Unconventional Uzbekistan, beyond Tashkent Files

The unexplored soul of central Asia
/ Kolkata
Unconventional Uzbekistan, beyond Tashkent Files

Registan, Samarkand

Uzbekistan, a landlocked central Asian country, is better known now to Indians thanks to a film on the death of Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri in Tashkent, immediately after signing a peace agreement with Pakistan in 1966. But in reality, this erstwhile Soviet republic is much more than Tashkent Files.
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Having an extremely rich and layered, historical and political legacy in central Asia, Uzbekistan, especially some of its cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent have been important trading centres. Though it has a rich and diverse cultural heritage and some amazing landscapes, but due to the lack of visibility and adequate connections, so far it has failed to attract a lot of Indian tourists. But the destination is an ideal location for tourists looking to explore off the beaten path. Uzbekistan could be considered by those who love history, architecture, folk art and gastronomic delights.

Indian citizens need a visa to enter Uzbekistan. The process of getting visa-on-arrival is slightly more complicated than in other countries. To get an Uzbekistan visa-on-arrival, Indians need to pay a visit to Uzbekistan’s Embassy in New Delhi, follow the requirements to get the visa confirmation stamp. After that, they can buy tickets and fly to Uzbekistan. However, the Uzbekistan visa-on-arrival is valid only at the Tashkent International Airport. It is best to apply for an eVisa instead. A 30-day tourist visa costs USD55 for the Indians.

It is also advised to arrange for local currency either before the departure or at the airport’s arrival terminal only, as many ATM machines don’t work. The local currency is called Uzbekistani Som (INR 1 = UZS 141.71).

Tashkent is the main international airport which is reasonably modern and has various international carriers operating as well as the national flag carrier Uzbekistan Airways. There are airports at Andijan, Bukhara, Ferghana, Karshi, Namangan, Nukus, Samarkand, Termez and Urgench.

The majority of people speak Uzbek and Russian. However, in the cities, people do understand English, especially those in hotels and restaurants.

Each corner of Uzbekistan attracts with its uniqueness. Numerous architectural monuments and palaces and ruins of fortresses of past civilisations can mesmerise any architecture-loving tourist. In Tashkent, one can take a walk in the beautifully decorated city or see the most ancient manuscript, the Koran of Usman. The historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Shakhrisabz and Khiva showcase UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites that have preserved echoes of the past eras.

In Tashkent, one can see historical monuments and modern mosques, stroll through the oriental markets, get acquainted with the thousand-year history and culture of the people in the capital’s museums, relax in the parks, restaurants and enjoy the nightlife of the city. While walking along the streets of Tashkent, one can shop memorable things, ranging from small Uzbeki trinkets to old Soviet souvenirs.

The cultural heritage of Samarkand is quite large, for many centuries the city has been a key centre of the Silk Road. The city was recently included in the UNESCO World Heritage List under the name “Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures”. Having visited the city, one will be surprised by the number of historical monuments located here.

The Ark, Bukhara

Countless minarets, mosques, madrasas, ancient citadels, mausoleums and tombs have built Bukhara the centre of the Islamic heritage, trade, and crafts. In Bukhara, there are more than 140 monuments belonging to different eras. It is the weaving capital of Uzbekistan offering stylish and modern wardrobe elements and carpets! Bukhara is also called the city of poetry and fairy tales, as the whole old city is full of legends and stories.

In the southernmost part of the country – Surkhandarya, one can travel through the mountain gorges or see the ruins of the ancient cities near Termez. Khiva is a beautiful oasis city with ancient walls, minarets and unique clay buildings. Depending on the time of year, ski lovers can go skiing up to the foothills of the Tien Shan or climb the highest point of Big Chimgan.

The Uzbeki cuisine is very eclectic with Indian, Iranian, Arab, Russian and Chinese influences and is full of fat, high in calorie and flavours. They mostly use lamb, beef and horse meat. They have a variety of bread options (Non, Patyr or Shirmoi-non) available almost everywhere. Many Uzbeki dishes are cooked in the open fire (hearth). Drinking hot tea after the meal is a ritual. In Uzbekistan, guests are greeted with fragrant tea. Some of the popular rice dishes are Pilaf, Shawl or Moshkichiri. Desserts and sweets which represent typical Uzbeki flavour include Sumalak, Halva, Nisholda or Chak-chak. Tashkent has various night clubs and restaurants which usually work till late at night or early morning, but they are relatively expensive.

It is believed that grapes were first brought here six thousand years ago and even at that time central Asia used high technology while winemaking. Many tourists like to go for wine tours in one of the vineyards. “Samarkand, Bukhara and other wonderful cities are the places decorated with the magnificent gardens and vineyards. I tasted the wine here. This wine was at least a dozen years old, and it amazed with its excellent quality…,” Portuguese explorer Marco Polo wrote in his diary.

Bird’s Eye, Tashkent

While the country offers rich landscape, architecture and cuisine to experience, tourists need to remain cautious if at all travelling to border areas, especially the Afghan border and the Ferghana Valley bordering Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For the most part, Uzbekistan is generally safe for visitors, perhaps because it is a police state.

It is also possible that police (Militsiya) may ask for identity documents and they have a legal right to do so. It is better to not carry original passport and eVisa documents while roaming in outdoors. Unfortunately, Uzbekistan does not welcome the LGBTs, as same-sex relationships are punished with three years in prison and violence happens towards LGBT people in Uzbekistan all the time.

Aral Sea

Uzbekistan is dotted with numerous beautiful lakes, natural and artificial reservoirs and large rivers. There are excellent conditions for leisure sports. At any time of the year, one can come and enjoy skiing, ice skating, horse-riding, paragliding or play golf, soccer and tennis. In addition to the stunning nature and unique architectural monuments, Uzbekistan is also about the Silk Road cities, remnants of quirky Soviet legacy and remains of the dried-up Aral Sea which still draws tourists reflecting the soul of entire central Asia.

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