Uzbek Tales - Journey to Central Asia

In 2009 we went on this amazing journey to what is sometimes referred to as the pearl of Central Asia: Uzbekistan.

Kid and Us - Urgut, Uzbekistan
On a bus in Samarkand

We started in Tashkent, went down to Samarkand (too a detour to Urgut), travelled to Bukhara, then Khiva and finally flew back to Tashkent. We spent two weeks bouncing around in shared taxis, eating shashlik and plov and most of all enjoying meeting the people. It was an amazing and awesome trip and we had a great time. Uzbekistan is an amazing country and we hope one day to head back to Central Asia.

Images @ Uzbekistan Travel Pictures

Some of the blogs are below.


Uzbek Tales pt. 3: A Morning in Tashkent

Queenie and our Waitress at Breakfast

The First Plans

We woke up early on Saturday morning excited by what the day would bring. We dressed and went down for breakfast where we bumped into a couple from a Hong Kong tour group. We asked them about their itinerary for the day and they told us what they would be doing. We decided to follow them to the first place at least. After that we would find our own way. We had some idea that we would go to the history museum, Khast Imam and Chorsu Bazaar, but we didn’t really know how to get anywhere and this would be the challenge.

How Much Money?

Before leaving however we needed to change money and there is nothing like receiving your first sack of local currency for the US$100. The exchange rate was about SOM1,400 per US$1.00. That means we received 140 SOM1,000 notes. It was quite a stack! We tried to change US$200 but the hotel foreign exchange counter did not have enough notes so we had to settle for changing US$100 only.

You want the bus?

After we got the money, we made sure we were packed and then asked the concierge how to go to Khast Imam. He said he would call a taxi but we said no, we want a bus. He looked stunned. I don’t think anyone in the hotel ever went anywhere on the bus. They finally figured out the bus route and wrote down the critical stops for us and showed us which general direction we should head in. And so off we went!

Cold and Grey Morning

Outside it was grey, cold and miserable. People were all wrapped up warmly but we were happy to be heading off for our day of adventure. We didn’t have to wait too long for the bus to arrive. As soon as we got on we paid for our tickets and as it turned out, overpaid by SOM200. The conductor was quick to give us change. And this was to be a feature of our journey.


Bargaining prices for taxis and goods in the markets was a necessity, but once a price was agreed, change was always given. If we accidently paid too much (as counting thousands of SOM can result in errors) the change came back immediately. Once the price was agreed, people were honest in seeing the price was kept. This impressed us. In many other developing countries we have visited this would not have been the case. The extra money would have probably been kept. I am not suggesting here that we were never overcharged or never paid the “tourist price,” just that the correct change was always given.

The conductor was also careful to tell us when we should get off the bus but then after that we couldn’t figure out where to catch the next bus, and this was where we started to learn to never trust Uzbeks with directions. We were told two different directions. The short story is we landed up at the wrong bus stop for the second bus to Khast Imam and decided to take a taxi after all, and this was when we learned about taxi drivers in Tashkent.

Adventures on the Sidewalk

Since we were facing the wrong way, the taxi driver thought nothing of just turning the taxi on the sidewalk, driving along the sidewalk to make his turn. In Taipei we get irritated when the motorcycles ride on the sidewalk, but taxis? See the video below!

Khast Imam

Khast Imam

We finally did get to Khast Imam, which the Lonely Planet says is a must see sight in Tashkent. Khast Imam seemed to be out of the city. There were a series of mosques and the architecture and decorations on the Mosques were different to what we had seen in Turkey. Well in Turkey they have the famous Blue Mosque but here all the Mosques were decorated in blue. Apparently some of these building have been here for a while so they are quite old. Since we were walking and looking without a guide we couldn’t really tell you anything useful.

At the back of the building we bumped into Jack and Emily’s tour group. They were happy to see us and we were happy to see them. We hitched a tour with their group and they took us through the library where the Uthman Koran, the oldest in the world apparently, is stored. The guide told me that the Koran used to be in Iraq but after Timur (Tamerlane) conquered Iraq he took the Koran back to his capital in Samarkand. Then when the Russians took over Central Asia, they took the Koran to Russia for analysis and study. After the fall of communism in the 1990’s and the independence of the republics, the Russians returned the Koran to Uzbekistan where it found its current home in the library in Tashkent.

