Central Asia still seems to be cut off from the rest of the world and I knew almost nothing about the “STAN” countries until I explored the world of travel blogging. We have been ignorant and clueless about Central Asia for a very long time. For some of us it doesn’t even exist on the map.
When I first spoke at home about my travel plans to Uzbekistan, they thought it sounded somewhat like a mystery land, they even struggled to locate it on a map. I spent a good 10 days in Uzbekistan, however, I regret spending a very short time in Kazakhstan before flying back to India. Now I can’t wait to talk all about it. Yes. I am super excited about the miles loaded in Central Asia which follows the footprints of famous people like Alexander the Great and Genghis khan.
A little about Uzbekistan before I share the itinerary, some important tips on travel and budget that will not burn a hole in your pocket.
ABOUT CENTRAL ASIA & UZBEKISTAN
Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic people and the Silk Road. The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that connected the west and east. This region consists of the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan , Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan popularly known as “the STAN” .
Uzbekistan is a historically rich, double landlocked country traversed by traders for centuries. It has largely preserved and restored ancient architecture that’s luring travellers. It is a young country that gained independence in 1991 from the Soviet rule. Uzbek & Russian is widely spoken & 94% of the population follow Islam. Once notorious for all wrong reasons, Uzbekistan is now safe to travel and people are really friendly especially if you are an Indian simply because they madly love Bollywood. Brownie point. Yayyy.
— UZBEKISTAN ITINERARY —
We settled on a route that would take us through the country’s highlights. Our itinerary starts and ends in Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan as you would fly – in & out of here. Samarkand & Bukhara are important medieval Silk Road cities that you can’t miss. Khiva is a small sized city referred to a living museum. However, outside of these four main cities, there is literally nobody. Yurt camp is where you can get a taste of nomadic life.
Take a seat back and enjoy our visual journey through this rather unexplored country with a fascinating history that is just 4 hours away from India.
Day 1: TASHKENT
The capital and cosmopolitan city is a mix of modern and Soviet-era architecture. It was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1966 which destroyed much of the old city. It was later rebuilt in Soviet style with tree-lined streets, numerous fountains, plazas and parks.
HOW TO REACH: Fly to Tashkent. Uzbekistan Airways operate direct flights to number of destinations around the world and also to Delhi, India.
To get to the hotel it is cheaper if you step out of the airport and flag down any car. You will have to negotiate. A 20 minutes ride to the hotel would cost anywhere between 3 – 5 USD. Also it would be convenient to download Yandex app to book a taxi.
THINGS TO DO: Tashkent can be explored either in the beginning or in the end of the trip depending on your flight. Travelling by metro is cheap and convenient. Ticket Cost: 0.15 USD fixed for any destination. Did you know the underground metro was actually a nuclear bomb shelter and hence it is nuclear explosion safe? Each station has interesting and unique art.
Alternately every car in Tashkent can be a taxi. Old Chevrolet Matiz & Sparks dominate the roads. Just flag down and fix a price before getting in. You can bargain if you think the driver is quoting high.
We had half a day so we visited plazas, walked around the city, ate street food and sipped local beer. We preferred to save our visit to the museums and Chorsu Bazaar to the end of our trip.
WHERE TO STAY: Accommodation is affordable and there are Hotels, B&Bs & Guesthouses in all big cities.
- Low Budget: Art Hostel (Highly recommended with plunge pool, kitchen & sparking clean shared bathrooms). Others: Topchan Hostel & Art Studio
- Mid-Range to Luxury: Ichan Qal’a Premium Class Hotel , Hotel Uzbekistan & Hyatt Regency
WHERE TO EAT: Plov is the national food of Uzbekistan
- Central Asian Plov Centre
Day 2 & 3: SAMARKAND
Samarkand is known as Jewel of Islam. The highlight of the trip, without a doubt will be the turquoise domes, minarets with beautiful inscriptions, large mosques, intricate walls and popping blue ceramics in Samarkand. The larger than life monuments have been restored to its original grandeur.
HOW TO REACH: Afrosiyob Fast Train is everybody’s pick. Costs 8 USD for a 3 hour journey. However try to book tickets 3 – 5 days in advance, as there is a very high demand. You can book your tickets online or at the station. Unfortunately we went on day 1 after we landed and the fast train tickets were sold out. We bought tickets with Uzbekistan railways and the business class costs 9 USD. It was very comfortable and we made so many friends that we really didn’t mind the 5 hours ride to reach Samarkand.
