Uzbekistan Travel Guide: What UAE Residents Can Expect From the Culturally-Rich Destination
Uzbekistan is closer than you might think… in distance and culture from the UAE
16 May 2023
Authored by David Dunn.
Are antique souvenirs your holiday spending weakness?
If so, it is might be an idea to skip forward a few lines.
Likewise, if your bartering skills aren’t so sharp, you should probably dodge some of the many tempting wares on offer around Uzbekistan’s treasured cultural addresses.
Blessed with Silk Road heritage and stunning landmarks, this former Soviet Union nation is also abundant with villa-friendly ceramics, hand-crafted brassware, vintage metal pots and colourful garments that crave to come home with you - in fact, almost every knick-knack and souvenir to swiftly relieve a tourist of a million Uzbek Som.
Then again, with US$1 buying about 11,300 units of local currency, you’ll frequently feel cash rich during a visit to this fascinating Central Asian country.
It is a tangible blend of Islamic and old Communist traits, from architecture to language, ancient heritage to modern aspirations - and Uzbek merchants also know how to catch the attention of us visitors.
Unlike many global tourist havens, though, there’s mercifully measured pressure to purchase, although some traders in beautiful Bukhara proved as insistent as they were hopeful with their opening prices.
Textile artisan Djamol Temirov is known for his clever blending of old carpet segments into attractive new wall hangings, but also finds fresh homes for vintage jugs.
Provenance can be a little vague so maybe take a snapshot of your purchase while there, along with a receipt, before buying in case of airport security questions heading out of Uzbekistan.
Pictured: Textile artisan Djamol Temirov
With its generous array of sites Bukhara is like an open-air museum, featuring numerous well-preserved and restored mosques, madrassas and bazaars, dating largely from the ninth to the 17th centuries. All are within easy walk of several wallet-friendly, often family-run small hotels.
However, even with the likes of stunning Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah and Kalon Minaret, the destination lives in the shadow of better-known Samarkand, two hours away via an efficient, popular train network.
Uzbekistan’s second city is home to the magnificent Bibi-Khanym Mosque, rated by medieval historians among Islam’s most architecturally significant.
The huge structure, built in the 15th century, suffered neglect and earthquakes but was extensively restored during Uzbekistan’s Soviet era.
Even so, Bibi-Khanym has tough competition in both scale and beauty from magnificent neighbour Registan Square.
Pictured: Bukhara, Uzbekistan
The UNESCO World Heritage site is the headline act in Samarkand’s inventory of architectural treasures and upholds a heart of the city role - it bustles now with visitors as it surely once did while serving as the venue for royal proclamations.
Madrasahs that housed Islamic schools frame three sides of the square, recalling the influence of the Timurid Empire that used to rule much of Central Asia.
Registan means ‘desert’ in Persian, but this beguiling site - with Ulugh Beg Madrasah dating back to the 1400s - is anything but sparse.
Imposing mosaic arches flanked by towering minarets open into courtyards, tranquil but for enthralled chatter and occasional fridge magnet sales pitches.
At night, strategic illumination highlights stunning features best viewed from a raised platform positioned at the square’s open side.
Pictured: Registan in Uzbekistan
Samarkand, and Uzbekistan generally, is a nascent destination for GCC tourists, according to Dmitry Karpov, General Manager of Hilton Garden Inn Samarkand.
The city’s first international brand hotel is well located for trains, major sites including beautiful Shah-i-Zinda, and a smart new airport into which flydubai operates economy and business class services from Dubai International Airport (DXB), along with routes to Uzbek capital Tashkent and Namangan.
“Historically, we have not seen many visitors from UAE, but... we have seen increased inquiries from UAE-based travel agencies and tour operators,” says the boss of the bright, alcohol-free hotel.
“Many people are excited to see an international place of stay in Samarkand, a sign of the city’s growth and development as a tourist destination.”
Not only does the majority Muslim populous make Uzbekistan compatible for UAE travelers, at around three hours flight time it befits shorter breaks, or longer stays.
Business class on flydubai meant a substantial meal of delicious mustard chicken heading out of DXB. Equally attentive service on the return leg included great crepes and eggs, tempting even on a 4:15AM flight.
Another tip to ensure a smooth trip is to book your onward Uzbekistan trains in advance as services between Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent sell out, not least the swish high-speed option. Hotel staff can help with this.
Uzbekistan during warm weather
In hotter weather, the Uzbek capital of Tashkent adds further family appeal courtesy of Park Navruz, a culture park with rides, Tashkent Botanical Garden for curated greenery, or Ashkabad Park, which has a ferris wheel and occasional live music.
Add to that a zoo, Aqualand water park, and Magic City Park with its fairytale castle, for a fun balance to the rich portfolio of museums and cultural sites.
The latter includes the newer but traditionally-inspired Minor Mosque, a white marble landmark accessible via a metro network adorned with art and sculpture.
It throngs with locals, especially towards Chorsu Bazaar, a famous sprawling market selling seemingly everything.
While there are some tourist stalls, visitor appeal lies largely in the eclectic trading bustle, including the bakery hall’s relentless bread-making action.
From here a decent walk or brief taxi ride reaches Hazrati Imam complex, an historic religious centre popular with kite-flyers and soon to be accompanied by the Centre of Islamic Civilisation.
All are on a city tour 12-stop itinerary if you crave simpler passage. You can join it outside the imposing Hotel Uzbekistan, where you’ll also find a competitive foreign exchange.
Both are close to Hampton by Hilton Tashkent, a fresh, stylish 175-room hotel well placed for exploring the striking Palace of International Forums and art and history museums, or Amir Temur Square - featuring one of numerous impressive park-based statues.
Pictured: Local Uzbekistan dishes.
If wet weather prevails there are more museums covering railways, geology, telecommunication, Olympic glory…even decorative pumpkins.
The ubiquitous squash also features in Uzbekistan cuisine, which shares much tradition with Turkey - such as shashlik meat skewers - beside noodle and dumpling dishes influenced by China and Nepal.
Popular Tashkent contemporary restaurant Afsona describes the diet as one of the “most colourful and richest in Central Asia”.
While rice dish plov suggests otherwise, manti meat dumplings, pumpkin samsa, and laghman and shurpa soups, support the claim…alongside the need to visit Hampton by Hilton’s gym the following morning.
Alternatively, walking and kayaking adventures await outside of Tashkent at the Chimgan Mountains and Charvak Lake, two of Uzbekistan’s natural treasures and most popular rural attractions.