Aside from a few intrepid bloggers, I didn’t know anyone who had been to Uzbekistan. Most of my American friends couldn’t pinpoint it on a map. In fairness, it is hard to find: it borders on Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. My family members worried whether it was safe (short answer: very). I imagined myself highly isolated in Uzbekistan, a lone Western tourist floating in a sea of strangers unaccustomed to such a visitor.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Domestic and regional tourism is huge in Uzbekistan, with Muslim pilgrims paying their respects at holy sites in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. During my two weeks there, I encountered only one other American but countless Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Russian, Australian, British, German, and French tourists.
“The ’stans are the next frontier,” I heard one Westerner declare. He might be right. I was traveling with Peregrine Adventures, a small-group tour company headquartered in Australia that has seen a 400 percent increase in bookings for Uzbekistan from its North American customers year over year, and a 91 percent increase globally.
In other words: The tourists are coming. Now is the time to go. Here are five reasons why.
Uzbekistan is more accessible than ever
After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, President Islam Karimov ruled the new independent Uzbekistan, as well as its predecessor state, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, with an iron fist from 1989 until his death in September 2016. Media censorship, rigged elections, opposition crackdowns, forced labor, and other human rights violations were de rigueur. But since Karimov’s passing, things have changed—a lot. Long-serving prime minister (now president) Shavkat Mirziyoyev has pitched himself as a reformist, vowing to open up Uzbekistan’s closed borders and drive the country and its tourism industry into the future.
Under Karimov, getting a visa was, to put it mildly, a nightmare. Passing through border control could take three to four hours, with officers disemboweling travelers’ luggage and snooping through their laptops and phones. Passing between domestic provinces was a hassle, and tourists even reported being harassed by officials while using the subway.
Under Mirziyoyev, the visa system has been thoroughly overhauled. The dreaded “letters of invitation,” or LOIs, are no longer required for citizens of more than 40 countries, including the United States, and the expiration date for a tourist visa has been extended from 15 to 30 days. Since July 2018, U.S. citizens can apply for their visas online via Uzbek government’s official e-visa website. Though certainly an improvement, the online portal is not without its flaws. Caravanistan, a website focused on Central Asia travel, has a helpful guide outlining exactly what you need to apply, but I eventually gave up and paid iVisa.com to handle it for me. Best $40 bucks I ever spent. Once I actually went through passport control at the airport, the entire process only took five minutes, reflecting a remarkable change in protocol.
Exchanging money is a lot easier
Before 2016, exchange rates were fluid, with the best ones found in the dodgiest places. Because of rampant inflation and the government’s refusal to print larger bills, travelers had to lug around backpacks loaded with cash. Thanks to currency reforms in 2017, the rate you get at the airport is now the same as at a hotel, bank, or exchange window.
Cash is still king in Uzbekistan. Outside of some high-end hotels and luxury retailers, few places accept credit cards. Working ATMs are also tricky to come by, even in the capital city of Tashkent. Many ATMs don’t accept foreign credit cards and those that do often run out of cash. I recommend bringing crisp U.S. dollars and exchanging them at a hotel or bank. The bills must be new (printed after 1998 or later) and in pristine condition (no tears, rips, crinkles, or pen markings). I learned this the hard way when $420 of my $600 were rejected at the airport currency exchange. I was able to withdraw Uzbek som from the ATM at the glossy Hyatt Regency in Tashkent, although I didn’t take out enough before leaving the capital. Fortunately, the vintage suzani textiles dealer I found in Khiva was happy to take my grubby old dollars. Your own mileage may vary.
There’s so much to explore
You could say that about any country, but Uzbekistan and the empires that came before it have an especially long and bloody history. This is reflected in the country’s mix of ethnic groups: Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Russians, Karakalpaks, and Tatars. Architecture and history lovers could spend ages here wandering from the sprawling Khast Imam complex in Tashkent to glorious Registan in Samarkand to the rotting shipwrecks parked forevermore in the Aral Sea, fast disappearing due to water diversion and draught.