THINGS TO DO: Visit the Top Sights
Registan: Means Sandy Place or Desert. It boasts of a public square flanked by 3 madrassas. Make sure you visit Registan early evening and stay until dark when they start switching the lights on. With lights lit up, the Registan looks grander in the dark. There is a light show every evening. By tipping 5 USD to the guard you would be allowed to climb up a madrassa. You can get a breathtaking view from the top and take good aerial shots. You can pay extra 5 USD to watch the dance & song show performed by locals. Note: They have separate tickets for Day entry and Night Entry (from 7 PM). Check at the counter while buying tickets.
Bibi Khanym Mosque: Located behind Registan is this huge mosque with its three domes, galleries and the open courtyard intended to accommodate all men in Samarkand for Friday prayers. Most part of the mosque is being restored. Did you know that Indian slaves and more than 100 elephants were used during the construction?
Shah-I-Zinda: Translates to The Living King and is a collection of mausoleums. This is my favourite sight in Samarkand. This complex was formed over eight centuries(from 11th till 19th) and now includes more than twenty buildings with elaborate tile work. It’s a must visit and here I fell in love with blue.
Gur-e-Amir: It is a mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Timur built in 1404 which has been restored. With an azure dome the complex is richly decorated with carved bricks and various mosaics.
Did you know the Taj Mahal in India was built based on this model?
Siyob Bazaar: It is located right next to Bibi Khanym Mosque. This open air market is a good place to shop for dry fruits, sweets, breads, fresh fruits, vegetables and sweets. Also there are shops selling souvenirs, ceramics and traditional Uzbek clothes.
Shakhrisabz : Around 80 kms from Samarkand is the birthplace of 14th-century Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur. Shakhrisabz is in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Except for Shakhrisabz all other sights are at walking distance from each other. It was chilling cold when we were in Samarkand, sometimes we took taxi paying 10000 som (1.2 USD) or lesser between the sights. Each sight has separate entry tickets.
WHERE TO STAY:
- Low Budget: We stayed in B&B Emir which is right next to Gur-e-Amir. Nice courtyard with Breakfast included but it’s a 10 minute walk to restaurants and they don’t have a kitchen. Tilyakori Hotel & Amir Hostel are highly reviewed hotels.
- Mid-Range: Rabat Boutique Hotel & Platan.
WHERE TO EAT:
- Restaurant Samarkand, Registon & Bibikhanum Tea House are places I remember.
Tip: Visit all the sights early in the morning to avoid crowd and to get some good clicks.
Day 4: SAMARKAND – NURATA- YURT CAMP
The wanderlust in us wanted to taste a bit of nomadic life so we decided to stay in a yurt camp in the middle of a dessert. After browsing for multiple hours we settled with a 2 day private car package offered by yurt camp Sputnik Navoi.
PACKAGE ITINERARY: Our package tour took care of our travel. Pick up was from our hotel in Samarkhand. Drive to Nurata city. Lunch at a localite house. Stop at “Chashma” memorial complex and ruins of Harnisone of Alexender the Great. Drive to Yurt Camp and settle in. Camel Ride. Dinner at camp with local wine.
WHERE TO STAY: We were put up in Sputnik Navoi. There are few more yurt camps near Nurata (Aydar, Safari) but Sputnik Navoi is highly recommended. It has clean bathrooms, hot water and well-designed yurts. Request for discounts
Note: If you don’t want to take up a package, you can book a taxi & a yurt camp separately. At the time of our travel the taxis were quoting 100 – 150 USD for 2 days with a pickup from Samarkand & drop to Bukhara the next day. Yurt camps were charging 20-40 USD per person. However taking a package worked better for us. Whether you go with a package tour or book separately always ask for discounts.
HOW TO BOOK YURT CAMP & TAXI: This is tricky. I recommend you search online and contact the yurt camp directly for best prices over an agent. Indy-guide is the best forum to look out for taxi with a fair price or check with your hotel. You can also get a taxi when you are in Samarkand by simply asking around. If you need more details or need help with booking feel free to contact me.
Day 5: YURT CAMP – AYDARKUL LAKE – BUKHARA
PACKAGE ITINERARY: Breakfast at the yurt camp. Check out & drive to the Aydarkul lake shore. Have a picnic at lakeside. Drive to Nurata and visit Gidjuvan Pottery Workshop. Drive to Bukhara and drop at the hotel.
Gidjuvan Ceramics School & Museum Ceramics is the most ancient art of Uzbekistan. Gidjuvan is home for the sixth generation of potters from Narzullayevs family. Here you will get a tour of the museum and workshop. The Museum has a vast collection of works from popular ceramic masters of Uzbekistan and is famous worldwide .You can even pick a souvenir hand made by skilled craftsmen, but sadly it’s overpriced.
