Uzbekistan is noted by travel guides for its medieval Islamic architecture. It’s beautiful, and it definitely make for nice travel brochures and Pinterest boards. But atmosphere and culture cannot be tasted by licking a building. A tourist place is a tourist place the world over, and an independent traveler’s itinerary in Uzbekistan should at times try to break away from the bucket list to avoid disappointment.
That’s why even our highlights itinerary also includes a few places you wouldn’t consider at first glance. Don’t forget to check out Top 99 things to do in Uzbekistan for more inspiration and unique experiences.
Highlights of Uzbekistan
The highlights of Uzbekistan are a mix of Islamic medieval architecture and art, Soviet architecture and art, colourful bazaars, silk and ceramics, history and village life in the deserts and mountain valleys. The cities are touristy, so if you are someone who easily gets annoyed of this, have a look at our off-the-beaten-track itineraries for Uzbekistan instead.
Tashkent is the capital, interesting not only for its fascinating dynamism and mix of inhabitants, but also for the glorious spectacle architecture of the 1960s-70s, surrounding the vernacular monuments of centuries past that have survived the many natural disasters that have befallen the city.
East of Tashkent lies the Ferghana Valley. Kokand’s palace is a must-see, and Margilan and Rishton are obligatory stops for everyone interested in the creation of silk and ceramics. For a buzzing city that has retained a lot of traditional dress and customs, visit Namangan rather than Andijan.
South of Tashkent, Samarkand holds the Shah-i-Zinda, Registan, Timur’s Tomb and other famous monuments. Instead of the main road towards Bukhara, a detour via Sentyab gives you a taste of village life in a magical mountain hamlet. Bukhara itself remains a picture-perfect town.
In the far west, a few unique points of interest. The walled city of Khiva, the ancient fortresses of Kwarezm, the museum of Savitsky and the deathly Aral Sea.
Off the beaten track
I admit Uzbekistan, with its tight government control over what a tourist site should look like, can feel oppressive, uninspiring, perhaps a bit boring even at times. If you’ve felt the same, perhaps it’s time to try one of the following routes. These places are desolate, unknown, even dangerous here and there.
Lots of realness: smiles and tears, devastating stories, simple shacks from mud-shit architecture, desert industry, mountain scenery, forgotten masterpieces in crumbling mosques, secret police in every teahouse and a bit of archaeology. You will need a 4WD, a sense of adventure, and some mechanical skills in case the machine blows up. This route will take you from the Aral Sea to the Afghan border without seeing anything mentioned in the Lonely Planet.
If you don’t have the 4WD, I can recommend just hanging ’round the backstreets of Tashkent for a month, or burying yourself deep in a little village. It will be just as interesting, although a tad less adventurous.
Starting at the Aral Sea, there is lots of devastation, both cultural and natural, along the way. Nukus is a disaster as well. Instead of taking the well-trodden southern route to Khiva and Bukhara, let’s instead drive north, towards the weird desert towns of Uchkuduk and Zarafshan. I drew in an extra desert detour, only to be attempted by the experienced 4WD driver.
Continue into the Kyzylkum desert and meet some stranded Kazakh communities until you reach Navoi, nicknamed the Moscow of Uzbekistan. Wiggle your way through the arid plains towards Shahrisabz. At Yakkabog, head into the mountains. A pretty detour dives into the lush Langar canyon to the town of Katta Langar, while an observatory tempts you the other way. Feeling up the skirt of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan as we drew it on the map will certainly attract attention; the old saying “half the men in Termez work for the KGB” is still valid today, so watch your back.
From the hot, arid plains of Termez, the mountains beckon again as you move towards Tajikistan. Cross the border, or turn back, and see what Boysun brings you. The peaks north of Denau should be left alone because of land mines, and the chance of being mistaken for a spy.
The summer heat makes Uzbekistan a tough country to cycle through. Although some people enjoy the challenge of desert cycling, I advise to move on quickly to the uplands of Tajikistan, much beloved by the cycle community. From experience I can say the Silk Road cities enjoy little appeal for cyclists, so this itinerary only includes 1.
The route starts in Bukhara, the most attractive and lively of the Silk Road cities. If you have cycled here from Turkmenistan or Khiva, you might want to enjoy the shower and air conditioning for a day or 2 while visiting the Dome of Islam. Then, head east, towards the rocky plains of Southern Tajikistan. The villages you encounter here will get you a feel for the ‘real’ Uzbekistan, something few people who visit get to see in the end. It’s a peaceful place, lots of tradition, lots of hospitality.
I have incorporated a detour up north that takes in Langar and the Langar canyon, a beautifully green part of Uzbekistan that should shatter some of your preconceptions about the country. But you can also just take the shortcut from Qarshi to Guzar, you will meet similar landscapes and people once beyond Guzar. From there, the land slowly elevates, as a prelude to the savage beauty of Tajikistan.