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Uzbekistan trip, Mark Seltzer

  • Submitted by: Mark Seltzer
  • Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005



The following is a brief description of a 12 day trip through Uzbekistan. Section 1 is a description of the trip. Section 2 is a few practical notes, in the form of corrections and additions to the Cadogan book 'Central Asia: The Practical Handbook' by Giles Whittel. This is the only practical guide to Central Asia and essential for independent travellers.



THE TRIP




On October 24 1994 my wife and I flew in to Tashkent from Peshawar, Pakistan. We had pre-paid for a hotel room on our first and last night, at the Hotel Uzbekistan. In addition, we had paid US$40 for 'visa support', and supposedly a visa was waiting for us at the airport. In fact, no-one had heard of us at the airport, and the 'visa support' money seemed a complete waste - however the pre-paid hotel seemed essential - the immigration officials checked the hotel 'voucher' carefully. For US$50 each we were given visas for Tashkent, and with a bit of argument I was able to have the other cities that we intended visiting added - the fact that we did not have pre-paid hotels in those cities was a problem that took a bit of discussion to overcome. Then there was customs, where we had to complete a set of forms listing our money, cameras, etc. - these forms were stamped and retained by the customs officials at the airport (though when we were leaving 2 weeks later, the same officials demanded the forms back!)

[It did appear that people who claimed to be in transit, i.e. to Almaty, were given visas on the spot without any pre-arrangement. I don't know how long their visas were for, although if you did this, you would have to find some way of getting other towns in Uzbekistan added to your visa before being able to get there easily.]

Several hours later, we left the airport and paid $5 for a taxi to the hotel (later we found that there is a bus that goes directly from the airport to the downtown, stopping by the Metro and Hotel Uzbekistan - bus number 25. But when you exit the airport and are surrounded by a crowd of taxi drivers, it is impossible to unearth this information!) The Hotel Uzbekistan, which cost us US$150 per night for a double, was about the same quality as a run-down cheap motel off some out-of-the-way highway in the U.S., but not as friendly, or as clean, or as service oriented! It is a good introduction to the remains of the Soviet tourist infrastructure. I try to think of our two nights hotel as a bonus, thrown in for free with our US$200 per person visa fee.

One thing that one can do at the Hotel Uzbekistan, without too much difficulty, is purchase domestic air tickets with credit cards, and the next morning we bought tickets to Urgench (for Khiva). We also changed US$200 into the local currency, the 'som', which proved to be a mistake, as hotels all insisted upon being paid in US$ cash, and prices for meals & transportation in Uzbekistan were so low that we had great difficulty spending all of our som. [Recommendation: change only a token amount of money at the official rate. It is relatively easy to change more money at the black market rate, which at the time was about 30% higher].

We saw a little of Tashkent the next morning, it reminded me of Eastern European cities in the '70's, with relatively few cars, wide streets, crowded trams, and a generally decrepit look compared to the West. It is not dirty, but a little run down looking. The museums were all either closed, or in different locations than indicated in the Cadogan book. There were no restaurants visible, and at first sight, Tashkent was rather unattractive.

In the afternoon we took bus 25 (like the subway, the bus cost 1 som, or about 5 cents at the official rate) to the airport. Foreigners go to a special building, still marked 'Intourist', where you get special treatment: for example, your passport gets the privilege of being inspected a large number of times by a large number of people, all of whom write down the details in their books. What happens to all these books? Where do they go when they are full? And why are there so many different books? There is no why!

Another unfortunate privilege is that you get taken to the plane separately from the masses, after they have all boarded, so that foreigners get the worst seats. Uzbekistan Airways was not so bad - later we read that their maintenance crew is being trained by Lufthansa, although they don't bother with stuff like ensuring that people have their seat belts fastened and so on. The worst thing about the flight was a group of slimy looking Uzbek businessmen, presumably black-marketeers, fat and over-flowing with gold jewelry; some of them refused to let us sit near them!

We landed in Urgench, and had our passports checked by a policeman as we got off the airplane. It did appear to be essential that one's visa listed all the towns that one wanted to go to - I don't know what would have happened if we did not have one of our destinations listen, but our passports were certainly checked frequently.

The sun was setting, so we negotiated for a taxi to the train station and then to Khiva, 200 som for a 30 km ride. I wanted to find out what time the trains left for Bokhara, and went in to the trains station to ask, only to find that getting such information is extremely difficult. There was only one service window open, and (as in all the bus stations & train stations) the window was simply an opening about 3 inches by 6 inches, about 4 feet off the ground, though which one shouted one's request, fed through the money, and received one's ticket. And this little window was surrounded by a dozen frantic locals, all pushing and shoving and trying desperately to get their mouths close enough to this little slot to shout in their ticket order. My naive idea had been to go up to the information window, present my paper with 'What time are the trains to Bokhara please?' written in Russian, and give them a pen to write down the reply, but it was clear that I would never be able to even approach that window without my piece of paper (and all my clothing) being torn to shreds. So we went on to Khiva.

