Josh and I are now back from our visit to Uzbekistan. We had an amazing time in this fascinating country and we tried to share some of our experiences with you as we went along the way. We learned a lot and checked out many sites. Based on our experience there will be some modifications to the itinerary - more on this later.
In this update I would like to share some practical information about the trip - the journey, the country, the sites and the hotels. I will organise my thoughts around the questions people have been asking me over the past few months.
What was Uzbekistan Airways like?
We flew out with Uzbekistan Airways. The fight was perfectly ok. The check-in was easy, the flight left on time and they even got my kosher meal right. The plane was a Boeing 757 - a narrow body plane.
One the other hand, the decor of the plane was what we would call 'tired', the seats were narrow and it wasn't particularly comfortable. There was no in-flight entertainment (but the flight went through the night - so I wasn’t really looking for any) It was OK - but not a luxury experience. I would not hesitate flying with them again.
We also flew with Uzbekistan Airways on an internal flight from Urgench to Tashkent. I had expected a small aircraft but it was an Airbus 320 - the same as you find on Easyjet flights. It was a new and comfortable plane and everything was exactly as one would expect.
Because of our missed return flight, it worked out that I also got to fly back to London with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. The plane was much newer, and it felt more like you were flying with a European airline in terms of ambience and service, in fact it was one of my best flying experiences. But this route does involve changing flights in Istanbul, so ultimately it is a longer journey. The actual flying time is 1.5 hours longer - and then you need to factor in any time spent waiting between flights. The choice really depends on whether more comfort on the flight or less time on the airplane is more important to you.
Arrival in Tashkent
The airport in Tashkent is a modern airport, and although I was told that it has been rated the 5th worst airport in the world, we came through reasonably quickly. You will go through passport control and then through customs. You need to fill out two copies of a customs form (available in English or Russian) in which you list everything of value you bring into the country. You will have to show this again on departure - so make sure you list anything of value. You also need to declare any currency you have with you - again - you will only be able to take out of the country up to the amount you declare when you come in (although they did not actually check this). Every bag is scanned by the customs on both entrance and exit.
Your visa is your key to staying in Uzbekistan. It is important that it is in order. It will be checked when you arrive, again every night at the hotel, and finally upon exit. Josh and I had to spend an extra day in Uzbekistan as we were caught out by inclement weather. This meant that we would have been a day over on our visa. Extending the visa for that extra day was a long and arduous piece of bureaucracy. The group trip is in a much better season and it is very unlikely that we will have trouble , but I suggest getting a few extra days on your visa to begin with - just to be sure.
What is the best currency to bring?
Currency is a big issue in Uzbekistan. The local currency is called the Som. One US dollar is unofficially worth 3000 Som. The biggest banknote is 5000 som - which is worth only a bit more than one Pound. Since this is a cash based society, people walk around everywhere with big wads of money. Most transactions are done in 1000 som notes - and the locals are real experts at quickly counting hundreds of these at a go.
Although there is an official bank rate, it seems that the whole economy works on the black market. You can buy and sell currency everywhere - people in the street, the local guides, the hotels and probably also from the police! There is a 30% premium on the black market, and seemingly little risk.
The best currency is US dollars. Prices are quoted in dollars and you can also pay in dollars. They will check every note - is it clean, crisp, unmarked. A good crisp note will be worth more, and no-one will take a worn ragged bank note. Hundred Dollar notes, 50s or 20s are great. Don't bring 1's - no one will take them. The Euro is a distant second to the dollar; it can also changed on the street at a smaller premium. They haven't heard of British Pounds wo it isn’t worth bringing them. I saw some bank machines in Tashkent and the bigger cities - but none of them were working and I didn't give any a try, so you will have to bring cash. Prices are general reasonable.
How much walking will there be on the trip?
The trip does involve some moderate walking, and you need to be mobile to participate. That said, there isn't a lot of heavy walking. Here are more details city by city.
Tashkent: We will be driving from sites to site and walking around the different sites: Mosques, Madrassahs, synagogues, markets and museums. Usually half an hour of walking at a time.
