Group: Local Expert
Joined: 5-July 07
From: Central Asia/Middle East
Member No.: 67301
Welcome to Tashkent!
I hope you will find some useful information here. As an American expat here for the year, Iíve enjoyed getting to know this wonderful and seldom-mentioned (at least in US) part of the world. Learning more every day! A REALLY good modern (2006?) book about Uzbekistan is called ďTamerlaneís ChildrenĒ by Robert Rand.
Where is it?
Uzbekistan (Republic of Uzbekistan) is one of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), part of the former soviet union, independence since 1991. Itís neighbors are: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Its border with Afghanistan has a single crossing at a bridge from Termez that is VERY tightly controlled. Thatís not a crossing youíd be allowed to take as a foreign tourist unless you have some very high level approvals Ė donít plan on it! This region has changed hands a lot in history: itís been part of Empires like Persian, Russian and Timurid, Alexander the Great came through (327 BC) leaving his mark (and taking an Uzbek bride, Roxana), and also conquered by nomads. The famed warrior and statesman Timur (Amir Timur, aka Tamerlane) defeated the Mongols in the 1300s and began to build a fabulous expansive empire (the Timurid Empire) that had Samarqand as its capital. Amir Timur is a national hero and monuments to him can be seen in Samarqand, Tashkent, and elsewhere throughout the country. Itís about 90% desert, and it gets freezing cold in the winter and blazing hot in the summer Ė 50 C can be felt in Tashkent!
Tricks of arrival/departure:
Uzbekistan Airlines has a modern fleet of jets flying regularly to and from Tashkent International Airport several times a day from/to places like Istanbul, Moscow, Frankfurt, Beijing, Almaty, and London. Itíll be easiest if your tour company or your company (if traveling on business) can organize someone to arrange your arrival details. If youíre lucky, youíll get on the CIP (Commercial Important Person) list which means youíll hear your name called before the doors are opened and there will be a CIP bus at the base of the stairs waiting to take you to the CIP receiving lounge. Itís a short line through a customs agent, your bags will be there soon, and youíll have comfy couches and refreshments to keep you happy while waiting for your bags to arrive. IMPORTANT NOTE: on the airplane, you will be given TWO copies of an entry declarations document: fill them out and youíll keep one and turn one over to the customs agent. Youíll have to write down exactly how much cash youíre bringing in to the country (all fresh bills, currency exchange wonít take old or marked bills) and then KEEP RECEIPTS from currency exchanges when you convert foreign currency to Uzbek Soums. You may not leave the country with more hard currency than you arrived with, and youíll be required to present that copy of your entry customs form to prove it. Be ready to show currency exchange receipts and count your money out to prove it. Also, itís best to not convert more currency than you need over to Soums Ė itís difficult to change them back, and you have to keep all the documentation. Also, there are tight restrictions on taking any antique items out of the country.
Speaking of money and shopping:
The Uzbek Soum is the basic unit of currency and itís right now at around 1200 Soums per US Dollar. The biggest bill is 1000 Soums Ė so, think about that: paying a weekís worth of hotel bills at the InterContinental Hotel means quite literally a small wheelbarrow full of Soums! Luckily, the several major hotels take VISA and US Dollars. The InterContinental has one of the few currency exchange windows, and theyíre open in two or three hour intervals, with breaks in between, 24 hours a day. HINT: the sign outside the window gives the hours of operation, but the windows are often dark with the blinds shut even during the advertised open hours! Just go to the helpful friendly customer service desk across the lobby and ask them if they can help you at the currency exchange window and theyíll come over and bang on the window and yell through the glass Ė the currency exchange folks on the other side are usually just napping and need a wake-up call.
Almost none! Especially in Tashkent, youíll see police on every block. Itís one of the most policed cities Iíve ever seen and this results in a nearly null petty crime rate. This is a handy reality for people particularly since walking out of the hotel with the equivalent of USD 100.00 for a day of shopping means youíve got a stack of 1000 Soum bills about one inch thick Ė impossible to hide, and you get used to handling massive wads of cash. So does everyone else, and it might feel weird to pull it out in public, but itís just the reality. Donít wave the big stacks around, of course, but you donít have to be a freak about wearing money belts and such. As if you could, anyway, with inches thick stacks of bills! Iíve been told that some police can harass tourists a little if theyíre on their own, maybe try a little shakedown, but just BE POLITE, offer the photocopy of your passport and tell them to accompany you to your hotel or Embassy if theyíd like to see the original passport or talk to an official; theyíll back off. They really donít want to give you a hard time, but unfortunately, as in any country, there are some bad apples that will try and make some money off of the naÔve traveler. That said, DO NOT give your original passport to a policeman. That was the advice I was given, and it seems wise. If you do that, youíre at their mercy.