It turned out to be fortuitous that we had taken the taxi, for the driver knew of the new 'private' guest house in Khiva, the Hotel Orkanchi, which was not mentioned in the Cadogan Guide. [There is one other place to stay in Khiva, the hotel in the Madrasa, it looked great but we talked to someone who stayed there and reported the following disadvantages: there had been no running water for a long time, it was US$15 per person without meals, and there were no restaurants that sold food anywhere to be found. The only restaurants in the area had food only for the restaurant staff! The guest house was quite nice, and we spent 4 nights there. One slept on the floor, and the outhouses were inconvenient to get to at night, but the food was good. It cost US$10 per person including meals].

The next couple of days were spent wandering about Khiva. Since Uzbek independence, people have been moving back into the old town, and Khiva is no longer the deserted 'museum city' of a few years ago. There are almost no commercial establishments, and few people about, so it is very quiet, yet clearly all the old houses are now inhabited again. I found it pleasant, except for the aggressive begging children, who were more persistent here than almost anywhere else in the world. At one point I had stones thrown at me by kids to whom I had refused to give pens or chewing gum; this really turned me off Khiva. We had met some travellers in China who told us to make sure that we had pens to give to the children in Uzbekistan, as 'they love them', and now we saw what happened once these kids started to expect such gifts. Khiva was beautiful, but the stone throwing incident turned my visit sour.

On the third day we rented a taxi with another traveller to go to the ruins at Kunya Urgench, a few hours drive away, and in Turkmenistan. We did not have visas for Turkmenistan, which caused a bit of a problem! Very briefly, we had agreed to pay a big premium to the taxi driver to cover the bribes for the border guards and Turkmen police, then the Uzbek policemen who came to the guest house regularly to check visitor's visas heard that we were intending on entering Turkmenistan, and called our taxi driver and told him not to take us. We suspect that he was upset at not being informed & getting his share of the bribes! Our taxi driver told us to get ready to depart an hour early, so we could slip through the border before the local policeman found out that we were still going, and phoned the border - and as it turned out, the border guards were still asleep when we crossed. Our car was stopped at least 4 times by Turkmen police during our day trip, each of whom were paid off by the driver. The Cadogan guide gives the impression that land crossings without visas are easy, but in general throughout our trip we found that this was not the case, that whether travelling by air, bus, or car, one's passport and visa was checked frequently. Anyway, we saw Kunya Urgench, where one of the sites (the dome of the 14th century mausoleum of Turabeg Khanym) was spectacular, but the rest of the sites were overshadowed by the drama of our journey!

The next day we used the same taxi and went to the 3rd century ruins of Tokrap-kala, on the north side of the Oxus, the site was supposed to be an hour from Khiva but the river level was too low to use the intended bridge; it ended up being a 3 hour drive and thus we had to miss some of the other, further, sites that were supposed to be part of this day trip. Toprap-kala was an interesting site if (and only if) you are a fan of old ruined cities - if you do wish to visit it, photocopy some information from a book on archaeology in the USSR or Central Asia that discusses the site, as without a plan or any description you will not be able to appreciate the site.

We returned to Urgench, and caught the 3:00pm bus to Bokhara, which left at 3:05pm. [In general the buses in Uzbekistan leave on time, and are quite comfortable if you have a reserved seat, though 'standing room' gets very crowded: it is a 'one seat, one person' system. They also travel very slowly, averaging about 50 kph.] We arrived in Bokhara at 9:30 p.m. and started an evening of extreme frustration trying to find a hotel with hot water - we went first to a private guest house called Sasha's that had been recommended to us - we telephoned and asked them to explain to a taxi driver how to take us to their guest house, which they did - but when we arrived they told us that they were full! Nor were they very friendly. I have the feeling that Sasha's is an excellent place if you are connected with an embassy, or recommended to them, but they do not seem backpacker-friendly! We went on to examine two of the three real hotels in Bokhara, typical ex-Soviet hotels: huge, decrepit, dirty, run-down, and expensive (US$30 double) for what one got. And of course, no hot water. Finally we went to the Intourist hotel where US$60 gets hot water! [Note: this is the hotel that the Cadogan Guide states has an AT&T credit card phone, from which one can easily make international calls - there are now 2 such phones, neither of them works. When you ask the hotel staff whether they work or not, they stare at you as though you asked an absurd question!]

