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There are a few Uzbeki restaurants in New York that we really like. One of these days, we will made it Uzbekistan.
Preethi Chandrasekhar of The Eager Traveler, who last wrote last wrote about Sri Lanka, Bogota, Colombia, Medellin, Colombia, Carmel, California, Portugal, Austria, Czech Republic, Anguilla and Dominican Republic, recently went and here are her tips to Uzbekistan should you visit.
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“You’re going to Uzbekwaaaa?!” This was the familiar question I was greeted with when I told friends and family I was heading to Uzbekistan earlier this year. And yes, let me assure you, I felt perfectly safe, and yes the country is opening up to tourists. But more importantly I was stunned at the architecture, history, culture and how I was welcomed with open arms by the people of Uzbekistan. Read on for why you should put this country on your bucket list and travel to Uzbekistan asap.
GETTING IN TO UZBEKISTAN
I chose to travel to Uzbekistan with a boutique travel company called Acanela Expeditions. What attracted me to Acanela is that each of their trips is created in collaboration with talented local artisans, with the experiences coming directly from locals! Traveling with Acanela gave me the opportunity to connect deeper with these locals, while creating a positive impact on the community. Travel is more than just visiting every single country and checking off your bucket list. With over-tourism becoming a real concern today, the question is how we can continue to explore while impacting the local communities more positively. With Acanela, you have the chance to do just that and give back to travel. On this trip, I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with Acanela CEO, Kylie Chen, who is passionate about inspiring people to explore the world, while supporting local artisans in developing nations. This resonated with my own travel style and we had a great time discovering Uzbekistan together!
I flew Turkish Airways from San Francisco to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, with a stop-over in Istanbul airport. You can either arrange a pickup at Tashkent airport with your local hotel/hostel or grab a taxi to the city centre, which should not be more than $5-$10. Since I traveled with Acanela Expeditions, we had transportation waiting out for us at the airport and were whisked away seamlessly after immigration to our hotel.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SILK ROAD
If you’ve never heard of the Silk Road, it is the ancient trade route that connected China to the West. I’ve always wanted to travel along some part of the route today and I discovered that three of the Silk Road’s most important cities lie in Uzbekistan: Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. These cities were the key stops for traders passing by with their caravans and camels loaded with silk, spices and other items. Today, Uzbekistan is opening up to tourists and it has become easier to experience the splendor of the Silk Route here, but not for long as this country is poised on the edge of mass tourism, so grab your suitcase and travel to Uzbekistan!
There are many countries that do not need a visa but for those that do, an e-visa (single, double, or multiple entry) is available through the e-visa portal. The system is fairly simple and Acanela will help you with any issues should you encounter problems with the system. I received my e-visa in less than 24 hours from the time the payment went through!
WEATHER & CLOTHING
The weather in May is a dream – hot during the day and perfect for evening strolls. September is also fantastic as it doesn’t rain much during this period.
Uzbekistan is predominantly a Muslim country. In the Soviet era, Uzbekistan was considered secular and still is today. Covering your head in Uzbekistan is not needed, although you will see the older generation women wearing head scarves and long flowy full sleeved dresses, while the younger women wear jeans, skirts and tops. In general, when traveling to Uzbekistan, it is recommended to dress on the conservative side. Even though I went in summer, I didn’t spot too many women wearing shots and sleeveless tops.
Tashkent is the largest, cosmopolitan city in Uzbekistan where 2000 years ago, spice merchants and silk traders passed through its famous bazaars on their way to the West. The city is home to Uzbeks, Kazakhs, descendents of Mongols, Tajiks and other ethnicities. Now due to the Soviet rule, the city still retains a Soviet flavor and most people speak Uzbek and Russian. When you travel to Uzbekistan, know that English is not spoken widely amongst the older generation, but if you don’t have a guide with you, you can get by just fine with a lot of smiles and hand gestures. I addressed the locals with “asalam alaykum” in Uzbek and said thank you “spaseeba” in Russian and this seemed to delight everyone into engaging with me!
