What if I told you that snacking on the local bread was the highlight of my travels through Uzbekistan? Each region has its unique variety, and if you're asking me to pick a favourite, I'm going with the traditional lepyoshka that's made in a tandyr oven (a speciality found in Samarkand). It's got a hard, crunchy exterior that's fluffy and soft when you bite down.
Traditionally, Uzbek bread isn't cut with a knife but instead broken with hands, and when eaten with a meal, it's scattered around the table and usually enjoyed with a cup of chai.
Of course, Uzbekistan offers so much to the intrepid traveller besides delicious bread. Touring through the country presents a portal to the past, retracing the footsteps of the ancient trade route along the Silk Road and feasting one’s eyes on a sea of blue mosaic tiles and well-preserved ancient Islamic architecture.
What to see and do
To the country's southeast, you'll find Samarkand: an architecture lover's paradise and a city known for its majestic mausoleums and mosques. It's also home to one of Central Asia's most aesthetic individual sites – Registan Square (formerly Samarkand's commercial centre). The architectural ensemble oozes grandeur, so take a seat and soak up the atmosphere of the place. Do come past at night to observe the light display for a chance to see the square in all its shining glory. And don't be surprised if young locals come up to you and ask to practice their English too.
As part of exploring Samarkand, we highly recommend visiting the Amir Temur Mausoleum, walking through the green spaces along University Boulevard, and dropping by the Hazrat Khizr Mosque for sunset.
To the west, you've got the town of Khiva, which used to be a slave market: a dark history that is important to learn about. Khiva also used to be a vital caravan stopover on long desert journeys along the Silk Road. These days people call it a 'Museum City' – at least in Itchan Kala (the old town). Make sure to climb the fort steps of the ancient city in the afternoon for a fantastic view. Remember that you'll need an entrance ticket to enter. They're valid for two days and purchasable at the Western Gates.
Once you've finished exploring the old town, venture out to Khiva Bazaar (where the locals go) for a seriously delicious eating experience.
Bukhara feels different from other parts of Uzbekistan. It's a city where you can take things slow, and there's a great selection of eateries and cafes to break up your sightseeing schedule. You'll love the views of all the well-preserved madrassas and minarets, and everything is easily reachable on foot. Ascend to the top of the Shukhov Water Tower and navigate the city's narrow streets to see the architectural delight known as Chor Minor.
We recommend a lunch stop at Labi Hovuz, nestled by Divan Beghi – an artificial lake offering plenty of shade and a breeze for a sit-down meal. By night, the square's illuminated by fairy lights, live music and ice-cream vendors. Cap off the day with an evening meal at either Chinar Chaikhana or Old Bukhara – they both have fantastic rooftops, and the food is delicious!
To the northwest, you've got the quirky and somewhat run-down town of Nukus. Here you'll discover dilapidated old USSR buildings and the Savitsky Museum featuring the most extensive collection of Soviet-era avant-garde art outside St. Petersburg. Whilst there's little to do in Nukus itself, you should venture to the outskirts of the insanely beautiful Mizdakhan. This ancient cemetery is occupied with tombstones and underground mausoleums dating back to the 4th century BC and was, at one time, the largest city in Khorezm.
Most travellers will venture as far north as Muynak in Karakalpakstan territory – an autonomous part of the country. Interestingly, the people here don't consider themselves Uzbek or use their language. Regarding tourism, Muynak's the place to visit the ship graveyard at the Aral Sea. It's really just a desert now due to a sad history of excessive cotton farming and agricultural practices dubbed one of Central Asia's most significant environmental catastrophes. Most people visit for a day (usually by tour), but it's worth spending a night in one of the most remote townships in the country.
Did you know?
Uzbekistan’s got an excellent techno music scene, with some talented DJs hailing from the region. More recently, Stihia Music Festival, an electronic music, arts, and science festival, has emerged, raising awareness towards the environmental catastrophes of the Aral Sea. This year the project will move from Muynak to Bukhara.
What to eat and drink
You'd be hard-pressed to avoid the sights and smells of Uzbekistan's national dish — plov or pilaf, cooked in fat and made from deep-fried meat and vegetables. It's prepared in an enormous kazan (cast-iron pot) and is hearty and flavoursome, which you'll find in restaurants and eateries nationwide.
When navigating the markets, you'll likely see a line of vendors selling nishalda – a thick, sticky and sweet traditional dessert made of water, sugar, egg whites, liquorice root and vanilla, usually consumed during Ramadan (and naturally, perfectly accompanied with bread).
Regarding the more eye-catching foods, you should try the shivit oshi (noodles infused with dill, accompanied by stewed meat and veggies) and one of Khiva's famous local dishes.
In the capital, Tashkent, treat your senses at Chorsu Bazaar. Its dome-shaped exterior and the vendors selling shashlik inside are memorable and reason enough to stroll around.
Drinking chai (tea) is the beverage of choice, particularly with a large Muslim population. Alcohol is available in certain locations/eateries (and more accessible in the larger cities, for example, Tashkent and Bukhara), but it's not common practice.
Always register your stay
Travellers must document their whereabouts whilst travelling through the country. Your host or place of accommodation must attend to this by entering this information into the online system and providing you with a physical piece of paper detailing the same. In the past, visitors have been given a difficult time by government officials for failing to present/register their movements when attempting to leave the country.
Uzbekistan has a wonderful rail system that makes land travel accessible and pleasant. Like the train experiences in Central Asia, they're exceptionally comfortable and cater to various traveller needs, ranging from luxurious commuting to those visiting on a budget. When onboard, you can expect to receive a set of sheets and access to a seat doubling as a bed. There's usually an affordable restaurant carriage on board; otherwise, bring your food or purchase from a vendor at any train stops along the way.
Train tickets in Uzbekistan are notorious for selling out quickly, and last-minute purchases are usually difficult. We recommend grabbing your tickets a few days before to avoid disappointment.
Whilst rail travel is the most desirable and comfortable commuting option, shared taxi travel is also available. The road infrastructure is not very developed, especially outside major cities, so expect a bumpy ride. The views from the drive, however, are redeeming, particularly on the commute from Nukus to Muynak.
If you're searching for a culturally adventurous travel experience, look no further than Uzbekistan!