Uzbekistan: the most fascinating country you've never been to

Hazel Plush
Samarkand, once a key stop-off for traders on the Silk Road

Uzbekistan hardly stands front and centre when it comes to potential holiday destinations. Around 1,000 Britons visit it each year, according to ONS figures, putting it on a par with the likes of Armenia and Malawi (for comparison, Spain lures around nine million of us annually).

Bragging rights | Where Britons are least (and most) likely to visit

But getting there is about to become a little easier. From July 15, the country is pruning some of the red tape that surrounds it. UK travellers will be able to visit for up to five days without applying for a visa (so long as they arrive by air and have an onward flight booked), while those wanting to stay longer can take advantage of a new electronic visa system, which promises to take just two days to process applications (and costs $20). 

So what does this Central Asian enigma have up its sleeve for travellers? A surprising amount. Here’s everything you need to know…

It’s a snippet of the Silk Road’s best bits…

If you’re intrigued by the ancient Silk Road but don’t have the time to travel its length from China to Turkey, you’ll find three of the route’s most important cities in Uzbekistan. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were key stop-offs for traders, and have all been painstakingly restored to their former glory – think glittering minarets, voluptuous domes and hypnotic mosaics. With a little planning you can squeeze them all into a week, making this the perfect bite of Silk Road splendour.

Khiva

…with some Soviet-era muscle

Tashkent – Uzbekistan’s capital – was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, while the country was under Soviet rule. Some 300,000 people were left homeless, but with matchless Soviet muscle the entire city was rebuilt and restored – indeed, it is said that construction work started the day after the quake.

As a result, you’ll find a charming mish-mash of restored 12th-century mosques and classical Russian architecture alongside blocky Brutalist buildings and statues of workers with bulging biceps. Stay at Hotel Uzbekistan – which towers over the city’s main park – to experience some faded Soviet glory up close.

You can't miss it Credit: MARC DOZIER

It’s a bit like time travel

The walled city of Khiva is a living museum, protected by Unesco but still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. It was founded in the 6th century, and thrived as a Silk Road trading city – with increasingly ornate mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (religious schools) added to its labyrinth of streets, all of which have been artfully restored.

It’s a popular spot for wedding parties, who visit for photo opportunities under the vibrant turquoise mosaics, and its streets are lined with souvenir stalls hawking everything from handmade teapots to traditional woolly hats. But after 5pm, the local tourists head home – leaving you to explore the city in peace. Wander its streets while swallows swoop in the fading light, its mud brick walls rosy under a pinky sky. It’s easy to imagine you’re in the 12th century.

You’ll have the place to yourself

Uzbek wedding parties embark on grand tours of Uzbekistan’s ancient cities, armed with camera crews and copious relatives – but aside from them, you’ll only find a handful of tourists in every major site. It’s refreshing to visit a place where domestic tourists far outnumber international ones, and the wedding groups are always in the party spirit. The novelty of seeing a bride posing in full white gown regalia beneath a technicolour 10th-century minaret never wears off.

Telegraph Tours | The Telegraph's Great Silk Road Adventure with Benedict Allen

A bloodthirsty conqueror is their national hero

The undoubted hero of Uzbekistan is Timur, a 14th century conqueror who married a descendent of Genghis Khan and whose armies killed an estimated 17 million people on their rampage across Central Asia. You’ll spy his face on everything from hotel lobby paintings and banknotes to sweet packets – although his ginger beard, lame leg and stooping stature have been cast aside for a more aesthetically-pleasing portrait.

Statue of Timur in Tashkent Credit: GETTY

It’s easier to get around than you think

The transport options have improved somewhat since the days of Silk Road camel trekking. All of Uzbekistan’s main draws are served by low-cost domestic flights, great road links and high-speed trains. You’ll find shared taxis and bus services in all the cities, plus Tashkent has a decent metro with some wonderfully ornate stations.

It’s safe for female travellers

Unwanted attention isn’t really a problem in Uzbekistan – a firm "no" holds more clout here than in some other Central Asian countries, and reports of crimes against tourists are reassuringly low. Around 90 per cent of Uzbeks are Muslim, but women do not wear the veil: as a result, perhaps, gender equality is much stronger.

Women do dress more conservatively than in Europe though, so opt for sleeves (short ones will do), knee-length skirts and minimal cleavage. Local ladies love brightly-coloured dresses, often with sequins and matching harem trousers, and you can pick up some fetching ensembles for a few dollars in most bazaars.

You’ll be instantly more exotic

Not many people can find Uzbekistan on a map, so make it your first job to pinpoint its location with ease. Then you can gleefully point it out to everyone who’s bamboozled by your choice of holiday destination, and wow them with the trivia that it’s one of the world’s only two double-landlocked countries (the other is Lichtenstein). You’ll also be asked repeatedly why on earth you’d want to go to a ‘Stan. What about terrorism, they’ll bleat. Surely there’s nothing to see? Direct all naysayers to this guide. 

It’s an amazing place for shopping

Timur and his descendants called on ceramicists, artists and architects from all over the empire to beautify the cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara. Their mosques were adorned with the finest murals and mosaics, with techniques and materials imported mainly from Persia. Happily, Uzbekistan’s artisan skills live on and you can pick up handmade ceramics, needlework, silk cloth and miniaturist paintings for just a few dollars in most madrassas, which have largely been transformed into bazaars.

It’s surprisingly cosmopolitan

The cities of Tashkent and Bukhara in particular have a rather European vibe – think lakeside beer gardens, landscaped public parks, and cafés next to most of the main tourist attractions. Fuelled by ice-cream, cold beers (try the locally-brewed UzCarlsberg), and endless pots of green tea, sightseeing in Uzbekistan is all rather jovial. 

An ornate ceiling in Bukhara Credit: WOLFGANG KAEHLER

The food is… interesting

Many Uzbek dishes have all the hallmarks of USSR fare: unidentifiable boiled vegetables, uninspiring soups, and grey, overcooked meat. Throw in a handful of potent dill, and you’re pretty much there: not much flair or flavour, but it fills a hole when you’re hungry.

But there are still a few surprises on the menu. Look out for lagman, a hearty lamb soup with thick local noodles, flavoured with chives and black cumin. The unfortunately-named jiz, a Chinese-style mêlée of beef strips, pepper, onion and aubergine, is delicious too. Every region claims to have the best recipe for plov (a greasy poor man’s risotto of lamb, raisins, carrot and onion), but in reality they all taste the same.

Hazel Plush travelled with Explore Travel. Its Wonders of the Silk Road trip includes most of the cities and attractions mentioned above.