THINGS TO DO AFTER REACHING BUKHARA: You will probably reach around 4 pm. Today you can go for Hammom – a traditional bath house, an experience that makes you awkwardly uncomfortable. There are 3 Hammom’s in Bukhara. We went to Hammom Kunjak which was a stone’s throw away from the Kalon Minaret. It is for women only and we paid 150000 som each for 1 hour. Timing: 9 AM – 7 PM. Note: Hammom is a public bath house and you have to strip completely. It is available for private groups as well. You will be served tea, scrubbed & washed down, massaged and stretched then rubbed all over with ginger paste as you lay face down on floor before being washed again. Men need not be disappointed because Hammom Bozori Kord gives you an authentic bath house experience and is open to both gender. Note for women: There are no masseuse in this hammom and the massage is done by men. The other Hammom close to Lyab-I-Plaza was temporarily closed.
Day 5 & 6: BUKHARA
Next stop was Bukhara, Central Asia’s ancient city dating back to 2500 years. Bukhara has more than 140 architectural monuments. Allow yourself some time to wander around the alleys, shop at bazaars, bump into tea houses and soak in the old world charm of “The City of Museums”.
HOW TO REACH: We reached Bukhara by car from Yurt Camp. If you are skipping Yurt Camp and coming from Samarkand you can take the Afrosiyob Fast Train to reach Bukhara. Take a shared taxi or a mini bus if the train timings isn’t suitable.
THINGS TO DO: Monuments in Bukhara might not be as impressive as Samarkand but it was love at first sight when I reached Bukhara just in time for sunset.
Po-i-Kalyan, ensemble of two impressive madrassas and the towering Kalon minaret.
- Kalon/Kalyan Minaret: This is a nine hundred year old minaret (47 metres tall) built in 1127 AD with 14 ornamental bands and earthquake proofing. The top of the tower can be reached by 105 inner stairs but is closed for tourists. It is also known as Tower Of Death because it is here that criminals were executed for centuries by throwing them off the top. However the accuracy of the narrative is being questioned.
- Kalon Mosque: It is right at the foot of Kalon Minaret and can accommodate 12000 people.
- Mir-i-Arab Madrasah: It stands opposite to Kalon Mosque and is an Islamic educational centre. Entry inside is restricted for tourists.
Abdul Aziz Khan Madrasah: Bukhara’s most astounding Madrasah houses a museum of wood carving art. During the period between 16-18th centuries, wood art flourished in Bukhara. This was widely used to decorate madrassahs, mosques, build doors and pillars.
Ark: The royal town within a town was occupied by Emir’s from 5th century until it fell into the hands of Russia in 1920. The outer wall of this massive fortress still remains strong and a little of what was left after destruction has been restored.
Chor Minar: This cute four dome building was earlier a gatehouse to a madrassah which is nowhere to be seen now. Did you know the Char Minar in Hyderabad referred this model?
Lab-I-Hauz Square: Meaning ‘By the pond’ is the name of the area surrounding one of the few remaining hauz, or pond, in the city of Bukhara. Lab-i-Hauz square has a pond in the centre surrounded by a 16th century Madrassah, restaurants, cafes and ice cream parlours.
Bazaars: Another Bukhara highlight are the Bazaars. They have some best collections of clothes, souvenirs , puppets, wood art , ceramics and more. Visit the Puppet Museum around the Lab-I-hauz square.
WHERE TO STAY: Bukhara is definitely going to spoil you with plenty of choices. It is ideal to stay near Lab-I-Hauz square as it is walkable to all the sights, bazaars and restaurants.
- Budget: We stayed in Grand Nodirbek near Lab-I-Hauz square. Umarxon, Old Bukhara & Hotel Volida Boutique are hotels I recommend.
- Mid Range: Komil Boutique Hotel & Boutique Hotel Minzifa are my top picks.
WHERE TO EAT:
- Head to Minzifa or Lyabi House for international cuisine and drinks. Lyabi Hauz (Not Lyabi House) around the Lab-i-Plaza has a good outdoor seating. Old Bukhara Restaurant is another famous place to dine.
- Almost all B&Bs have their very own Choy (tea) cafes in their courtyard. Visit Komil Boutique , Amulet and Silk Tea House for Tea. Komil also has a 19th century untouched restaurant but prior food ordering is required if you want to have a meal here. Go to Chashma Mirob Café overlooking the Po-i-Kalyan complex to unwind and watch the sun go down.
Did I tell you that I might have had zillion cups of green tea in Uzbekistan.
