Applying for a tourist visa can be a pain. But the citizens of Uzbekistan need a visa to leave. The result? A huge domestic tourism market. Central Asia travel expert Caroline Eden joins the locals as they go adventuring in their homeland.
Next time you groan while filling in a tourist visa form, spare a thought for the citizens of Uzbekistan. While many countries demand a visa for tourists to enter, a handful of countries ask their nationals to apply for a visa in order to leave. Uzbekistan is one such country.
Cuba, by comparison, scrapped its exit visas in 2013. But along with Saudi Arabia and North Korea, Uzbek citizens—for now—still need to apply for an exit visa to go to a country outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (a large swathe of the former Soviet Union) and sometimes Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, depending on the political climate.
Change is afoot though, and Uzbeks will soon be able to leave as they please after president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has crafted himself as a modernizer and a reformer, signed a decree that will scrap exit visas from January 2019. But until then—and for decades gone by—the visa paperwork, tied-in with economic hardship, means many Uzbeks holiday at home, with domestic tourists flocking to Uzbekistan’s major sites especially during holidays like Navruz, the Persian new year.
Karakalpakstan is as far-flung and curious as it sounds. A semi-autonomous district in northwest Uzbekistan, it’s home to miles of parched desert scattered with little more than native saxaul trees, scrubby bush, and abandoned poultry farms. It’s a seemingly godforsaken place, home to a whole lot of nothing, the notable exception being the stand-out Savitsky museum, in the tiny capital of Nukus.
Tourists often experience a slice of this landscape traveling on the road between the cities of Khiva and Bukhara. There are very few places to stop to eat and drink although I found one rustic café where they bake exceptionally good bread. But by the side of the road in Beruniy, a small city in Karakalpakstan, you’ll find melons for sale (Uzbek melons are believed by many to be the best and sweetest in the world).
“We hang the melons to keep them fresh, to make them last longer,” a boy told me, before a man on a motorbike and sidecar arrived, and weighed one after the other. “Tourists like him on the road can buy a melon for their long journey.”
The long journey, around six to seven hours, to Bukhara is well worth it, though. A city known for its rugs and its ruthless emirs (the Muslim, mainly Arab, rulers such as Nasrullah who beheaded his Italian watchmaker in a fit of rage when his clock stopped), Bukhara is the gem in Uzbekistan’s tourism crown with its historic madrassas, textile shops and chaikhanas (tea houses). During Persian New Year, celebrations fill the streets.
I met these ladies in their finest clothes at the Lyab-i-Hauz, a plaza and pool in the old town.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Kasri Orifon, six miles away. You may know it? It’s where Bahauddin Naqshband, the great Sufi saint, is buried. Come and visit us! Come for tea!” they shouted as I took their photo.
The little village of Kasri Orifon is dominated by the Naqshbandi Mausoleum where Uzbek pilgrims, from all over the country, arrive to visit the tombs and mosques and pray to Naqshbandi, the founder of the Sufi Order.
There are always a few men hovering around a large tree trunk, too, that appears like a piece of drift wood. I asked my local friend Rimma what the men were doing. “They are breaking off tiny pieces of wood to be kept as a souvenir,” she told me. “They believe this tree sprouted from Naqshbandi’s walking stick. They’ll put the little pieces into amulets.”
We questioned the ethics of this behavior then concluded that, given Naqshbandi is the patron saint of craftsmen (he was the son of a weaver), maybe he’d look lightly on this creative hustle.
Of the three cities that most tourists visit—Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand—the latter is Uzbekistan’s ‘heavy hitter.’ Samarkand has the Registan, a dizzying ensemble of three madrassas, a giant plaza, and the Gur-i-Emir, the mausoleum of Turco-Mongol king Timur who also goes by the name of Tamerlane, who commissioned many of this city’s great structures.
For me, it is the Shah-i-Zinda, a series of turquoise-tiled mortuary chapels, that’s the most exquisite sight in all of Central Asia. English travel writer and adventurer Rosita Forbes, writing in the 1930s, described their bluish hues looking as if they were “ … steeped in sea-water. All incomparable mosaics of this deep, quiet pool of colour contrasted or blended with the rich browns and golds of the earthen walls. Sea and sand with sunshine caught between them.”
Ransacked by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Shah-i-Zinda today is a (much) repaired version of the royal cemetery built by Timur a century later. When you enter, sit at the bottom of the steps and look up. You’ll notice that the local tourists walking up and down are all silently moving their lips. They’re not praying, but counting.
Some believe their wishes will come true if they manage to count the same number of steps going up as coming down. This might sound easy, but once you’ve wandered around and marvelled at the tombs, the number may well escape you as you descend.
Non bread, the classic flatbread of Central Asia, is the lifesaver of vegetarians, the most photographed thing in markets and, to me, the tastiest bread in the world.
Non is Persian (but it’s often transliterated as naan) and Samarkand non, with its dark crust and bagel-like consistency, is considered to be the best. Uzbeks know this, and after their sightseeing in Samarkand, domestic tourists head to the Siyob Bazaar, a stone’s throw from Samarkand’s Bibi-Khanym mosque—built with the plundered wealth acquired by Tamerlane in Delhi—to go bread-buying.
Among the piles of crystalized ginger and herbs, they’ll carefully choose round discs of Samarkand non to take back to their home towns, carefully packing it into the back of boxy Lada cars and carrying it on modern high-speed, Spanish-designed trains, rather than on horseback like in Timur’s day.
There is something primeval and special about the taste and smell of its baked, slightly smoky, grain. To the bite, the bread is both airy and chewy with a thick crusty base. And it’s not just that. Non bread is also the perfect Uzbek souvenir. Even for a fellow staycationing Uzbek.
Find out more about Uzbekistan’s UNESCO heritage sites and Silk Road routes.
Caroline Eden is the co-author of Samarkand—Recipes and stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford.
Caroline Eden is a regular contributor to The Guardian, FT, Telegraph and BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. She specializes in emerging destinations, mainly in the ex-Soviet Union, is the author of 'Samarkand—recipes and stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus' and has spoken at the Royal Geographical Society and Frontline Club.