Ancient Cities, New Destination - Visit Unique Uzbekistan

 
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Contributor:
Andy Marty 

Nationality:
Australian 

Social Links:
Instagram: @andympics

Age Group:
30-40 years 

Gender:
Male 

Travel Style:
 Casual
Photography

 

Destination: Uzbekistan

When you’re scanning for some travel inspiration, you can get overwhelmed with content from the same destinations year after year. The “popular” cities are always incredibly crowded and have become frustratingly touristy - in many cases dissolving away their natural culture. Almost as importantly these days, everyone has already posted a photo from “that place” - its been done!

It is sometimes difficult to find a destination that is a little more unique, less crowded and somewhat undiscovered. Which is why its always exciting that somewhere, which is ironically incredibly old, becomes a “new” destination! Introducing Uzbekistan!

Discover Uzbekistan

Tourism in Uzbekistan is somewhat behind in comparison to many destinations, but in many ways, this is part of its charm. An unpretentious, unspoiled and largely unexplored country that might become your pleasant surprise of this summer! I say “unexplored” with a certain degree of irony – whilst modern travelers are yet to really discover Uzbekistan, it has a prominent place in the history of some of the world’s most famous wanderlusters – explorers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled along the silk road, long before their journeys could be documented on social media!

 

So here is everything you need to know about planning a trip to Uzbekistan!

 

Before You Go:

Uzbekistan is in Central Asia and much of the reason it has remained relatively undiscovered from a tourism perspective is likely due to the safety concerns of some of the neighboring countries, like Afghanistan. That being said, Uzbekistan itself appears a relatively safe destination for travellers – there are reports of relatively minor petty crimes, scams etc that are common for most countries. It is absolutely advised to avoid visiting areas close to the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan! During our visit we found the people to be extremely friendly and didn’t feel unsafe at any time.

Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country and religious/cultural sensitivities should be observed. It is however a relatively moderate country - you will find alcohol served at many restaurants and there is no need for female travelers to cover the hair or face. There is also quite a strong Russian influence from the former Soviet days. Whilst the local language is Uzbek, if you are able to speak Russian you will be able to quite easily communicate. English isn’t widely spoken outside of hotels, so expect some translation difficulties!

 For the most part, Uzbekistan isn’t overly touristy. Some of the architecture and history of the mosques and madrasahs (Islamic schools) is as impressive as anywhere you will find in the world. These places do draw a crowd, but nothing compared to equivalent attractions in other major cities. More pleasing is that whilst there might be many visitors to the more popular attractions like the Registan in Samarkand, none of them are overly commercialized or full of hawkers selling cheap, unauthentic merchandise. Certainly there are stalls in places like The Registan and around Bukhara, but they tend to sell more local items.

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 Uzbekistan has a rich history through its religious significance and also as a place on the old silk road. Some of the cities like Khiva and Samarkand are extremely old and control over them was critical from a trade perspective and also as they built a base of religious significance. From the Islamic crusades, conquests by Ghengis Kahn through to occupation by Russia and eventual independence, many of the cities had been fought over many times.

 The local currency is the Uzbek Som. There are not many currency exchanges so it is best to change money when arriving at the airport – the exchange is just after passport control. The exchange will accept USD (after year 2001) or Euros only. If you need to withdraw money, there is a machine that will dispense USD which you can then exchange. Generally speaking, Uzbekistan is a very inexpensive place to visit and USD will go a long way!

 Local internet sim cards are extremely cheap and work quite well. Pick one up at the airport close to baggage collection. USD5 will get you 5GB of data! The hotel and “free wifi” in restaurants is not very good from my experience, so if you want to stay in touch, best get a data sim card or use global roaming.

 

 Getting In:

Many nationalities are exempt from requiring an entry visa for travel up to 30 days. Most other passports require an e-visa which is relatively simple to obtain and costs USD20. Check online for your individual requirements.

