Landing late evening in Uzbekistan (and Central Asia) for the first time, by myself, I was excited and apprehensive at the same time. I had booked myself into a family-run guesthouse in Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan), but hadn’t yet looked at any list of things to do in Uzbekistan. When the airport taxi pulled into an old house, I found myself in a courtyard adorned with fig, apricot and persimmon trees. Even before I was shown to my room, my sweet 70-year-old hostess Gulnara, invited me for a cup of green tea and the sweetest melons I’ve ever had. Little by little, in broken English and Russian, she let me into her life, her childhood in Bukhara, the Soviet times and how Tashkent has changed over the years. By the time I went to my room, I felt like I had arrived in an old friend’s house instead of a country unknown to me.
Guidebooks, travel blogs and most common wisdom suggests that the best places to visit in Uzbekistan are all about their exquisite architecture. That to be amidst nature or experience a unique culture, one must travel to its neighbors Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. To some extent, it’s true.
But over the course of my travels in Uzbekistan, partly solo, partly with fellow bloggers on assignment for USAID, I fell in love not just with Uzbekistan’s grand mosques, minarets and mausoleums, but also with its quaint mountain villages, ancient Sufi connection, old walnut orchards, fading Jewish history, bizarre Soviet influence, unique cuisine (even as a vegan) and most of all – the warm, welcoming, friendly locals.
Some of you have asked me for an Uzbekistan travel guide, with specific ideas on what to do in Uzbekistan and my recommendations of places to visit in Uzbekistan. So behold, all my travel highlights that will make you fall in love with this country too:
1. Explore the old mohallas of Tashkent
If I didn’t have to fly in to Tashkent, I probably would have skipped it, dismissing it as another soulless city. With its broad avenues, tree-lined walkways and busy streets, it feels like the Soviet influence has rubbed off on the capital. Yet turn into a small street and there are still old mohallas (traditional neighborhoods) with stone and mud houses (Tashkent literally means “stone place”) built around vine-covered courtyards, kids playing a game of marbles and curious faces eager to know what brings you to their country.
Tashkent walking tip: I discovered these mohallas thanks to the recommendation of my hosts in Tashkent. The old Tashkent walking trail on Caravanistan is lovely too.
2. Hike in search of 2000-year-old petroglyphs in the Nuratau Mountains
Along walnut orchards we hiked, past gushing streams carrying chilled water from the mountain spring, waving out to locals relaxing or toiling in their summer mud homes in the village of Uhum in Uzbekistan’s little visited Nuratau Mountains. Then we scrambled up rocks to see petroglyphs – images carved in rocks by our ancestors, depicting their animals, rituals and life – recently evaluated by archaeologists to be nearly 2000 years old. A rare glimpse into the fascinating history of humankind.
Nuratau Mountains Uzbekistan: I travelled to Uhum village in the Nuratau Mountains with Responsible Travel Uzbekistan, and highly recommend it to your list of places to visit in Uzbekistan.
3. Take in the grandeur of Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis in Samarkand at sunset
Although Registan is foremost on the list of “best things to do in Samarkand” and justifiably so, it was at the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis (literally, the living king) that I felt the soul of Samarkand dwells. Between the 11th and 19th centuries, a series of exquisite, blue-tiled mausoleums with stunning ceilings were built here, including the tomb of a cousin of Prophet Mohammed. All afternoon, we watched worshippers and tourists alike, walk through the domes in awe, but at sunset, we found ourselves alone, with the grandeur all to ourselves, accentuated by the soft light of the setting sun.
Getting to Samarkand: Take the high speed bullet train from Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara, and make sure you book it atleast a few days in advance!
4. Indulge in Uzbek food – even as a vegan / vegetarian
I was pretty apprehensive before I set out for Uzbekistan, for the only Uzbek vegan I found on Instagram recommended eating Georgian food in Tashkent! Travelling as a vegan in Uzbekistan was a mixed bag. Even though they grow and use many vegetables, meat – primarily sheep, cow and horse – is pretty much part of every dish. Yet I was lucky enough to try vegan versions of many traditional Uzbek dishes, including khanum (stuffed dumplings), pirashki (like the Indian poori), plov (rice with carrots, chickpeas and raisins), shashlik (coal grilled veggies), laghman (stretched handmade noodles), manti (pumpkin stuffed dumplings), samsa (like a puff stuffed with potato) and dimlama (boiled potato, carrot, beetroot, cabbage). I’ll be writing a detailed guide to vegan / vegetarian travel in Uzbekistan soon!
Vegan in Uzbekistan: Inform your homestay hosts in advance about your dietary preferences. Google translate works accurately for Russian, but not always for Uzbek. The rooftop restaurant at Boutique Hotel Minzifa in Bukhara was my favorite (and one of the few) vegan-friendly restaurants in Uzbekistan.
5. Experience Sufi mysticism at Naqshbandh Sufi shrine near Bukhara
It took me a while to unearth the Sufi history of Uzbekistan, for like many of its neighbours, including Iran, there has been a backlash against Sufi mysticism in the country. Turns out though, present day Bukhara is the birthplace of the 14th century Sufi saint Bahauddin Naqshbandh Bukhari, founder of the revered Naqshbandhi Sufi order. A half hour drive from the old city of Bukhara sits the Naqshbandhi Memorial Complex, where believers come from across the country to pay homage to his shrine. In the golden light of sunset, I felt transported to another era as soulful Sufi chants filled the silence of the memorial.
Sufism in Uzbekistan: Shared taxis are easily available from the old city of Bukhara; late afternoons are a beautiful time to visit the Naqshbandhi Sufi Memorial Complex.