Must-See Places in Tashkent
With Acanela Expeditions we also had access to a local guide in every city. This meant we had the amazing opportunity to talk with a local about the history and really understand the background of what we were seeing. We explored Tashkent with our local guide, who was extremely informative and well versed in Uzbek history. Some highlights include:
Metro – The most practical way to travel in Tashkent is to go underground. The Soviet designed metro is a work of art and cris-crosses the city. For the first time you can now take photos inside the metro, which is a must, as every station is decorated beautifully with mosaics, chandeliers, space-themed cielings etc. You must buy a token from the kiosk underground before you travel and a single ride costs 1,200 soum. I found it was pretty easy to hail a cab in Tashkent as well. Even though taxi drivers don’t necessarily all speak English, I would tell them the destination which they almost always seemed to recognize, and then we agreed on a random amount to pay at the end of the ride, which was always between 2-5$.
Chorsu Bazaar – In terms of bazaars across Uzbekistan, Chorsu Bazaar, is Tashkent’s oldest market. It’s easily identified by its big blue dome which houses acres of produce, fruits, dried fruits, and nuts. You can find pistachios from Iran, dates from Saudi Arabia and apricot kernels from Uzbekistan that are delicious, especially the salted ones. I also found a section outside that carried fruits and vegetables, including the big flat bread. In the clothing and fabrics section of the market you can find embroidered bags and beautiful Suzani embroidered throws.
Minor Mosque: This is a fairly new mosque and is also known as the white mosque for the color of its marble. While women cannot enter the mosque, men can use the circular prayer hall to pray. Noteworthy is the beautifully ornate mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca and the ceiling.
Khast Imom Square: The spiritual heart of Tashkent for many centuries, today the square is a vast complex of religious sites such as the Barak Khan Medressa, the Hazrat Imam Mosque and the small Muyi Mubarak Library which holds the oldest Quran in the world. Barak Khan Medressa is a 16th century medressa, located inside the Khast Imom square. What used to be student rooms are now occupied by shops surrounding the central courtyard. I found some beautiful necklaces, locally made scarves, miniature paintings and even observed an artist at work inside one of the workshops.
TIP: When you travel to Uzbekistan, most hotels tend to collect your passports in the beginning and you will likely need a passport and hotel registration slip to buy a SIM card. The internet has opened up quite a bit here in Uzbekistan so WIFI at the hotels is not a problem.
The walled town of Khiva is a delightful labyrinth of narrow mud-walled alleyways and stunning blue mosaics. Strolling around old town early morning before the tourists get here is worth it because you will be able to truly experience the place in a very different way. I caught an old woman baking bread in a traditional oven when I walked down one of the alleyways, I also saw many brightly dressed cleaning ladies sweeping the dust on the streets and in front of the monuments. A single ticket, sold at the west gate can be used to gain access to most of the city’s sights and you can use this ticket for up to two days. The ticket costs approximately $6 per person, including a $1.90 camera fee. You will see many souvenir stalls in front of the monuments, giving you a chance to do some shopping for local items.
Must-See Places in Khiva
Our local guide in Khiva took us on a walking tour to explore the walled city.
- Itchan Kala: This is the inner town surrounded by brick walls some 10m high. Imagine, this used to be the last resting place of the merchants and caravans before crossing the dessert to Iran. There are several outstanding structures here you should visit like the Kalta-Minor Minaret, the Djuma mosque, the mausoleums, the madrasas and the two magnificent palaces built in the 19th
- Tash Hauli: I loved visiting this palace that had some incredible tile work including blue ceramic tiles, more than 150 rooms and 9 courtyards.
- Juma Mosque: Built in the 10th century around a small garden, the main chamber here is divided by 218 columns.
