Because after reading my travelogue on Uzbekistan and seeing the photos, many of you asked for it :) But this time I will keep it short!
Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia, and tourism is yet to catch up with the place. It has not yet been exploited as a main stream destination and is largely seen as off-beat. Most of the tourists we came across were aged couples from Europe and Russia. The rest of the tourists we met, were guys (and men!) from India in groups of 50-100, in age groups ranging from 30 to 50.
Fortunately (and unfortunately), we have direct flights from Delhi to Tashkent almost everyday! The state-carrier Uzbekistan Airways flies almost everyday from Delhi/Amritsar and it is a 2.5 hour flight, that is as long as flight between Mumbai and Kolkata! The unfortunate part is that the flight is filled with guys, with only a handful of females. They all travel to Tashkent for some late night activities, because it is cheaper and faster to reach there than Bangkok, and you get a choice of Russians! It was very uncomfortable for me and my wife to travel with such groups on the flights to and from Tashkent. Honestly speaking, it was more inconvenient and especially embarrassing to travel with such groups than with Hajj pilgrims on Saudi Arabian Airlines last year to Turkey.
That apart, we had a wonderful experience! The weather was slightly on the warmer side for the first few days, but it got better during the last phase. The people of Uzbekistan are lovely, and we were welcomed everywhere with broad smiles and by singing Raj Kapoor songs :) One group of children invited us to a birthday celebration, and danced and sang Leja Leja from KKKG ! It was that overwhelming!
Coming back to travel tips and my promise to keep it short!
1. Visas: Indians need visa to travel to Uzbekistan, and getting one is not so easy. You need a letter of invitation (LOI) from a registered tourism company in Uzbekistan that is faxed directly to the embassy in Delhi. You then send in your passport and documents to get the visa stamped. Tourism companies will send you a letter of invitation if you book your hotels or guided tours through them –with or without a small additional fees. We booked all our hotels and train travel through Advantour and they provided us the Visa LOI.
2. Stay: There are some great and some not so good hotels. Most good hotels have their websites, or Facebook pages, or are listed on the Uzbek tour companies websites. You should look at the room rates there and the reviews on TripAdvisor but book your entire stay at hotels of your choice only through the tour companies. We stayed at the following:
a. Tashkent – Hotel Uzbekistan – An old Soviet era hotel, brilliantly located at the heart of the city, with a metro station just under it. The rooms were okay, and service was terrible. I would still recommend it for the connectivity you get from there and if the hotel isn’t that important to you. Paid $85/night for 2 people including breakfast and free wifi. (The rates written at the hotel’s reception were $300 for the same room, so beware!)
b. Samarkand – Jahongir B&B – A family run house converted into a B&B. The host is a wonderful guy and we were made to feel very comfortable. Rooms were strictly okay, service was great. Location is a stone’s throw away from Registan, the main attraction in Samarkand. They even have grape plantations on their roof and you can just pluck some just outside your room. Paid $70/night for 2, including lovely homemade breakfast and free wifi.
c. Bukhara – Amelia Boutique – A 19th century Jewish merchant’s house converted into a lovely boutique hotel. The host Bakhodir is a really sweet and very friendly guy! Rooms were beautiful, each of the 12 rooms was hand crafted. Located just outside the Lyabi Hauz complex. Paid $70/night for 2, including a really filling breakfast in a beautiful 19th century dining room! Free wifi with a 25 character long secure password :D
3. Travel: We took the high speed Afrosiyob train from Tashkent to Samarkand, and the express Sharq train from Samarkand to Bukhara and back to Tashkent. Train journeys were very comfortable, but the AC was not switched on in the Sharqs. That made it a bit stuffy when it was hot. Booked all train tickets in advance via Advantour.
4. Food: We found the food to be a bit bland. Though I eat meat, I am not a hard core non-vegetarian, and most of their food was lamb or beef. Chicken was available at select places. Bread/Naan is available universally and so are Coca Cola and ice creams! There weren’t much options to explore in the local cuisine. Tashkent has its share of global restaurants but they are expensive. There were limited but decent options for Western food in Samarkand and Bukhara. Not recommended for strict vegetarians unless they can survive on fruits and basic salads.
5. Language: We did not face any language problems, as most people in hotels and restaurants could speak English.
6. Money: This could be an interesting challenge! $ 1 = 2,100 Uzbek Soms = 2 notes + change. If you exchange $ 200, you get 400 notes, that is 4 fat bundles of money. Wallets are useless since they money won’t fit, and credit cards are mostly useless. Carry as many USD (or EURO) you need. Exchange to Soms only as many you would need for 2-3 days at a time. Also, you cannot carry more USD our of Uzbekistan than what you got into Uzbekistan.
7. Shopping: There is nothing much to buy in Uzbekistan other than souvenirs. All the things they sell there, be it carpets, or linen, or porcelain, or handloom, is all available in India and mostly at a much lower price. Also, much of the stuff sold in Uzbekistan is anyway imported from India :) Don’t be surprised to see a beautiful salwar kameez for sale in every alternate shop!
I think these many tips are sufficient to give you a start! All our hotels and intercity train transfers were booked through Advantour. Yuriy, our point of contact at Advantour was very prompt and extremely professional in all his interactions. He even gave us suggestions and helped me arrange two lovely cakes for my wife’s birthday! Once the bookings were done, Advantour sent our Visa LOIs to the embassy. We then sent our passports and filled forms to Delhi through a local tourism agency in Hyderabad that helps with visa applications.
You may choose to book your tour via Thomas Cook or the likes, but you would end up paying much more if you go through them.
We completed our 8 nights, 9 days trip within Rs 1.5 L (total for 2 people). This includes cost of visa, expenditure on shopping, and flights from Hyderabad to Delhi as well!
Lastly, we found the place extremely safe even for women. In fact there are more women than men in Uzbekistan, in line with the rest of former Soviet Union.
There was strict checking of passports and visas at all train and metro stations. Moving around without your passport would not be a great idea. Also, each hotel you’d stay at, would register you at the local registering authority and it is necessary to preserve the hotel registration slips. It gets complicated if you choose to stay at a friend’s place or couch surf since then you need to do it yourself and it may not be a pleasant experience.
For many more tips and FAQs, do visit Advantour’s page!