Timurlane
The Registan – Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is one of the 15 Post-Soviet states and one of the five Central Asian states, along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The national language is Uzbek, while Russian is very widely spoken as an L2 throughout the country. Tajik is also commonly heard in the central and western parts of the country, while you may hear Kyrgyz, Kazakh or Turkmen closer to their respective borders. Tashkent is the capital and most populated city. Other major cities include Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, Nukus, Kokhand and Andijan. Uzbekistan is one of two double-landlocked countries in the world, along with Liechtenstein, and was a major trade hub along the Silk Road, with Bukhara and Samarkand holding particular pertinence.

Geographic Overview of Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a Post-Soviet country, transforming from a Soviet Republic to an independent country in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite this, the country has an extremely long and unique history, stretching back long before its independence.

Tourism has only started to become more common since 2016, and for the most part, it remains relatively untouched. The country has a really distinct geography, especially when examining the border lines and disputes in the eastern part of the country by the Ferghana Valley. Uzbekistan, along with Liechtenstein, remain the only two double-landlocked countries in the world.

Kazakhstan shares Uzbekistan’s largest border to the north and west, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, Afghanistan to the southeast, and Turkmenistan to the south. The autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in the west occupies 40% of Uzbekistan despite only populating 2 million people. The capital is Nukus, which is a very unique tourist destination, especially if you are keen to learn about the Aral Sea disaster.

Tashkent, being the capital and largest city in Uzbekistan, unsurprisingly has the largest airport. However, you can fly internationally from numerous other airports in the country, including Nukus, Bukhara, Samarkand, Navoi, and Ferghana. Most flights from the smaller airports only fly domestically or to Russia, but most mid- to large-sized airports fly all around the region. Common flights go to Dubai, Istanbul, Beijing and Tehran, among many other destinations.

The Uzbek train network spans all throughout the country, connecting you from Urgench all the way to Andijan. Buses can bring you into Karakalpakstan and also serve as a substitute for trains. There are two main international routes from Uzbekistan: one going to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, and the other to Shymkent in Kazakhstan.

Travel Routes Around Uzbekistan

Given Uzbekistan’s isolation, it isn’t the easiest country to get to. As previously mentioned, flights come in from around the region and even as far as New York, but Tashkent is definitely no global international hub. Regional isolation can explain a lack of ground routes to other countries, along with the Tian Shan and Alay mountains to the north and south of the Fergana Valley, respectively, complicating travel routes to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Regional

Turkmenistan’s totalitarian history is arguably the main reason behind the lack of travel routes to neighboring countries, including Uzbekistan to the north. Therefore, for Uzbekistan, the main ground routes to get into the country are from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan Railways can bring travelers from Aktau in Western Kazakhstan to Karakalpakstan via Beyneu. The railways can also bring travelers into Kazakhstan from the opposite side of the country. A route exists from Tashkent to Shymkent that can continue to Bishkek or Almaty.

Bus routes are just as common as trains; in other words, they’re not. Check out the Uzbek bus schedule for common routes from Tashkent. Buses go to numerous locations throughout Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While buses can go throughout Uzbekistan, there’s very few to no international routes from other cities outside of Tashkent.

International flights exist from almost every Uzbek airport, but, as expected, they are most frequent from Tashkent. Many flights fly within the region; I took a flight from Tashkent to Bishkek, which took just over an hour. However, flights don’t necessarily fly every day to each destination. For example, flights from Tashkent to Dushanbe might only be scheduled three times per week.

Central Asia is very affordable and oftentimes very flexible. Travelers can set up private taxi rides to go wherever they’d like, even if they’d like to just see a specific destination for the day and then return. The driver can hang out with you for the day and still drive you back in the evening.

Domestic

As you can see in the picture in this section, there’s many ways to get around Uzbekistan. Rail networks can easily land you in most parts of the country, especially for a very reasonable price. For example, a seven hour train ride from Bukhara to Tashkent costs a mere $11 USD in economy class. Check out the Uzbek government rail page for tickets. However, keep in mind that the site can be pretty faulty and tickets can sell out fast. It may not be a bad idea to try to buy tickets at the station in advance. I was able to buy tickets online and didn’t have any issues showing my ticket on my phone, but take this with a grain of salt.