The next morning we remembered that we had also heard of another guest house in Bokhara, Mubenjon, and we moved over there. It was an excellent place, with a friendly owner (Mubenjon) who speaks about 5 words of English but is very fluent with sign and body language and quite easy to communicate with! I highly recommend this guest house. US$10 per person plus US$2.50 per person for meals. The washing and toilet facilities were primitive but new Western style facilities were under construction. I suspect that anyone in Bokhara will be able to guide you to Mubenjon's, but it is quite easy to get to: take the small street leading south from the Lyab-i-Khauz, until you see a garage with the 5-ring Olympic symbol, and go down the adjoining alley until you see the sign (in English).

We spent the next couple of days wandering about in Bokhara - we were invited to a wedding celebration the first day, which was a lot of fun, though I found it impossible to keep up with the 'drain your glass each toast' style of drinking and must have left the impression that Canadians are wimps when it comes to vodka consumption. Bokhara was great, small enough that one could walk anywhere, more of a 'living' place than Khiva, and friendly (quite a few kids asked for pens, but they were not aggressive). I met quite a few English speakers here, and could have stayed longer. It takes at least 2 days just to see the major historical and architectural sights of Bokhara.

From Bokhara we went by bus to Samarkand. At the bus station there was the usual wild crowd pushing and shoving at the little ticket window. Twice I tried to penetrate, moving gradually towards the center of the maelstrom as people managed to exit with tickets, but both times I was unsuccessful in getting close enough to the window to shove my money through the little slot before being forced to relax my grip on the people in front of me for a split second and suddenly being forced from the crowd like a pip being squeezed out of a lemon! Finally someone at another (closed) window took pity on me and let me buy my tickets there! Queuing in Uzbekistan is a nightmare.

Finally we arrived in Samarkand, found a relatively good value place to stay (Hotel Zerafshan, the usual huge, run-down, dirty, Soviet style establishment, but not quite as huge, not quite as run-down, not quite as dirty as the others, and only $8 for a double, I recommend it).

Samarkand is a large, industrial city, with heavy traffic, mostly trucks and buses belching black smoke, and with the exception of the Timurid monuments, full of extremely ugly decrepit Soviet style architecture. I was disappointed, especially after Bokhara, which had met my expectations. The Timurid buildings were (to my eyes) beautiful but a little suspect, overly restored. And somehow lacked the magic that I had expected. There are more sites to visit than in Bokhara, and the individual buildings are impressive, especially the Shah-i-Zinda, but there wasn't the same pleasure of simply 'being there' that I felt in Bokhara.

Finally we returned by bus to Tashkent and had some fried chicken bones for lunch (a change from the usual menu mutton fat and mutton gristle!). We visited the State Art Museum, one of the few museums which is still open, and even that could be disputed - most of the rooms were blocked off with a rope barrier, for no obvious reason. It was very frustrating, to have to attempt to look at a museum's treasures with binoculars from the corridor. There were lots of guards standing around making sure you did not enter the closed areas - so it wasn't that they did not have enough people to guard the rooms! Finally, we saw a performance of Faust at the Opera, splurging on the best seats (US$1.75 at the official rate), perhaps 50 of 2500 seats in the theater were occupied. I recommend the Opera - especially as it is the only possible activity during a Tashkent evening!

The next morning we went out to the airport and ate every little bite of every meal on our 7 hour flight to Frankfurt ......





PRACTICAL COMMENTS




In the above summary of the trip I have made some reference to practical details, and here I will elaborate on a few of those topics.

VISAS: as noted, we received visas at the airport with accommodation pre-paid. It appears easy to get a visa for the duration of one's intended visit if you have pre-paid accommodation for the first and last nights. We met a number of people who had entered Uzbekistan by land from other CIS states without visas. Their stories were wildly different, from some Australians who had almost been arrested, and spent 9 days in Tashkent trying desperately to sort our their situation, to some Americans who got a visas in a morning. Generally the visa situation is more strict and difficult than implied by the Cadogan guide, although some people still seem to get away with anything. An important note for UK passport holders: there is some agreement between the UK and Uzbek governments that UK citizens can move freely about in Uzbekistan without having every city that they want to visit written in their visa. We met a chap from the UK who had a copy of this agreement (in Russian) and showed it whenever necessary, I rather doubt that you could get by if you did not have a copy of the agreement.

MONEY: during our visit the som went from 22 to 23 to the U.S. dollar. It is impossible to use Traveller's Cheques or Credit Cards except at the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent. Even the official Intourist hotels in Bokhara and Samarkand do not take Traveller's Cheques much less credit cards. You MUST have cash. The Cadogan guide recommends lots of small bills, but I found that wherever I had to pay in US$, I was able to get change in US$. You certainly do not need to bring a huge stack of 1 and 5 dollar bills, as I did. Don't change too much money into som, for anything that you can pay with som is inexpensive, and it is hard to go through a lot of som! Some typical prices: taxi rides within Bokhara/Samarkand 10 to 20 som depending on distance, entrance fees to museums/historical sites 5 to 15 som, meal at a street stall 5 som, meal at a hotel restaurant with vodka 10 to 20 som.

