Uzbekistan

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Introduction to Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, in the ancient cradle between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers, is the most historically fascinating of the Central Asian republics. Within it are some of the oldest towns in the world, some of the Silk Road's main centres and most of the region's architectural splendours.

It occupies the heartland of Central Asia, sharing a border with all the other 'Stans', which is one of the reasons why it considers itself the most important of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, and why it is increasingly fulfilling the role of regional gendarme.

It's a sad irony that this volatile republic has possibly the most to offer visitors and yet has the worst attitude towards anyone who is bold enough to travel here. Politically the old USSR is alive and kicking, and for individuals not under the wing of the state travel conglomerate, Uzbektourism, travel tends to be an endless series of petty bureaucratic irritations and official hassles. Uzbekistan's government likes its foreign visitors in the form of pre-programmed, obedient pods; independent travellers can expect to be on the receiving end of unwelcome official attention.

Caution

Travellers should monitor information regarding Eastern Uzbekistan due to recent civil unrest. Clashes between government troops and civilians in Andijan and Korasuv have claimed hundreds of lives and though the area is returning to normal, palpable tensions remain.

There is still a danger of terrorist activity around the country's capital of Tashkent. Explosions in 2004 targeted the US and Israeli embassies. Police checkpoints were also attacked.

Travellers are advised to check travel warnings and stay informed and aware of the situation at all times. It is also important to avoid all but essential travel to border areas near Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan where mines and localised violence are common.

Full country name: Republic of Uzbekistan

Area: 447,400 sq km

Population: 25.98 million

Capital City: Tashkent

People: 80% Uzbek, 5.5% Russian, 5% Tajik, 3% Kazakh, 2.5% Karakalpak, 1.5% Tatar

Language: Uzbek, Russian, Tajik

Religion: 88% Muslim (mostly Sunnis), 9% Eastern Orthodox

Government: republic

GDP: US$59.2 billion

GDP per capita: US$2,500

Annual Growth: 1%

Inflation: 40%

Major Industries: Textiles, food processing, machine building, metallurgy, natural gas, cotton, vegetables, fruits, grain, livestock

Major Trading Partners: Russia, Ukraine, Europe, CIS, Czech Republic

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Every visitor to Uzbekistan needs a visa, and you will need an invitation from an Uzbek citizen, firm or organisation approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or from an accredited Uzbek travel agent.

Health risks: hepatitis, diphtheria

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +5

Dialling Code: 998

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

By far the biggest Central Asian holiday is the spring festival of Navrus (New Days), an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations, celebrated approximately on the vernal equinox (21 March). It's a two day affair consisting of traditional games, music, drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs, and one of the best places to get in on the fun is Samarkand. Ramadan, the month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, is observed with little fanfare in most of Uzbekistan, and travellers will still find plenty of food available. Qurban, the Feast of Sacrifice, is celebrated with the slaughter of animals and the sharing of meat with relatives and the poor.

In May of even-numbered years, Tashkent hosts a film festival which features celluloid style from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Samarkand hosts the Children's Peace & Disarmament Festival every 23 October - celebrations revolve around the International Museum of Peace & Solidarity, a remarkable collection of memorabilia. The Nukus' Pakhta-Bairam harvest festival, held in Karakalpak in December, is one of the few places in the world where you'll see a game of ylaq oyyny. In this Central Asian form of polo, players hit a goat carcass around the field - Prince Charles would fit right in. If that gets the adrenalin flowing, you can also check out wrestling, ram fighting and cock fighting.

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Best time to Visit

Spring (April to June) and autumn (September through October) are, generally speaking, the most pleasant times to travel. The weather is mild and in April the desert blooms briefly. In autumn it's harvest time, and the markets are full of fresh fruit. If you're interested in trekking the mountains, summer (July and August) is a better time to visit; at all other times the weather is unpredictable and there can be snow in the passes.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Uzbekistani sum

Meals

Budget: US$1-4

Mid-range: US$4-8

High: US$8-10

Deluxe: US$10+

Lodging

Budget: US$6-20

Mid-range: US$20-60

High: US$60-120

Deluxe: US$120+

If you're travelling with a friend, staying in modest hotels, eating in budget restaurants and travelling by bus or train, you can get around Uzbekistan for US$30-40 per day. Unfortunately, you'll often have trouble finding a cheap place to stay and will have to settle for a pricey tourist hotel, so a more realistic budget is around US$50-60 a day. Hiring cars and doing excursions will add significantly to your expenses. You should also take into account that foreigners pretty much always pay more than locals.

You'll have little luck with anything other than cash in Uzbekistan. Although a (very) few places change travellers' cheques, you shouldn't rely on them. US dollars are by far the easiest to exchange, with euros the second most popular. There's not much point taking really big notes, as there are so many counterfeit ones floating around that many people won't take them; reconcile yourself to carrying a huge wad of US$10 bills. Oh, and make sure they're crisp, new ones too, or no one will touch them. Uzbektourism hotels in tourist centres take major credit cards, and you should be able to get a cash advance in Tashkent.

There are a few top-end restaurants where a service charge of 5-10% is added to your bill, but tipping is not common in Uzbekistan, and runs contrary to Islamic ideals of hospitality. Bribery, on the other hand, is very popular, but if you choose to use it remember you are pushing up prices for those who follow you. Bargaining is expected in markets - the asking price for food will be pretty close to the selling price, but for handicrafts expect a more substantial reduction.

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Attractions

Tashkent

The Uzbek capital, once the fourth largest city in the former USSR, is Central Asia's hub and has better international flight connections than any other city in the region. That said, it's not a picture-postcard destination; a 1966 earthquake and subsequent harsh Soviet planning has seen to that.

It's worth taking a stroll around the remnants of the old town, eski shakhar. This maze of narrow dusty streets lined by low, mudbrick houses, mosques and medressas (Islamic academies) have been spared by Soviet planners to show what things would have been like without the glories of socialism.

Bukhara

With buildings spanning 1000 years of history and a stoic, thoroughly lived-in city centre, Bukhara is one of the best places in Central Asia to catch a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan. The mausoleum of Ismail Samani, the town's oldest structure (AD 905), is one of the most elegant in Central Asia.

After Samarkand's luminous blue mosaics, Bukhara's universal brown is a bit of an optical anti-climax. But it's all a bit trivial when you consider that most of the city centre is an architectural preserve of massive royal fortress, ancient structures and the remnants of a once-vast market complex.

Khiva

Legend has it that Khiva was founded when Shem, son of Noah, discovered a well here. The town certainly existed by the 8th century, as a minor fort and trading post on a Silk Road branch to the Caspian Sea and the Volga. Khiva's signature colour is turquoise, used in the Kalta Minor minaret tiles.

Contemporary Khiva is an odd place. Its historic heart is preserved in its entirety - but it's so squeaky-clean that all life has been squeezed out of it. Even among its densely packed mosques, tombs, palaces and medressas, you need imagination to get a sense of its former bustle and squalor.

Samarkand

No name is as evocative of the romance of the Silk Road as Samarkand. The sublime larger-than-life monuments of Timur, the technicolour bazaar and the city's long, rich history work a special kind of magic. However, outside the historical core, only a bland, sprawling, Soviet-style city remains.

Almost everything of interest is in the sun-dried old town, whose layout has remained unchanged for centuries. One of Central Asia's most awe-inspiring sights is the Registan, an ensemble of majestic, tilting medressas with an overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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