Uzbekistan - When and where to visit


Climate
When to visit
Highlights and itineraries

Uzbekistan is a year-round tourism destination, though most people choose to visit between May and October, as the winter months can be bitingly cold both in the desert and in the mountain foothills.

Climate

Snow covered mountains Muzaffar MahkamovAlthough the winter months can be bitingly cold, small ski resorts in the mountains near Tashkent are being developed for modern markets © Muzaffar Mahkamov, Dreamstime

Uzbekistan has an extreme continental climate owing to its location at the centre of the Eurasian landmass. The hottest period, known as the chillya, is from late June to mid-August, when temperatures frequently reach 40°C or even higher (it is a dry heat, so not as unbearable as you might think). Autumn is warm and pleasant, and the bazaars are full of fruit and vegetables. In winter (beginning in late October on the steppe and December in the south, and generally lasting into March), temperatures may fall to -15°C in the cities and as low as -30°C in the steppe and mountains, with limited precipitation. The average snowfall nationwide is 5cm, rising to 10–12cm in the foothills. Spring, from March to June, is another good time to visit – it will be warm with some rain.

Much of Uzbekistan is arid and has little rainfall. Humidity is generally low and annual rainfall is typically 100–200mm, stunting the growth of crops and other flora during the summer months. There is some regional variation, however, as the far south of the country has a more tropical climate (complete with higher levels of humidity and rainfall), and the annual rainfall in the mountains can be as much as 900mm.

When to visit

Uzbekistan is a year-round tourism destination, though most people choose to visit between May and October, as the winter months can be bitingly cold both in the desert and in the mountain foothills.

Spring breaks in March and April (slightly later in the mountains) and brings with it a riot of colourful flowers in the mountain pastures. The rivers are in full spate with the glacial meltwater, and the country comes swiftly back to life. If you visit in springtime, you may also be able to join in celebrations for Navruz, the Persian New Year, celebrated in Uzbekistan on 21 March. During this two-day festival, which is a national holiday, families feast, watch traditional sports including kopkari (horse racing) and kurash (wrestling), and there’s plenty of musical entertainment. You’ll invariably be asked to join in the fun.

The summer can be bakingly hot on the plains, particularly in July and August, but this is the best time to trek in the mountains and to try a night or two sleeping in a yurt. It’s also the time of some interesting festivals, including Samarkand’s International Music Festival. Expect plenty of pomp and circumstance on Independence Day (1 September).

When autumn comes, Uzbekistan turns terracotta red and gold almost overnight. It’s one of the most beautiful times to visit, with late September and early October being ideal for a visit to the big three: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, as temperatures are still warm but many of the crowds have gone. By early November, the warmly dressed can have Khiva in particular almost entirely to themselves, though many restaurants and shops will be closing up at the end of their season.

In the winter months few tourists come to Uzbekistan, but that means you can negotiate favourable rates for hotels and tours. It’s also the time for skiing: the resorts of Chimgan and Beldersay have excellent snow from January to March, and you can even risk your neck heli-skiing for descents up to 10km in length.

Highlights and itineraries

Shah-i Zinda Samarkand Uzbekistan MehmetO, ShutterstockThe sapphire-blue tombs of Shah-I Zinda are an undisputed highlight of a trip to Uzbekistan © MehmetO, Shutterstock

It’s clichéd but true to say that Uzbekistan offers a little something for everyone. Whether your idea of a trip of a lifetime is wandering amongst the medieval tombs of Samarkand, shopping in Tashkent’s vast Chorsu Bazaar or trekking across the Kyzylkum Desert by camel and sleeping in a nomad’s yurt, you won’t be disappointed. The challenge is how to pack everything into the time available. If you’re in need of a little guidance, here are our must-see sights and experiences.