Shoppers, meanwhile, will lose their minds in the boutique-filled Bukhara, where handwoven silk carpets, hand-thrown pottery, and miniature paintings beckon. Food obsessives will have a blast browsing the bazaars and sampling the country’s staple dishes, including plov (a delectable rice dish cooked with carrots, onions, and dried fruit and crowned with beef, lamb, quail eggs, and/or horse sausage), somsa (a meat- or herb-stuffed pocket of dough cooked in a tandoor oven), shashlik (Uzbekistan’s favorite grilled and skewered meat, often pork or beef), and naryn (hand-rolled pasta with chopped horse meat, which tastes way better than it sounds).
Photography rules are looser
And thank goodness, because Uzbekistan is a stunning country. I was enchanted by the striking ikat textiles in Bukhara and chubby Zoroastrian crosses in Khiva, the beautiful Islamic mosques rubbing elbows with monolithic Soviet-era buildings in Tashkent, and the capital’s vintage Moscow-inspired metro system.
Before 2018, it wouldn’t have been possible to photograph as freely. Photography and filming of the Tashkent metro or other public transportation was strictly banned, as was snapping pics of uniformed officers or government, military, or security infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels. While I never tried to photograph a policeman, I did film video of a military band playing in front of a state-owned theater and nobody seemed to mind.
Locals and guides are finally free(-ish) to talk about Uzbekistan’s checkered history
“We don’t trust police, we don’t trust doctors, and we don’t trust banks,” said Shirin, my Peregrine tour leader. She wasn’t alone in sharing this sentiment and others. During my two-week trip, the guides I encountered spoke frankly about issues dogging modern-day Uzbekistan, including a lousy hospital system, widespread bribery at universities, and the high suicide rate among young brides trapped in miserable arranged marriages. I even spoke with locals who gamely compared the regimes of Karimov and Mirziyoyev, calling the latter a softer, more progressive dictatorship.
Four years ago, having this sort of conversation with anyone but your most trusted family members would be unheard of. Still, tread carefully. Many Uzbeks revere Karimov; to call him a dictator, or to insinuate that his presidency was an autocracy, could cause grave insult. Also don’t assume that every local you meet is socially progressive; Uzbekistan remains a conservative country. While Mirziyoyev’s reformist agenda is pushing the envelope forward on issues like tourism, anti-corruption, and education, he’s not progressive on every front. LGBTQ issues, for instance, are a nonstarter here; officials won’t even recognize the community’s existence, let alone protect it, and sexual relations between men remain illegal (while there are no laws about same-sex relationships between women, discrimination is the norm).
In casual conversation, it’s best to focus instead on Uzbekistan’s future, which everyone agrees is pretty bright: Things aren’t perfect, but they’re getting better every day.
How to Get There
Tashkent International Airport (TAS) is the main point of entry in Uzbekistan. If you’re traveling from the United States, you’re likely to patch through the new Istanbul Airport (IST) in Turkey. Tashkent also receives direct flights from Incheon in South Korea, Rome, Moscow, and Dubai.
Although the visa process has been radically simplified, travelers are still required to register with local police. If you’re staying in a hotel or decent Airbnb, your concierge or host will take care of the paperwork for you. Upon exiting the country, a border patrol officer collected my registration slips but asked no questions.
How to Get Around
An expanding high-speed rail network, cheap flights, and affordable public transportation make the country easy to navigate as an independent traveler. For those who prefer to travel in a small group and have someone else handle the logistics, there are no shortage of tour operators running trips to Uzbekistan. I joined Peregrine’s 11-day Jewels of Uzbekistan tour, which starts at $2,285. Peregrine’s parent company, Intrepid Travel, offers seven group trips to Uzbekistan, starting at $1,495 per person for nine days, with itineraries dipping into neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Super-luxe tour operators Wild Frontiers, Remote Lands, and Silk Road Treasure Tours also sell tailor-made vacations to Uzbekistan.
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Ashlea Halpern Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Midwest Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.