrosiyob high speed train in Bukhara
Fancy a 5am high speed ride? Afrosiyob in Kagan, Bukhara

Where to Stay

Both Samarkand and Bukhara have a wide range of accommodation from very simple hostels to luxury. I stayed in four places, three of which I booked on Booking.com, the other one was a Special Offer on Hotels.com. With both booking agents there were no issues.

On my first night in Samarkand, I stayed at the Hotel Rahmon very close to the Registan. This is a very simple large guesthouse in the old town (think lanyrinthine, unpaved streets and little to no restaurants in the vicinity). It is super-spartan but clean and the family who runs it are role models for hospitality.

From super spartan in Samarkand…

I decided to treat myself in Bukhara and booked the Boutique Hotel Minzifa. This is a traditional house inside and out, with beautifully individually decorated  Bukharan heritage-style rooms. The decor is the most sophisticated and consistent here, the room had a big well equipped bathroom. The property is very well maintained. There is a small plain courtyard but no bar or cosy public area. The welcome was less warm than at the much cheaper Rahmon, so the only letdown was the lack of hospitality.

While Minzifa was very nice, I wanted to expand my shopping budget and stayed somewhere cheaper as the night would be very short  – and I took a special offer  from the Chor Minor Hotel. This small, family run hotel has a handful of rooms, also decorated in the typical Bukharan style with painted walls, but is less sophisticated but no less comfy than Minzifa. Considering I paid just over half compared to Minzifa,  I considered it excellent for the money.

My last night (again, a very short one) I spent at the Antica B&B in Samarkand. Although nice (with a really good breakfast) this was perhaps my least favourite place. The first “basic” room I booked was very spartan, and the heating did not work at all. I was then moved to a prettier little room, but things were still quite time-worn and spartan. There is a beautiful garden in summer. For a central place to stay with good bus connections and still in walking distance to most sights that is very clean, I would still recommend it.

…to my “Celestial Room” at the Minzifa Boutique Hotel, Bukhara

Best time to travel

Uzbekistan is one of the furthest countries away from the sea and has a continental climate with cool winters and very hot summers. Bukhara is close to the desert and a few degrees hotter and drier than Samarkand. I was told that the country has two “tourist seasons”: first from April to June, with a gap in the very hot summers where temperatures can rise to 50 degree Celsius, then again from September to November. I travelled in early March – there were few tourists and capacity n all hotels I encountered, but some hotels and restaurants had not yet opened for the season. The weather was fine, cold at night and very sunny in the day, but you can be unlucky in March and experience a lot of rainfall (March and April are the rainiest months). Also, summer and autumn bring the advantage of markets brimming with local produce, as very little gets imported.

Food

This is written from a viewpoint of a vegetarian! I knew this wasn’t going to be exciting, food-wise, because I don’t eat meat at all, and Central Asia is heavy on meat.

If you travel in summer and autumn, you can rely on abundant fresh veggies.  Also, it was still winter, with little fresh vegetable or fruit around. If you are okay with meat, you’ll find lots of dishes, not just plow, the rice stew that’s considered the national dish. I found a few notable exceptions where, upon asking, dishes on the menu were pointed out to me as vegetarian. I would always find salads based on cabbage, carrots and seasonal greens. For hot food sometimes they would serve vegetarian laghman, a thick noodle soup, and manty, a large filled wheat flour dumpling. I ended up eating a lot of bread because it was really tasty and is sold pretty much anywhere. If you are vegan, it’s pretty restrictive, and better in summer and autumn.

vegetarian food in Samarkand
If in doubt, take two salads and there’s your veggie meal! And never say “no” to the amazing bread
Siyob Bazaar in SAmarkand
It was still winter, so it was mostly preserved veggies

Money

The Uzbek currency is the Uzbek Sum, and 1 EURO equals approximately 9000 sum.

You can only change it once inside the country, which is a bit of a pain if you arrive by air in Samarkand where there is no Bureau de Change. As often, small dollar bills will work until you find somewhere to change money. Currency Exchange was much liberalised in 2018, taking away the black market, and you can now exchange money outside banks and pull cash from ATMs in both Sum and US Dollars. I only saw a decent number of cash machines in Bukhara and almost none in Samarkand, so for me, it was cash. US Dollars, rubles and to a certain extent Pound Sterling. Swiss Franc and Japanese Yen should also work. Many smaller hotels will accept cash payments only so it is adviseable to bring a decent amount of cash with you.

ATM in Bukhara – you find them all over the touristy bits of the historical centre

Safety

General safety for travellers is really good. In general, I felt more comfortable walking around as a female traveller than in some European cities, even at night. Many areas are not well lit at night, but falling over or into drainage ditches is a much bigger hazard than getting mugged. I used only train to travel overland, and the Talgo trains they use on the Afrosiyob appeared well maintained and extremely well guarded. I didn’t encounter any scams. You may get overcharged in the market and some of the souvenir shops and restaurants are obviously directed at wealthy tourists, but that I can live with.

