The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Central Asia and the Silk Road: Zulya Rajabova of Silk Road Treasure Tours.
Zulya grew up in Uzbekistan (her hometown, Bukhara, is one of the legendary cities of the Silk Road trading route) and returns often to visit her large and charismatic family—the same family that her travelers are often lucky enough to meet. Since Zulya has had a home in the U.S. since 2003, she fully understands what sophisticated Americans want to see and do amid the stunning landscapes and ancient sites of Central Asia (including all five “Stans”), and she can also address any and all safety concerns they might have. Her expertise with languages (in addition to Uzbeki and English, Zulya speaks German, Russian, and Farsi) set her on a path in tourism: She started out as a private guide for journalists, diplomats, and heads of state visiting Uzbekistan. Her personal contacts at museums, exhibition sites, and performance companies translate to exclusive access for her clients, and the encounters that she orchestrates with artisans and businesspeople help bring alive aspects of the culture both ancient and contemporary. To make sure that every trip lives up to her savvy travelers’ standards, Zulya not only arranges for superlative guides and comfortable hotels and homestays but also handles the potential logistical hurdles of travel to this region, such as border crossings and visa procurement.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The four-star Lotte Tashkent Palace is as luxurious as it gets in Uzbekistan. It has a wonderful location, opposite the Alisher Navoi theater and a gorgeous fountain, and is only a few blocks from the metro, the Tashkent Gallery of Modern Art, the biggest souvenir shops, and Independence Square. Recently renovated, the hotel has comfortable beds and the most spacious rooms you’ll find in Tashkent; request one with a view of the lovely garden and courtyard, as the sound and light show at the fountain out front can be an annoyance to some. My clients get early check-in, late checkout, and upgrades for a special occasion.
Restaurants the locals love
Head to the Tashkent Central Asian Plov House for plov, of course! Ladled from steaming cauldrons (known as kazans) set outdoors, this savory mix of meat, vegetables, and rice is the national dish of Uzbekistan, served at every special occasion. The Plov House’s surroundings are basic and the service spotty, but the plov is second to none.
Meal worth the splurge
At Minzifa in Bukhara’s Labi Khaus complex, shurpa is the specialty: a hearty soup made with meat, large noodles, and fresh vegetables. (There’s also continental cuisine on the menu for the less adventurous.) It’s worth the splurge to eat here at this charming restaurant for the fabulous views of the old city at sunset that you get from the rooftop terrace; request a seat up here when you make your reservation.
What to See and Do
The mud fortresses at Ayaz Kala, in the Karakalpak region, are a truly fascinating, inexpensive destination. Travelers can explore archaeological treasures from the fourth century B.C., ride camels, and overnight in a yurt (where they’ll be treated to a performance of traditional desert music under the stars). Easily accessible from Ayaz Kala is the world-class Savitsky Collection of “forbidden” Russian avant-garde art; the story connected to this museum is a terrific tale of one man’s secret mission against Soviet-style repression.
Stopping for tea at a chaikana, or Central Asian teahouse, in Bukhara’s Labi Khaus complex, where several seventeenth-century madrassas surround a long, rectangular pond. Shaded by 500-year-old mulberry trees, it’s a relaxing spot in a busy city, a traditional tea market and meeting place for friends. Ask any of the locals to recount one of the humorous stories of Khodga Nasreddin, a thirteenth-century philosopher who disguised his moral lessons in amusing anecdotes; his statue is nearby.
Uzbekistan is becoming a hot destination for fashion and interior designers, drawn by the gorgeous fabrics, amazing workmanship, and traditional designs in cotton, silk, and embroidery. Silk Road Treasure Tours can arrange for you to meet with the top Uzbek fashion designers who have participated in international fashion weeks, plus other local textile experts and jewelry makers, who can discuss the use of traditional motifs in contemporary designs and the importance of appearance in Uzbek life.
