Like with the other Central Asian nations, there hasn’t been much written on Uzbekistan in English. Luckily, what has been written so far, came out of the pen of a good writer.
Quite a few books mention Uzbekistan in some detail, but bundle it up with the other Central Asian nations in regional overviews or travelogues: for that, see “Central Asia books.”
The 2 best books on Uzbekistan for the first-time traveler
1. A Carpet Ride to Khiva – Christopher Alexander
If you only read 1 book about Uzbekistan: this is the one. A Carpet Ride to Khiva takes you along with the author as he goes from being a naive do-gooder to the driving force setting up Khiva’s now-famous handmade carpet workshop for 7 years. You discover the country together with him. Alexander is a deft writer, and he peels back the layers of Uzbek society one by one until the story ends abruptly.
A Carpet Ride to Khiva is the perfect introduction to Uzbekistan to read before or during your trip. It’s a wonderful ride.
2. The Railway – Hamid Ismailov
Set in Uzbekistan between 1900 and 1980, the novel introduces to us the inhabitants of the small town of Gilas. Hamid Ismailov has written a type of alternative history, focusing on the daily lives of ordinary people trying to make do under the Soviet yoke.
And when I say daily, I don’t actually mean daily. A ton of really wild events pass by in 300 pages. It’s funny. It makes you look at Uzbekistan differently, that’s for sure. It’s not a page-turner, though: this is Literature, and Ismailov spins wonderful sentences in an intricate narrative referencing everything from Sufi rituals to Soviet slogans.
If you like The Railway, give Soul by Andrey Platonov (reviewed below) a go – Ismailov was heavily influenced by Platonov.
Books about politics
2 great books partly deal with Uzbekistan: Restless Valley by Philip Shishkin (reviewed under books on Kyrgyzstan) and Beyond the Oxus by Monica Whitlock (see books on Tajikistan). Both really good books. Highly recommended if you also have an interest in the other ‘Stans.
Other good books about Uzbekistan
1. The Sands of Oxus – Sadriddin Aini
Boyhood reminiscences of the national poet of Tajikistan (who lived all his life in Uzbekistan). Well worth the read for a view on timeless Uzbek/Tajik life.
2. The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia – Theodore Levin
Fascinating portrait of cultural life in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan just after the collapse of the Soviet Union by an erudite and talented ethnomusicologist.
3. Soul – Andrey Platonov
This novel about a man who seeks to redeem his people but finds that he has little to teach interweaves Zoroastrian myth, Sufism, Communism, and Freud, set against the backdrop of the harsh deserts of Soviet Uzbekistan. Platonov was called “perhaps the most brilliant Russian writer of the 20th century” by the New York Review of Books.
He is a brilliant poet to be sure, but Soul is not an easy read. It is difficult and depressing. If you are interested in literature and ready to make an effort: it’s a wonderful book, and it comes with a bunch of other short stories to take the edge off. But it’s not really about Uzbekistan – it is the story of a spiritual journey.
4. Chasing the Sea – Tom Bissell
A Peace Corps Volunteer returns to Uzbekistan and travels around with his womaniser-guide, injecting a history lesson now and again into the story. Sounds lame, but unlike the other PCVs who write books about their adventure, Bissell is an actual writer, and it makes this book palatable. It’s one step below A Carpet Ride to Khiva, but due to a lack of other options, this is not a bad alternative.
5. Travels into Bokhara – Alexander Burnes
The story of Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes in complete form. Often cited in Peter Hopkirk’s popular The Great Game, this is the full account. Interesting mostly for those with a big appetite for this particular era. Everyone else should stick to Hopkirk.
6. Mission to Tashkent – F.M. Bailey
The incredible account of Britain’s master spy as he eludes the Bolshevik secret police and gathers information on what is going on in Central Asia after the Russian Revolution. Bailey is not a gifted writer, but this is a good book for anyone interested in the history of Central Asia at this time. For a better read of the same story, once again, see Hopkirk.
7. Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn at his best in this story of sick people in a hospital in Uzbekistan, which serves as an allegory on the sickness of the Soviet system. Brilliant book based on his own experiences as a cancer patient in Tashkent. Like Soul, however, it does not say much about Uzbekistan.
8. Samarkand – Amin Maalouf
Since I have not written a section for books on Iran yet, this historical fiction resides in the Uzbekistan section. Starting in 11th-century Central Asia, the book traces the life of Persian homo universalis Omar Khayyam. Samarkand succeeds wonderfully in conjuring up the atmosphere of the time, the intrigues at the court, his passionate love affair with a poetess. A second part of the book focuses on the search for Khayyam’s lost book of rubaiyyat poems in 20th-century Iran. Mirroring the characters of the first part, it magnifies the themes of the book: colonialism and Islamic fundamentalism,
The book is a historical fiction, and it succeeds on both counts: it introduces us to historical figures of days gone by like Nizam-al Mulk, as well as recent figures like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. At the same time, it’s a wonderful novel with passionate love stories, violent struggles and near-impossible missions. A melodic cadence brings the prose to live, and especially the first part of the text sparkles with pearls of wisdom, and of course, the matchless poems of Khayyam.
Odyssey Guide to Uzbekistan – Bradley Mayhew
Like all Odyssey guides, this book lacks a lot of practical detail, but makes up for it with the most thorough investigation of Uzbekistan’s culture and points of interest. A must-have for anyone serious about traveling in Uzbekistan.
Bradt Guide to Uzbekistan
By the same authors as the similarly frail Bradt Tajikistan, Bradt Uzbekistan is a bit better, but the lack of knowledge of the country of the authors shows. Take the Odyssey guide, and fill in the practical blanks with information from the internet. This book delivers on neither of those two counts.