Day 7 & 8: KHIVA
Khiva is often overlooked on Uzbekistan silk route because of its distance from Bukhara or Samarkand. Itchan Kala is the walled inner town in Khiva earlier famous for trading slaves. Popularly known as the Living Museum it surely justifies the name. Itchan Kala has retained more than 40 monuments and 200 houses.
THINGS TO DO: On your first day we bought ticket to Itchan Kala (the walled city) that cost 100000 som per person (12USD) at the west gate entrance. This single ticket was valid for 2 days, with this we can visit many museums, mosques etc. inside this walled city. However 2-3 sights have an additional entry fee.
Note: You are allowed to climb up 3 towers inside the walled city by paying a nominal entry fee for a bird’s eye view of Khiva. You can watch the magical sunset with hoards of birds flying by. If you are looking for a bit of an adventure then climb up the Juma Masjid tower for free. From what I remember it is around 85 steep steps to the top. Hiring a Guide in Itchan Kala is a bit pricey, the fee is 20USD – 30USD based on the number of hours.
HOW TO REACH: Most of the locals & travellers take shared taxi to commute between Bukhara to Khiva. It takes close to 7 hours with one or two breaks. We asked our hotel to book a shared taxi for us. It costs 120000 som (15 USD) per person and you will be picked from the hotel. If not you can go to Karvan Bazaar which is the shared taxi and mini-bus stand and wait for taxi/bus to fill up to begin the journey. Start as early as 8 AM -9 AM to Khiva. I was told there is a train that run between these cities. Check online for it.
WHERE TO STAY:
- I stayed in Alibek, bang opposite to the Itchan Kala west gate entrance. I rate this place high on location & breakfast even though the rooms are little smaller. Meros B&B and Zukhro Boutique Hotel are other highly rated properties.
Did you know that you could stay in a Madrasah (pictured below) that is now converted to a Hotel? Well Orient Star Hotel is inside the Itchan Kala and cost around 60 USD per night for a room to stay in this historical building. Book through this booking.com ⇒LINK and by doing so you will get approx 15 USD added to your account which you can redeem for the stay here or in any other hotel worldwide.
WHERE TO EAT:
- Terrassa Café serves delicious food and if you climb further up to the roof top in the evening it will be a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset. Zarafshan Restaurant is another place I can recommend.
Day 9: TASHKENT
HOW TO REACH: On the previous night (Day 8) we flew to Tashkent from Urgench Airport (Nearest airport to Khiva). Flight ticket cost us 45 USD each. To get to the Airport from Khiva we booked a taxi for 5USD and it was a scenic 30 minutes’ drive. If you don’t want to travel by air other option is to take 15 hour long train to Tashkent.
THINGS TO DO: We spent half a day in Chorsu Bazaar visiting the different markets. I ate horse meat for the first time, shopped for ceramics, tasted variety of food and tried my hands in making bread. Visit Hazrat Imam Complex which has the oldest copy of Quran in the world & Amir Timur Museum & Square
Tashkent has a good nightlife. Why not head for a party on your last night in Uzbekistan.
Day 10: DEPART TASHKENT
— EXTEND THE ITINERARY —
Aral Sea & Moynaq: You could visit the shrinking Aral Sea which formerly was the fourth-largest lake in the world. A wreckage of ships and abundance of sea shells is the proof. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters” and what remains today is less than 10% of what it used to be in 1950s. It is a victim of the Soviet Union’s agricultural policies in the late 50s. It would be ideal to join a tour group to visit this place.
— ITINERARY IN SHORT (Based on days) —
1 week – Tashkent- Samarkand- Bukhara Khiva
10 days – Tashkent- Samarkand- Nurata- Yurt Camp- Bukhara- Khiva
12 days – Tashkent- Samarkand- Nurata- Yurt Camp- Bukhara- Khiva- Aral Sea
— IMPORTANT INFORMATION —
When To Visit: During spring and autumn – late March to May and September to early November.
Currency: The local currency is Uzbekistan Som. At the time of my travel (Oct 2018) 1 USD = 8170 Som. Carry currency in USD. Get some of it exchanged to som at the airport. If you need more som during the trip you can exchange in banks or high end hotels. USD was widely accepted. However for Entry Tickets, internal transfer, hammom etc. they expected us to pay in som. For Hotels we either paid by card or USD.
Sim: I bought a sim at the Tashkent airport on the first day by paying 5 USD. I highly recommend you buy one for internet service as it helped us immensely with navigation and google translate. Did I say the language could be a barrier since very few people speak and understand English. Wifi connectivity at hotels are bad and having Internet on your phone comes in real handy.