Highlights

Camel trekking

We have sadly found that camels are invariably smelly, bad-tempered and jolly uncomfortable to ride. However, the Silk Road would never have got going without them, and so you will need to saddle up and take at least a short journey on camelback if you want the full, authentic experience. The best camel treks are around Nurata in the Kyzylkum Desert, where you can ride across the dunes well away from roads and human habitation. Make Aidarkul Lake your destination and tie your camel on the shore while you have a swim in the slightly salty waters or try your hand at fishing. Come nightfall, you can stay with nomadic families in a traditional yurt (albeit with the added advantage of a toilet block), sit around the fire listening to stories and music, and engage in some splendid stargazing.

Chorsu Bazaar

This bazaar is the first and only place where we have seen the boot and back seat of a Lada stacked to the gunwales with decapitated cow heads. The sight was truly gruesome. Quite what they were doing there we can only dread to think, but they didn’t look a bit out of place. The modern incarnation of Silk Road trading posts now long gone, the market buzzes with energy and everything conceivable (and, like the cow heads, a few things normally inconceivable) is for sale. You can of course buy a trailer-load of watermelons and 300 plastic buckets, but the real delight comes in spending an hour or three exploring the trading domes, drinking bowls of fragrant black tea, smelling the shashlik grilling and engaging in an animated, good-natured haggle for a bag of salted pistachios and a fresh, pink pomegranate. Come here for some well-placed souvenirs, including a wide selection of ceramics, and the best people-watching in Tashkent.

Orient Star

A single hotel wouldn’t normally feature in the highlights, but the Orient Star is no ordinary hotel. The Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasa, in the heart of Khiva’s Ichon Qala, was sensitively converted in 2000 so that mod cons are hidden behind the elaborately tiled 19th-century façade. Each room is inside a former hujra (student’s cell), though with slightly more creature comforts, and the hotel courtyard once housed the city’s Supreme Court. When you step outside your door in the mornings, you can look up in wonder at the jewel-like Kalta Minar.

Igor Savitsky Museum

There would be little reason to come to Nukus at all if it weren’t for the Igor Savitsky Museum, an unexpected treasure trove of Soviet avant-garde art from the 1920s and 30s. The 2010 documentary Desert of Forbidden Art provides an informative and moving account of Savitsky’s life and work and will certainly whet your appetite and motivate you to make the trek out to what feels like the other side of the moon. In addition to the striking, and in many cases controversial, paintings Savitsky collected, you will also find galleries of folk art and archaeological finds illustrating Khorezm’s rich past. The first of two new museum buildings is now open, and when the second opens, an even greater part of the collection will finally be on show.

Khorezm Fortresses

It is of course possible to come to Khorezm and visit only Khiva, but you would sadly be missing out. Not far away, on the edge of the Kyzylkum Desert, are a string of fortresses dating from the early centuries bc. Listed by UNESCO as the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm, the most impressive are the mud-brick Toprak Qala and the Koi Krylgan Qala, but there are plenty of smaller sites if you want to explore on your own. You will need your own transport to get here, but it is well worth hiring a car for a couple of days and staying in the yurt camp beside the Ayaz Qala to be able to appreciate the site at both sunset and sunrise. You can take a camel ride from the yurt camp here, too.

Khudyar Khan’s Palace

The 19th-century palace of Khudayar Khan, ruler of Kokand, once had more than 100 rooms and was described as the most magnificent in central Asia: its nickname is the Pearl of Kokand. Though a shadow of its former self, 19 of its rooms survive today and in them are displayed an eclectic collection of jewellery, stuffed animals, fine woodcarvings and objets d’art. Here, you will have a sense of the exorbitant wealth and excesses of the khans, and how they were able to dazzle foreign visitors. The palace is said to have been built by 80 master builders and 16,000 conscripted labourers, the descendants of whom still live in and around Kokand today.

