Lonely Planet editor Alex Butler traveled to Uzbekistan for a whirlwind trip to some of the country's highlights and what lies beyond the Silk Road cities. Here, she shares some tips and insights for anyone planning a similar trip.
Uzbekistan had long been one of those destinations I dreamed about visiting. Photographs of intricate blue tiles on towering medressas and markets piled high with spices and handcrafted ceramics had me enthralled. I wanted to admire the mosaics of the Registan in all their detail and smell the cumin in the markets for myself. And this year, I finally got the chance.
Admiring 12th-century minarets and the golden spectacle of the Tilla-Kari Medressa in person was incredible, but I was also wowed by the natural beauty of Uzbekistan, from its mountains to its deserts. And there’s never been a better time to start planning a trip to see Uzbekistan for yourself. Lonely Planet has just released its annual Best in Travel list and Uzbekistan is one of the top countries to visit in 2024. Here are some of my stand-out experiences.
What was the most touristy thing you did?
The most touristy thing I did was visit the Kalon Mosque and Mir-i-Arab Medressa in Bukhara, which was my favorite city I visited. Stood in the square in the scalding heat of the afternoon — when locals and sensible tourists were inside or in the shade — I gazed in awe at the scale of these architectural feats. The Kalon Minaret, which was built in 1127, has been a source of awe for centuries, as it was likely to have been the tallest building in Central Asia when it was built. With its intricate bands of design that encircle it, it remains captivatingly beautiful today.
Favorite activity from the trip?
While the historic cities of Uzbekistan get the most attention from travelers, my favorite activity was gazing up at the Milky Way from the Kyzylkum Desert.
I stayed in the Kyzylkum Safari Yurt Camp, a 3-4 hour drive from Bukhara or Samarkand. Located near Lake Aidarkul, an expansive Soviet-built reservoir, I swam in its salty water as a reprieve from the intense desert heat. Back at the yurt camp, I climbed up to the top of a sand dune to find the best vantage point to watch the sunset over the sand. After the sun slipped away, we gathered by the campfire to listen to a folk performer sing Kazakh songs.
However, the real magic happened after dark. We wandered away from the fire and into the desert, where the dry climate and lack of light pollution meant the sky was carpeted with stars.
What was the most under-the-radar activity you enjoyed?
I traveled to Shirin Ethno Village to learn about local Uzbek customs, cuisine and agriculture. Located 27 miles from Bukhara, the village is home to about 1500 people and about 300 homes. In 2022, the village opened a new cultural and agrotourism spot to promote rural tourism to travelers, whilst also providing them with a place to stay.
Its rooms and yurts are spread out through a grapevine-covered garden and there's also a swimming pool to cool down in the heat of the day. As a working farm, the meals we ate were made from the produce grown onsite — eggplant, carrots, basil, mint, corn, grapes, tomatoes, watermelon, and pumpkin. The farm sells its additional produce at the market.
During the day I learned how to make bread and samos (stuffed bread) in a tandir (a round oven heated by burning cotton stalks). Learning about rural life made a nice change of gears from visiting the cities. I also ate a delicious lunch, which included my bread, under the apricot tree that provided the fruit for my dessert.
What was the most scenic experience of the trip?
I took a horseback ride through the Nuratau Mountains, where I could really take in the scale of the landscape. We rode next to the Hayat National Park Preserve where we were able to see Severtsov argali, an endangered wild sheep, that is protected in the park.
In these mountains, there are a string of ecotourism villages along a stretch of about 70 km. They're home to several guest houses and are a popular spot for travelers to go on hiking holidays, traveling through the area from village to village and staying in the rural homestays. I stayed at Hayat Guest House, one of the more established guest houses in the area. It was started back in the 90s when domestic travelers started coming for fresh mountain air, and the hiking and trekking industries began. After being in the desert, the lush trees and creek that surround this house truly made it feel like an oasis.
Best thing you ate?
I was already familiar with plov — an Uzbek dish of rice, meat and spices — from traveling around Siberia 15 years ago. It was one of my favorite things to eat there and I was looking forward to eating it in Uzbekistan, where it is revered as the national dish. It did not disappoint. Plov is rich, beautifully spiced and very filling. In Samarkand, I stopped at a spice market and bought “plov spice,” watching as they mixed the barberries, cumin, coriander and many more fragrant spices needed to make the perfect plov. Now that I’m home in Ireland, I will be trying to recreate this delicious, warming dish all winter.
What’s your best tip for someone who wants to plan the same trip?
Book train tickets in advance. The high-speed Afrisoyob train connects Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, making it easy to travel between the major cities. That train is set to expand to Khiva in the coming years, making travel across the country even easier. However, in the high season, the train is in high demand so travelers should book as soon as possible when tickets go on sale, 45 days in advance of the date of travel. If you don’t snag tickets for when you want to travel, you can also find tickets through a tour operator.
I think my biggest mistake was not getting a local SIM card. While there are free public Wi-Fi hotspots at popular tourist spots around the cities, you need to receive an SMS to connect to them. That effectively means you can't access public Wi-Fi without turning on your phone data. Bite the bullet and pick up a SIM from a stall at the airport or a local shop. Or, if your phone supports eSIMs, you can organize that in advance.