After walking through the library we parted ways with Jack’s group and ambled through the first of millions of tourist shops we would encounter on the road. It became a truism that many of the old Medressa have been converted into tourist shop complexes. Whenever you go inside you are offered a series of undifferentiated products form a series of undifferentiated stores all claiming handmade wares. Queenie met a nice lady so she decided to buy something from her but we decided it was the first morning and we would hold off the shopping.

One of the Vendors

Time for Soccer and Tea

A Tad Cold

We continued to walk around the massive courtyard and walked into a soccer game in progress. I think they were students.

We walked around a little more but it was freezing. We decided to be sensible and find a tea shop. We were lucky to see one right across the road from Khast Imam. The restaurant was fairly comfortable. We ordered tea and some kebabs. Ordering required some imagination but eventually we got we wanted and manage to warm up.

So we sat in the tea shop eating kebabs and sipping our tea and pondering what lay ahead. After all , it could only get better!


Uzbek Tales pt. 2: Onward to Tashkent

In Uzbekistan

Surprise Encounters

Early on Friday morning we jumped into a taxi to Taoyuan airport, we checked our luggage in, bought our insurance (medical and life), changed money and were finally ready to join the lines at immigration. As we joined the line Queenie saw her friend Jack and his friend Emily standing in the line. They too were going to Uzbekistan.

Queenie had told me about her friend who was travelling to Uzbekistan but she wasn’t too sure when he was leaving. Bumping into them was a pure coincidence. The big difference between them and us was that they were in a group tour and we were independent travelers. Since they were in a group, they already had an itinerary but we didn’t! After seeing Jack, Emily and their group, Queenie was assured that it wasn’t only her mad husband who wanted to travel to Uzbekistan but that there were other people who actually visited this central Asian republic. She didn’t think I was so mad after all.

We chatted with Jack and Emily for a while. Jack’s expectation for Uzbekistan was to see camels and, as he said jokingly, hoped to ride horses with “Ali Baba and the forty thieves.” Emily said she wanted to see more or less the same but that she expected Uzbekistan to be very different to Taiwan. So did we! To be honest, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect, it was going to be adventure for all of us and we were all excited to see what would be discovered on the road.

Flying to Tashkent

Transit in Korea

Since we were flying Korean Air we first flew from Taipei to Seoul and then after a two hour layover we took a smaller plane from Seoul direct to Tashkent. The flight from Seoul took us over the Yellow Sea and into China over Tianjin. The plane then headed North up to Beijing before turning Westward once again and flying in more or less a straight line all the way there. The flights were uneventful if not a little boring. The flight to Tashkent featured one stupid movie (The Emerald City) on a small screen TV, but beyond that nothing exciting. The Korean air hostess was very friendly and seemed to enjoy chatting to us. It was her first time to Tashkent too and she would be there on a five day layover. The aircrew would stay in the Intercontinental Hotel for the duration of the layover. Lucky them!

The great thing about meeting Jack and Emily was that in Incheon we managed to chat with their tour group leader who gave us a lot of useful tips about what to do when we got there. His advice turned out to be spot on when we arrived and largely because of it we managed to get through customs with no major complications.

The Landing Form and Other Concerns

The main issue of concern was the landing form. The landing form required we declare the exact amount of foreign currency we were carrying. Of course, this was so they could make sure we didn’t earn any foreign currency in Uzbekistan and that when we left, we left with fewer dollars, pounds and Euros than we arrived with.

The landing form requirements, combined with expensive visas and the Lonely Planet’s assurance that police sometimes shakedown tourists started to create a sense of trepidation within us. We were expecting high-levels of corruption and that the police and authorities would be interested in grabbing money from us. The Lonely Planet said foreigners were especially prone to being shaken down on the subway. Although this did concern us we believed we would be able to navigate/negotiate our way through any awkward situation.

As it turned out these concerns were happily unfounded. We were only asked for our passport once and we never had to hand over money to any person in authority. Either we were well behaved, looked too poor, or the shake downs are a thing of the past.

