Destination: Uzbekistan unbound

1 Mar 2019 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific

Formely a guarded nation, Central Asia’s most populous country is ready to welcome the world

As the plane landed at Tashkent airport after the six-hour flight from Seoul, I tried to rev up my travel-weary brain (I’d started the journey in Hong Kong) for the travails that lay ahead and shake off the food coma induced by Korean Air’s filling but stodgy economy class beef bibimbap.

I had been warned – and read, to my angst, in online forums – that going through the rigmarole of Uzbekistani customs and immigration would test even the most stoic of travellers: foreign currencies had to be declared to the last cent; voluminous arrival forms had to be completed in Uzbek or Russian, with no English translation available; and the queues could last several hours, even though the passenger flows at Islam Karimov International Airport are not exactly Heathrow-esque.

But, apparently, things have changed in the former Soviet country. The Cyrillic forms were nowhere to be seen, the line for passport control was mercifully short, and the immigration officer who stamped my passport was cheerily efficient. “Enjoy Uzbekistan,” he said as I began my first trip to Central Asia’s most populous nation – and, until recently, one of the world’s most authoritarian and repressive states.

Having worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia for a decade, I have grown tired of clichéd descriptions of emerging markets at a “turning point”, yet it is hard to talk about Uzbekistan today without using some similar form of words.

Two years after the death of long-ruling dictator Islam Karimov, this country of 32 million is going through the juddering first phases of the sort of reform and opening-up process that has transformed the economies and societies of countries like China and Vietnam.

New president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has released jailed journalists and dissidents, pared back Karimov’s hated internal security forces, allowed the currency to float freely, and started to make the country much more accessible to foreign visitors.

“Everything started to change two years ago when our former president died,” says one Uzbek hotel owner, who did not want to be named. “Now many people are asking why he didn’t die earlier.”

Tourists from more than 50 countries can now get an e-visa through a simple, cheap online process rather than getting an invitation letter and waiting for hours at an unfriendly embassy. And you can now exchange your US dollars for Uzbek som at banks and foreign exchange bureaux in the country, instead of being forced into the black market as before.

I had come to get a taste of the ancient Silk Road trading routes and towns that criss-cross Uzbekistan – and to see how this country, strategically located between Asia and Europe but also double-landlocked, was opening up to the outside world.

Just two million foreign tourists came to Uzbekistan in 2017, fewer visitors than tourism minnows such as Laos, Andorra and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan – though many tourists in Kyrgyzstan came from nearby Central Asian states to see friends and family, rather than spend big on leisure and travel.

Although the country has great potential, travel and tourism currently account for less than 3 per cent of Uzbekistan’s economy, far behind the global average of 10 per cent, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), an industry lobby group.

President Mirziyoyev is hoping to change all that, turning Uzbekistan from one of the toughest countries for travellers and investors in Central Asia to one of the easiest. The WTTC expects the number of foreign visitors to double over the next decade to more than four million per year, helped by the simplified visa process, reductions in red tape and the country’s impressive high-speed rail network.

The numbers will be boosted by investors keen to recce one of the world’s last great untapped markets, with very few international retail brands present – although Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is often a pioneer in emerging markets, opened its first outlet in September.

“The potential for foreign investment is significant because this is the biggest state in the region population-wise and it could open very easily,” says Luca Anceschi, a senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow. “We’re starting from a very low bar because Uzbekistan was closed before.”

Capital with a communist core

Many visitors do not linger long in Tashkent before heading off to see the historic mosques, madrasas and markets of Samarkand and Bukhara. But I wanted to take a closer look at a city that was rebuilt as a model Soviet capital after a destructive earthquake in 1966. Hotel Uzbekistan, where I stayed a couple of nights, is not Tashkent’s most comfortable residence but is undoubtedly its most imposing – an angular hulk of Communist concrete that looms over a large public square in the city centre.

The rooms are large and, theoretically, well appointed, so long as you don’t mind slightly uneven floorboards and a shower that seamlessly jumps from hot to cold. With its worn interior and brusque service, it’s a time warp to an earlier era – and a reminder of the changes that are coming.

Similarly, a ride on Tashkent’s Soviet-era metro system is highly recommended – maybe second only to Pyongyang in socialist chic. Until recently, photography was banned for “security reasons”. Now, the system’s beautiful stations – designed around different themes from Islamic motifs to the USSR’s hallowed cosmonauts – are sure to be coming to an Instagram account near you soon.

I had been warned by a friend about the paucity of good food options outside the capital, so I decided to gorge on a cuisine that is the calorific embodiment of the mixing of cultures and peoples that has made Muslim-majority but ethnically diverse Uzbekistan such a fascinating entrepôt.

Wandering the streets, you can easily find steaming hot somsa (samosas), bowls of laghman (hand-pulled noodles better known as lamian in China) and freshly grilled kebabs aplenty. If you like carbs and meat, and meals that cost just a few dollars, this is the place to be.

