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Uzbekistan - Travel and visas
All non-CIS nationals require a visa to visit Uzbekistan, and even CIS nationals may have difficulty entering if they do not have proof of onward travel. If Uzbekistan has an embassy or consulate in your country of residence you will need the visa stuck into your passport before you fly; you may be prevented from boarding the plane if you do not have a valid visa. To apply for the visa, fill out the online application form at http://evisa.mfa.uz/evisa and print it. Make sure you sign it in black ink as this box is frequently overlooked. Submit the form with two passport photos, a photocopy of your passport and your passport itself to the embassy.
For somewhere so centrally located geographically, Uzbekistan can be surprisingly challenging to reach. There is a shortage of direct flights from Europe and the US, land borders open and close on a whim, and arriving by train requires you to have a passport full of transit visas and the patience of a saint.
The vast majority of visitors arrive in Uzbekistan on a flight to Tashkent and this is, on balance, the easiest way to travel. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, you will need to have a visa before boarding the plane and may be prevented from flying if you do not. The safety record of many of central Asia’s airlines (including some national carriers) is such that they are prevented from flying in European airspace. Aircraft are typically far older than those in service elsewhere, and they have not always been maintained to international standards. It is likely, therefore, that if you take a flight originating in Europe or the US you will need to get a connection in one of the regional hubs (Almaty, Istanbul or Moscow). With the exception of Uzbekistan Airways flights, direct flights to Uzbekistan tend to come only from the Middle East, Russia and the other CIS countries. The arrivals procedure is relatively straightforward. When you enter the terminal building collect an immigration form, fill it in and then wait in the interminably long immigration queue. Keep a sense of humour and be prepared to use your elbows and hand luggage strategically to avoid getting shoved to the back of the crowd. The baggage hall is the usual scrum, and there is a bottleneck near the exit as you have to submit your customs form and have it stamped. Be sure to declare all your foreign currency. You will need to keep the stamped form for when you leave. All your baggage then has to pass through the X-ray machine.
There is a certain romance attached to train travel, and if you have the time to sit and watch the world pass by at a leisurely pace (very leisurely in the case of the old Soviet rail network), it is still a viable way to reach Uzbekistan. Regardless of where the train originates, you will need to ensure you have a valid transit visa for every country en route, as well as a visa for Uzbekistan. Ticket classes are categorised in the Russian style. First-class or deluxe accommodation (spets vagon) buys you an upholstered seat in a two-berth cabin. The seat turns into a bed at night. Second class (kupe) is slightly less plush, and there are four passengers to a compartment. Third class (platskartny) has open bunks (ie: not in a compartment) and, if you are really on a very tight budget indeed, a fourth-class ticket (obshchiy) gets you an unreserved and very hard seat. Bring plenty of food for the journey, and keep an eye on your luggage, particularly at night, as theft is sadly commonplace. There are four trains a week between Moscow and Tashkent, and an irregular service between Almaty and Tashkent. The Moscow service takes 66 hours and tickets start from around US$520. The train timetable for the whole Russian rail network (including central Asia) is online at www.poezda.net. The Man in seat Sixty-One (www.seat61.com/SilkRoute) also has detailed information, including personal observations, about train travel in the former USSR. If you are coming to Uzbekistan from China, it would theoretically be possible to take the new train line from Urumqi to Almaty, and change there for Tashkent. We have not, however, taken this route yet, so if you do manage to ride it successfully we’d love to hear from you.
Our preferred way to enter Uzbekistan is through a land border, not because customs and immigration make it a particularly easy or pleasant experience, but because of the freedom having your own transport gives you once you finally make it inside. The information given below was correct at the time of writing. However, border crossings open and close regularly, often with little warning, and some crossings are open only to locals and not to foreigners. Keep your ear to the ground and, if in doubt, contact a tour operator or Uzbek consulate before confirming your travel plans. We have previously ignored our own advice and been stuck for 12 hours in the no man’s land between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. We do not recommend you follow suit. Reaching Uzbekistan from Afghanistan tends to be fairly straightforward as diplomatic relations between the two countries are generally good. The main border crossing is at Hairatan between Mazar-i Sharif and Termez. Theoretically the border is open 24/7, but you may have to wait if the relevant official is at dinner or sleeping. There are several crossing points between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is a large country, and though road infrastructure between the main cities is steadily improving, travelling from A to B by road can still take up a significant proportion of your time. This is particularly true if you plan to travel from Tashkent to Khiva, Nukus or other sites in Karakalpakstan. If you are short on time, consider a domestic flight or overnight train journey. However you choose to travel, look out of the window and try to enjoy the views. It’s all part of the big adventure.
Uzbekistan Airways (www.uzbekistanairways.uk.com) has domestic flights covering various destinations in Uzbekistan, though not all of the routes are fl own on a daily basis. Cities with regular scheduled flights include Andijan, Bukhara, Fergana, Karshi, Namangan, Navoi, Nukus, Samarkand, Termez, Urgench and, of course, Tashkent. Flights are liable to be changed or cancelled at short notice, especially if the weather is poor or if only a small number of reservations have been made. You should be aware that many of the planes in use in central Asia are old (oft en from the Soviet period) and have not been maintained in accordance with international standards. The terrain and unpredictable weather conditions also make for challenging flying conditions. Weigh up the pros and cons of flying, sit next to the emergency exit if you have the choice, and if you are walking across the runway to the plane, do not walk in front of the propellers. Even at a distance of 20m it is possible for things to get sucked into the blades.