- The Kalta-Minor Minaret: It’s a large, stubby turquoise tiled minaret, and legend has it that Mohammed Amin Khan who constructed it wanted to build a minaret so high that it could be seen all the way to Bukhara. But unfortunately the Khan dropped dead, leaving the beautifully tiled structure unfinished.
- Isfandiyar Palace: This palace is a quick 10 minute walk outside the west gate and it’s home to gold-embroidered ceilings and opulent chandeliers.
Meet the Local Artisans
- One of the advantages of traveling to Uzbekistan with a company like Acanela Expeditions, is that they specialize in trips that help you connect with locals. In Khiva that entailed a visit to a local family’s home inside the walled town to learn how to cook a traditional meal. This gave me such an incredible opportunity to connect deeper with the local Uzbeki people. I also learnt how to make Dill pasta, which was surprisingly tasty. During the cooking class, we bonded with the family over similarities and differences in the foods we cooked back in our homes, and I realized we are not so different after all. Food has a wonderful way of bringing people together.
Bukhara was a major medieval center in its heyday for Islamic theology and culture. You will still see hundreds of mosques, medrassas, bazaars, and caravanserais from the 9th-17th centuries. A visit to Uzbekistan must include Bukhara. Even though I was traveling with Acanela, there were always opportunities to break from the group and explore on my own. There was usually free time after sightseeing and before dinner so some of us took advantage of that to take a quick nap or to explore further.
Must-See Places in Bukhara
- Po I Kalyan Complex: My favorite structure to visit in Bukhara is the Po I Kalyan complex situated around the Kalon minaret. The Kalon mosque dates back to the 15th At sunrise I caught some incredible sunburst shots inside the courtyard and had the chance to interact with local women who were coming to the mosque courtyard to meet with their friends.
- The Ark of Bukhara: A massive fortress that was built and occupied around the 5th century AD, today it’s an archealogical museum. TIP: Go up to the very top for the view of the city and its minarets.
- Bolo Haouz Mosque: This is a stunning mosque with 40 pillars (actually 20 are reflections in the pond in front). Don’t forget to look up at the entrance’s ceiling. The interior of the mosque is typical 18th century Central Asian style and just gorgeous.
- Lyabi Hauz Complex: This is where you go in the evenings for a stroll or for dinner. It’s a 17th century square with music playing in the evenings and a lovely pond surrounded by restaurants.
Meet the Local Artisans
- To really go beyond the tourist sites, Acanela Expeditions took us to visit Abdullah, a 6th generation ceramic artisan, who lives in Gijduvon, a small town 50 km east of Bukhara. We visited his house, his studio, dabbled in some pottery and learnt how he’s reviving the ceramic art form, passed down from generations in his family.
- We also visited a workshop in Bukhara by Rahman, an embroidery maker, who specializes in Suzani (needle work) embroidery. He also showed us how to make the national dish Palov with 15 spices in his beautiful kitchen courtyard. I ended up buying the most beautiful embroidered bag for my mom and an embroidered tree of life wall hanging.
Samarkand was invaded and destroyed by Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies. But the real rebuilding as a great city is attributed to the founder of the Timurid dynasty, Tamerlane (aka Timur). No travel to Uzbekistan would be complete without a visit to Samarkand.
Must-See Places in Samarkand
- Registan: The most impressive sight in Samarkand is the Registan Square. The vast square is flanked by three large portals with inner courtyards. Each of the three portals have their own unique décor and inner courtyards. In the past, the square was the meeting point for all artisans and farmers selling their goods. The three medrassas in the square are: Ulughbek, Sherdor and Tilla-Kori. The Ulughbek portal’s inner courtyard has entrances to the student learning rooms which are now converted into shops. The Sher-Dor Madrassah’s inner courtyard also contains student rooms that now play host to a bazaar. The Tilla Kori madrassah has a blue domed tower which belongs to the mosque to the left of the portal. Stepping into the inner courtyard you will find the mosque to the left and after you’re done admiring the incredibly stunning ceilings and interior, walk around through the souvenir stalls inside. I found myself an antique necklace and a beautifully designed local vase. Today different concerts, celebrations and events are held in this Registan square. Don’t miss this place when you travel to Uzbekistan.