 Flydubai has just opened up daily flights direct from Dubai to Tashkent and flights are also available direct from USA and from several cities in Europe. The recent increase in direct international flights is resulting in a steady increase of tourist traffic to the country. One of the reasons I love flydubai as an airline, is they open routes to a lot of these “less travelled” destinations and ones that I hadn’t really had on my travel radar. Its such an opportunity to experience some of these hidden gems!

 Most tourists will enter the country through Tashkent airport (map). Previously there were reports of long delays and customs checks at arrivals, however these seem to have reduced significantly and we transited in around 30minutes total (although it was around 5am so may have been less busy).

 There are many registered taxis waiting at the arrivals to take visitors from the airport to their hotel. These are mostly metered taxis and will have a sign on top of the car. In all cities there are a huge number of unregistered “taxis” which are legal. Initially we were reluctant to use the unregistered cars, however they are much more convenient, cheaper and quite friendly. The smaller unregistered cars do tend to be less maintained and in some cases don’t have seat belts in the rear seats. 

 

Getting around:

Google maps works well in Uzbekistan, so its quite easy to find your way and plan trips within cities. The estimated travel times are pretty close to accurate.

Certainly within cities like Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara it is quite cheap and easy to use the unregistered taxis. They are usually easy to find and the price is negotiable, depending on how determined you are to bargain (speaking Russian will be a huge advantage in this!) – in general a 20minute ride will cost you around USD4. Apps like Uber do not work in Uzbkeistan.

In Bukhara you can visit a lot of the interesting places on foot if you stay centrally, however in Tashkent and Samarkand this isn’t as easy.

In Tashkent, the metro system is extremely cheap (each ride only costing around USD0.2) and easy to use. The stations themselves are worth visiting, so planning your trip around using the metro has the added bonus of exploring the amazing architecture of the different stops.

For travel between cities you have several options. If you are going as far as Khiva, you might consider taking a domestic flight from Tashkent to Urgench as this will save you a lot of time. After that, we found the trains to be the best domestic travel option. You will need to book your tickets for the trains in advance and they are busy, so make sure you book a couple of weeks ahead. Use the Uzbekistan Railways website, which can be a little tedious (they wouldn’t accept Australia as a nationality, so I was Austrian for the purpose of train travel). You will need to enter passport details and then be at the station an hour before departure to show your passport and collect your tickets. I would recommend booking 2nd class – you will get a private cabin which is quite comfortable and the price is relatively cheap! There are “fast” trains and “slow” trains, if the timetables suit, I would definitely recommend the faster trains as they are newer and you will save at least an hour on a 4 hour trip! For the most part, the domestic rail system is really good.

You can arrange to either hire your own car and drive between cities or hire a private driver to take you. The private drivers are significantly more expensive than train travel and I would only suggest this if you cant find suitable train tickets. We paid USD100 to travel between Samarkand and Bukhara, a trip that would cost around USD35 for 2 people.

 

Eating in Uzbekistan:

The local food in Uzbekistan is relatively simple, with lots of soups, meats and breads. The national dish is the Plov (or Pilaf) and you need to make a point of trying several, as there is quite a bit of variation. The traditional Plov is rice based with meat that is usually slow cooked lamb. Most will have some bell peppers, sultanas, carrots, chickpeas, quail egg and chili. The better Plovs are full of flavor, with moist, slow cooked lamb. Definitely mark down Osh Markazi on your list as the place to get a really good Plov (lunch for 2 people will cost around USD5).

Other popular dishes are shaslick (meat skewers), Shurpa (a clear soup with a large piece of lamb and some vegetables), a local variant of somosa, fresh salads and the local bread, “non” that is served with almost every meal. 

Desserts and sweet foods are not a big part of the Uzbek diet, so expect more dried fruits and nuts after meal.

Tea is a staple with meals and many restaurants will also serve alcohol including local wines.

A word of caution for vegetarians and vegans – interpretation and translation may be an issue at some places, so take care when ordering. We did order a “greenery soup” at one restaurant assuming it was vegetarian……….it came with meatballs and a boiled egg.

 

1.    Tashkent:

Most visitors to Uzbekistan will arrive in the capital city, Tashkent. Many will then transit straight away to other cities. However it is definitely worth allowing at least a day to explore Tashkent as there are some great places to see.

