When you think about Uzbekistan, what comes to mind? ? This Central Asian country has begun to make its way onto travel bucket lists but is still not too well-known to most travellers
As with lots of other countries in the region, there are still some misconceptions about it that may make us hesitant to travel there – however, we believe that there’s so much more to Uzbekistan than meets the eye! Still unsure? Here are 10 reasons that will convince you Uzbekistan is your next great travel destination!
1. Awe-Inspiring Islamic Monuments and Mosques
It’s impossible to explore Uzbekistan without encountering a mosque or madrasah (Islamic school) – most of them centuries old! Some of the most popular attractions in Uzbekistan are in fact mosques or other Islamic sites, pointing to the country’s deep historical ties to the Middle East and Persia, and historical significance to the greater Islamic world. Uzbekistan is definitely another Islamic destination you can't miss in your lifetime.
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Khast Imam Square (Hazrati Imam) is located in the capital city of Tashkent and contains several individual buildings such as the madrasah of Barak-Khan and Tilla Sheikh mosque. There’s even a library of ancient manuscripts within the complex, containing the famous Samarkand Kufic Quran (also known as the Uthman Quran)! Turquoise tiling and decorations are a defining characteristic of mosques and architecture in Uzbekistan, and the beautiful facades of Khast Imam are no exception.
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The Registan used to be at the centre of Samarkand’s ancient city, and is famously framed by three gorgeous madrasahs – Ulugh Beg Madrasah (Built 1417 – 1420), Sher-Dor Madrasah (Built 1619 – 1636), and Tilya-Kori Madrasah (Built 1646 – 1660). Each madrasah has its own unique architecture that sets it apart, while still displaying the brilliant turquoise colour Samarkand is especially known for.
#HHWT Tip: Keep an eye out for the decorations on the Sher-Dor madrasah entrance, which features mosaics of tigers with a rising sun on their back reflecting ancient Persian Mithraic motifs.
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In North-Eastern Samarkand, Shah-i-Zinda is a mausoleum complex that according to local legend houses the body of Kusam ibn Abbas. Amazingly, while these buildings were built from the 11th to the 19th century, each subsequent leader decided to respect the area and add on to it rather than bulldoze older tombs and buildings away. Despite the long test of time, many of these buildings are still standing today!
2. Delicious Halal Local Cuisine
With over 90% of Uzbekistan’s population being Muslim, finding Muslim-friendly food throughout the country is a breeze! Uzbekistan has no official certification board for Halal food at the moment but is in talks with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) to begin a certification process. Nonetheless, there are still many options available for the discerning foodie! ?
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Plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan and consists of rice, mutton or beef, carrots, onions, and vegetable oil prepared in a deep cast-iron pot. There are meatless versions of plov available too, and each city and region even has its own variations. Plov centres in major cities are known for preparing the dish in large pans such as the one above – and guests may even eat or be served directly from this communal pan!
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Tea drinking is a major tradition in the country and is taken at almost every meal. While you can usually order green or black tea in a restaurant, for an authentic Uzbek experience make sure to stop and sit for a while at a Chai-Khana (tea house). While it tends to be old men who visit these tea houses to chit-chat for hours, don’t let that stop you from taking a break and soaking in the atmosphere! There are also less traditional cafes that serve a wider variety of tea (saffron tea anyone?) so you’re spoiled for choice!
3. A Birthplace Of Ancient Islamic Knowledge
We don’t typically associate Uzbekistan with scientific marvels, but some of the finest discoveries made by ancient Muslim scientists actually took place in its cities! Monuments and museums commemorating these discoveries should definitely be on your list – both as a way to discover Uzbekistan’s past, and to wonder at how much it changed the world!
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The Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand is regarded as one of the most impressive observatories in the Islamic world. Rediscovered in 1908 after almost 500 years, the contributions of its scholars included predicting eclipses and creating star charts. The Ulug Beg Observatory Museum was opened in 1970 and displays equipment such as astrolabes as well as reproductions of star charts and other important documents.
4. History Comes Alive In Its Streets
The cities in Uzbekistan are old – think thousands of years old. There are even medieval monuments still standing today, even in the capital city itself!
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Bukhara and Samarkand are two of the biggest and oldest cities in Uzbekistan, but you can easily find the old existing alongside the new. Bukhara, in particular, is known for both its centuries-old mosques, as well as its modern museums!. It’s a place where the ancient and the contemporary co-exist side-by-side, speaking to Uzbekistan’s rich history as much as its optimism towards the future.
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Khwarezm, a desert oasis just outside of Khiva, houses several archaeological and historical sites. The area is also known as Elliq-Qala, or “Fifty Forts”, referring to the vast kingdoms that used to exist. While there are already so many ruins that have been uncovered for tourists to visit, it's amazing that more are still being discovered every day ?
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One of the sights in Khiva you can’t miss is the Kalta-Minor minaret. Unlike typical minarets, its fat tube-like design is overwhelmingly large – with a foundational diameter of 14.5 metres wide! Its turquoise body stands out even more against the brown desert tones, making it an icon of the city itself. The minaret was a project started by Muhammad Amin Khan in the 19th century and was intended to be tall enough to allow him to see all the way to Bukhara, but construction stopped after his death in 1855.