- Gur e Amir: Mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane). Believe it or not this place actually served as the precursor and model for the later great Mughal architecture tombs including the Taj Mahal in India, built by Timur’s descendants.
- Shah I Zinda: The most stunning avenue of mausoleums and the richest display of tile works I’ve ever seen and contains the most important Muslim shrine in the region.
- The Siob Bazaar: Walking through here is delightful because I saw so many dried fruits and nuts I haven’t seen anywhere else. Don’t miss the dried apricot with stuffed raisins and walnuts!
Meet the Local Artisans
- Our Acanela guide took us on a short road trip to visit the Samarkand Silk Carpet Factory with co-founder and managing director Abdullah Badghisi, a fascinating and witty guy. He will show you the silk worm cocoons, the dye process and take you into his carpet weaving workshop where you can meet the women who are the skilled weavers behind the beautiful carpets. He has teamed up with the UN for a program that helps provide work for disadvantaged women in his factory. I ended up with a stunning silk shawl from the nearby Fergana Valley and a small carpet for my wall collection of carpets.
Tashkent: Aster Hotel Group is a 4 star hotel in Tashkent.
Khiva: Asia Hotel Khiva is where I stayed and it was perfect as it was walking distance to old town. My room was pretty basic, the bathroom didn’t have hot water that particular night, but the lobby and restaurant were beautiful.
Bukhara: Hotel Sasha & Son is a three star hotel that reminded me of a Riadh in Moroco. It was cozy and decorated traditionally with an inner courtyard. The breakfast room was charming and cute. The rooms are spacious and lovely.
Samarkand: Emir Han is a 4 star hotel and is farther away from the sights but boasts spacious rooms and a buffet breakfast that will get you through the day.
WHAT TO EAT
I enjoyed the Uzbek cuisine very much and found it flavorful but oily. My favorite dish was the Plov that we tried in Tashkent as well as in Bukhara in Rahman’s workshop. I also hogged on the local bread (naan or khorezm bread), shahlik, shivit oshi, and the delicious lagman noodles. The country’s zest for salads is surprising given their preference for meat, but I had some of the most delicious salads here.
- The Plov Center: This is a fascinating place not to be missed. Walk through the courtyard and first gaze at the large vats of plov being prepared right in front of you. Once they plate the meal, it gets sent inside. Then walk into the restaurant and find yourself a table and get ready to enjoy your plov. This place is popular with locals.
- Terrassa Café: My favorite spot here is the Terrassa Café which has a stunning view over part of the city and is great for people watching and letting your imagination run wild about caravans and camels and silk!
- Esaulboshi: An old caravanserai from the Silk Road, dinner here is lovely and traditional in a casual setting.
- Chasmai-Mirob Restaurant: This is bang opposite the Po I Kalyan complex and is a fantastic spot to observe sunset over the complex while enjoying a meal.
I cannot stress how beautiful this country is and how safe I felt walking the streets and interacting with the locals. Just trust me and go explore this hidden gem waiting to be discovered. You’ll thank me later! If you would prefer to travel to Uzbekistan with a tour company, consider Acanela Expeditions. Sustainable travel is what we should be striving for and with Acanela that’s exactly what you will get. I also met some amazing fellow travelers on this tour and thrived on the exchange of ideas as we learnt about each other and from each other based on all our different life experiences.
About the Author:
Preethi Chandrasekhar is a freelance travel writer/influencer with a passion for sharing her travel stories to inspire people to explore more of this beautiful world. She’s interested in experiential travel and writes frequently about off the beaten path destinations. Follow her on Instagram and her blog, The Eager Traveler, for more of her travel pics and stories!
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