Central Asia's most populous country is, besides Liechtenstein, the only country in the world surrounded entirely by other landlocked states, and is bordered by the '-stans' - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It also borders the Aral Sea, which it shares with Kazakhstan.
Having declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has sought to increase awareness to its tourism potential, boasting historical, archaeological, architectural and natural treasures. Tourist activities range from outdoor pursuits in the beautiful mountainous regions to exploring its rich century-old history. Oasis towns like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were once main points of trade on the Silk Road linking Eastern and Western civilisations and are among the oldest towns in the world with ancient mosques, grandiose madrasas (Islamic clergy academies) and palaces, citadels, minarets, colourful bazaars, highly-adorned mausoleums, and age-old traditions. Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, is the main point of entry and exit into and out of the country, and although also formerly part of the Silk Road, it is usually overlooked as a site of interest in favour of the historically richer tourism centres such as Samarkand. The 5th century BC World Heritage city was the greatest in Central Asia in its time, and boasts one of the most impressive sights in the region, Registan Square.
In recent years, Uzbekistan has cooled its relations with the West, having closed the US airbase that was used for operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, and favouring closer relations with China, India and Russia following Western calls for investigation into the bloody massacre at Andijan in 2005.
Uzbek hospitality is nevertheless unequivocal, and visitors to the country will be overwhelmed with offers of tea or vodka, and treated to a feast of architectural splendour in this most historically intriguing of the Central Asian republics.
Registan Square is Uzbekistan most popular sight, its substantial portals, domes and minarets visible from just about everywhere in the city.
Of the three madrassahs (religious schools) in Registan Square, Ulugbek Madrassah is the oldest, dating from 1417. The main façade is covered with splendid mosaic floral patterns made in islimi style, and has a tall portal decorated with astral patterns. The square also houses the masoleum of the Shaybanids, which dates back to the 16th century, as well as an ancient trading dome.
The outstanding monument of ancient architecture in Uzbekistan is Bibi Khanum Mosque which towers above the city as a giant silhouette. The distinctive blue dome is designed to emulate the sky while the building features sparkling walls, tall minarets, and wide portals of white marble. Construction dates from 1399, under legendary ruler Temur.
From a distance Gur Emir looks like a blue tulip, with tightly folded turquoise petals. The remains of great sovereign Amir Temur and his offspring are interred here. The richly decorated gravestones are made of onyx and have fine carvings and dedicatory inscriptions. Also don't miss the unusual wall-paintings, cupola, and lower crypt where you can see the ancient graves (provided you tip the guide.)
One of the oldest monuments in Bukhara is the Ismail Samanid mausoleum, built at the beginning of the 10th century by the founder of the Samanid dynasty. The mausoleum looks rather like a brick cube covered with a hemisphere-shaped cupola. The cube symbolizes the earth, its dome is a symbol of the heavens, and their harmonic unity represents the universe The mausoleum is the first building in Central Asian architecture built of fired bricks; moreover, brick is used both as a construction and a decorative element: during the day the shifting daylight changes the pattern of decoration.
The Lyab-i-Hauz is the tree-shaded area surrounding the last-surviving hauz (public pond) in downtown Bukhara. Although public ponds were once widespread in Bukhara, many of them were filled in during the 1920s and 30s; however, the Lyab-i-Hauz was left to stand - principally because it is located in the middle of a spectacular architectural ensemble, that includes the Kukeldash madrasah (a magnificent school building adorned with heraldic ornamentation), and a khanqah (an inn, used by members of the Sufi brotherhood) built by Nadir Divan-Beghi. The area surrounding Lyab-i-Hauz is lined with restaurants and cafés, most of which serve alcohol, while old men play chess at stone tables, and the strains of live music fill the air every evening. The Lyab-i-Hauz is a wonderful place to while away the hours, soaking up the spirit of downtown Bukhara.
No visit to Uzbekistan would be complete without a visit to the Chorsu Bazaar. In fact, travellers to the central Asian nation are urged to pack as lightly as possible - since they will almost certainly be returning home with twice as many clothes as they arrived with! Silk dresses, Italian leather jackets, hand-stitched cotton shirts - you name it, the Chorsu Bazaar has it, and at outrageously low prices, to boot. Souvenir-hunters should look out for decorative ceramics (an Uzbek speciality), while the array of fresh fruit, vegetables and spices is guaranteed to make your mouth water. The Chorsu Bazaar is, as yet, unspoiled by mass tourism - it is an 'authentic' market, full of Uzbeks doing their daily shopping, and visiting it is as much a rich and rewarding cultural experience, as it is a shopping expedition par excellence.
The ancient fort-city of Afrasiab - thought to have been occupied between 500 BC and 1220 AD - was an important stop along the Silk Road, and the centre of the Sogdian Empire. These days, the site is an archaeological marvel, simply emanating the 2,500 years of human history it has borne witness to. No traveller to modern-day Samarkand should leave without visiting the museum at Afrasiab, which is full of fascinating artefacts, including ornamental earthenware crockery, tools, coins, terracotta statuettes - and most spectacular of all, enormous mural paintings rescued from the palace of a Sogdian ruler in the 7th century, depicting sieges and caravan troupes. By all accounts, a visit to Afrasiab is a truly humbling experience, where ancient history feels tangible, and one is able to reflect on the long and incredible passage of human civilisation.
