The Silk Road is undoubtedly one of the most evocative trading routes, traveled by so many merchants and explorers: the most famous is probably Marco Polo, who traveled from Venice to Beijing at the end of the 13th century.
The real Silk Road is pretty long: it goes from Istanbul to Beijing and it takes at least two full months if one wants to see it properly. Unfortunately this was too long for me (and probably for most of us with a “normal” job) so I had to reduce it to basically Uzbekistan and a bit of Kyrgyzstan.
Information on internet is quite limited and often inconsistent, so I spent a lot of time trying to put together this trip. I describe below how I planned the trip, hopefully being helpful to anyone willing to embark in the same adventure.
Getting Visas for the Silk Road
My original plan was to start in Tehran, travel to Mashhad, cross Turkmenistan, enter Uzbekistan and travel East all the way out of the country into Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately I found out quite soon that there is a substantial problem with this plan: Turkmenistan. From the information I gathered, getting a Visa is not an easy task. There are two types of Visa: Tourist and Transit. Tourist Visa allows you to visit the country but ONLY if you are accompanied by a licensed guide. I dropped this option after checking the costs involved (of the Visa itself, of the guide and his stay in hotel, transportation etc). The second option is the Transit Visa, which allows to cross the country within 5 days provided that you already have valid Visas from Iran AND Uzbekistan. Getting a Visa from Iran and Uzbekistan is an adventure itself, coordinating three different ones would be too complicated and time intensive. 5 days are also not a lot of time to see anything, so I decided to drop Turkmenistan and Iran and rearrange the trip.
My main interest was Uzbekistan, but I still wanted to retain the feeling of the travel along the Silk Road: a good compromise seemed to be fly in and out of Kyrgyzstan and start the trip from its capital Bishkek. This plan has also other advantages: flights to Bishkek are generally very cheap from Europe (I paid 300 Euro return with Turkish Airlines) and Kyrgyzstan gives a Visa on Arrival to pretty much anyone who asks. This way I only had to bother with requesting the Uzbek Visa before traveling.
Weather conditions along the Silk Road
I planned 17 days of Silk Road at the beginning of June. Just a few words of warning: it is going to be hot. I do not care much as I think that extreme weather conditions just add on to the experience (check out my post about trekking in the Iranian desert during a sand storm) but I understand that people might feel uncomfortable: in the three main cities of Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva) we had on average 40 degrees, with peaks at 48 (at noon). However this was an unexpected heatwave, so temperatures in this period should be lower; given the fact that the three cities are in the desert, climate is also very dry making 40 degrees feel more like 30 in Italy. Still very hot though! Also on the positive side, there were not many tourists – definitely an advantage as Bukhara and Khiva are rather small!
Kyrgyzstan instead was rather cool, with around 30 degrees in Bishkek and less than 20 in the South (and just 10 degrees when crossing mountain ranges).
Transportation in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan
This is an important part to consider: transportation between cities in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is left mostly to private initiative and schedules are not fixed. There are four main means of transport.
Bus: generally cheap, but not very flexible. They leave when full, so the departure time is just an estimate. If not enough people show up, the bus will not leave.
Shared Taxi: a private driver sells seats in his car for a determined route. A bit more expensive than the bus but also more flexible. They generally gather outside the bazaar area early in the morning and leave when full. The front seat is more expensive than the three back seats. Depending on the road conditions (bad, more often than not), the trip might take a long time (for example: 13 hours from Bishkek to Osh).
Train: more relevant for Uzbekistan, railway has a good network with modern trains (also a high speed bullet). The overnight trains also have sleeping cars, generally with 2, 4 or 6 beds per compartment. I took 3 night trains, one had a problem with air conditioning (the compartment became unbearably hot). I also heard of similar experiences from other travelers, so this is not a rare occurrence.
Plane: very cheap in Kyrgyzstan (especially on the Bishkek-Osh route) and expensive in Uzbekistan, they can literally save you tens of hours of travel, at the expense of a fully overland trip.
My final Silk Road route
Now that flights to/from Bishkek were booked, it was time to draft the actual route. I always try to keep everything flexible and open: I knew I wanted to see at least the three main historical cities in Uzbekistan: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. The rest was just intermediate stops that I decided day by day. The final route looked like this:
As you can see, this is not linear: from Tashkent I went to Bukhara, then moved back to Samarkand and then back again to Khiva. Although it looks chaotic, this is the best way to minimize costs and travel time. The main issue is that there is no train connection between Bukhara and Khiva, but there is between Samarkand and Bukhara and Samarkand and Khiva. Weird. So a linear trip Tashkent – Samarkand – Bukhara would end there if traveling by train. One can still take a shared taxi from Bukhara to Khiva and travel 5-8 hours in the middle of the day through the desert (=hot!). But the railroad has also a great advantage: overnight trains with sleeping cars! This means that for 20 USD you get a bed (VIP ticket, two bed compartment) and you get to your next destination while you enjoy a comfortable sleep. As my days were limited, that helped saving a LOT of traveling time.