Uzbekistan has a limited and largely out of date railway network, but there are a few routes that are of use to tourists, and the most important of these, the Afrosiab service between Tashkent and Samarkand, has even benefited from a recent investment in modern rolling stock. Uzbekistan follows the Soviet model of ticket classes and the trains, though typically rather old and painfully slow, tend to run more or less to timetable. Tickets are purchased from the railway station, though local travel agents are usually able to assist if you lack the requisite language skills, time or patience. The Uzbekistan Railways website (http://uzrailpass.uz/) has an up-to-date schedule for the entire network and updates ticket prices on a weekly basis. The most useful train route in Uzbekistan is the high-speed Afrosiab service, which links Tashkent and Samarkand and is targeted at tourists, though locals make use of it as well. It is slightly more expensive than the slower trains operating the same route, but makes a daytrip to Samarkand possible. Also helpful are the train services between Tashkent and Bukhara, and the longer routes between Tashkent and Termez, and Tashkent or Bukhara and Urgench. The ability to book a berth (or at least to be able to get up and walk around) on one of these long distance journeys is a godsend if you don’t have the budget (or inclination) to take the plane.
Wherever you want to go in Uzbekistan, getting there is half the fun. Hitchhiking and riding around in the back of a truck are still distinct possibilities in more remote areas, but in general things are getting easier: the new multi-lane highway under construction between Bukhara and Khiva should be completed during the lifespan of this edition, greatly decreasing cross-country driving times. However close your destination, you should allow plenty of time to get there. Taxi and minibus drivers may appear to be in a rush, but they’re also the most likely to get flat tyres or to break down entirely. Snowfall and avalanches stop even the most determined of drivers in mountainous areas, and it’s not uncommon for vehicles to run out of fuel. The journey may take a while but you will get there eventually, inshallah (God willing). Bad roads and cramped buses can be physically very wearing, so make sure you factor in as much time as you can between long trips for recharging your batteries. One thing to bear in mind when travelling by road is dust. Even on predominantly paved roads there is plenty of sand and grit. Keep a scarf or bandana handy to protect your nose and mouth and keep anything that might get damaged (specifically electronics) inside the vehicle with you, as any bags on the roof will look like they’ve been through a dust storm.
Uzbekistan’s buses fall into two categories: the relatively modern, usually Chinese-made buses that serve set, inner-city routes and take approximately as many passengers as they have seats, and the mashrutka, overcrowded minibuses in varying stages of decay that are driven by devils on speed. These minibuses, sadly, are by far the most common, and if you are travelling between smaller cities in Uzbekistan they’ll be the most frequent form of transport. You are not guaranteed a seat, and will likely spend much of your journey with someone else’s shopping on your lap and their elbow in your face. The majority of minibuses run on gas. If you are going on a long journey, try to get a minibus that leaves early in the morning. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it will maximise the hours of daylight driving; your minibus may or may not have all its lights working (the same goes for other vehicles on the road) and the driver will have a better chance of seeing where the bends are. Secondly, it is not uncommon for minibus drivers to have a cheeky drink (or three), so starting out early maximises your chances of a sober drive.
Most towns have taxis. Drivers instantly mark up their fares for a foreigner, so be prepared to haggle. There are two types of taxis: professional taxis, which may even have a taxi sign on the roof and can sometimes be summoned by calling a central taxi dispatch office, and general motorists who are happy to pick up passengers and drop them at their destination for a few thousand som. In both cases you will need to agree a fare at the start of your journey and be prepared to stop and ask directions en route. Having a map and the name of any landmarks close to your destination will certainly help, as will writing down the address in Uzbek. For longer drives it is often possible to hire a car and driver. Again you will need to confirm the price in advance, though remember the final price may depend on the distance driven. Ordinary taxi drivers may consent to being hired for several days, otherwise approach a travel agent.
Having your own vehicle gives you the ultimate freedom to travel where you want, and we would thoroughly recommend it. You need to be well prepared and do your research beforehand (the encyclopaedic Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide by Tom Sheppard and The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook by Chris Scott stand out) but Uzbekistan has both some spectacular drives and some out-of-the-way destinations it would be a pity to miss out on just because of lack of transport.
A 4×4 is not essential for overlanding in Uzbekistan, but it certainly makes for a more comfortable ride on bad roads. In more remote areas, particularly in the mountains, you can frequently find yourself driving over mud and rock and through riverbeds, particularly in the spring, and will need the extra power to keep yourself from getting stuck. The Land Rover is still the vehicle of choice for most overlanders, but getting parts in Uzbekistan is nigh on impossible: you’ll need to bring your own spares, or compromise and get a Toyota Hilux, which local mechanics will be more familiar with. Whatever your vehicle, you will almost certainly have a big headache getting fuel in Uzbekistan. The government has slashed fuel imports in a bid to push local motorists to convert their vehicles to domestically produced local gas, but as you’ll see from the mile upon mile of gas-station queues, even this is in short supply. Tashkent is the first place to receive any diesel or petrol delivery, so fill your tank to the brim before leaving the city. If you have jerry cans, you may or may not be allowed to fill them on the forecourt. If staff will not let you fill them, take your vehicle away from the station, siphon the fuel from the tank into the cans (carefully) and then go back to the fuel station to top up the main tank. A plastic funnel and a length of hosepipe will come in very handy. Away from Tashkent, fuel stations are numerous, particularly on the edge of towns, but few of them have any fuel. If there is a barrier across the entrance way or a cover over the pump, you’re out of luck. If in doubt, look for the queue: if there is a mile-long tailback then they have supplies. Whether or not they will still have fuel by the time you reach the front of that queue is a different matter entirely.