The continental climate brings long, hot and dry summers and cold winters with snow. The south of the country is generally warmer than the north with July temperatures that can reach in excess of 113°F (45°C) in summer and winter temperatures of 18°F (-8°C) in the north (can reach -13°F/-25°C) and 32°F (0°C) in the south. Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times to travel to Uzbekistan for mild weather, but trekkers are better off in the mountains in summer (July/August).
The official currency is the Sum (UZS), which is divided into 100 tiyins. Foreign currencies (US dollars, Euros) can readily be exchanged at banks, exchange offices, hotels and shops in the cities, but many hotels and transport providers will require payment in hard currency, like US dollars. Credit cards are accepted in major hotels located in the tourist centres. Travellers cheques have limited acceptance.
Uzbek is the official state language, but Russian is used in much day-to-day official and international communication.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Round, two-pin plugs, as well as oblique flat-blade plugs with ground are in use.
US nationals require a visa and a passport valid for duration of stay for entry to Uzbekistan.
UK nationals do not require a visa for up to 30 days. They require a passport valid for the duration of their stay to enter Uzbekistan.
Canadians do not require a visa for up to 30 days. They require a passport valid for the duration of their stay to enter Uzbekistan.
Australians do not require a visa for up to 30 days. They require a passport valid for the duration of their stay to enter Uzbekistan.
South Africans require a visa and a passport valid for duration of stay for entry to Uzbekistan.
Irish nationals do not require a visa for up to 30 days. They require a passport valid for the duration of their stay to enter Uzbekistan.
US nationals require a visa and a passport valid for duration of stay for entry to Uzbekistan.
New Zealand nationals do not require a visa for up to 30 days. They require a passport valid for the duration of their stay to enter Uzbekistan.
Passports of all visitors should be valid for the period of intended stay. All visitors staying longer than three days are required to register with the local police on arrival, which should be entered on their visa; this will be checked on departure from the country. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No vaccinations are required by visitors to Uzbekistan. However, outbreaks of Hepatitis A, Hepatitus B and Tetanus are possible, and there is a risk of malaria in the south. Visitors should only drink bottled water. Hospitals offer adequate basic medical care, but serious cases will usually be treated outside of the country. Visitors should ensure that they have comprehensive medical insurance.
Tipping is common in restaurants and bars, and is usually 5-10 percent. Some tourist hotels and restaurants, and upmarket institutions will usually include service charge in the bill.
Travel to Uzbekistan is generally problem-free, but foreigners should avoid unnecessary displays of wealth and walking alone after dark, as occasional muggings do occur. A general threat of terrorism exists particularly in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. Planned demonstrations should be avoided as they have become violent in the past.
Elderly people are greatly respected and should be treated with deference by foreigners. Most Uzbek people are Muslim and visitors should dress modestly and be sensitive to religious customs, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan when eating, drinking and smoking in public is forbidden by the Muslim culture. Homosexuality is illegal and public displays of affection are frowned upon. Police will often ask to see proof of identity, and foreigners are recommended to carry a photocopy of their passport with them at all times.
Office hours are generally Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm. Men greet each other with handshakes. Women are not traditionally involved in business.
The international dialling code for Uzbekistan is +998. City codes are in use, e.g. 8(71) for Tashkent and 8(66) for Samarkand. International taxophones, using phone cards, are the cheapest way to make calls. A GSM mobile network covers the cities, and Internet usage is growing in the major cities, despite the tight controls enforced by the government.
Travellers to Uzbekhistan 16 years and older can bring in goods to the value of US$1,000 without incurring customs duty. They are also entitled to import 200 cigarettes; 2 litres of beer and 2 litres of other alcohol beverages, plus 2 bottles of perfume. The export of antiques or antiquities requires a special permit. It is forbidden to import narcotics, pornography, explosives and any materials that incite violence or direct hatred toward the country, or any religion practiced within it.
Tourism Information, Tashkent: +998 (71) 133 5414
Uzbekistan Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 887 5300.
Uzbekistan Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7229 7679.
United States Embassy, Tashkent: +998 (71) 120 5450.
British Embassy, Tashkent: +998 (71) 120 1500.
Canadian Consulate, Tashkent: temporarily closed. Please contact email@example.com for further assistance.
South African Honorary Consulate, Tashkent: +998 (71) 137 0170.
Australian Embassy, Moscow, Russia (also responsible for Uzbekistan): +7 (495) 956 6070.
Irish Embassy, Moscow, Russia (also responsible for Uzbekistan): +7 (495) 937 5911.
New Zealand Embassy, Moscow, Russia (also responsible for Uzbekistan): +7 (495) 956 3579.