“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.
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!
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.