Hotels and stays:
In Tashkent, youíve got the great InterContinental Hotel on Amir Temur, and the Radisson, and several other international hotel options in Tashkent. Theyíve got web sites line so I wonít go into pricing here. These are great facilities with full luxuries including gym, pool, WiFi, restaurants, and anything you can want. Rooms have TV, Air Conditioning, cable (incl lots of Russian stations, Uzbek station or two or three, CNN, BBC World, BBC Prime, EuroNews, Deutche Wele, stuff like that), and you couldnít ask for friendlier staff. Beds are funny Ė when I first stayed at the InterCon earlier this year, I thought someone had removed the mattress and left behind the box springs and made the bed up anyway: nope! Thatís just the way things are here Ė beds are VERY firm. Pillows are nice, though. In Samarqand, try to stay at the Konstantin Hotel. This is a good place and the ladies are so wonderful and friendly. The high ceilings will impress you, for sure! Air conditioning is good, breakfast buffet is nice, and they provide for a comfortable stay. Pay in US Dollars, about 50 USD per night (at Konstantin).
Well, thatís a story in itself. Without question, getting around in academic, government, or big business circles, particularly in Tashkent, itís Russian Russian all the time! With people over 30, Russian is largely spoken and understood. However, the reality is that in the areas outside Tashkent, Uzbek is the main language spoken and there is a large segment of the population for whom Russian is not really spoken Ė usually understood, but not spoken. Government forms are in Russian, and official documents are as well. There is a conflict here that may haunt development: though literacy rate is cited at over 99% (wow! Really?), and the free public education is probably the reason for high literacy, kids can go to an Uzbek-dominant school or a Russian-dominant school; it seems to be the opinion of folks in Tashkent that, if they want their kids to have a future in science/technology/political life/business and go to college, they need to speak Russian. So they get sent to Russian schools. Seems to me that this leaves a large rural population out of the running in terms of future economic prosperity. But Uzbeks are a resilient people, and they always find a way to succeed! A bit of English is spoken here and there, particularly at major hotels in Tashkent, but donít expect taxi drivers, shop keepers, or locals to speak English Ė youíll want to find a friend fluent in English & Russian or master some basic phrases.
A cotton economy?
Uzbekistan is the #2 exporter of cotton in the world. Interesting story Ė cotton picking season has been a national, society-wide effort. There are conflicting reports on the future of this practice, and it may change soon, but for now the rule is that pretty much everything stops during cotton picking season for a venture into the fields. Kids and public school teachers are out of school for this period and they pretty much have to participate, a practice that has been criticized - - but inside Uzbekistan, I havenít ever heard anyone speak negatively of the practice. In fact, most people seem proud that the country pulls together during that season and makes a bundle (literally). Itís been the case that this was mandatory, but Iíve heard talk that this system will change or is in the process of changing Ė to what Iíve not heard. There are lots of modernization efforts right now, and progress is being made, for sure.
Put your passport, air tickets, extra cash, credit cards, etc., in your hotel safe: take a photocopy of your passport including the Uzbekistan visa, and your national driver license with you wherever you go. Do NOT over-shoot your visa, and plan your departure flight at least 24 hours before your visa expires just in case there is a missed or cancelled flight. You donít want to mess with Uzbekistan Customs where accreditation is concerned! Transportation in Tashkent is a piece of cake Ė you can take a tram or bus, or a taxi (theyíre everywhere, but you have to have a good eye to recognize them and a quick tongue to bargain if you are a tourist Ė and be careful that itís a registered one! Ė locals pay around 200 Soums per kilometer, while tourists can be asked to pay around 1000 Soums). You donít want to try to drive: itís everyone for themselves, fast and furious! Despite a tendency to drive anywhere on a roadway regardless of drawn lines or even which side of the street (youíre supposed to drive on the right Ė but you can drive up the left side into traffic, apparently, without any problem!), and driving VERY close to each other, cars in urban centers are unusually clean and without dings/dents! In the old Soviet days, Iím told, a person could get pulled over and harassed by police if you have a dent or broken light cover or scratch, and people still choose to fix a dent the moment it happens rather than drive a damaged vehicle. The result is a curiously sparkling fleet of private vehicles driving in formations resembling the bumpercar rides in the amusement parks of my childhood.
Subway: In Tashkent, there is the most amazingly clean and well-operated subway system! A ride on it costs about USD 0.25 cents, wow. I canít help but complain that Seattle (my home and a sister city of Tashkent due to their shared history of major earthquakes) canít get its act together to make a public transport system, but Tashkent has a brilliant shining one thatís been in operation since the late 70ís. Itís the only Central Asian country with a subway, by the way, and each station is so clean and decorated uniquely.