Arriving in Tashkent

On the way to Tashkent

After a quick seven hour flight we arrived at the airport in Tashkent. We could see it was cold outside looking out the window. After what seemed to be an eternity we finally reached our docking bay and disembarked from the plane.

Now, remember this if you ever go to Tashkent! At the bottom of the staircase to the plane were two buses. We inadvertently got onto the first one. Thankfully, before the buses left, someone came to us and asked, “Bishkek or Tashkent?” We replied “Tashkent” and were quickly hustled off the first bus and onto the second bus. Bishkek of course is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and we were about to head to the wrong country. No doubt upon arrival we would have been turned around but who knows the complications this would have caused?

Inside the airport terminal was just as confusing. We had to collect our visas. However, before we got there the leader of a Hong Kong tour group with thirty visa applications was already there. After we arrived the Taiwan group leader also arrived. Despite the fact we were queuing at the office, there was no one there. The tour guides made some noise and after about 10 minutes someone arrived. Another 10 minutes to process the visa and then back into the immigration line.

Now considering there was only one plane on the tarmac, it seemed ridiculous that it took a further 30-minutes to get through the immigration. But it did! There was a clear line drawn on the ground over which people could not step unless called. One person’s job was to make sure no one crossed that line. He was a top performer! After immigration, baggage collection and then customs and currency check. By this time we were exhausted and we were happy they decided NOT to physically count our money.

Outside Tashkent Airport

So, after an eventful 45 minutes or so in the airport, we were finally in Uzbekistan, and it was cold, bitterly, bitterly cold. But our driver was there to meet us and take us to our hotel for US$15. When Queenie decided to turn around and take a picture of the airport, our driver jokingly remarked “spion spion” (did I spell that correctly) which we guessed meant spy!

Our driver Sadique drove us to the Marakizy Hotel through the fog and darkness of Tashkent. Saqique was an older, humorous man who was always making jokes. He told us that the Uzbek’s love Lenin (we never found out if this was true), pointed out many buildings including the old KGB building. When pointing out the South Korean embassy he mentioned the North Korean embassy was a few blocks away but that he had never seen a car in there. He said he thought the North Korean ambassador had to walk or take the bus because they were too poor. Sadique also said in winter the tourists were mostly Japanese and Korean and that the Europeans mostly came in summer. He didn’t mention when the American tourists came!

Sadique knew about Taiwan and had heard about Chiang Kai Shek. He said he also knew about South Africa, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela. We would throughout our time in Uzbekistan be surprised by the breadth of the general knowledge of people in Uzbekistan, especially the older generation. How superficial this general knowledge was we didn’t know but many of them seemed to know quite a lot.

The Marakizy Hotel

Foyer of the Marakizy

After twenty minutes in the taxi we finally arrived at the hotel. The Marakizy Hotel used to be the Sheraton. It was fairly grandiose and decorated in Uzbek and Russian themes making it different to the generic styles of many hotels we have stayed in before. The room was very spacious and elegant. Our only complaint was the heating. The heating was controlled centrally and the entire hotel was heated at a single temperature. It was way too hot for comfort. However, by this time we were exhausted and it was time to sleep.


Uzbek Tales pt. 1: Before the Journey

View Larger Map

The Why!

“Why Uzbekistan?” was a common question when we told people we were going there to travel. Most people in Taiwan couldn’t find it on a map and wouldn’t know the name of the capital city or of Uzbekistan’s distant and recent history. Our common response was: “Because it’s there!” or “It’s the middle of the Silk Road and since we have been to both sides, we want to see the middle.” Both were lies. The truth, it was a purely random choice. The Uzbekistan travel agency in Taipei is two doors down from my office. I just decided to book two tickets for Chinese New Year after some other plans fell through. And what a wonderful choice it was!

If you have chance to go to Uzbekistan, GO! It was a wonderful journey full of excitement, adventure, color and joy. We were sad to leave!

