Entry to the Gur-Emir mausoleum.

A few years ago, Uzbekistan wasn’t quite so tourist-friendly. Visas were complicated, phone and computer searches at the border were common, and it was illegal to take photographs of anything even remotely related to the government. Then things suddenly changed. You no longer had to hide pictures on your phone, e-visas became possible, and the government's entire attitude shifted, almost as if a brand new tourist destination had been created.

Imagine a place where taxi drivers don’t try to cheat you, people genuinely want to help you, and strangers approach to take a selfie with you. There’s a lot to see in this country. I recently spent a week here, which was barely enough to crack the top highlights. Here's where to start.

Plov is the national dish.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Tashkent

This capital city is your most-likely portal into the country. To get around, use the Yandex app, which is similar to Uber, except you pay the driver in cash once the ride is over. There’s not really any route in the city that requires a fare more than $1.50, so skip the rental car. You can also use the three-line metro system to get around for pennies. 

What a subway stop.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Tashkent took a serious hit in a 1966 earthquake, but the Soviets rebuilt the metro as only the USSR could—it can be quite entertaining visiting these different time-capsule subway stations as there’s art and history on the walls of many of them, as well as chandeliers and decorative columns. There are 50 stops in all, but some are more exciting than others. I spent about four fun-filled hours popping out of trains, snapping photos and changing lines. It only cost 15 cents!

Stop in the Plov Center to discover the national dish. Outside the dining area, giant woks full of rice, horse meat, spices, and other secret ingredients are constantly being stirred to feed the locals. Share a plov with some new friends, and try the ubiquitous Shakarob salad. You'll also want to visit the Chorsu Bazaar, the place to shop for produce, meats, bread, and everything else you want to buy. The bread, nuts, and fruits are amazing. Tashkent also has some international restaurants if you need a change from the local dishes.

Amirsoy Ski Resort. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Amirsoy

If you find yourself in Uzbekistan during winter months, you need to grab your jacket and head to Amirsoy, about 90 minutes east of Tashkent. Amirsoy is a new, modern ski resort with low prices you can't find in many other places. It’s not Aspen, but there’re some fun runs, great lifts, and you can get a ski pass and rent some nice equipment for about $30. Yes, $30. If you’re there in warmer months, there are some fantastic hikes, and it's also home to captivating Lake Charvak.

Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis in Samarkand.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Samarkand

The jewel of Uzbekistan is only a two-hour train ride from Tashkent. The city’s history goes back thousands of years to the Silk Road, and it is full of beautiful blue-tiled tombs, mosques, and madrasahs (Islamic schools). Visit the Ulugh Beg observatory, the possible tomb of Daniel (from the Old Testament), and the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis for its stunning complex of tombs. The Registan is the most iconic set of buildings in Samarkand, with its three madrasahs facing the immense central square.

Bill Wiatrak on a camel in Bukhara.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Bukhara

With its desert feel, colossal fort, and Jabba the Hutt vibe, I felt like I was in a Star Wars filming location when I first arrived in this picturesque town. The Ark of Bukhara in the city center is the most distinctive monument, thanks to its giant spiked walls—it's a fortress that once housed the entire town. A short walk brings you past the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa, Kalan Mosque, and to the Toqi Zaragon Bazaar, with its multiple domed roofs and shops. These amazing feats of architecture are clustered together so you don’t really need transportation to hit the main highlights in this town. Stay in Hotel Old Bukhara for an inexpensive authentic Uzbek experience, and try the traditional local foods at the Old Bukhara Restaurant (not related) near the bazaar.

Lake Charvak is a beauty.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Beyond

My one week trip allowed just enough time to quickly visit the above locations, which was easily done by hopping on the high-speed train that connects Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent. Two other popular stops that require a little more effort are Khiva, a gem on the silk road, and a stop at the Moynaq ship graveyard on the now nearly nonexistent Aral Sea. Khiva can be reached by shared taxi (around five hours) or tri-weekly train (seven hours). Moynaq is a three-hour drive from Nuku, which has airport service to Tashkent, or it can be reached from Khiva with a three-hour drive.

I absolutely loved my visit to Uzbekistan and found myself wanting more. I’ll definitely be going back. 

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