The secretive former Soviet country of Uzbekistan has opened up to foreign tourists by waving its visa requirement so they can admire its beautiful, ancient Silk Road wonders.
The Central Asian country of Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but had since remained notoriously difficult to visit for foreign tourists due to stringent visa requirements and communist-era bureaucracy which many said was out of touch with modern-day travel. Uzbekistan has now however fully opened up for tourism by granting EU nationals, as well as Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians visa-free access to the country. Americans, Mexicans, Chinese and Indian tourists among others can apply a straightforward e-visa online for just 20 USD which is issued within three days.
Since the launch of the e-visa system in July 2018 and full visa-free access a year later, travel websites have been hailing the tourism potential of the country, with Conde Nast writing that Uzbekistan “might become next year’s hottest destination” while Lonely Planet put the country in second place on its list of “best places to travel in Asia”
Although Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries [requiring one to cross at least two other countries to reach the coast] in the world, along with Liechtenstein, it once was the heart of a great empire on the legendary Silk Road which connected Europe to China’s riches by land. Under the brilliant command of Tamerlane, locally known as Amir Timur, a gigantic empire was carved out in the 14th century after a successful series of bloody campaigns which even reached the Aegean coast of what is now Turkey.
Even though Tamerlane brought destruction to large parts of the world, he also left behind a more lasting contribution in his capital city of Samarkand by ordering lavishly decorated mosques and blue-tiled madrassas to be built. It gave Samarkand a near-mythical reputation, inspiring novelists such as James Elroy Flecker to write his famous 1913 poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand”.
We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the golden road to Samarkand
The awe-inspiring Registan
Already in the 3th Century BC when it was still called Marakanda, Samarkand was a cosmopolitan and rich city. Alexander the Great was the first of the great conquerors to capture it, saying it was “even more beautiful than I ever imagined”. In the centuries that would follow, Samarkand became a key post on the ancient Silk Road on which the trade caravans travelled between Europe and China.
In the 14th Century – more than a century after the city was sacked by the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan – Tamerlane carved out a great empire from Samarkand and brought enormous riches to the city. At its heyday the Timurid empire as it was called stretched from Turkey all the way to China. Under Timur’s grandson Ulughbek and the Shaybanid rulers who followed afterwards further monuments were constructed in the city.
Not a single place in the city – or perhaps in all of Uzbekistan – showcases these riches better than Registan Square. Walking onto the actual square for the first time and seeing all the magnificently decorated madrasas [religious schools] is truly an unique feeling which is bound to cause goosebumps all over your skin. Samarkand’s Bibi Khanym Mosque, which was finished shortly before Tamerlane’s death, must have been the greatest architectural wonder of his entire empire. It however fell victim to its own grandeur as it collapsed in 1897 after an earthquake, although the building was reportedly crumbling for centuries prior having pushed Medieval architectural techniques to the limit. During a recent renovation project the imposing main gate building and several domes where however rebuilt to part of their former glory.
Even though it is lesser known than the Registan, the Shah-i-Zinda (‘Living King’) necropolis which complex consists out of mausoleums built over eight consecutive centuries is easily as captivating. The name derives from a legend about a nephew of the Prophet Muhammad who was murdered when he came to this area to spread the word of Islam in the region. Yet after his enemies beheaded him, he was reportedly still alive, hence the name of Living King. The complex is compromised of a lower, middle and upper part connected by arched passageways and is just a wonderful place to admire the beautiful mosaics and tiled domes.
Tamerlane himself is buried in a crypt in the Guri Amir Mausoleum at the other side of town. Although the Guri Amir is a gorgeous building from the inside, it is actually rather modest in size compared to the other buildings in Samarkand.
On the ancient Silk Road
Uzbekistan’s other famous Silk Road city, Bukhara, is just a short train ride away from Samarkand through the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum desert. Just like Samarkand, Bukhara also offers enough magnificent mosques and madrassas as well as curious chapters of forgotten history to keep travellers entertained. It was here where British spies and diplomats tried to outmatch the Russian Empire in the19th Century in a secret battle for influence and control over Central Asia called “The Great Game”.