On a chilly, grey day at Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent’s sprawling main market, I sat down for steaming-hot, cumin-infused chicken and lamb kebabs, served with pitta bread and the ubiquitous and refreshing salad of cucumber, tomato and onion.

Sitting next to me were three young Chinese backpackers, the vanguard of the latest generation of outbound travellers from the world’s biggest emerging economy, who are shunning the group tours beloved of their parents. “There’s no guidebook for Uzbekistan in Chinese yet,” one of them told me. That is likely to change as Chinese investors and travellers join the influx.

For a more refined dinner, I checked out Gruzinski Dvorik, Tashkent’s best-known Georgian restaurant. The only downside is that to enjoy the great food you must brave either the ear-splitting music show downstairs or the lung-choking shisha lounge upstairs. Either way your stomach will be rewarded.

But my true food pilgrimage was a visit to the Central Asian Plov Centre, where the harried staff cook up huge vats of the region’s signature dish: sultana-infused pilau rice topped with melt-in-the-mouth chunks of the meat (or offal) of your choice. The food is cooked outside and eaten in a huge hall the size of several basketball courts. Come early as they often sell out at lunch.

On the Golden Road

Having eaten my fill, it was time to head off on the old Silk Road trails by the most modern of methods. While China relentlessly talks up its “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative to connect Europe and Asia, it is actually Spain that Uzbekistan has to thank for its impressive high-speed rail network.

Tashkent and the main tourist cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are now all within three hours of each other by comfortable, fast and cheap trains, which even offer online booking, if you can work out how to read the Russian alphabet (as I did with the help of Google Translate).

Early booking is advisable, especially during the peak season from late spring to early autumn. I was forced to take the old, six-hour slow train from Bukhara back to Tashkent and had to be rescued by a friendly guard from a tortuous cabin invasion by a drunken man in search of selfies with foreigners.

In Samarkand, I stayed at the Hotel Dilshoda, one of a handful of charming but simple guesthouses in the old, narrow streets next to the wondrous blue-domed Gur-e-Amir, the mausoleum of legendary 14th-century leader Timur.

Round the corner, the B&B Antica, another guesthouse built around a tree-filled courtyard, offers one of the best dinners in town for visitors. Course after course of home-cooked salads, soups and dumplings will leave you feeling stuffed. It’s expensive by local standards, at US$11 per head, but it’s great to sample a wide range of Uzbek food.

While tourism is slowly on the rise, Samarkand’s top sites, like the Gur-e-Amir, the Registan Square and the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, are far from crowded. It’s still easy to find a quiet corner in one of the Islamic complexes, stare at the intricately tiled walls and imagine what it must have been like as one of the early outsiders to explore the Silk Road – albeit without getting tortured and beheaded, as happened to some of the British and Russian adventurers who battled for influence here during the “Great Game” of the 19th century.

The historic sites of Samarkand are sprinkled throughout more modern parts of the city. In Bukhara, by contrast, the old town sits apart, more atmospheric but also more touristy. I stayed at the Hovli Poyon, one of many guesthouses built in refurbished old houses that are dotted around old Bukhara’s warren-like streets. It was comfortable, good value and only several minutes’ walk from the heart of the action.

You can easily spend a couple of days wandering around must-see sites like the Kalyan minaret, from the top of which criminals were once thrown to their death, and the imposing Ark of Bukhara citadel.

At night, as in Samarkand, there are fewer options, beyond hanging out in basic local eateries or a smattering of unappealing tourist-focused restaurants. So bring good company, a good book, some good podcasts – and a good torch, which will help you avoid the potholes and open drains while walking home along the dimly lit lanes.

Travelling in Uzbekistan is not without its hiccups – no place I stayed had a shower with both consistent water temperature and no leaks. And don’t expect reliable wifi connections either. But it’s cheap, it’s fascinating, it’s safe, and I can’t think of anywhere else with a combination of such amazing sites, such good transport links but so few visitors.

If President Mirziyoyev continues to move ahead with reforms, more tourists and investors are bound to come and see what Uzbekistan has to offer. While he is unlikely to pursue political liberalisation, he does appear to be committed to economic modernisation, according to the University of Glasgow’s Anceschi.

“If you look across the region, that kind of recipe has worked,” he says, arguing that Uzbekistan may follow the path of Kazakhstan, where long-ruling president Nursultan Nazarbayev has opened up that country’s economy while maintaining a tight grip on political power.

When I first lived in Vietnam in 2001, as it was still emerging from decades of war followed by isolation, I visited the country’s first branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ho Chi Minh City and watched young Saigon residents devouring buckets of fast food. Like in Vietnam, I could feel the hunger for change in Uzbekistan.

It’s a privilege to visit a country that is on the cusp of better things, even knowing that there are certainly going to be twists and turns ahead. As the Uzbek hotelier told me, it used to be very hard for them to do business, with tons of paperwork and regular spot checks by the authorities.

“Now everything is getting easier,” he said. “Even the looks on the faces of the policemen have changed. Let’s hope it continues.”

Ben Bland

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