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Uzbekistan - When and where 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.
Uzbekistan has an extreme continental climate due to its location at the centre of the Eurasian landmass. In the north of the country summer temperatures usually surpass 40°C, and winters are as cold as the summers are hot, with lows of 20°C or even 30°C below freeing not uncommon. Winter begins in late October on the plateau, and in late December in the south. January is the coldest month, and the winter generally lasts until April. Th e average snowfall nationwide is 5cm, rising to 10–12cm in the foothills. 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 Uzbekistan 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.
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 (horseracing) 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 of Uzbekistan’s biggest festivals, including the UNESCO-backed Festival of Traditional Culture and Samarkand’s International Music Festival. Expect plenty of pomp and circumstance if you’re in Uzbekistan for 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. Late September and early October is the ideal time to visit 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 Beldersoy have excellent snow from January to March, and you can even risk your neck heli-skiing for descents up to 10km in length.
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.
We’ve found sadly 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’ll need to saddle up if you want the full, authentic experience. The best camel treks are around Nurata in the Kyzylkum Desert and they combine well with a yurt stay and some splendid star-gazing.
The bazaar is the first and only place where we’ve seen the boot and back seat of a Lada stacked to the gunwales with decapitated cow heads. Quite what they were doing there we can only dread to think, but in Chorsu Bazaar 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.
Hotel Orient Star
A single hotel wouldn’t normally feature in the highlight’s section, but then the Hotel Orient Star is no ordinary hotel. The Muhammad Amin Khan Madrassa, in the heart of Khiva’s Ichan Kala, has been sensitively converted so that all mod cons are hidden behind the elaborately tiled 19th-century façade. Each room is inside a former hujra (student’s cell), and the hotel courtyard once housed the city’s Supreme Court.
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.
It is of course possible to come to Khorezm and only visit Khiva, but you’d 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. The most impressive are the mud-brick Toprak Kala and the Koi Krylgan Kala, but there are plenty of smaller sites if you want to explore on your own.
Khudyar Khan’s Palace
The 19th-century palace of Khudyar Khan, ruler of Kokand, once had more than 100 rooms and was described as the most magnificent in central Asia. Though a shadow of its former self, 19 of its rooms do survive and in them are displayed an eclectic collection of jewellery, stuffed animals, fine woodcarvings and objects d’art.
The entirety of Bukhara probably deserves mentioning as a highlight, but it is the Poi Kalyon that particularly caught our eye. This simple square is framed by some of the most spectacular buildings on earth: the Mir-i Arab Madrassa, the Kalyon Juma Mosque and the majestic 11th-century Kalyon Minar. It’s photogenic from every angle.
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). Approaching through the back entrance (accessed through the parallel cemetery, watching out for the resident marmots) at dusk, the experience is magical. The tour groups have retreated to their hotels for dinner, as have the schoolchildren, and if you’re lucky you’ll have the place to yourself.
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 hire a car and driver, leave early for Samarkand and write-off the four 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 Town with the Khast Imam Square, the world’s oldest Qu’ran in the Muyie Muborak Library, and the 15thcentury tombs of the Sheikhantaur Cemetery. 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 Squarefor 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 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, madrassas and tombs. The Ark, Bolo Hauz Mosque and the Chor Minor are all best seen from the outside, Lyabi Hauz should be appreciated whilst relaxing with a bowl of tea by the water, and if your legs will carry you up the winding staircase to the top of the Kalyon Minaret, you’ll get breathtaking views across the city.
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 travelling part of the way on the Trans-Caspian railway 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.