With its stretches of stunning architecture, rich culture and gorgeous landscapes marking the country’s importance along the ancient Silk Road, Uzbekistan offers travellers an unique adventure. As any Uzbekistan travel guide can confirm, Uzbekistan is the number one country to visit if you want to witness the spectacular marketplace buildings and mosques of the Silk Road era.
However, this ex-Soviet Republic has many bureaucratic and cultural peculiarities, which you are highly recommended to know well in advance. In this Uzbekistan travel guide, we will go through some of the useful tips for traveling to Uzbekistan.
Entering and Exiting
There are 43 cities and 23 countries that fly directly to Tashkent – However, w.e.f 1 May 2019, there is no more direct flight from Singapore to Tashkent. So, the next alternative is to fly from Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta by Uzbekistan Airways.
Many nationalities can now enter visa-free – Uzbekistan has recently eased its visa process, allowing 65 countries 30-day visa-free travel, and introducing an e-visa system. Check out Caravanistan to find out whether you need a visa and how to apply.
Uzbekistan shares land border crossings with 5 countries – Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. You’ll have a different experience at each border crossing, so it pays to do a bit of research beforehand. We had crossed 2 different borders to and fro Tajikistan, and one from Kyrgyzstan. All 3 times we managed to pass through the immigration borders smoothly.
Declaration of currency is no longer necessary – Previously, when entering Uzbekistan, you had to fill out immigration form to declare all money you had on you when entering and exiting the country. Since 2018, this is no longer require.
You can’t bring in drugs containing codeine – They will go through your medications and even if you have prescription pills containing codeine, they won’t allow you to enter with them. You may see the drugs legislation issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan.
However, border crossings aren’t as bad as others say. I’ve read horror stories about Uzbek customs from other bloggers, but after crossing numerous land borders across 4 countries, we did not encounter any issue at all. Instead, we were being treated politely and exchanging small talks with custom officials without having our backpacks being checked.
Most borders are open to overland travellers – You can enter or exit Uzbekistan from any country, and probably unlimited times (we entered the country 3 times using different borders). However, do bear in mind that some borders are only open to nationals, while others may close temporarily.
Alcohol is allowed – Despite Islam being the majority religion in Uzbekistan, it is not a crime to carry alcohol into the country.
Spring (April to June) or Fall (September – October) is generally considered the best time to visit. As Uzbekistan is a desert region, so summer time gets HOT! We were there in May/June, and temperatures can reach up to 40°C!
The official currency is Uzbek SUM – The currency value is extremely low and, as of September 2019, 1USD = 9,400UZS.
You can now change money in banks – Before 5th September 2017, the official bank rate was almost 100% lower than on the black market, so tourists were advised to change money at the black market. This has changed as the official bank rate has gone up to its actual value.
You might need a bag for your money. Sometimes, you will be given all the money in 1,000UZS notes no matter the quantity you change. Imagine if 1USD is 9 bills of 1,000UZS, 100USD will be 900 bills! However, large denomination bank notes of 10,000, 50,000 and even 100,000 are slowly being introduced, which will be much convenient.
Exchange rate is standard throughout the country – So don’t bother wasting time going from one bank to another to compare rates.
There are ATMs everywhere – especially around the tourist attractions. However, with an international card, you can only withdraw USD, which you need to exchange at the bank. This way, you will be charged commission twice. We highly recommend you to bring enough cash (USD or Euro).
So, how much does it cost to travel in Uzbekistan – Accommodation may not be as cheap as in South East Asia, but anything else it’s very affordable. Typically for 2 persons:
- Budget private room: 15USD to 25USD
- A meal in touristic restaurants: 8USD
- A meal in local eateries: USD2 to 3USD
- Bus / marshrutka: maximum of 1USD
- Taxis within cities: maximum of 2USD
- Several-hour train journeys: 12USD to 20USD
Hostels and guesthouses – There is a wide range of budget hostels and guesthouses in most cities in Uzbekistan. Most of them come with sumptuous breakfast and the perfect place to meet other travelers alike. Popular hostels fill up quickly in high season so you might want to book early.