Gur-e-Emir Mausoleum, Samarkand
Walking around at night? Not an issue. But not all buildings are lit like the Gur-Emir Mausoleum

The language barrier

Uzbek is the official language, with Russian being lingua franca across all of the ex Soviet Union. If you speak Russian, you are good in 99% of places, especially with older people, or buying tickets and in the market. There was one person (policeman) who wouldn’t speak Russian. Saying that… English is widely spoken, especially in places where there is a certain amount of tourism – this includes the souvenir stalls, the Siyob Bazaar, Money Exchange,  restaurants, and hotels and guesthouses.  Even in the small family-run places in Samarkand and Bukhara, there will usually be someone who speaks English. When I queued in the train station ticket office to buy tickets, a woman started talking in German to me and offered help to purchase train tickets – in some places this may look like a scam, here in Uzbekistan, it was all genuine, but English and French speakers are rather an exception. You may be approached by students to help with a survey / converse in English and the people I encountered were genuine and we had little but interesting conversations about living conditions in the countrym the schooling system, etc. So, I would say, you should be fine with English! Just to be safe, if you want to purchase train or airplane tickets, it may help to use a translation app or have your host write down your destination and date of travel.

When I booked my hotels, Booking.com offers an option to print out reservations in Russian. This may be useful when staying in smaller guesthouses.

What to bring

Cash

I found zero cash machines on my casual strolls in tourist Samarkand. So I took some cash, especially as hotels almost always want cash payment, especially in the budget and mid-range places. Samarkand has a tiny Bureau de Change in one of the buildings on the side of the Siyob Bazaar. I marked it on the map below. There is also a Bureau de Change inside the train station (which you can only enter with a ticket). Money extracting situation is much better in Bukhara where there are a few Bureaux de Change and ATMs around Lyabi Hauz and at least one by the Ark.

Sunscreen and sun hat

March was still half winter, but in the day, temperatures in Bukhara were near 30 degrees Celsius and the sun was very strong. If you’re out sightseeing, shade can be sparse. I always take my classic Tilley hat – not the most fashionable item, but packs well, and still going strong after ten years of sun, sweat and rain.

Sturdy shoes

Those roads are bumpy, especially when you stroll in the old town areas where there is no paving. Also, if you prefer to walk, you will easily walk 10+ kilometers in a day, especially in Samarkand, where the sights are more spread out. Even in Bukhara, walking from Chor Minor to the Samanid Mausoleum can take a good half hour. I like my vegetarian Birkenstock sandals for travel, but in this case, they proved a bit unpractical and lead to very dirty feet.

Now I am wearing out a pair of Merrell hiking trainers that have been in heavy use for over 5 years. I also have  these Hanwag walking shoes.  Hanwag makes shoes that last forever, and when you have worn the sole, you can have it replaced. So I have no hesitation recommending them even though they contain some leather – because a pair will last.  They are great for really uneven ground but a bit heavy for a lot of city walking. So a third shoe I tried, the Viking Komfort W, will probably hit the spot. It’s black, very light, and super comfy. They are a Norwegian brand somewhat cheaper than Merrell and Hanwag. They still have a small amount of leather in them, but I will probably buy a pair in the near future, as they seem the perfect travel shoes for cities and light outdoor activities – reasonably sturdy yet light and they are black and don’t look too clompy.

I’ve never seen so many pharmacies in my life like in Samarkand and Bukhara, and they carry toiletries, too. Samarkand is a big city, so if you head off into the city proper, you will find all sorts of shops, among them mobile phone shops where you can get replacement chargers or memory cards. There is little in way of department or big electronics stores, so if you require some specific camera equipment, it is better to bring it along.

Appropriate Clothing

Uzbekistan is predominantly Muslim, and many sights are places of pilgrimage and religious worship. Most men and women dress conservatively, with long garments covering all of the arm and leg. Some women wear headscarves, but there are plenty who don’t. As a solo female, I was fine with jeans or chino trousers, and short sleeves were fine although I had a cardigan and a pashmina to cover up accordingly. In spring and autumn, although hot in the day, it gets really cold at night! For this, a few warm+windproof layers are adviseable, even in the city, as sometimes the heating may have been turned off already. I pack a lightweight Goretex coat and one of my beloved John Smedley sweaters for such occasions.

ikat Bukhara
Bukhara was great for shopping!

Leaving Uzbekistan

I only left the country from Samarkand Airport, and my experience was less smooth than arriving, but not horrible, either. The airport is very small, and when two of the four flights a day leave within half an hour of each other, it is well above capacity and somewhat chaotic. I would recommend arriving at least two hours before scheduled departure. There are just two check-in desks and one security line, and all were super busy at 5am.

I was given an inofficial “Fast Track” treatment when some official spotted my tourist face and waved me to the front of the security queue – only to scan several hand luggage items several times. It certainly helps to know a few words in Uzbek or Russian here. At some point, your passport will get stamped again, without any questioning. There is some sort of Customs control, but they certainly weren’t interested in me or many other people on the Moscow flight.  Airside, there was just a tiny waiting room. There is a small restaurant and Duty-Free upstairs… but I didn’t want to give up my seat and did not visit them. Very little information is displayed, and announcements are in Uzbek and Russian.

Both departing flights were delayed by well over an hour, the lone member of staff dealing with the pumped-up customers was a bit overwhelmed. On Aeroflot transiting through Moscow, they had very efficiently already re-booked me on a a later flight without me knowing.

Practical Info Map

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