If you’re thinking of retiling your bathroom or kitchen, Uzbekistan is the place to go for inspiration. It’s a desert glazed with blue and gold medressas and minarets. Forget flicking through a shop catalogue, you can lie about on a tea bed sipping patterns, warmth and kindness, while the kids cartwheel in courtyards and gaze up at sparkly golden ceilings.
What We Liked
Kind, kind, kind people. Warm, welcoming, helpful, genuine, great with kids.
The easiest way to travel about is by hiring a driver. To get from the Tajik border to Samarkand (over 300 kms) cost us $85. In Britain, a lengthy taxi ride would only be open to pop stars or bankers. From then on, we acquired a taste for luxury and hired drivers everywhere. They were all great. One even stopped to buy us a water melon for our train journey to Tashkent. Ask your hotel or hostel to recommend someone, agree a price and off you go. The official taxis even have a James Bond type switch to flick between petrol and gas, depending on what’s cheaper in that area.
At gas stations, everyone has to sit on a bench while the car’s filled up. Aircon can cost extra.
Timur’s Mausoleum (Gur-e-Amir), Samarkand
Gur-e-Amir rivals the Taj Mahal for beauty. Timur spent a lifetime slaying millions. His mastery of death means he’s lying in a green marble coffin in a mausoleum cloaked in gold. It’s so beautiful you could spend a lifetime ogling its detail. The kids were very impressed that his favourite teacher was in a neighbouring coffin. Listening to men singing prayers wove tyranny into timelessness. Alicante wanted to buy a book to show her pals what the shimmer looked like.
Pretty much everyone drives a white car because, second hand, they sell for more than other colours. It’s more expensive to buy second hand motors than new ones because locally manufactured cars are mainly exported.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to rob a bank or shake hands on an international drugs deal, but didn’t fancy a life of crime, Uzbekistan’s the place for you. Notes come in thousands and five thousands, and that’s it. $100 buys a handbagful of Uzbek som. Dinner for an adult and two kids might cost 80,000 (the equivalent of a sports car in the Western world). A heart-stopping moment until you do your sums and realise that’s less than $20. You need to take a couple of kids with you just to count out the wads of cash. Never in my life have I felt as wealthy.
To acquire this unbridled wealth, pop along to the local bazaar or ask at your hotel. Someone will open a genie jar of som and turn your dollars into elastic banded bundles. It’s worth doing because then you can pay local rates, as well as feeling like a million dollars.
Alcohol is not part of the Uzbek culture (although it’s easy to come by). Instead, men prefer to lie on a giant bed, sharing a pot of tea with their mates. So if you’re someone who struggles to get up and wishes everyone would come to visit you in bed, it’s perfect. Also great if you’ve overeaten and need an immediate lie down.
Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara
Samarkand is blessed with the most stunning mosques and medressas and mosaics. It’s a magical city of history and Silk Road majesty. The architecture speaks for itself and there’s loads of space for kids to run about. You can also see the prophet Daniel’s incredibly long tomb (he grows 5 cms a year).
Khiva’s old town is preserved as a walled citadel. You can wander home at sunset pretending the world’s blue and simple and populated only with mosques and markets. There’s a camel tethered in the street and furry hats for sale.
Bukhara has markets moulded from mud. The Kalyan minaret, ringed with blue bracelets, is so exquisite even Ghengis Khan spared it demolition. The city’s pakhsa (pressed mud) walls are baked with decorations.
Kids get in almost all historical sites for free. Dress codes are pretty relaxed, although Alicante bought a head scarf so she could dress up for mosques.
Useful Things To Know
Uzbekistan’s a police state. When we went, there were checkpoints near borders and outside cities. We had no problems at any of them, just a short wait and occasional bag search. The locals liked driving westerners through police checks because tourists weren’t usually hassled. We liked having a driver to explain the rules.
Crossing from Tajikistan, there was a bit of a wait at customs because the bag search is rigorous. Kids need to be itemised as valuables on your customs declaration and it’s important to keep all paperwork, so that you leave with the same number of children. My border officer had a good look through all my photos and then, unimpressed by my Nokia mobile, asked to see my other phone.
Hostels and hotels have to carefully record guests and issue registration slips. We diligently stockpiled these in case we were questioned at the airport. We weren’t. But you can be.
Everyone must have bags scanned and passports checked to enter train stations and Tashkent’s main airport terminal. They feel safe and very orderly. Tashkent’s metro is tightly policed and you must carry passports everywhere in case you’re asked for ID. Only sit on benches at stations (not on the ground) and don’t take photos of the striking decor.
Uzbek is the main language. Russian is the handiest second language but people working with tourists, and the odd passer-by, speak some English.
It’s cheap and easy to buy bottled water. Anything rinsed in tap water – especially salad – can make you sick. Judith and I both had upset stomachs, so watch out for the tomatoes. With fruit and veg proving high risk, the kids were put on a diet of pizza, Coke & ice cream. They loved it, but didn’t enjoy the bread which goes stale quite quickly in the heat.
How We Got There
Travelling from Tajikistan, we took a mashrutka across Dushanbe to Zanisar Bazaar. Lots of drivers gathered round us when we got off the mashrutka; we negotiated a price for a taxi to the Denau border and off we went. You can also take a collective taxi to the border. The journey took less than an hour, and we changed our Tajik som at the border.
At the other side, a taxi driver, who spoke a little English, approached us. We agreed a price with him and he drove us to Tashkent. We paid $85 for the whole car and he bought us lunch on the road. It’s possible to get there for less but we didn’t want to wait about and he was good company.
We hired a cab, arranged through the hostel, to Tashkent Airport. Cheap and easy.
Topchan Hostel, Tashkent – there’s a wall that kids (and grown ups) can draw on. The staff are very kind, friendly and helpful. You can cook and chat with interesting guests. There are family rooms and my kids loved the cartoons and sketches on the walls.
Book Cafe, Tashkent – great place for a western coffee – at western prices – in the university area of the city
Meros B&B, Khiva – great location inside the city walls, helpful owners, good value and kid friendly.