Being the largest city, there are also a lot of options for accommodation and more chain hotels than in Samarkand or Bukhara. Look at the Hyatt Regency (map) as a great option if you want 5 Star, otherwise the Ramada is also a more affordable 5 star option (USD100-120 per night). There are also a lot of very inexpensive small hotels and if you are staying for a single night and just looking for a bed, you can find somewhere comfortable for around USD50.

A must visit place in Tashkent is Chorsu Bazaar (map) – a huge local market that is full of fresh produce and hugely popular with locals who come everyday to do their shopping. You can reach here easily on the metro and get off at Chorsu Station (map). The huge round building is full of small stalls selling anything from cheese, honey and nuts to meat, pickled vegetables and sweets. It is a hive of activity and even just taking up a spot on the rails upstairs gives you a great vantage point for some “people watching”. Outside are more covered stalls full of fresh produce. There is only a small amount of the cheap merchandise or souvenir type things that you get at most markets in other cities and majority of this is outside the main bazaar. If you enjoy exploring local markets when you travel, you will enjoy wandering through Chorsu Bazaar.  On the southern entrance there are several stands cooking local food and the one next to the steps makes a pretty good Plov!

The bustling Chorsu Bazaar

The bustling Chorsu Bazaar

It is easy to buy anything you want in Tashkent, so it is a great opportunity to pick up some local honey, dried fruits or nuts to take home.

There is a huge area of freshly cut meat and dressed, hanging animals in the market. If this bothers you, definitely avoid this section.

 Close to the Chorsu Bazaar is Kokaldosh Madrasah (map). Compared to some of the other Madrasahs in Samarkand, Bukhara and even in Tashkent, this one isn’t as impressive, but still worth visiting if you have time.

 An important place to visit in Tashkent is the Hazrat Imam Mosque (map) – a newly built mosque with many of the features of traditional Uzbek architecture that you will find throughout the country – sand colored brickwork, tiled mosaics, tall brick minarets and iconic aqua domes. It is the largest place of worship in Uzbekistan. This mosque has special significance in that it houses an ancient copy of the Quran, said to be the oldest in the world and one of the original 5 copies. It is said to be stained with the blood of Caliph Uthman who was murdered while reading it. The museum also contains hair reportedly from the Prophet Mohammed. Opposite the Hazrat Imam Mosque is the Barak Khan Madrasah, built in the 16thcentury and on the south of the square is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque. The square between the 3 buildings is a nice place for photos, especially if there has been some rain creating some reflections.

Hazrat Imam Mosque

Hazrat Imam Mosque

Barak Khan Madrasah

Barak Khan Madrasah

 In the evenings, it is worth visiting Brodvey (map) – an open street with lights, stalls and entertainment. There is also plenty to do here for children, especially on weekends. This is also where the more high-end shopping is in Tashkent, with several European stores and boutiques. 

Brodvey

Brodvey

 Around the corner from here is Amir Timur Museum (map), a large modern building containing a huge number of displays, many depicting the life of Amir Timur, a Mongul warlord who played a pivotal role in shaping Uzbekistan’s history and culture. From outside, the building is quite impressive and at night the central dome becomes illuminated and is prominent from some distance away. There is a large statue of Amir Timur in the adjacent Amir Timur Square – a large park with fountains and gardens.

Amir Timur Museum

Amir Timur Museum

An interesting piece of architecture in Tashkent is the iconic Hotel Uzbekistan (map). Opened in 1974 it remained the only high-end hotel in Uzbekistan for many years, with several 4 and 5 star hotels only recently opening in Tashkent. The façade of the hotel is a mix of European and Uzbek architecture, and at sunset takes on an intense golden glow. Until recently, as night took over, the room lights would give a creative pattern to the front of the hotel, however it is now used as a screen for laser advertising……..

 Near to Hotel Uzbekistan is the Dvorets Mezhdunarodnykh Forum (map) – a large function and events center. From the road it is an extremely impressive building with its dominating white columns.