Here is a list of transports taken between each intermediate stop:
- From Bishkek to Osh: shared taxi. Departure at 6am, arrival at 7pm. Total traveling time: 13hrs, including some short stops. Cost: 22USD for the front seat.
- From Osh to Fergana: taxi from Osh till the border (10 minutes). After entering Uzbekistan, shared taxi till Fergana (12USD, 3 hours). There is plenty of taxis waiting on the Uzbek side.
- From Fergana to Tashkent: shared taxi. Departure at 1pm from Margillan rotunda, arrival at 7pm. Total traveling time: 6 hours, including few stops. Cost: 15USD
- From Tashkent to Bukhara: overnight train N.662. Departure at 10pm, arrival at 7am. Traveling time 9 hours. Cost for a one VIP bed (in a 2 bed compartment): 20USD
- From Bukhara to Samarkand: overnight train N.661. Departure at 7.50pm, arrival at 1.30am. Traveling time 5h40m. Cost for a one VIP bed (in a 2 bed compartment): 17USD
- From Samarkand to Urgench (Khiva): overnight train N.56. Departure at 11.50pm, arrival at 1.30pm. Traveling time 14h40m. Cost for a one VIP bed (in a 2 bed compartment): 25USD
- From Urgench (Khiva) back to Bishkek: 3 flights (Urgench->Tashkent->Almaty->Bishkek). Cost approximately 230USD booked one day in advance to rush out of Uzbekistan because of an issue with borders.
.. and time spent in each location:
- Bishkek: a total of two and a half days (at the beginning and at the end of the trip)
- Osh: one evening and one morning
- Fergana: one evening and one morning
- Tashkent: two days
- Bukhara: three full days
- Samarkand: three full days
- Khiva: two full days
- Day time traveling with shared taxis or planes: two and a half days.
Exchanging money in Uzbekistan
No issues with money in Kyrgyzstan: you can withdraw money from ATMs or pay with Credit Cards.
Uzbekistan instead has some problems: the country has a fixed exchange rate controlled by the central bank but very high inflation. This has led to the development of a very large black market for the local currency Som. At the time of my stay the official rate per 1USD was 3000 Uzbek Som (UZS), while the black market had a rate of 5950. That means that if you pay by credit card or withdraw money at the ATM, you effectively pay everything double!!
Bring US Dollars (don’t bother with Euros, rate is bad most of the times) and exchange them at the black market. Mind that bills must be new or in very good condition: if there is a tear or they are worn, the note will be rejected. Almost everyone is a trader, from the taxi driver to the policeman. Prefer people who will be easily traceable (like the shop owner) in case of issues.
Do NOT exchange more than 100 USD at a time: in a laughable attempt to tackle inflation, the government has kept a low face value of bills: the most common bill is 1000UZS, the largest 5000UZS (rare). So 100USD=600.000UZS, which means at least 120 notes, but likely 600. A killer for your wallet!
It is difficult to find someone who speaks English. Most of the Uzbek/Kyrgyz don’t, some Russians do. To complicate things, everybody speaks Russian, but Russians do not speak Uzbek/Kyrgyz. Lonely Planet has a small Central Asia phrasebook, but it is probably more value to learn few words in Russian and be understood by 100% of the population. Common destinations (like the train station) and numbers are a must!
I read a lot about Police corruption in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Although I did not have any direct experience, I saw some borderline situations.
In Bishkek, I saw a policeman making a tourist get inside a car (not a police car). Apparently this is a common scam: police target a tourist, ask for the passport, the unaware tourist present his passport to the officer and.. boum, to get it back he has to pay a “fine”. It’s easy to avoid all this: although keeping the passport is a requirement, it is wise to make a photocopy and present this one first, claiming that the passport is at the hotel. If the police becomes pushy or asks for money, get your phone out and pretend you are calling your embassy. Also try to attract attention from the public: as they told me, nobody likes police around there. Most definitely DO NOT get into any car, especially if not a police car. Words of advise that are true everywhere in the world, but I must stress again that nothing happened to me.
In Uzbekistan, police will bother you mainly to exchange money or to open generally locked doors at the sights. It is severely forbidden to take pictures of policemen, as well as airports or underground stations in Tashkent (pity, they are really beautiful!).
Be prepared: everything is meat based. Also the vegetable soup contains meat. Vegetarians can probably find a way by ordering rice and salads, but it is not that easy from what I have seen and heard. They will not miss much, as the food selection is not great anyway (definitely not comparable to Iran).
What I would have planned differently
I am pretty happy of how the trip turned out. Connections worked well and time spent in each city was enough to enjoy it at a nice pace.
I really liked Bukhara and I would have enjoyed an extra day just to chill out. 3 days were anyway enough to visit around (mind: I started my days at 6am to avoid heat and get the best light for my photographs. If you like to sleep longer, you’ll have less time to visit sights).
I did not like Tashkent at all. Although I read several positive reports, I think one day is more than enough to get a feeling of life in the capital. However if you are looking for night life and entertainment, this is the best (virtually only) spot in Uzbekistan.
With a couple of extra days available, I would have taken a detour from Samarkand to Termez in the south, at the border with Afghanistan, reachable by train or shared taxi.