Outside of Tashkent, good regular (overland) trains do connect major cities and towns to each other and to other CIS nations. If youíre planning to do a lot of outdoor travel and hiking, going to the mountains, then you should probably get your TBE vaccination (tick-borne encephalitis); you can get that for a reasonable fee at Frankfurt airport 24 hour clinic by request, no prescription necessary, though youíre supposed to get a 1 month booster then another after that to impart good immunity. Still, one is better than none. Malaria is here but pretty rare Ė use insect repellent to repel both ticks and mosquitoes and youíll be fine.
Some notes of food and water:
Water isnít OK to drink from the taps, youíll suffer with traveler diarrhea Ė but bottled water is available everywhere. Watch out for the local cheeses as well, they can really get you down. Food is good, including the shashlik (meat kabob) and the famous plof (like rice pilaf, ding ding) which is made in giant wok-shaped contraptions out doors over a fire. Delicious. A good local soup is called Ďlagmaní and is noodle-licious. Vegetables are pretty hard to come by, except for tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and onion Ė but watch out: cooked veggies are safe, but eating raw veggies is very risky.
Are you staying long enough to buy a DVD player or DVDs? Hereís the story on compatibility:
DVD players sold in Uzbekistan are supposed to have the Region No. 5 (Former Soviet Union). Also in Region 5 are the Indian sub-continent, Africa, N.Korea, and Mongolia. If things are operating as they should (and you never know where your player came from, really!), then your new DVD player bought in UZ can only play DVDs with the matching region number. For here, thatíd be Region 5. Or Region 0 (which means Ďregion freeí; Region 0 DVDs are compatible with DVD players from any of the six regions.)
To make matters more complex, there are three recording standards: VHS PAL, NTSC, and Secam. These determine compatibility with a video player. Uzbekistan video players play videos recorded at Secam standard; USA uses NTSC standard. Secam is not compatible with VHS PAL.
Seems like everyone has a cell phone now in the major city centers Ė and itís getting more and more common even in rural areas. The main carrier is MTS-Uzbekistan. WiFi is available to hotel residents in Tashkent and, if you pay around USD 20.00 per month, you can get good connectivity in your home. Local telephone calls are easy and relatively cheap from hotel room.
Packing for the trip:
Itís very hot from mid-July through early September, so be prepared. Women wear very smart dresses, and young ladies like wearing Western styles, some of them surprisingly skimpy. Rarely do you see head-scarves or other dress of modesty one expects to see in a 90% Muslim country. Jeans are perfectly acceptable for the traveler, as are the universal Ďcaprií style short-pants that come to the mid-calf, for men and women. Clothes are pretty easy to find if you need to find something: Iíve paid less than USD5 for a very nice silk tie in a main Tashkent bazaar, so feel free to plan some shopping. In winter, itís coooold. I think itís similar to the climate of the Midwestern US, like Kansas: well over 100 in the summer, and freezing in the winter. Plan for it. That said, Iíd like to take this opportunity to preach to the inexpert packers out there: dudes and dudettes, you are NOT going to be allowed to jam, cram, push, or otherwise force that massive suitcase into the overhead compartment. And youíre going to make some life-long enemies among the crew and fellow passengers. Just get over it, buy a small carry-on case, pack a pair of pants, two pairs of undies and shirts, your prescription meds (WITH the prescription), a good book, your documents, your laptop, and your cash. This will get you through the first few days that youíre waiting for your checked luggage to catch up to you if necessary. (Unfortunately, thatís just something to plan for in this day and age - in Tashkent, plan to go back to the airport yourself to pick up delayed luggage at the Lost Luggage department: they go to lunch from about 12:30 to about 3:30, by the way) Youíll need to provide your passport (not the copy this time), youíll be asked to open them up to certify by signature that nothing is missing, and then get yourself back to your hotel. There is no door-to-door delivery, sorry. Neither is there a car to take you from InterCon to airport and back, though the concierge is happy to get you a cab.
Please donít forget to see Samarqand and Bukhara Ė these are simply amazing towns full of ancient mosques and mausoleums, gorgeously tiled and truly beautiful. Tashkent has its city charms, but for the real Silk Road experience, you have to at least see Samarqand. The people are the best asset of the country, I have to say. They are friendly, richly endowed with culture and history in which they seem to delight, and have a bright future. There is a lot of room for improvement in many areas, but the people seem able to rise to that challenge.
A last note: you know about the reputation for that old Soviet taste for vodka? Well, get ready Ė itís very common here! If youíre meeting friends or will be making friends with locals, prepare to do some drinking! Beer hasnít historically been popular, but itís becoming more popular. A number of local breweries offer their particular beers in their restaurants Ė a local hangout called J Smokers has its own beer and provides hearty food that resembles British pub fare. Thatís on Amir Temor Street near the International Business Center. The fish and chips plate is pretty good if youíre in the mood! Iím told the steaks are just outstanding and are very reasonably priced. A meal can cost you a thousand soums or 50 US Dollars, depending on where you choose to eat.
Sleepless in Tashkent