 Something that you definitely shouldn’t miss in Tashkent is riding on the Metro. Not only are these trains a cheap and easy way to get around the city, each station has its own unique architecture – from futuristic to more classical designs. These are an awesome photo opportunity or just a curious thing to do when you’re in Tashkent.

Stations to definitely visit include:

-      Alisher Navoi (my favorite) (map)

-      Tinchlik (map)

-      Mustakillik (map)

-      Bodomzor (map)

We ate at Plov Samsa (map) next to Park Bolazhon in Tashkent. The food was “ok” without being great. Quite traditional Uzbek food with Plov and shaslick, fresh salads, non and Shurpa. It’s a really nice place to sit outside next to the park and have a meal. 

 

2.    Samarkand:

The train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand is around 4 hours. There are plenty of unregistered taxis at the station in Samarkand waiting to transfer you to wherever you need to go – remember, a 20minute ride should cost you under USD5.

Samarkand is an incredibly ancient city, having been founded around 550BC. It was later occupied by the Arabs and became an important city for Islamic studies. Over time, it also featured prominently on the silk road trading route between China and the Mediterranean.

 The highlight of Samarkand is without doubt the Registan (map) – the former ancient center of the city. The complex is a large square bordered on 3 sides by stunning madrasahs – Ulugbek, Shidor and Tilla Khari. These Madrasahs are where Islamic students would live to study the Quran, so the buildings would serve both as classroom, place of worship and accommodation.

The Registan

The Registan

It is the most popular tourist attraction in Samarkand and does draw a significant crowd. Certainly if you want clear photographs you will need to arrive early. Whilst it does say online that it is open 24hours, you need to purchase an entry ticket (USD4 per person) and the ticket office doesn’t open until 8am (April to Oct, then 9am others). 

The front of each Madrasah is incredible and the entire complex offers some of the most impressive architecture you are likely to see. The brickwork, tiled mosaics, glazed minarets and inscriptions are quite stunning and really must be seen to be fully appreciated. After you enter each madrasah it opens into a small courtyard garden. There you will find small stalls, which in some parts are a little touristy, but nowhere near what you find in other countries! Most are selling local products and souvenirs. Hopefully they will try to resist the temptation of being infiltrated with cheap knock offs.

It is now permitted to climb the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah – previously tourists would offer money to the guards and risk getting caught. However since April 2019, tickets can be bought for USD2 to climb up the very narrow staircase and look out over Shidor Madrasah and beyond. Note: towards the top it is VERY narrow – don’t take backpacks etc and “larger” visitors may find it difficult to climb through the small opening at the top! You can also access a corner of the 2ndfloor of the courtyard of the Ulugbek Madrasah which is nice for photos.

View of Shidor Madrasah as seen from the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah

View of Shidor Madrasah as seen from the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah

You should allow at least half a day to be able to explore the Registan. It is possible to arrange a guide for USD2 at the ticket office or you can simply stroll through yourself. After dark there is a light show, which essentially involves the complex being lit up. The night we were in Samarkand it rained heavily which made visiting for photos almost impossible.

Another must visit place in Samarkand is Shah i Zinda (map) – a complex of mausoleums containing the tombs of many members of the ruling families of Samarkand. It is sometimes called “cemetery street” as it is designed as a single long passage way lined with mausoleums.

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The name Shah i Zinda means “The Living King”. It is said that Kusum bin Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, visited the site in the 7thcentury to spread the word of Islam. He was beheaded but did not die, rather as the story goes, he carried his head to the nearby great well, where he still lives.

Entry to the complex is USD2 with an extra charge of USD0.4 for using your camera. The ticket office opens at 9am. Early there are many local people coming to visit the mausoleums, however from 10:30am, it becomes quite busy with tourists. Unlike the Registan, Shah i Zinda is quite narrow so groups of tourists do appear to make it look busier than it probably is.

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 The Gur Amir Mausoleum (map) is another building well worth visiting for some classic architecture featuring ornate mosaics and inscriptions. There is a small ticket office on the left hand side of the stairs and entry is USD4 (extra for guided tour or for use of cameras).