GUIDEBOOKS: the Cadogan guide is essential, but already quite out of date. Here are some corrections & additions to the book (in addition to what I have already mentioned) [square brackets indicate page numbers]:

GETTING TO CENTRAL ASIA: [7] PIA have one flight per week, currently on Monday, from Peshawar to Tashkent. [10] Regent Holidays will arrange Uzbek tours & accommodation but NOT the Almaty-Urumqi train [14] PIA do demand to see evidence that you have an Uzbek visa before you board your flight though I suspect that you can avoid this by claiming that you are in transit to somewhere else. [16] China Xinjiang Airlines now have weekly flights between Islamabad and Urumqi

PRACTICAL: Electricity [24] the plug size (the diameter of the 2 round pins) is larger in Uzbekistan than in Pakistan & China. I found it useful to have an adapter that ended in two bare wires which I could stick into any outlet. Guides [30] here (and in several places later) the book claims that you can join an Intourist group to visit Uzbek museums, etc. I tried this many times, and the conversation always went: 'Do you have tours to the museum?' 'Yes' 'Is there a tour today?' 'No' 'When is the next tour?' 'I don't know'. Police [39] For 'never offer a policeman a bribe', read 'never offer a policeman a bribe yourself, always get someone else to do it'. Tourist Information [42]: there is no Intourist office at the Hotel Uzbekistan anymore, only an Uzbektour office that sells air tickets.

TASHKENT: Getting To and From [94] The desk in the Hotel Uzbekistan charges US$8 service charge to get a domestic ticket, and an additional 4% if you pay with a credit card. Tourist Information [98] there is no Tourist Information in the Hotel Uzbekistan. On the 3rd floor there is a Business Center where you might get someone to tell you something if they are not busy with businessmen sending faxes. Museums [101] The Aybek museum is closed. All museums: in my limited experience there are no Intourist tours to any museum. Eating Out [106] the restaurant on the ground floor of the Hotel Uzbekistan is also 'hard currency', prices are very high (US$15 per person and up). All rooms include a breakfast buffet. Entertainment [107]: The Hotel Uzbekistan does not sell tickets to the Opera. From the box office the tickets range from 10 cents to $1.75.

SAMARKAND: Getting Around [115] Delete the paragraph about bus 10. In 3 days I never saw a bus 10 near any of the locations mentioned in that paragraph. Tourist Information [116]: to hire an Intourist car and driver to Shakhrisabz is US$72 not US$20. We hired a taxi for US$20, I very much doubt you could get one 'much more cheaply'. [128] The Khodja Akrar madrasa is in roughly the same direction as indicated on the map, but very much further away (it would be off the bottom of the page). Where to Stay [128]: The Zerafshan was US$8 double, with hot water from 0700-0900 and 2000-2300 most days. Eating Out [129]: The Chinese restaurant has closed and is now a shashlyk restaurant. The restaurants in the Zerafshan were quite OK (they actually had beef shashlyk for those who tire of mutton fat).

BOKHARA: The Zindan [145]: we were told that it often closes early and when we went there at 4pm it was already closed. Where to Stay [156] Hotel Bukhoro is US$60 double with no meals. The AT&T satellite credit card phone does not work. The Varakhsha has gone up from $2 to $30.

KHIVA: Getting to and From [163]: It took a lot of negotiation to get the taxi fare from Urgench to Khiva down to 200 som. There is no Aeroflot/Uzbekistan Airways office in the Amin Khan madrasa. Where to Stay [169] The Hotel Orkanchi is US$10 per person full board, and is located just south of the Amin Khan madrasa.

OTHER BOOKS: For historical background on Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva, I recommend the appropriate chapters of Kathleen Hopkirk's A Traveller's Companion to Central Asia (John Murray, London, 1993). This book concentrates on recent (18th century and later) history; and if you get hooked, her husband Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game (John Murray, London, 1990) is over 500 pages of similar excitement and adventure. Hopkirk's Setting the East Ablaze (John Murray, London, 1984) is an entertaining (and often shocking) account of the Bolshevik battle for Central Asia from WW I to WW II.

For information on the current social and political situation in Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian CIS countries, 'The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism?' by Ahmed Rashid (Oxford University Press / Zed Books 1994 is excellent.


Mark Seltzer
28 Ravina Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4J 3M1

e-mail: mark.seltzer@acm.org