Bukhara. We will be here for Shabbat. The synagogue is a 5-10 minute walk from the hotel. This is city walking on pavements or cobble roads. The hotel is located in the Old City and distances are short.
There is a walking tour around the old city for a couple of hours on Shabbat afternoon. This will include a visit to the 'Ark" - the city fortress, which involves climbing a steep ramp and walking around the fort. The total walk will be around 2 hours. We are never more than 15 minutes from the hotel - and it is possible to miss bits out and return to the hotel at any time.
Samarkand. We are visiting many sites. This is mainly getting on and off of the coach, with up to an hour walking around each site. One site involves climbing a steep ramp and going up 40 steps. It is possible to miss this bit out and stay on the coach.
Khiva. This involves a whole day of walking around the Old Town. The surfaces are all paved or tiled. There will be breaks along the way at cafes and at lunch time. Those who bring small chairs with them will have plenty of opportunities to sit while listening to explanations.
We will be staying in 4* hotels in Tashkent and 3* in other cities. The hotels are clean and comfortable. The hotels in Tashkent are of a high standard - in the other cities they are more average.
Each time we come to a hotel you will be asked to hand in your passport to be registered. You will get back a small ticket which records your registration. You need to keep all of these tickets, as they show that you were registered each night. This is a legal requirement. You can be asked when you leave the country to show all the tickets, to make sure that were were registered probably. It is an offense to stay anywhere unregistered. Josh and I had our registrations checked twice. It is advisable to keep these registration tickets in a safe place, but not attached to your passports, so they don't get lost when you hand your passport into another hotel.
Food - vegetarian
Uzbekistan is a meat-eating country. There is almost no vegetarian food to be found, in spite of the fact that they grow a lot of fruit and vegetables locally. The local restaraunts generally only serve one or two local dishes, which they serve up when you enter. It is more like visiting a friend for lunch than eating at a restaurant.
The big cities have bigger tourist restaurants with a more varied menu. Kosher food is only available if prearranged in Bukhara and Samarkand.
I know that many of you prefer vegetarian meals, and for this reason I am going to offer a few extra meals where we have asked the establishment to prepare some vegetarian food in advance to make sure it is available for those who seek it. These will be available for you to pre-book before the trip if you wish. I will send out further details closer to the trip.
Not a nice subject to discuss - but you should be aware that public toilets in Uzbekistan are dirty and smelly - and not really suitable for westerners. We have identified some suitable options in each town - but it is advisable to make use of the hotel toilets whenever you can (and to bring some toilet paper with you!).
Changes to the Itinerary
Based on our experience I have made a number of changes to the itinerary. The changes are as follows:
1. Bukhara has a bigger Jewish community and was altogether the better Shabbat experience. We are now going to spend Shabbat in Bukhara rather than Samarkand. This means that I have changed around the order of the days on our itinerary. We will now fly to Bukhara first, and from there to Samarkand and back to Tashkent.
2. As explained above, I have added 2 extra meals in Samarkand that will be pre-arranged and you will have the option of book in advance - to overcome the problem of finding vegetarian options for those who seek them.
Khiva presented the biggest logistical problem of the trip. It is mind bogglingly beautiful - and my personal favourite part of the trip. However, the journey from Bukhara to Khiva is very long - 7-8 hours in a couch on some very challenging roads and with nothing but desert to see along the way. The biggest problem is a lack of toilets along the way. There is only one semi-decent toilet 3 hours into the journey - and from then on - only the open desert for those who need it. Weighing all the options - I have decided to forgo this journey. For those on the extension, we will now fly to Khiva from Tashkent. This change will add two extra internal flights - and will roughly £150.00 to the cost of the extension - but all considered I feel it is worth it. I will be sending out a separate email with the revised itinerary and costs.If anyone wishes to adjust their booking as a result of these changes, please let me know as soon as possible.
I hope I have covered most of your questions in this message. Please let me know if I have left out anything important.
That's all for now.