6. Ride the Tashkent metro – which doubles up as a nuclear bunker!
Given the fancy cars that ply the modern streets of Tashkent, I didn’t buy the hype about the Tashkent Metro – until I actually went underground. After an earthquake destroyed Tashkent in 1966, the Soviet sent their best artists to design the Tashkent metro, which also doubles up as a nuclear bunker! Each metro station has its own theme; two of my favorite stations are Alisher Navoiy – named after the Uzbek poet who wrote the epic poem Laila Majnun in the 15th century (there’s some controversy about the author though), with dome-shaped ceilings and poetic illustrations on the walls – and Kosmonavtlar – which translates to cosmonauts, and is designed to represent the galaxy. Its tunnel walls are dedicated to famous Uzbek and Soviet cosmonauts, including the first Russian woman to go space.
Tashkent metro: Don’t just see and marvel at the metro stations, use them to get around the city. It’s easy, cheap, safe and super convenient, plus you’re bound to have some interesting conversations with local commuters. A ticket costs 1200 som (INR 10 / <10 $cents).
Also read: 9 Practical Tips to Save Money to Travel
7. Live with a rural Uzbek family in the Nuratau Mountains
I always feel like I haven’t really experienced a culture until I’ve lived somewhere remote with a local family – and so it was in Uzbekistan. Luckily, I ended up discovering an idyllic little Uzbek paradise deep in the stark, barren Nuratau mountains. Like many local families in Uhum village, my hosts had a stone and wood summer house (and a second one in the village for winter), shaded by walnut trees atleast a 100 years old. I joined different members of the family to splash in the icy stream, collect wild mulberries, climb the barren mountains, hear local legends, relax in the tapchan under the stars and try potent homemade vodka. If there’s only one offbeat thing you do in Uzbekistan, pick this.
Uzbekistan homestays: I booked my homestay in Uhum village through community tourism based organisation Responsible Travel Uzbekistan, and absolutely loved the experience.
8. Find inner peace inside Hazrati Imom Jume Masjidi in Tashkent
The magnificent 16th century Khast Imam Ensemble makes it to all the ‘best places to visit in Uzbekistan’ lists, but people seldom talk about the interiors of Hazrati Imom Jume Masjidi (the Friday mosque). Watching people pray amid the whitewashed walls, under the intricate ceilings, as sunlight poured in through the domed windows, filled me with an indescribably intense feeling of peace. I can’t think of a better way to spend sweltering hot Tashkent afternoons.
Khast Imam Tashkent: There are separate praying areas for men and women in the big hall, but you can walk around freely and take photos. Women are not required to cover their heads!
Also read: Land of a Thousand Friends
9. Witness the magic of Bukhara at sunrise
Bukhara and I didn’t get off to a good start. Arriving from the Nuratau mountains, the intense heat (like Delhi in the peak of summer) and swarms of tourists were a shock to the senses. Luckily, I managed to drag myself out of bed at sunrise, to find that the weather was cooler and souvenir shops and selfie snapping tourists hadn’t yet occupied the streets. The bustling 16th century lyab-i hauz – with once functioning madrasahs (schools) and a khanaka (a resting place for wandering Sufi dervishes), the magnificent 12th century Kalon Minaret so impressive that it was spared even by Genghis Khan’s rage and the many centuries-old mosques were just waking up from slumber. Locals cycled past the Silk Route trading domes with their morning bread, women in beautiful traditional dresses came to pray at the mosque. The old city of Bukhara (locally written Buxoro) is a living breathing testimony to our glorious and gruesome past – best witnessed in the solitude of sunrise.
Bukhara sunrise walk: Walk from Lyab-i Hauz to the Kalon Minaret, and further along the trading domes to the Abdullazizkhan Madrassa, a great spot for early morning people-watching and definitely worthy of being on your places to visit in Uzbekistan list.
Also read: Reflections on Life, Travel and Turning 29
10. Experience Tashkent life at a family-run guesthouse
Staying with a friendly Uzbek family at Gulnara Guesthouse immediately gave me a sense of belonging in Uzbekistan. I spent delightful mornings having breakfast on a tapchan (traditional lounge seating) under the shade of persimmon trees, chatting with my 70-year-old hostess who told her family that I only eat melon (because that and bread/homemade apricot jam were the only vegan options 😉). Her sons gave me plenty of suggestions to explore the city beyond the Chorsu bazaar.
Where to stay in Tashkent: If a guesthouse doesn’t sound like your thing, consider staying at Hotel Uzbekistan, with its striking Soviet design and central location opposite Amir Temur Square, typically part of every Uzbekistan itinerary.
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11. Dine in the summer room of a 19th century Jewish trading merchant in Bukhara
I landed up, by pure serendipity, at a 16th century Jewish synagogue in Bukhara – and learnt about the opulent 133-year-old house of a Jewish merchant, now refurbished as Lyabi House Hotel and Ayvan restaurant. During the Soviet era, it was bought over by a Tajik merchant, then passed into the hands of the government, became a kindergaten for kids, a communal home and finally a hotel. The extravagant summer dining room has recently been opened up to the public as a restaurant – strikingly ornate, adorned with artefacts, with a charming outdoor courtyard.
Bukhara where to eat: Ayvan only opens for dinner and seating is limited; make a reservation. Vegan options are limited to soup, stew, salad and vegetable kebabs.
Do you plan to travel to Uzbekistan in the near future? What things to do in Uzbekistan are you most excited about?
*Note: This trip was made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this post are my sole responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US Government.
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