The bus network in Uzbekistan isn’t as convenient as the trains, so I would highly recommend taking advantage of the rail network in the country. However, if the train is completely sold out, you’re not stuck. Uzbekistan has been lauded as the cheapest country in the world, and finding a private ride around the country is relatively affordable. Check in with your Airbnb host, or someone working at your hostel/hotel for possibilities to get a private ride. While YandexGo is very convenient, I’m not sure if you can use it to go between cities. But for a reference point, Kyrgyzstan is known to be in the similar price range and a six hour private ride there cost me $40 USD.

My Journey Around Uzbekistan

I wasn’t able to make it everywhere in Uzbekistan, leaving many places still to visit on my next trip. However, I was still able to make my way to Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, making my time in Uzbekistan a memorable one. Nukus and Khiva, along with a couple cities in the Ferghana Valley, remain high on my bucket list. Karakalpakstan and the Ferghana Valley are two of the more unique regions in the country. While I didn’t get to see either, I would highly recommend both.

Getting There

I flew from Istanbul to Bukhara with Uzbekistan Airways. Uzbekistan is still working its way to becoming a more frequent travel destination, so when my dad and I showed up at customs in Bukhara, the immigration officers were a bit surprised to see us there. We just showed our visa, explained how long we were planning on being in the country and our route from city to city. Try to have a planned itinerary ready – you might get quizzed on it. You don’t need to have any solid, concrete evidence, but do your best to assure them that you’re just there to travel, and that they shouldn’t hold any suspicions.

Uzbekistan Airways can be relatively expensive (~$250 USD for a one-way flight), but there are cheaper options from Europe. Wizz Air recently added Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent to its list of destinations. While you can’t directly get there from Europe, you can take a Wizz Air layover in the UAE. This should cost around $150 USD from London in the offseason.

Touching Down in Bukhara

As soon as we stepped off the plane, it felt like half my body immediately dried up. It was nothing I had felt before. The weather app read 105 degrees (40.5 Celsius), but it hardly felt like it. I was a bit nervous before my trip that I was going to struggle with the Central Asian heat, but it barely felt 85. I guess that’s what it feels like when you touch down in the middle of a desert. Definitely bring a water bottle!

Bukhara, a historical Silk Road city, felt like a hidden gem. Better yet, the city ended up being reflective of the rest of the country. Beautiful turquoise mosaics covered the ancient architecture all throughout Bukhara. But surprisingly, it felt almost like we were the only tourists there.

Once you touch down, get yourself some internet. I’d definitely recommend a local SIM card, regardless of how long you’re staying. Unlimited data with Beeline cost me around $10. Next up, transportation. The main Uber-equivalent app is called YandexGo, which is used all throughout Central Asia, and most of the post-Soviet countries. The second that we walked out of the airport we were bombarded with taxi drivers offering rides for around $10 to go anywhere in the city. While this would normally be a good deal in many countries, taxi rides are one of the cheapest deals in Uzbekistan. A 20 minute drive from the airport cost around $2. Using Yandex will allow you to avoid the language barrier and it’ll assure you of the local prices.

Oh, and if you haven’t yet, you’ll probably need to take out some cash. As of 2023, there’s not much your credit card can do in Uzbekistan. There will likely be ATMs at every airport, so just ask someone when you get through customs. If not, see if you can walk to one just outside. Your best chances of using a credit card are at sit-down restaurants and hotels. Otherwise, you’ll need cash for just about everything.

Kalon Minaret at sunset
Kalon Minaret lit up

The Sites

Get yourself downtown, and get exploring! Most of the sites are within a 30 minute walk, no matter where you are in the city. But if you’re feeling a bit tired, Yandex is always at your disposal. Madrassahs, or historical Islamic schools, contribute beautifully to the city’s architectural display. Make your way to the Chor Minor, Ulug’bek, Qo’sh and Kukaldosh madrassahs. Many madrassahs won’t charge an entrance fee, like the Chor Minor, but they ask for $1 to take the stairs up to the rooftop (it’s only a one story piece of architecture).