British Colonel Charles Stoddart, who was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Emir of Bukhara, was tossed into a rodent-filled jail in the city after the Emir was displeased he only brought a letter from the Indian Governor-General and not one from Queen Victoria. When Captain Arthur Conolly arrived to ask for Stoddart’s release, the Emir also threw Conolly in jail thinking the British were secretly plotting with a rival Khanate to overthrow him. Both men were executed in 1842 in front of the mud-walled citadel, which can still be visited by tourists. Outraged relatives back in Britain sent a priest named Joseph Wolff to Bukhara to verify the news of the deaths of Stoddart and Conolly. The clergyman was in the end lucky to escape the same fate as the two officers as the Emir thought he was a kind of jester in his full clerical outfit and is said to have not been able to stop laughing.
Even though the mosques and mausoleums of Bukhara are not as lavishly decorated as the ones in Samarkand, they do make up for this in charm. As most of Bukhara’s sandy city centre streets are car-free and the town is less Russianised in comparison to Samarkand, it does feel like you are stepping back in time. Sitting down for a meal at one of the restaurants at the pond-side Lyabi-Hauz sqaure will for sure be an unforgettable travel memory.
Across the desert to Khiva
A seven-hour train ride across the Kyzylkum Desert from Bukhara brings travellers to the clay mud walls of the oasis city of Khiva, which was once the centre of a feared slave-trading Khanate infamous for its frequent raiding parties targetting trading caravans and neighbouring cities. In what was seen at the time as an important diplomatic PR coup, a British officer named Richmond Shakespear managed to convince the Khan of Khiva in 1840 to free more than 400 Russian slaves, for which he was later knighted by Queen Victoria.
Khiva is the best preserved of the three great Uzbek Silk Road cities as the old alleyways and city walls have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. A ticket bought at the entrance gate gives access to all of the city’s museums, many based in ancient madrassas, where Khiva’s rich, and at times dark, history is explained. Visitors can also climb the 148-foot (45 metres) Islom-Huja minaret for sweeping views over the city and the surrounding desert.
Even though the sights of Khiva can be seen in a single day, it is absolutely worthwhile to stay the night in town. When darkness falls Khiva’s alleyways become completely deserted. With almost no streetlights to be found in the old town and just a few main buildings being illuminated by floodlights, you have to use moonlight to navigate the maze of streets, just like silk road traders used to do several centuries ago.
Back in the modern and well-kept capital of Tashkent, tourists can take a stroll through leafy parks or see one of the many worthwhile museums. Tashkent is Central Asia’s largest city and has all the facilities you might need to begin or end your trip to Uzbekistan. A must-see sight is the sprawling Chorsu bazaar, where you can stock up on souvenirs before flying back home or shop for exotic groceries to cook some hearty Uzbek food. Some stations at the Soviet-built metro of Tashkent rival those in Moscow in beauty.
How to reach Uzbekistan
Tashkent is a six-hour-and-50-minute flight from London Heathrow with only Uzbekistan Airways, which also serves Frankfurt, Rome, Paris and Istanbul in Europe. Direct flights to Munich are set to start in 2020. Needless to say, Tashkent is extremely well connected to cities in Russia and the former Soviet states, as well as to the main Asian hubs such as Beijing, Dubai, Seoul and Bangkok. Uzbekistan Airways even offers flights as far away as New York and Tokyo.
Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot offer convenient one-stop-connections from almost every major European cities to Uzbekistan and are most likely your best bet to find the cheapest ticket. Besides offering several daily flights to Tashkent, Turkish Airlines also operates flights to Samarkand, while Aeroflot serves Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench (located a few miles out of Khiva) next to their Tashkent flights. China Southern, Korean Air and Kazakhstan’s flag carrier Air Astana serve destinations throughout Asia and further afield with a connection in their respective hubs.
Getting around Uzbekistan
Transport inside Uzbekistan is cheap, with domestic flights on Uzbekistan Airways rarely costing more than 30 EUR even if booked only a few weeks in advance. It can make sense to take at least one domestic flight to the furthest destination you plan to visit in order to save time. With the exception of the new high-speed railway line which links Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara, train travel is slow on Uzbekistan’s rickety Soviet-built trains, although seeing the desert sunset from your sleeper compartment is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A mid-range hotel costs around 30 EUR per night, while a full three-course dinner including one or two pints of beer will rarely set you back more than five euro.
To check whether or not your nationality grants visa-free access to Uzbekistan, requires an e-visa, or needs a full invitation letter and visa through an Uzbek embassy, check this helpful website and map of the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry.
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