You have to pay a 2USD city tax – At any type of lodging, it is expected to pay an additional 2USD per person per night, on top of the VAT. This is kinda infuriating for budget backpackers, as 2USD can sometimes be almost 30% of a dorm-bed price. Obviously, accommodation took a big share of our expenditure budget.
Keep all your registration slips – Every time you leave a lodging, the host gives you a registration paper, proving you stayed at that place. The slip will have your name, passport number, country and the dates of your stay written on them, and given to you when you check out. You may need to show when exiting the country, but officials have become much more lax about this in recent times.
Most hostels and guesthouses accept cash only. Yes, cash is king! If you would like to pay in foreign currency, only USD and EUR are accepted.
Couchsurfing is technically not allowed – However, you can find many profiles with reviews whom we can’t officially recommend. Should you try to couchsurf in this country, you probably be able to slide one in every three days.
Be prepared for repetitive meals – Though Uzbek food can be savory and rich, varieties are limited especially if eating out on a budget. In less than 1-week, we had tried all the local dishes in Uzbekistan, or should we say throughout the rest of Central Asia. Be warned that you will be eating a lot of bread and drinking tea Every. Single. Meal. You’ll have to make do with instant coffee for daily dosage of caffeine.
Plov is Uzbek national dish – A rice pilaf-like dish consisting of fresh mutton or beef, horse sausage, egg, yellow or red carrot, onions and vegetable oil. In different regions of Uzbekistan, people have their own recipes of plov preparation. Traditionally, plov is cooked by men.
Other local dishes are lagman (noodles), shashlik (kebab), shurpa (soup),samsa (samosa) and manti (dumplings). Though restaurants/local eateries usually have all of them listed as options, it’s possible only one or two dishes actually available at any given time. Throughout our 2-months in Central Asia, we only managed to try manti once.
Most restaurants charge for service – Which ranges from 10 to 20%, depending on the restaurant. Eat at local eateries to avoid such expenses.
Tipping is not common in Uzbekistan – but you may consider rounding up the bill you really like the food.
Look for signs “CHOYXONA” for cheap and tasty food – They are small tea house-restaurant combinations. If you plenty of locals inside, you know you’ve found a keeper!
Street food is not what you think it is – If you assume having street food in Uzbekistan is similar to in Thailand or Vietnam, you are totally wrong! The only stand-alone stalls we saw usually sell ice cream, soda drinks, fruits. Uzbeks prefer to have proper seating when having their meals served.
Vegetarians and vegans…. I think you can skip this country. Local cuisine mostly consists of meat and sometimes it’s even hard to find chicken. Your best bet will be in touristic places where most menus may have vegetarian options. Otherwise in local eateries, people might misinterpret what you’re asking for, and what you get might still have meat or animal products in it.
Just kidding, you can actually prepare your own veggie meals. The local bazaars sell all sorts of fruits and vegetables. There are also lots of authentic, tasty Korean-influenced vegetable salads on sale.
Alcohol is widely available – Vodka, beer and everything you want! Uzbekistan is the largest wine producer in Central Asia and Samarkand is the city to head to for wine tasting.
Internet & SIM card
The internet is veeeeery slow – Internet is not as superb as in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan but definitely better than Tajikistan. Even though free wi-fi is available in most guesthouses/ hostels, you will need to wait awhile to load a Google homepage. There is no reception in Tashkent’s metro stations, and network is weak in indoors area.
SIM Card – The only SIM card you can get in Tashkent airport is UMS. For 8USD, you get 8GB of data and 40-minutes local call for 30-days usage. It is very easy to buy a SIM Card and all you need is your passport.
Only in Tashkent, there is metro – The first in Central Asia, Tashkent’s nuclear-blast protected subway stations remained a mystery until June 2018 when photography is allowed.