 A short drive from the Registan area are the remains of the Ulugbek Observatory (map). The scientific work of Mirzo Ulugbek was quite revolutionary for its time and whilst only the foundations of this complex remain, it still has the extraordinary underground trench. Another reason to visit the Ulugbek Observatory is that is very close to a place to eat!

Domashni Restorant (map) was quite highly recommended to try the lamb dish – slow cooked meat served over chickpeas. To be completely honest, I found the lamb a little bit bland and not as soft as I would want for “slow cooked” – it was more like boiled meat, without too much in the way of seasoning. The shaslick was quite nice, as was the clear soup. Moreover, the family-run restaurant was extremely authentic and the staff were incredibly warm.

Now, when you’re in Samarkand, do not miss the opportunity to try what I consider the best Plov I had in Uzbekistan (I tried many). There are 2 Osh Markazi’s in Samarkand and I believe they are very similar, but we ate at Osh Markazi Filial 1 (map) – it is incredibly authentic and unassuming. You walk downstairs to plastic table cloths and simple furnishings, however the seats are filled with locals, which is always a great sign. If you don’t come early, you will likely miss out and Plov is only a lunchtime meal – so plan to be here before 12noon! Essentially you’re looking at a set menu – it is probably best not to try and complicate something that is simple and amazing! Starting with a pot of green tea, the table soon fills with salad, cheeses, yogurt, bread and the hero of the meal, Plov! This plov really hit the mark, the flavors were full and the meat perfectly cooked. The restaurant was extremely busy with trays of freshly cooked plov coming out almost on the minute. In the end, a meal for 2 people will set you back less than USD5………this is an absolute MUST visit in Uzbekistan. 

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 We ate lunch also at a restaurant called Oasis Garden (map). It was quite an “upmarket” restaurant compared to most places in Uzbekistan, although still very affordable. The menu was extensive and contains many western dishes, although some of the translations into English were a little hit and miss. They have a wonderful selection of soups and salads, as well as a huge choice of grilled meat. I would certainly recommend this place for visitors that aren’t very adventurous when it comes to eating local food. The men’s toilets are also worth a curious visit with some humorous artwork above the urinals.

 There isn’t a great deal of street food in Uzbekistan, however there are several stalls in Samarkand selling crab-apples. They are fresh and crisp and with a sprinkle of salt, very tasty as you walk around.

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 In Samarkand we stayed at L’Argamak Hotel (map). The location is quite convenient as it is possible to walk from here to the Registan in around 15 minutes. The rooms are relatively basic, but neat and tidy. There isn’t a huge choice of hotels in Samarkand and L’Argamak represents reasonably good value for money for very comfortable accommodation. The breakfast buffet is simple, yet nice and is an authentic spread of typical Uzbek dishes. The facilities aren’t extensive, so it is essentially a hotel to sleep and have breakfast if you are looking to get out and explore Samarkand.

 

3.    Bukhara:

Another 275km further West is the city of Bukhara. As the only suitable train times were sold out, we decided to travel by private car. I would suggest travelling between cities on train in Uzbkeistan – it is easier and safer! The roads are ok, but the driving can be a little “erratic”.  Travelling by private car is also much more costly.

 I would suggest staying around the Lyabi Hauz (map) area in Bukhara – it is centered around Lyabi Hauz, which translates to “Lyabi Pond” and there are many cafes, restaurants and hotels close by. In the afternoons, it is a popular place for locals to socialise, with old men playing dominoes, women enjoying cups of tea and children playing games in the park. The area is not far from all the major highlights of Bukhara and the city is relatively easy to navigate around on foot.

There are several options for accommodation, ranging from as little as USD20 per night for hostel style boarding. We stayed at Lyabi Hauz Hotel (map) – the rooms are basic but neat, clean and spacious. The central courtyard and terrace are a focal feature of the recently renovated property. Importantly the staff are extremely friendly and very knowledgeable on places to go and where to eat. Breakfast is served on the terrace each morning and is a perfect spot to sit and start your day while you enjoy a traditional Uzbek meal. I would happily recommend staying at Lyabi Hauz Hotel while you explore Bukhara.