In Tashkent: Alisher Navoi National Park. This man-made park is an oasis of green with ornamental gardens, a lake, canals, cafés, plazas, and fountains. Head to the fountains behind the Palace of People’s Friendship, where you’ll find the Abul Kasim Madrassah, which now houses artisans’ workshops. There’s a nice view of the lake and the bright blue dome of the Uzbek parliament, and on Saturdays the nearby Navruz wedding house hosts many such celebrations.
In Bukhara: Mokhi Hossa Summer Palace (the Palace of Moon and Stars). Located in the countryside just outside the city, this palace was once the summer residence of the Emir of Bukhara; it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot for a quiet picnic surrounded by early-twentieth-century buildings and gardens that reveal both Asian and Russian influences.
A perfect day
Visit the bazaars and hammam in Bukhara. Bukhara has lots of old trade domes (covered bazaars) bursting to the seams with food, spices, fabrics, handicrafts, and souvenirs, most produced locally, and they are busiest and more colorful on Sundays and Thursdays. My favorite is the Toki Zargaron trade dome, where you can find not only fabulous jewelry but also the best embroidery and silk items, and even carpets. After a browse, stop for tea and perhaps lunch at the chiakana of the Labi Khaus complex (see “Don’t miss,” above). Then make the short walk to the city’s hammam, or Turkish bath, for your massage (which it’s best to book ahead of time); the well-preserved stone domes and corridors here date from the sixteenth century. Then spend a couple of hours relaxing and re-energizing in the hot and cold baths, enjoying the tasty local ginger tea.
The ancient city of Khiva is magical at night. The important architectural gems are all artfully lit, the adobe walls radiate warmth from the day’s sun, and the moon and stars shine brilliantly above the minarets in superclear skies. Get your shot from near the Kalta Minor or Islam Khodja minarets.
The Klayan minaret, part of the Poi-Kalon complex in Bukhara, is known as the “lighthouse of the desert.” Here, the tallest minaret in Central Asia soars up through azure skies. Come at sunrise or sunset for the best light playing on the complex’s adobe walls, cut-away facades, and blue domes.
Spring is one of the most beautiful seasons in Uzbekistan. In May, especially, the weather is pleasant; travelers can access rural alpine villages and lakesides, overnight comfortably in a yurt, and go hiking, camel-riding, and white-water kayaking. There are also lots of popular festivals in spring (including a number of music events, the silk-and-spice festival, and the tulip festival), and weddings—our clients are always welcome at my extended family’s weddings, as well as those of my team on the ground. There are often upwards of 300 guests at an Uzbek wedding, and friends of friends or family are always welcome.
The second-best time is in September. After the summer heat, the weather is once again comfortable for touring the ancient cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva, and for hiking in the mountains or camel riding in the Kizil Kum Desert.
January, definitely! With freezing air coming in across the steppes, temperatures can reach well below zero. There is snow in the upper elevations, making it difficult to access some sites, and photographic equipment may need protection from the cold—as will travelers!
Shopping in a hurry. The Silk Road destinations have always been centers of trade, famous for silk, handwoven Bukhara carpets, and unbelievably intricate embroidery. They are a paradise for shoppers, and visiting the markets and shops in Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva is thrilling. Silk scarves, carpets, and jewelry are on offer everywhere, so take some time to browse first, then return to your preferred choice (there are also fakes out there, so if you’re planning on making a big purchase, do some research before your trip). A guide can also help you suss out the best deals. And remember, haggling is expected!
Rushing the journey. Some travelers opt to fly from one Silk Road city to another, and there is a high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand, but travel by car is most rewarding. There are many cultural, architectural, and archaeological treasures to find outside the main cities, as well as rural villages to visit, the ancient towns of Jizzakh Province, local bazaars, and amazing photo opportunities.
A currency converter with live currency rates is essential; this will help with the difference between the Uzbek som and your own currency. I like Converter+, which is free.
Tipping is customary in Uzbekistan. Restaurant waiters get 10 percent; guides and drivers should be tipped $15–$25 per day, depending on your satisfaction with their services.
Coffee or tea. Uzbekistan is a nation of tea drinkers, and coffee is not available everywhere. The green teas here are refreshing and worth trying, but bring your own if you prefer black or herbal varieties.