You might be checked twice before entering the metro in Tashkent. Uzbekistan is big on security, and there are two security points before you can enter.
Ride like a local in marshrutka – another form of public transport using Russian van. Most of the times, the driver will try to squeeze as many passengers as possible.
Trains are the most comfortable to travel in Uzbekistan. Most cities are connected by train, they run regularly and are very comfortable.
You need your passport to buy train tickets. It is a hassle to buy train tickets from the station but we still did it anyways. Just be prepared to be jostled, cut queued and being given bad attitude.
There are different kinds of train – There is a regular, modern train and the high-speed one. Traveling long distance on a Russian train is an experience by itself. We took a 17-hours ride from Tashkent all the way to Nukus. We were probably the only foreigners on board and everybody was super friendly with us. You can read more on Uzbekistan’s train on Seat61.
Keep your tickets when taking overnight trains. You can use them as registration slips too. If the train conductor insists on collecting your tickets, at least take a picture of it.
Buses are forbidden to ride during the night. If you are travelling long distance, we suggest that you take overnight train to save time.
Shared taxis are also common and can be really cheap – Between cities, it’s common to travel in shared taxis, which sometimes cost even less than the train. Just make sure to check with a local or your host to get an idea of how much they cost before you go, as you usually have to haggle.
If taking a shared taxi, do not let the taxi driver leave before the car is FULL. Some men will try to rip you off by claiming they’re a shared taxi, then driving off and making you pay for all of the seats. Prevent them from doing this by standing outside the taxi until it’s full.
Don’t be afraid to ask other passengers how much taxis should cost. Most Uzbeks are very friendly, and will be happy to help you get the proper price.
People and Culture
Blue-tiled mosaic mosques are not the only structures you will see. Uzbekistan is an ex-Soviet Republic which got its independence in 1991, after the USSR dissolution. It’s no surprise to see soviet-influenced architectures around the country.
Most people are Uzbeks – But, as in the whole Central Asia, you also find plenty of people from their neighboring countries, including Russians, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Tajiks. People in Uzbekistan are so ethnically mixed but, whereas Kyrgyz and Kazakh people have stronger Mongolian features, and Tajiks and Turkmens more of a Persian look, I would say that Uzbeks are something in between.
The official language is Uzbek – Which sounds similar to Turkic language, but most people also speak Russian as a second language. Some basic words to get around will prove immensely useful.
They are Sunni Muslims but not really – Officially, most people are Sunni Muslims, the Russian population (10%) being Christian Orthodox. However, like all ex-Soviet countries, religion is not a big deal and most people don’t really follow Islam. It is a common sight to see local men downing vodka shots, drinking beers and wine.
No real dress code for women – Many Uzbek women wear headscarves but it’s mostly for cultural reasons, rather than religious. You can also see young women wearing sleeveless and dresses/skirts above the knee in big cities.
Elderly women are being respected – It’s a common sight to see men giving up seats to elderly women, or even younger ladies, on public transport. What a chivalry act in this generation!
Outside of the three main tourists’ cities, there is nobody – In places like Tashkent, the Aral Sea and Fergana Valley, we barely saw any tourist and the local interactions were much more rewarding.
Rip-offs exist but not common – In the main touristic cities, it’s common to see locals trying to rip-off tourists. Bear in mind that Uzbekistan is very affordable so, if they try to sell you a taxi ride or a kilo of oranges at a similar to in southern Europe, just say no.
Souvenirs – We find that the cheapest place to buy souvenirs will be at Khiva, the furthest of the three touristic cities. It is the easiest place to haggle for a good price compared to Bukhara and Samarkand where the shop owners will straight away tell you everything is fixed price.
Many sights have a second entrance where you can walk in for free. You’ll see plenty of Uzbeks sidling in through side and back entrances at sights, so if you’re on a tight budget, feel free to join them!
Hope this guide finds you well. Enjoy Uzbekistan!!