Before heading for Uzbekistan, we heard both positive and negative experiences. The ancient cities with Islamic architecture are one-of-a-kind and beautiful. Yet people tend to try to rip tourists off and you need to be careful who -and what you pay. We got the recommendation to bargain everything. When entering we were not particularly looking forward being treated this way and were hesitant on how we could manage this.
Though the accusations are true in a sense, do not let it discourage you from travelling to Uzbekistan. The people are friendly and welcoming if you meet them on the street. Many hotels, shop-owners or restaurants never ask you their genuine price and indeed you need to bargain. We just followed online reviews to see to what price we needed to negotiate. When we arrived at a hotel, we asked for their cheapest room. After they name their price we waited for a few minutes and asked for a cheaper room. Sometimes it works if you ask them a room without windows. The hotels often had another room that was cheaper that they will only tell you about if you ask. It is possible to get a discount on the cheaper room option. If you just stay relaxed and friendly you will not experience too much of a hassle getting affordable prices for accommodation. When paying anywhere else just keep in mind they tend to charge a 15% tax. Just ask about it a few times upon arrival and they will tell you what their prices are. Sometimes they still want to charge you more when you want to pay. We often just laughed and kindly asked if they could give us a discount. They usually will be kind enough to negotiate back to the original price.
Getting into Uzbekistan
We crossed the border to Uzbekistan at Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan. The border is situated north of the city and there is only a small road leading to it. Once we arrived the gate was closed. The guard let us in, but we needed to wait for 30 minutes until their lunch break was over. There was no one else crossing the border, so at least we were first in line. Getting out of Turkmenistan was straightforward and easy; measure temperature, get the customs declaration form, the passport stamp and the car check. After about 1 hour we were in no-mans land heading towards Uzbekistan.
Again, the gate was closed and no-one in sight. We found a border patrol who asked us to get our stamps first, separately. I went first and was guided into a small office where there were six guards hanging around, not really doing anything. I got the stamp from an Uzbek woman, who was skyping with a friend during the whole process, no questions asked. After that, registration and waiting until Ewald was ready to join me. One of the guards accompanied me and wanted to talk a little, even though his English was very limited.
After Ewald got his stamp too, it was time for filling out the import papers for the car. There was another office with three guards who seemed truly happy we arrived. It took them one hour to fill in the form and they kept on chatting the whole time about the latest mobile phones, vodka -and the beauty of Uzbekistan cities. Finally, time for the customs to check the car. Apparently for this, they also needed six people, and two dogs. One of the guards showed a specific interest in our all books. He sat down on the bench in our car and started reading them. Two guards jumped in the car, one sat down in the driver’s seat with the other by its side. One of the remaining three kept asking if Santa Claus lived in the Netherlands. All and all a very long, strange, funny and tiring experience. After 4 ½ hours we finally crossed the border. Our initial plan was to drive to Khiva, but because of the delay at the border we decided to spend the night in Nukus, the first city right after the border.
Ancient Khiva, Bukhara -and Samarkand
Arriving from the south, the first ancient silk road city you encounter is Khiva. We were truly happy we did not decide to drive all the way there after crossing the border, because the 250 kilometres between Nukus and Khiva took us at least 4½ hours. In Khiva we found a cheap homestay near the ancient city walls from where you can explore the old town. It was our first encounter with one of the renovated ancient style silk road cities. Even though we saw the Silk road -and Islamic architecture already in Iran and Turkmenistan, Khiva was something new. Wandering in the old city with empty streets feels like going back in time. You will get a vibe of how the city used to look like during the times of the Silk Road.
Bukhara and Samarkand were a lot bigger than Khiva. Bukhara feels like the number one tourist destination of Uzbekistan. The ancient, restored silk road city sights are surrounded by hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. One of the things you typically notice in these kinds of areas is that these places try to frame you. One of the restaurants tried to charge us a service fee of 75% on top of the price (this was for two glasses of wine). We just started laughing and said that it was outrageous. After some discussion they laughed as well and said that of course we just needed to pay for the wine, no service fee charged. It is a shame really, because without the attempted deceit we would have given them a tip. Rip-offs pay them more in the end, I guess.
Samarkand is the biggest city of these three. It used to be the capital of Uzbekistan, even though most of its inhabitants are Tadjik. The biggest sight is the Registan in the centre of the city. It is a gigantic square with three Madrassa’s (Islamic schools).
Driving in Uzbekistan can be quite a challenge, especially with a foreign vehicle. One of the reasons for it is their policy on car fuels. Diesel is not widely available in Uzbekistan because local cars and trucks use gas. For every ten gas stations, there was maybe one selling diesel. The prices were a lot higher than in neighbouring country’s and in many cases, diesel was sold out. Luckily, we never ended up with an empty tank. Just keep in mind to refuel regularly and there is always the possibility to ask around at gas stations -or taxi stands for a black-market dealer for both petrol and diesel.
The second difficulty is potholes in many of the roads. We were surprised about some roads between major tourist destinations such as between Nukus and Khiva that allow an average speed of 30 km/h compared to a spotless -and completely empty highway between Khiva and Bukhara. It was never clear what we could expect from the roads, but between big cities you can count on an average speed of 80 km/h. Some parts are slightly better, some are a lot worse.
Wild camping in Uzbekistan
When in Uzbekistan the government asks a foreign tourist to register every night at an accommodation. The hotel or hostel gives you a piece of paper that you need to carry in your passport. The number of slips will be examined upon departure. This is what makes wild camping a bit difficult. However, they do not really check registration slips upon departure. Just make sure you have a solid number of registration papers from the big cities. It is recommended to get registration at a hotel every third night. Some hotels can provide registration even if you don’t stay there. The price you pay for one registration slip is about the same for staying there though. We often negotiated that we slept in the car, but paid for registration, sometimes breakfast and using their facilities. This often resulted in a pretty decent price, around 5-8$ per person per night. The registration slips in our passports were asked at the border, but when we handed the batch, they didn’t bother to check the dates or number of nights on any of them.
We really enjoyed our stay in Uzbekistan and were surprised about the friendliness of the Uzbek people. It was a totally different experience from what we expected. Do not let all the negativity discourage anyone to go. Just keep smiling and be friendly, the Uzbek people generally are too.