 Surrounding the pond of Lyabi Hauz there are several Madrasahs including Kukeldash Madrasah (map), which at the time of construction was the largest in Central Asia. There is also a small bazar- Toqi Sarrofon, which sells many local souvenirs. On the edge of the pond is the quite iconic Lyabi House Restaurant (map). The view and atmosphere on a good day is lovely, but the reviews of the food are not so great and it did look quite touristy.

 The main focal point of Bukhara, and former city-center, is the area known as Poi Kalyan (map) – a large square bordered by Kalyan Mosque (map), Kalyan Minaret (map) and Mir-i-Arab Madrasah (map). There is also nearby Ulugbek Madrasah (map), Abdulaziz Kahn Madrasah (map) and Toqi Zargaron Bazaar (map). 

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The Kalyan Minaret is the most iconic landmark in Bukhara and one of Uzbekistan’s most well known structures. Whilst built as a place from which to call for prayer, this minaret also served a less peaceful purpose through the ages – for centuries criminals were executed by being thrown from the tower, giving its nickname, The Tower of Death. The brick structure is over 45m high and has a distinctive “crown” rotunda with 16 arches. You will need special permission in order to climb the spiral staircase to the top of the tower for a view across the city. Significantly in the history of Bukhara, the Kalyan Minaret is the only structure that survived fires following invasions by Genghis Khan – the original mosques were completely destroyed. 

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Kalyan Mosque is a large courtyard surrounded by archways. On the roof of the arches are 288 domes – again, access to this rooftop requires special permission. The mosque is open sunrise to sunset and costs USD2 including photography. It is a wonderful place for sunset photos, especially if there has been rain as the courtyard fills with water. There is also a tree and octagonal cathedral within the courtyard.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrasah was built in 1536 by a Yemeni Sheikh of the same name, Mir-i-Arab, who was the religious mentor of Ubaidullah Khan, a highly successful leader and leader of the army. The Madrasah is only open for visitors during special prayer times – it was explained to me that if someone of religious significance wishes to use the Madrasah for prayer, they will open the building and guests may quietly walk around. At all other times, it is not possible to enter. Unfortunately it is simply a matter of “good timing” if you happen to be there when someone wishes to use the Madrasah. In addition to being a religious school, it is also a mausoleum and contains the tombs of Ubaidullah Khan, Mir-i-Arab and other religious teachers. The large archway of the entrance to Mir-i-Arab Madrasah is a beautiful tiled Mosaic and in the afternoons it catches the light of the setting sun very nicely.

There is a great view of the Poi Kalyan square from a café called Chasmai Mirob (map). The food is only ok, but it is worth it for the view. You will need to enter via a staircase on the right hand side and go up to the rooftop terrace. It gets very busy with tourists and the prices reflect this! Expect to pay around USD15 for a Plov, which is very expensive for Uzbekistan. 

Poi Kalyan

Poi Kalyan

Around Poi Kalyan there are several small stores selling ceramics, textiles, hats etc. The main area is benath the domed roof of Toqi Zargaron – it is slightly touristy, but for the most part the goods are genuine and quite authentic. There are metal workers making pairs of scissors, craftsmen playing handmade instruments, spices, textiles and various antiques like badges and war medals. One thing I did notice walking around, even in the small Bazaar is that there isn’t a great deal of street food.

Only a short distance from Poi Kalyan is Ulugbek Madrasah, constructed in 1417 making it one of the oldest buildings in Bukhara. It is free to enter and in April 2019 was undergoing some minor restorations. Inside there is a relatively plain courtyard and some nice archways and doors that can be nice for photography.

Almost opposite Ulugbek Madrasah is the archway of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah, constructed in 1652. It has a large, beautiful archway entrance that catches the setting sun perfectly in the late afternoons. There is a small bazaar and museum in the courtyard of Abdulaiz Khan Madrasah and it costs USD2 to enter. To be honest, you won’t really be missing much if you don’t go inside. The area in front of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah is a great place to watch the sun set over Toqi Zargaron.