Of course before leaving for Uzbekistan people would ask us if there is a war there. Being on the border of Afghanistan, many people think they have conflict, and so too does the US State Department. Two days before we left I looked on the US Embassy website and they had a travel warning for US citizens travelling to Uzbekistan. What a load of rubbish! It is possibly one of the safest countries we have ever visited. Before going we started to have some concerns. After returning home we would go back in a heartbeat if we ever had the chance.


Uzbekistan is a developing country so there would be some challenges, the first being the Visa. We had to book the Visa in Taipei. The service fee for the visa was NTD4,000 per person (USD130). We were also told that when we picked up our visas in Tashkent we would have to pay a further USD100 per person. We were kind of irritated. Apparently group ticket visas come in at USD15 but individual travelers have to pay the premium. That was the first irritant.

The Weather

Also, after speaking to my brother-in-law Ahmet, who is Turkish and knows a lot about the area, we were worried about the temperature. He told us it was cold in Uzbekistan now so we immediately went to the North Face store to stock up on warm clothes, jackets, fleeces and some decent walking shoes. We also made sure we had thermal underwear, beanies and gloves, just to make sure. Queenie was also concerned about the dryness of the climate so packed a lot moisturizing cream.

An Added Challenge

A further challenge for me was that after buying my tickets I found out I had to go to Paris for business when I left Tashkent. This made packing difficult. I had to pack for two weeks of travel in Uzbekistan and then two week’s worth of work clothes. I decided to reduce the problem by only using work shirts for travelling. I mean who would really care, right!

Our Plan

So then what was our plan? Well, the initial (short) plan was to get there and back again safely! Apart from that, we planned to spend two nights and one day in Tashkent and then figure it out after that (and I am glad we did). Initially I wanted to follow the Silk Road route suggested in the Lonely Planet, but Queenie was skeptical and wanted to do most of the travelling by land and not air. So we decided to be fluid and see the where the wind blew (although we did know it would be blowing us West).

So what did (and didn’t) we know?

We must admit that when we bought the tickets we were ignorant of the country. We kind of knew the capital city was Tashkent and we could find it (I mean Uzbekistan and not Tashkent) on a map. We had heard of Islam Karimov, the president and we knew it was a dictatorship with no freedom of the press. We had read about the massacre in Andijon. We guessed it was a developing country with a lot of environmental issues and were shocked when we read about the tragedy of the Aral Sea.

We also discovered that Uzbekistan was in many ways at the intersection of history. We kind of knew it was in the middle of the Silk Road with camels, and guessed that it was mostly desert. After reading a bit we did discover that Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and Alexander the Great all passed through the country. We also read about Tamerlane the great, their king (and national hero).

Also, after reading about the cultural diversity of the people in Uzbekistan we were excited. Apparently Uzbekistan comprises of many cultural groups including Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Russian and Korean. We kind of guessed that it would be a mostly Muslim country but were surprised to read that Zoroastrianism did have significant influence in the country’s history. We were also surprised to read there were still remnants of a small Jewish population that used to flourish in parts of Uzbekistan.

So who goes to Uzbekistan? Well, before going to Uzbekistan I only knew three people who had been there, the two travel agents and my professor who went there thirty years ago during the Brezhnev era. Much has changed I suppose!

So, all in all what did we know? Not much! And we couldn’t think of a better reason to go somewhere than to learn about the place. After all, part of the adventure is going into the unknown and discovering life and roads that we never anticipated seeing ever in our lives.


South of France

Aix Le Bains

Currently I am in the South of France on business. Queenie had to travel back to Taipei after Uzbekistan. My company's office is in a small town called Chambery and I am staying in a hotel in Aix Le Bains. Its gorgeous here. My only wish is that I could share this with Queenie. I thought I would share some pictures. Enjoy!

The Team Outside the Castle

The Chambery Castle by Night

Dinner in Chambery

Mountains Outside the Office

The Walk to Lunch

More Mountains

The View at the back

A River Runs Through It

As you can see, its gorgeous here. Living here would be awesome but probably a little too quiet for me. I know Queenie and most of my family would love it though.


Back From Uzbekistan

We just came back from Uzbekistan. Here is a picture of Queenie outside the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara

Watch this space. We will add more pics and stories soon


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