Many of the guesthouses are right next to the Kukaldosh madrassah, which is in a cute square with a large fountain, an array of restaurants and fully surrounded by Bukhara’s traditional architecture. Labi Hovus (Labi House), which is the main restaurant in the square, was our first meal. It did not disappoint. Get your hands on some of Uzbekistan’s local cuisine – shashlik, plov, lagman and non (the local bread).

Head to the Ark of Bukhara, the city’s historical fortress, is one of the main and most unique sites to see in Bukhara. The entrance fee will likely be around 15,000 som, plus additional costs for an audio guide or to take pictures. If you get all three it should likely only cost around $2.50. The fortress includes a museum and a nice view of the city.

If you continue past the Ark further from the city center, you’ll land at the Ismail Samani and Chashmai Ayub Mausoleums. Right next to them is the Central Bazaar, where you can find all sorts of nick-nacks and perhaps a small bite to eat (which I unfortunately could not find). However, we did make our way to a little authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant selling samsa, otherwise known as samosas. Check it out, it’s called Samsushka. Between the two of us, four samsas and four waters (yeah, it’s hot) cost a mere $3.

Ark of Bukhara

Bukhara at Night

If you’re famished, tired or dehydrated, don’t feel bad if you want to call a Yandex and take a nap; you might need it! Recharge yourself for a unique evening. Head over to the Kalon Minaret and Po-i-Kalyan for sunset. A stunning sunset, beautiful architecture and a $1 ice cream. Not exactly the combination I had imagined for myself, but wow was it perfect. As the city started cooling down, it felt like it came to life. All the kids came riding in with their bikes, local Uzbek music was playing from people’s homes next door, and street vendors lined all the side streets. And then the Kalon Minaret lit up. It was this amazing, picturesque scene I felt like I could stare at in awe for hours. And of course, if you’re into photography, make sure to capture the square at sunrise (without the people) and sunset.

Samsas fresh out of the stone oven at Samsushka

The Shops!

While I’m not a shopper, Uzbekistan’s authenticity made the local shops quite enjoyable. The genuine kindness of Uzbeks always made for a fun conversation. Take a walk through Toki Sarrofon and see the beauty of the variety of homemade products. Paintings, scarfs, unique chess boards, and much much more. Behind Toki Sarrofon is another beautiful madrassah that is definitely worth seeing.

Heading Out

On your way out of Bukhara, make sure you plan a bit in advance. Unlike many European cities, the airport is actually closer than the train station. It should take only 5-10 minutes to drive to the airport, but at least 20 minutes to get to the train station. As mentioned already, the Uzbek trains are not the easiest things to navigate. Most people will be more than happy to help out. Ask someone for help and make sure you don’t miss your train!

Handcrafted and painted Uzbek chess board

Off to Samarkand

Samarkand, another historical Silk Road city, did not fail to impress. But it was surprisingly different. Samarkand is far larger and more modernized than Bukhara, but just as hot and definitely just as dry. We took the Uzbekistan Railways from Bukhara, which took just under three hours. It was extremely affordable and we even got thrown in the VIP section, where I got to chat with a lovely Uzbek woman who could speak Chinese! We booked an Airbnb the night before, which was walking distance (around 30 minutes) from most of the sites in Samarkand.

The Sites

Take your time to appreciate everything in Samarkand! Check out the Gur-i-Amir Complex, the burying site of Amir Temur (Timurlane). The entrance fee shouldn’t cost more than $2.50. Make sure you hop over to the Rukhobod Mausoleum just a two minute walk away as well.

If you walk another 15 minutes down to the center of the city, you’ll stumble upon the famous Registan, which will likely be your largest expense to get in somewhere, dropping you back a whopping $5. The Registan was originally built in the 15th century in the Timurid Empire, in the heart of the Empire’s first capital. The Ulugbek, Sher-Dor, and Tilya-Kori madrassahs surround the Registan square with unique designs. Walk your way through all of the madrassahs, but take your time!

