Aside from a few intrepid bloggers, I didn’t know anyone who had been to Uzbekistan. Most of my American friends couldn’t pinpoint it on a map. In fairness, it is hard to find: it borders on Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. My family members worried whether it was safe (short answer: very). I imagined myself highly isolated in Uzbekistan, a lone Western tourist floating in a sea of strangers unaccustomed to such a visitor.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Domestic and regional tourism is huge in Uzbekistan, with Muslim pilgrims paying their respects at holy sites in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. During my two weeks there, I encountered only one other American but countless Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Russian, Australian, British, German, and French tourists.
I was traveling with a small-group tour company headquartered in Australia that has seen a 400 percent increase in bookings for Uzbekistan from its North American customer’s year over year, and a 91 percent increase globally. In other words, tourists are coming.
Uzbekistan is more accessible than ever
Long-serving prime minister (now president) Shavkat Mirziyoyev considered himself as a reformist, paying attention to boosting Uzbekistan’s tourism industry.
Under Mirziyoyev, the visa system has been thoroughly overhauled. The dreaded “letters of invitation,” or LOIs, are no longer required for citizens of more than 40 countries, including the United States, and the expiration date for a tourist visa has been extended from 15 to 30 days. Since July 2018, U.S. citizens can apply for their visas online via Uzbek government’s official e-visa website. Though certainly an improvement, the online portal is not without its flaws. I failed to apply and paid iVisa.com to handle it for me. Best $40 bucks I ever spent
Problems and advancements
Once I actually went through passport control at the airport, the entire process only took five minutes, reflecting a remarkable change in protocol.
Exchanging money is a lot easier
Before 2016, There was a huge difference between official and unofficial exchange rates. As larger bills were not printed, travelers had to lug around backpacks loaded with cash. Thanks to currency reforms in 2017, the rate you get at the airport is now the same as everywhere in the country.
Cash is still king in Uzbekistan. Outside of some high-end hotels and luxury retailers, few places accept credit cards. Working ATMs are also tricky to come by, even in the capital city of Tashkent. Many ATMs don’t accept foreign credit cards and those that do often run out of cash. I recommend bringing cash. The bills must be new (printed after 1998 or later) and in pristine condition (no tears, rips, crinkles, or pen markings). I learned this the hard way when $420 of my $600 were rejected at the airport currency exchange.
I was able to withdraw Uzbek som at hotel. I didn’t take out enough before leaving the capital. Fortunately, the vintage suzani textiles dealer I found in Khiva was happy to take my grubby old dollars.
There’s so much to explore
You could say that about any country, but Uzbekistan and the empires that came before it have an especially long history. This is reflected in the country’s mix of ethnic groups: Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Russians, Karakalpaks, and Tatars.
Architecture and history lovers could spend ages here wandering from the sprawling Khast Imam complex in Tashkent to glorious Registan in Samarkand to the rotting shipwrecks parked forevermore in the Aral Sea, fast disappearing.
Shoppers, meanwhile, will lose their minds in the boutique-filled Bukhara, where handwoven silk carpets, hand-thrown pottery, and miniature paintings beckon. Food obsessives will have a blast browsing the bazaars and sampling the country’s staple dishes, including plov, somsa, shashlik and naryn
Bans for photographers were annulled.
Uzbekistan is a stunning country for photographers. I was enchanted by the striking ikat textiles in Bukhara and Zoroastrian artifacts in Khiva, the beautiful Islamic mosques and metro system in the capital stimulate them to take a camera.
Before 2018, it wouldn’t have been possible to photograph as freely. Especially, invalidating bans in Tashkent metro system was amazing news for tourists.
People do not fear to tell the truth
“We don’t trust police, we don’t trust doctors, and we don’t trust banks,” said Shirin, my Peregrine tour leader. She wasn’t alone in sharing this sentiment and others. During my two-week trip, the guides I encountered spoke frankly about issues disturbing modern-day Uzbekistan, including a lousy hospital system, widespread bribery at universities, and the high suicide rate among young brides trapped in miserable arranged marriages. Four years ago, having this sort of conversation with anyone was unheard of.
While Mirziyoyev’s reformist agenda is pushing the envelope forward on issues like tourism, anti-corruption, and education, there are still enough problems.
In casual conversation, it’s best to focus instead on Uzbekistan’s future, which everyone agrees is pretty bright: Things aren’t perfect, but they’re getting better every day.
The article has been prepared on the basis of the essay “Why Travelers Should Set Their Sights on Uzbekistan” by Ashlea Halpern, announced on international touristic press www.afar.com (31.5.2019)