The modern Indian (especially North Indian) culture has more roots in the seldom discussed country of Uzbekistan than most would believe. While the Guptas and Tomaras have been rulers of North India for a long time, the area was plundered by Taimur in the 15th century. This completely reset the culture and even some of the history as we read it. Post that, the Mughals drove all the development of art and architecture. Both Taimur and Babar were born in Uzbekistan.
Planning a trip to Uzbekistan seemed quite a cakewalk till we decided to complicate it by adding a side trip to Kazakistan – which was a true nightmare. At some point, better sense prevailed and Kazakistan was dropped but by that time the direct flight from Tashkent to Delhi was sold out. So we flew into Amritsar and then took a weekend in Dharamshala. Once I got down to it, I realized that Uzbekistan has damn good infrastructure and there has been good intent to remove all the Soviet time red tape around getting things done. Where they have struggled is to find the right technology implementation due to a heavy cultural reluctance to import anything. The flight is quite decent but the airline website can be a nightmare to navigate. They have bullet trains connecting the main cities that are quite amazing, but the booking system is from decades ago and you are better of trying to find a travel agent to book these for you.
There are 3 major cities, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara that are very well connected with flights, trains, and even cabs. There are two other attractions: some wilderness in the Fargana valley (birthplace of Babar) and the city of Khiva that has some history. Both of these are not easy to get to and the flights or long road trips didn’t seem worth the effort. We spent 2 nights in Tashkent, 3 in Samarkand, and 1 in Bukhara. In hindsight, another night in Bukhara could have been fun, but there wasn’t much that we missed.
Tashkent is a modern city on the exact lines of every good central Asian city. It has a lot of fountains, great parks, and walking areas but not much history. Samarkand has most of the spectacular mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums associated with Uzbekistan. Bukhara’s history is even older than Samarkand. Because of that, it has much smaller structures that need to be appreciated in the context of the time they were built. The overall feel of Bukhara is of an old city and that is amazing.
The train service between these cities is excellent and probably the best way to travel if you can get the tickets. The Afrosiyab (bullet train) takes 2 hours from Tashkent to Samarkand and further 90 minutes to Bukhara. A slower train would take more than twice the time. We managed the Afrosiyab from Tashkent to Samarkand and then from Samarkand to Bukhara but could not get tickets for the return journey, so we settled for a short flight. Local taxis are quite cheap but highly advisable to agree on a fare with the driver before you start. The asking price otherwise could be twice the true fare or more.
Food in Tashkent is more European and most restaurants will serve the typical continental fare with some kebabs to add some local flare. Alcohol is available in larger restaurants but there are not many fancy bars – somehow drinking didn’t seem like a big thing. Samarkand and Bukhara have more traditional food which can be delicious but is dominantly non-veg. Shashlik which is the local cuisine is just grilled meat served with rice, delicious yogurt with dill, and amazing salads of tomatoes and cucumbers. As you walk into the restaurant, you point to the skewers you need and they are sent away to be freshly grilled. There is also a traditional pulao, which is aromatic rice cooked with a lot of lentils and topped with grilled beef. Chicken kebabs and wings were commonly available along with a rich suite of salads and some brothy soups. There are few European cafes, but the local food will beat these hands down.
The visa process is very simple and the e-visa requires very few documents and is a really short form. You can download an e-visa that has to be printed. Keep it with you as it will be checked by every hotel and even at the exit. There are still some processes that remain from the Soviet era, though most of those are in places where they don’t cause much pain. The hotels hand you these small slips of paper that you are needed to retain!
Lastly, the currency is a little pain to get, so convert in large quantities when you can. Cards are not widely accepted (except for big hotels and some large restaurants) and while ATMs are becoming more common they still aren’t as easy to find as you would expect. An ATM at the airport swallowed my debit card for no reason and there was no recourse but to get the card canceled…go figure!
Overall, a very easy place to plan a trip to and mostly easy-going people. Even though it is a predominantly Muslim country, people have a very moderate view of religion. Even during Ramzaan, everything including restaurants works like normal and there is no real impact on life. People generally dress modestly outside of Tashkent and for some reason, shorts are looked down on, even for men.
The history, culture, and architecture are off the charts – so this beautiful place is well worth the small (mostly technology related) issues.