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An even better place for sunset is the terrace of Coffee & Shop (map), next to Ulugbek Madrasah. You will need to purchase something like a juice or tea to be able to use the terrace, but it is worth it. Despite having an incredible view, it was never busy when we visited. Looking west you have a great view of the side of Ulugbek Madrasah, Toqi Zargaron and its domed roof, Kalyan Mosque and Minaret, the back of Mir-i-Arab and the front of Abdulaziz Madrasah. As the sun sets behind Kalyan Mosque, the light catches the front of the main arch of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah. This was probably my favorite view in Bukhara.

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 About a 25 minute walk from Lyabi Hauz (or 15 minutes from Poi Kalyan) is Bolo Hauz Mosque (map) and The Ark (map) at Registan Square – not to be confused with The Registan of Samarkand. The Ark of Bukhara has a long and fascinating history both as a fortress and itself as a city center and place of trade. The origins are somewhat lost to history, with the structure having been destroyed and rebuilt several times. There is folklore that the original Ark was built by Siyavusha, who fell in love with the ruler’s daughter. He was told they could only marry if he built a palace on the back of a bull’s hide. Siyavusha took the bull’s hide and cut it into very thin strips which he joined end to end and stretched out to form the boundary of the huge palace! This has become known as the tale of Dido. 

The Ark has been sacked several times, including by Ghengis Khan and then again in 1920 by invading Russian forces. Now, the Ark is a tourist attraction, entry is USD8 (including guide and use of a camera) and reviews we read described it as not being worth the money or time. Better is to view the structure from the outside with its impressive and unique walls.

Nearby to the Ark is Bolo Hauz Mosque, also known as the “40 Pillar Mosque”. This was the Emirs Mosque during the time of Russian occupation. He would come from his residence and hold Friday prayers here. The mosque is quite distinctive with its high wooden pillars and pond (“Hauz”) in front. Many mosques in Bukhara previously had ponds in front but most have been filled in and only a few remain or are well maintained.

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Only a few minutes walk from Bolo Hauz is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum (map), the burial vault of many of the rulers from the Saminid Dysnasty. Whilst relatively small in size, the mausoleum is the oldest Muslim structure in Bukhara, being completed in 905.

A 10 minute walk the opposite way from Lyabi Hauz is the structure known as Chor Minor (map). It is the only remaining madrasah of what was once a complex of several buildings. Even much of the internal structure of Chor Minor has collapsed in areas. It is likely that Chor Minor was actually part of the accommodation for Islamic students rather than a building used for teaching. Some suggest it was the gatehouse for the rest of the madrasahs behind it, but this is disputed. For a small fee (USD2), you can enter and walk through the building and climb to the roof for a tourist photo if you wish.

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 Getting around the attractions of Bukhara can be done mostly on foot and cars cannot access certain areas around Poi Kalyan. Even within Lyabi Hauz, taxis will only be able to drop you on the road in front of Kukeldash Madrasah and you will need to carry your luggage. If you want to go outside the main areas (for food or to get to the train station) there are almost always taxis waiting at this same place. There are a small number of motorized rickshaws that operate between Poi Kalyan and Registan Square.

There are a number of food options in the Lyabi Hauz area. We ate breakfast each day at Lyabi Hauz Hotel which was really nice and the terrace is a perfect place to sit outside and have pastries and a cup of tea.

There are several restaurants for dinner including Minzifa (map) and Doston House (map - hard to find), which were both fully booked out when we went – both have great reviews. We were able to just get a table at Old Bukhara which also had reasonable reviews but some negative comments about the staff………we couldn’t have had a better experience with the staff – they were very accommodating and extremely friendly. The food was reasonable, really nice shalicks, samosas, salads and soups. Quite reasonably priced and a good atmosphere. 

In general, people seem to eat relatively early, so plan on going for dinner around 7pm.