The stunning interior of the Gur-i-Amir Mausoleum Complex

One of my favorite things to do in the Registan was to grab a cup of Turkish coffee on the second floor of the Ulugbek Madrassah (the one on the left). When you walk through the courtyard, there will be a sign for the steps to go upstairs to the little coffee shop.

Hang out, enjoy your coffee and take in the beauty of the madrassah courtyards. Don’t forget that you cannot re-enter the Registan once you leave, meaning you’ll have to buy another ticket to come back. However, you can see the square from outside the front gate for free, including the light show that comes on at night.

Make your way past the Registan and over to the Bibi-Khanym and Hazrat Khizr Mosques. The size and age of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque highlight the architectural feats of the builders and architects from the early 1400s. You’ll find a large cement holding block with a massive Qur’an in the center.

Inside the Hazrat Khizr Mosque

While seeing all three sections of the city is easily manageable in a day, it’s definitely worth splitting up given the heat. A great place to hang out is the Bibikhanum Teahouse. They have an amazing tea selection, and it’s a fantastic lunch spot. The teahouse is located around a 5 minute walk from the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Samarkand at night

One of my favorite things to do in Samarkand was to see the light show at the Registan. I’m not sure if there’s an exact schedule for it, but ask someone who works there when you visit when it’s expected to show. I was able to catch it around 10pm on my last night there, and wow, am I glad I waited around. It should last around 45 minutes and will probably start anytime after sunset. The light show is free – just make your way to the steps looking into the square.

On top of the light show, one of the best restaurants in Samarkand is Platan. It’s definitely on the higher end, but it was one of my favorite meals in the country. Try some Uzbek wine and listen to some live music!

Tashkent

The capital of Uzbekistan was around a 4 hour train ride from Samarkand, and cost around $7. I personally wasn’t too impressed with Tashkent, as it felt just like another city in modern transition. But if you do choose to give the city a visit, there’s definitely a decent amount to keep you busy. Oddly enough, one of the most unique things to do in Tashkent is to check out the various train stations around the city. Many post-Soviet cities had some breathtaking designs in their metro stations. Believe it or not, but riding the metro only cost a whopping $0.17, easily the cheapest subway ride of my life. Hop off at a couple stops and take some pictures of the stations.

One of the most local experiences in Tashkent is the Chorsu Bazaar, where you’ll find an array of local Uzbek merchants selling just about everything you can eat, along with a variety of souveniers. Make your way over to the bazaar early in the morning for a nice fresh loaf of Uzbek bread, or non, which should only set you back $0.50. While you’re there, check out the Kukeldash Madrassah. You’ll need appropriate clothing to visit the madrassah, meaning you need to cover your shoulders and knees. There’s a small entrance fee as well.

There was one lovely restaurant I ate at multiple times in Tashkent – Caravan. It’s a lovely atmosphere, with local, live music played throughout the night. I didn’t get the chance to try much more in Tashkent, but there’s also a really great local kebab shop just outside of the Chorsu Bazaar. If you walk by all the tables full of non outside, and walk through the numerous tents with all the clothing, you’ll likely see it before you make your way to the bazaar.

Wrapping Up

While I only got the chance to see Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, there’s many other cities worth visiting, including Khiva, Nukus, Andijan, and other cities in the Ferghana Valley. Take advantage of the train system in Uzbekistan, but also don’t be afraid to go outside it! The train likely will not be running to Khiva or Nukus, so you’ll need to take a bus. I definitely wish I had the time to add them to my trip.

Make sure you eat at a Plov center in one of Uzbekistan’s main cities, I got to try one in Samarkand, and it was absolutely lovely. Uzbek cuisine is definitely a reason in itself to visit, so take advantage! Check out a local bakery and grab some fresh non, it’s a great pairing with a juicy shashlik.

Please reach out if you have any questions!

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