5. Magnificent Culture and Heritage
Did you know that Uzbekistan is home to 4 UNESCO Cultural Sites – with many more still on a pending list! Its central position in the Silk Road has made it a melting pot of a range of cultures for centuries, and this diversity has reflected itself in both the tangible and intangible aspects of the country.
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Shakhrisyabz is over two millennia old and was the centre of ancient Kesh from the 14th to 15th centuries. Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000, the city is a monument to centuries of secular growth which propelled Uzbekistan into its central significance on the Silk Roads. The continued preservation of the original buildings and decorations speaks both to the skill of the city planners of the time, and the dedication of the contemporary government to preserve the site. Sadly with increased tourist visits to the site and the building of more hotels and modern facilities to accommodate them, Shakhrisyabz was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger list to reflect concerns that it may be getting too modernized.
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Uzbek dance is one of the country’s most recognizable traditions. There are three main schools – Bukhara, Fergana, and Khorezm – with their own unique styles, and these lively and energetic dances are performed on a variety of social occasions. If you come across a wedding taking place, you may even get to see the wedding party burst into a spontaneous dance on the street! Dancers often perform in front of madrasahs and other major buildings, but there are also local tours which will offer the opportunity to watch these beautiful dancers in motion.
6. Experience Breathtaking And Baffling Nature
Uzbekistan’s terrain is mostly desert – but don’t think that means there isn’t anything to see or do!
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The Aydar Lake (Lake Aydarkul) is part of the man-made Aydar-Arnasay lake system – right in the middle of the desert! A legacy of Soviet planning, the lake is mainly used for industrial fishing today but also hosts tourist activities nearby such as fishing or yurting. There’s even a yurt camp in the village of Yangigazgan where tourists can spend a night or two sleeping in these traditional desert houses.
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The Aral Sea isn’t quite what its name suggests – decades ago it used to be the fourth-largest lake in the world, but now it’s a barren basin that’s almost completely dried up! Many ships still remain landlocked and abandoned here, creating a kind of ship ‘graveyard’. Being amongst them is mesmerizing, especially when you realize that you’re standing right where there used to be deep water ?
7. Architectural Crossroads Of The World
Thanks to the Silk Road as well its few decades as a Soviet state, Uzbekistan has integrated all of these influences to create a landscape and culture completely unique to itself and representative of a multicultural outlook on the world.
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Even in a country dotted with stunning Islamic buildings, Bukhara’s Chor-Minor madrasah stands out for its four minaret towers topped with rounded blue ceramic domes. Each minaret is shaped and decorated differently, to reflect four major world religions – truly a symbol of peace and co-existence! The madrasah is available for regular visits, and visitors should remember to take a look at the unique hexagonal lobby inside as well!
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The Tashkent Metro is the oldest underground train system in Central Asia. Built by the Soviet government, there was a ban on photography within the stations up until the summer of 2018. Since then, photographers - amateur and expert alike - have been revealing the distinct Soviet-style architecture that remains. The corridors are decorated with chandeliers and large portraits of historical Uzbek figures, and the characteristic blue tiling can be seen even in such a modern setting.
8. Bazaars And Shopping Galore
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If you’ve visited all of the beautiful attractions, you can always head to a bazaar to marvel at the range of local food and goods on offer. Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent is the oldest in the capital city and holds centuries of history within its walls. The bazaar sells everything from hot meals to wholesale produce to traditional textiles, and stepping into its walls feels like a modern-day replication of Tashkent’s Silk Road past.
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You can’t visit Uzbekistan and miss out on their textiles. Silk and cotton production have been mainstays of Uzbekistan’s economy and culture for centuries. Fun fact: their fabric is called “ikat”, coming from the Indonesian word “mengikat” (connecting, entwining), which refers to the weaving process.
9. Friendly And Welcoming Locals
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Almost everyone who has visited Uzbekistan has mentioned the friendliness and help extended by its citizens. Hospitality is a big part of Central Asian culture, and it definitely makes us want to visit Uzbekistan even more! Being a tourist a new country may be difficult, but it’s always comforting to know that the locals are willing to help you out ?
10. A Surprising Ease Of Travel
In recent years, Uzbekistan has rapidly modernized to accommodate its own growing economy as well as the tourist market. Central Asia is way more accessible now – and we’re totally here for it!
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Looking at the major cities on a map may surprise you – most of them are a pretty significant distance from each other! However, there are now lots of low-cost domestic flights, buses, and high-speed trains which can take you from city to city at your own pace.
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Finally, did you know that Uzbekistan has been expanding the list of passports that can visit it visa-free? Better yet, did you know that Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are all countries that don’t require a visa for a 30-day stay? With the government opening up more and more to tourists, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it’ll only get easier to travel to such amazing places! ?
Uzbekistan is truly so much more than we expected it to be. With so much history and culture behind it, it's definitely a destination you can't miss out on!
Feature Photo Credit: Kirk Siang on Flickr