Our hotel provided several recommendations for dinner including Chinar (map). There is a Chinar close to Lyabi Hauz (the one reviewed on other platforms) and a more authentic one outside the main area. Our hotel insisted we go to the more authentic one which is about a 10minute taxi ride. It is really traditional with mostly locals filling the restaurant. The food is relatively simple and no frills, but very nice, especially if you like grilled meats. The hotel also recommended Karaoke Karavan – a fun place to eat and has good reviews. We didn’t have time to go there and it is also a 10minute taxi ride from Lyabi Hauz.

For lunch you will likely be close to Poi Kalyan. As mentioned earlier, both Coffee & Shop and Chasmai Mirob have incredible views of Poi Kalyan and the nearby madrasahs. Whilst we didn’t eat at Coffee & Shop, the tea is very good and they do serve lunch. Chasmai Mirob has a great view, but the food is not that great and overpriced……….the view is worth the visit though!

 

4.    Khiva:

Unfortunately our itinerary didn’t allow time to visit Khiva – a city on the ancient silk road that also has a history as a former slave trading post. The inner city area is essentially a museum with mosques and madrasahs. From talking to other travellers we met, they suggested it was absolutely worth making time to visit Khiva if you travel to Uzbekistan.

To reach Khiva you need to travel to Urgench – a city 400km further west of Bukhara, and then take a taxi from Urgench to Khiva.  Most people will fly one way between Tashkent and Khiva and then the other way by train via Bukhara and Samarkand.   

 

Suggested 7 Day Itinerary:

Day 1: Land in Tashkent. Spend day exploring Tashkent and stay 1 night at Regency Hyatt.

-      Explore Tashkent via the Metro.

-      Wander through Chorsu Bazaar and have your first Plov.

-      Visit Hazrat Imam Mosque.

Day 2: Travel by train to Samarkand in the morning. Spend 1-2 nights in Samarkand (you can just do Samarkand in 1 night).

-      Spend a half day visiting The Registan complex.

-      Visit Shah-i-zinda

-      Have lunch at Osh Markazi

Day 4: Travel by train to Bukhara. Spend 2 nights in Bukhara at Lyabi Hauz Hotel (Bukhara probably needs 2 nights).

-      Visit Poi Kalyan: Kalyan Mosque and Minaret, Mir-i-Arab Madrasah

-      Visit Registan Square: Bolo Hauz Mosque, The Ark & Ismail Samani Mausoleum.

-      Lunch at Chasmai Mirob terrace

-      Sunset at Coffee & Shop.

-      Dinner at Chinar.

Day 6: Travel by train to Khiva in the morning. Spend 1 night in Khiva

Day 7: Travel by plane back to Tashkent and depart from Tashkent

 

Photography in Uzbekistan: read a full article of best photo spots in Uzbekistan HERE

There are not many restrictions for photography in Uzbekistan – you are free to use a tripod almost anywhere including in the Metro stations and mosques, as long as you are taking photo and not video. 

Flying drones are not permitted in Uzbekistan and I would avoid bringing one into the country if you can. 

Local people are not adverse to having photos taken, most are very friendly and actually quite keen to be in photos. There isn’t a distinctive national dress, although in the winter many locals will wear the large wooly head-dress, the Chugirma. As always, I ask permission before taking any photos of people when I travel and did not have any objections in Uzbekistan. A few people asked for money and USD1 was considered plenty for a photograph and a poorly translated conversation over a cup of tea.

Some of the tourist places will charge a small extra fee if you are going to use a DSLR camera – around USD0.50.

My 5 top Photography Spots in Uzbekistan:

1. The Registan Complex – especially the tiled mosaic archways of Tilla Khari Madrasah using a long lens to square off the archway

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2. Sunset view of Bukhara Mosques and Madrasahs from Coffee & Shop in Bukhara

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3. Inside Kalyan Mosque – the arches, rain reflections and frame from the western arch.

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4. Shah-i-zinda – the narrow street lined by blue tiled mausoleums.

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5. Tashkent Metro Stations – especially Alisher Navoi

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read a full article of best photo spots in Uzbekistan HERE