Can you spot the country shaped like a dog barking at China? Look closely at Uzbekistan, colored in red on this map of Central Asia. It's where we are headed next, via a stop-over in Seoul, South Korea. After two weeks of traveling around by train, we'll fly to Baku in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, then home to Seattle via Dubai and Abu Dhabi, a four-week trip that will take us around the globe on a series of one-way flights on five airlines.
Why Uzbekistan, you might ask? And with Russia to the north, Europe and Iran to the west, Afghanistan to the south and China to the east, what's the link between Uzbekistan and Korea? Our planning started after I landed an assignment in Seoul for a travel magazine, I looked at where else we could go from there. There aren't many airlines that fly non-stop flights to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's modern capital, but Korean carrier Asiana is one of them. We loved the mix of people and culture in parts of the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia) where we traveled several years ago, so this seemed like a good opportunity to delve deeper.
Of the five "Stans" that make up Central Asia, Uzbekistan holds ancient and modern treasurers in compact area easy for independent travelers to navigate via new high-speed train service. Adding to the country's melting pot of Russians, Jews, Germans, Armenians, Turks and Chechens are Uzbek Koreans, who continue to influence food, customs and culture, the result of a mass deportation in the 1930s. Working as migrants in Russia since the mid-1800s, 170,000 were exiled by Joseph Stalin because Koreans at the time were subjects of Japan, an enemy of the Soviet Union.
On the "Silk Road" network of trade routes linking the Middle East and Europe with China through the 14th century, the 'Stans were formed as republics under Stalin's rule. Now, 27 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, they are independent countries. Uzbekistan's main exports of are gold, petroleum gas and cotton. Tashkent's subway system is sleek and modern, with ornate stations decorated with marble, granite, glass and ceramics. Soviet-era buildings stand alongside Russian mansions and Muslim mosques.
Organized tours are how most people explore this part of the world, but putting together an independent trip is easier now than it used to be, due to relaxed entry requirements and online planning sites such as Caravanistan, run by a young couple with a passion for travel in Central Asia. Most hotels take online reservations, and Uzbek travel agencies that will arrange for train tickets. After years of repression under a leader who had held office since independence in 1991, Uzbekistan is moving forward under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, elected in 2016. U.S. citizens traveling as tourists no longer need an "invitation letter" from a hotel or tour company to get a visa. We do have to apply by mail by filling out a form and sending our passport and a check for $165 to the Uzbek embassy in Washington D.C., but even that will change soon with the introduction of e-visas.
Other than the visa cost, travel in Uzbekistan is far less expensive than in oil-rich Baku or Dubai. I made reservations at bed and breakfasts and small inns online after consulting TripAdvisor reviews. We'll be paying from $40 to $60 per night for modest accommodations with private bathrooms and breakfast in places such as the Jahongir B and B in Tashkent; the Boutique Hotel Minzifa in Bukhara; and the family-run Courtyard Bed and Breakfast Antica in Samarkand.
None of our hotels asked for a deposit, but all but one asked to be paid in cash in U.S. dollars. ATMs can be scarce outside Tashkent, so relying on them won't be as easy as it is in Europe or other parts of Asia. Paying in Uzbek som (8,000 equals $1) used to require carrying around bags full of cash. That also changed recently when the government recently began issuing 10,000 and 50,000 som bills. It also eliminated the currency black market by raising the official rate.
Transportation is getting easier and more comfortable. New trains run between Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand, cities filled with Islamic architecture dating to a time when they were centers of learning, art and trade. Seats do sell out, so rather than waiting, I connected online with the Advantour travel agency in Tashkent. They made reservations and issued tickets, with the promise that I would pick them up when we arrive. I made all of our air reservations directly with each airline, with the exception of one flight on Uzbek Air. There was no English on the website, but a savvy travel agency in Riga, Latvia conveniently duplicates the routes in English at flyuzairways. I bought the tickets through that site, paid with a credit card and received them the next day. The total cost for all of our flights was $2,200 each.
With the logistics out of the way, I began planning excursions. We signed on for a walking tour of Tashkent through Freetour.com which recruits volunteers in cities around the world. Through Caravanastan, we arranged to spend two days touring desert villages between Bukhara and Samarkand, staying one night in a yurt camp and another in a family homestay. There we will have the chance to visit the local mosque (The Arabs brought Islam to Uzbekistan in the 8th century. Post-Soviet rule, it's a secular muslim country where Islamic practices are more cultural than political), a school, help with cooking and have dinner with our hosts. The homestay owners live mainly on subsistence farming (livestock, fruit tree ect.), so the tourism is alternative source of income for them.
Russian is the de-facto second language in Uzbekistan, so I'm counting on some practice with a language app to learn key words and phrases. I felt excited when I recognized the Russian word for "Thank you" (Spasiba) on the radio the other day. Besides language, of course, there are cultural considerations to keep in mind. Our tour outfitter for our village visits outlined a few rules. My favorites have do with bread or "non," round, leavened flatbreads cooked on the walls of clay ovens. Women sell non at outdoor bread markets, and bicycle delivery men start at 5 a.m. delivering it fresh to cafes and restaurants. Bread is considered precious and holy, rarely cut with a knife, and never presented in uneven numbers, except at funerals.
"Never buy bread as a present in uneven numbers," our guide warned. "Never throw bread away," and above all else, "Do not put bread chunks on the table upside down. "