Poi Kalyon

The entirety of Bukhara probably deserves mentioning as a highlight, but it is the Poi Kalyon that particularly caught our eyes. This simple square is framed by some of the most spectacular buildings on earth: the Mir-i Arab Madrasa, the Kalyon Juma Mosque and the majestic 11th-century Kalyon Minar, one of the few buildings in the city to pre-date Genghis Khan’s invasion: he saw its elegant silhouette from a great distance away as he rode across the steppe and found it so beautiful that when he arrived in Bukhara he could not bear to see it destroyed. Everything else, however, was razed to the ground and the population of Bukhara was butchered.

Shah-i-Zinda

Most people come to Samarkand for the Registan but, though it is undoubtedly impressive, the city’s real gem is the collection of medieval tiled tombs known as the Shah-i Zinda (the Living King). Arriving at dusk, the experience is magical. The tour groups have retreated to their hotels for dinner, as have the schoolchildren; if you’re lucky you’ll have the place to yourself. You can expect to see every variety of turquoise- and lapis lazuli-coloured glazed tiles attached to the façades of the tombs of female members of the Timurid dynasty, as well as generals, advisors and holy figures.

Suggested itineraries

How much you can see in Uzbekistan is very much dictated by the length of your stay and your modes of transport. Travelling by camel may sound romantic, but it’s still rather faster to go by plane. These itineraries give an idea of what you can hope to accomplish in different amounts of time, and which sites you should endeavour to squeeze into your trip.

With just a weekend at your disposal, you have two options: focus on Tashkent and see most of what the city has to offer, or take the incredibly convenient high-speed train to Samarkand and write-off the 4 hours’ drive in each direction as the price you have to pay to see one of central Asia’s most remarkable cities.

If you choose to stay in Tashkent, start in the Old City with the Hazrat Imam Square, the world’s oldest Qu’ran in the Muyie Muborak Library, and the 15th-century tombs of the Sheikhantaur Mausoleum. Have a late lunch at one of the plov stalls in Chorsu Bazaar and explore the stalls in the afternoon before taking in a performance at either the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre or the Ilkhom Theatre in the evening. The following morning you should visit Amir Timur Square for a view of post-independence Uzbekistan before going to the State Fine Arts Museum, the core of whose collection was confiscated from Grand Duke Romanov, who in turn had stolen many of the items from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. We also like the Tamara Khanum House Museum with its collection of theatrical and dance costumes, photos and posters, and the Railway Museum where you’re still allowed to climb on and inside many of the exhibits.

In a week you can comfortably expect to see Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. The roads between these three locations are well maintained and relatively fast, and you can also take the train. In Samarkand, book into the Antica B&B a stone’s throw away from the Gur-i Amir, Timur’s gilded mausoleum, and explore the heart of the city on foot. The Registan, Shah-i Zinda and Ulug Beg’s astronomical observatory should not be missed, and neither should the ancient ruins of Afrosiab.

Travelling on to Bukhara, you should stay in a hotel close to Lyabi Hauz or the Kalyon Minar and pace yourself as you explore the bewildering selection of beautifully decorated mosques, madrasas and tombs. The Ark, Bolo Hauz Mosque and the Chor Minor are all best seen from the outside, while the Lyabi Hauz should be appreciated while relaxing with a bowl of tea by the water. 

With two weeks to spare, you can do all this and take in the highlights of Khorezm. Visiting Khiva’s Ichon Qala goes without saying, but don’t miss the Khorezm fortresses in the Kyzylkum Desert, or the chance to sleep in a nomad’s yurt beneath the endless sky. Make sure you go to Nukus for the Igor Savitsky Museum and then continue through Karakalpakstan as far as Moynaq for the graveyard of ships left behind by the retreating Aral Sea.

A month is ample time to take in everything Uzbekistan has to offer. Consider taking the train at least part of the way for a taste of travel in a bygone age, and allow at least a week to explore the little-visited Fergana Valley. Kokand is famous for its ornate 18th- and 19th-century architecture and also its craft workshops, Margilan has fascinating silk factories, and the base camp at Nanay is an ideal point from which to explore Kapchugai Gorge and the Chatkal Mountains.

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