A slightly Asian looking older lady is listening to Russian music and talking in weird, Turkish related language in her restaurant next to an astonishing mosque. All the details from food to decoration and clothing are just confusingly controversial based on my earlier knowledge in different cultures. Just where the hell am I now?
At least that is what I remember observing and asking myself, when desperately waiting for my kebab in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. As it turned out, this kind of a cultural cocktail can only be possible in the unknown and underrated countries of Central Asia. The history with Silk Road and the Arabic, Turkic, Mongolian and Russian cultures has left this now Post-Soviet country diverse in a way that not that many know of.
Talking about the mentioned knowing, I believe I would’ve had no idea of the country if it wasn’t for my Uzbek Erasmus buddy. I can’t say I had a clear image of the place at all, but stories of a magical and unique destination with great food was enough for me to plan it on my route.
There are surely some more confusing points about Uzbekistan too. While doing my regular research, I found out that border crossing used to be rather uncomfortable or even bizarre. Either an official invite or expensive travel office services were needed for visas that could only be applied for at the Uzbek embassies. Then at the border you were most likely going to be stuck for several hours when having your bags thoroughly checked. There were several stories of officials going through people’s laptops, phones and books searching for forbidden material such as political books, pornography etc. The advice was to be cautious even with medicine, since f.ex. anything containing codeine is highly illegal in Uzbekistan.
It’s fair to say my timing was great because only months before my arrival, the regulations were changed as the country introduced it’s electronic visa service that was both cheaper and faster. Even the border crossing itself turned out to be a pleasant experience with no needless trouble at all. Uzbekistan is a country where it’s own citizens need an exit visa when leaving the country, but at least they seem to be opening up a bit more for us tourists. And luckily so.
There were clear signs of control left in other issues, though. Such as the art of saving signed paper strips from hostels in order to present the needed official documents of your movements when leaving the country. And the fact of tourist SIM cards having to be applied for only at the company’s home office in the capital city after a ton of paperwork. I also heard some weird rumours about the government ruling whether people are allowed to move in other cities or not, but I’m not sure if any of this is true.
In spite of the regulations and control, there are mostly great things to be said about my time in there. Couple of weeks were enough to take a look around in some of the historical silk road cities, that can easily be claimed both memorable and stunning as already seen above. On my journey I did indeed enjoy the Uzbek cuisine, admire the architecture and find company from both fellow travelers and locals. Best night of the trip was definitely when a shisha bar manager whammed a bottle of vodka on our table and then served us like royals the entire evening. As if the super ultra mega deluxe shisha 3000 wouldn’t have been enough to state out that we are welcome.
Uzbekistan wasn’t the first place for me to imagine having my most modern train experiences either. Blasting through deserts comfortably at the speed of 230km/h was anything but expected. Train stations themselves were also always all shiny and brand new, and had like two to three different security checks along the way. This time, the amount of security and relatively friendly service always made me feel safe.
I wouldn’t call the capital Tashkent the most important or exciting city in the country. In matter of fact, it’s a rather different experience compared to those other stunning and historical desert cities. Even so, it is a destination worth saving a couple of days for. It was spot on especially for a little souvenir shopping in this so called “Broadway” street and the modest yet massive bazaar area. My attention was mostly in art and second hand stalls where various soviet items and such can be spotted.
As stupid as it sounds, Tashkent’s main attraction from my point of view, is it’s beautiful metro system. With totally different themes and design at every station, riding around can be more like traveling back in time to 70’s or 80’s Soviet Russia. Or just plain admiration of art itself. To me, the general vibes were all new and therefore exciting. Photographing the metro system was strictly forbidden all the way until early 2018, which is why I doubt you’ve ever seen the following.
It still felt so illegal to take out any device that I only used my phone to get a few quick and crappy looking pictures with my phone. Do yourself a favor and get a better picture from better pictures on this higly recommended article on Tashkent’s metro.
Backpacking around Uzbekistan is surprisingly painless overall. The main spots can be easily recognized and planned on the route with a little research. In these cultural world-class destinations such as Samarkand and Bukhara, regular tourist buses are often seen, even if they are still not taken over by huge masses just yet. The thing about Uzbekistan, is that it’s self-explanatory travel routes and relatively low number of hostels tend to bring all the like-minded backpackers together. Despite timing my trip on off-season, I was never alone, and more like had the very best companions to enjoy this stunner of a country.