Recommendation: You can plan a trip to Uzbekistan along with any neighbouring countries like Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan like we did. You can fly or cross the borders by land. Check the Visa requirement before planning your trip.
Internal Travel: In Tashkent we went around in Metro and in Samarkand we took city Taxis. In Bukhara we walked around and took public bus to go outside the city. In Khiva we simply walked inside the walled city until dark. Airport Transfers cost us a bit more. Tip: Taxi drivers are sure to quote high and you can negotiate the price.
How To Dress: Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, however people in capital city of Tashkent were seen mostly in western clothes like jeans, skirts & dresses. In cities like Samarkand, Bukhara & Khiva you see most of the locals covering their head with veil and in traditional outfits. Avoid short / tight clothes & spaghetti so that you don’t feel out of the place during your visit here.
— UZBEKISTAN BUDGET —
Getting To Uzbekistan: Air or Land border crossing
Air: Uzbekistan Airways operates direct flights from Delhi. You can get a return ticket for as low as 240 USD if you book in advance. In addition I took an internal flight between Urgench (Khiva) to Tashkent that was 45 USD.
Land: You can cross borders from the neighbouring STAN countries. Sometimes a dispute might lead to temporary border closure. Check online before you travel.
Evisa: Otherwise lengthy visa rules has been eased for Indians and nationals of 51 countries. Thanks to the efforts of our visionary Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, the relation between the 2 nations (India – Uzbek) has reached greater heights. You can now apply for your visa online by paying just 20 USD. Shouldn’t take more than 2 days to get your e-visa. For nationals of other countries check if your country falls into the e-visa list.
Accommodation: Since I was travelling with my friend, we took up a private room even in Hostels. We did all our bookings online with highly rated properties 20 days prior to our trip. For 8 nights and for 2 of us we paid 275 USD in total excluding Yurt Camp. Which is 137 USD (10000 INR ) per person. That’s an average of 18 USD per person per day.
Entry Tickets: Entry tickets for sights were expensive for foreigners. In total I might have paid around 30 USD.
Food: Food isn’t expensive. PLOV (Pulav) should cost you anywhere between 12k – 16k som. Samsa (Puff) around 5k som. Manti (Dumplings) 10k – 15k som. Soups & Salads 12k – 20K som. Lagman (Dry Noodle Dish) 15k – 20k som. Pot of Tea 3k – 8k som. I always munched on biscuits that we kept picking in supermarkets. You should definitely try them as well. Note: Beef and meat oil is added in most of the dishes. It might be a little difficult for vegetarians to make them understand not to add meat (Use google translate to specify). They cook some delicious veg dishes as well. Just that the options would be a lot lesser. Throughout our stay breakfast was included in the room rates. All in all I would have spent 70 USD for 10 days.
Drinks: I had beer and wine occasionally. The local wine & vodka is really cheap especially in supermarkets. The vodka & wine bottle I picked was 2.5 USD each. In the Lyabi House, recommended earlier, the wine bottle was 5.5 USD. We would have spent close to 16 USD on drinks for 2 the entire trip.
1N Yurt Camp Package: For two of us the discounted price for Desert A package was 150 USD with a private car. They quote anywhere between 150 -200 USD.
Shop: Ceramics & Ikat prints are everywhere. Dry fruits and spices are popular. Local dresses, hats, tea sets and clay models dominate the market. Shopping is not an expensive affair if you know the art of bargaining. I wouldn’t like to add the shopping cost as it drastically varies between individuals. When to Bargain: While you shop and take taxis.
All in all inclusive of flights for 10 days trip I spent: 810 USD (60k INR).
Excluding flights & Visa: 430 USD (31K INR)
• Are you a backpacker? Well a 10 day trip to Uzbekistan exclusive of flights & visa can easily be done in 300 USD (20K – 22k INR) staying in hostels, taking shared taxis and skipping the yurt camp.
• If you are a luxury traveller: Book a land tour in advance with any of the reputed companies.
• Did you say budget traveller? You are at the right page, just follow our Uzbekistan Itinerary.
SO THAT YOU KNOW: We were 2 girls who travelled to Uzbekistan together and split our total cost equally. Uzbek welcomed us with smiling faces, made us feel completely safe even while we walked around late in the evening. (However check the travel advisory before going). People went crazy to take pictures with 2 Indian girls who they thought were brave enough to travel so far without their family. Many of them were from the neighbouring STAN countries – Tajikistan & Turkmenistan. I can give, not one but, a million reasons to travel here. More on this in the other blog post.
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