The 14 Things I Learned about Uzbekistan this week
It's even prettier than the pictures We'd heard of Samarkand but discounted the pictures a bit. In reality, the country is less crowded, more interesting. more breathtaking and in much better shape than you'd expect. Every sight is extremely well-maintained (on a US level), not crowded and just so well integrated into regular city life that it's almost surreal. Uzbekistan is an enormous bureaucracy and a police state Uzbekistan is a police state par excellence; everything is regulated and everyone requires a permit to do anything. I have never seen so much uniformed police before (and no doubt more in plain clothes) and it's in every part of Uzbekistan life. Tourists are less subject to it, but you still need to have your stay credits, watch your visa expiration closely and don't do anything remotely offensive to the government or the police. It's a surveillance state Uzbekistan is a complete surveillance state, much like East Germany. Everyone is spied on - locals, tourists and businessmen alike. I was told that every foreigner who goes there without a group gets a dedicated spy team that tails you from the hotel. Uzbekistan requires a mandatory registration every 3 days that is used to locate you and pick up every detail of your activities. There is total privacy invasion The state of Uzbekistan (and its government) has no concept of privacy; surveillance is absolute and stops nowhere. It's usually old-school spying into people's privacy vs the electronic spying that we have gotten used to in the US. There must be complete submission Uzbeks have largely submitted themselves to the crazy regime and its record of torture and human rights violations. There is no dissident voice left. Uzbeks are the friendliest people Uzbekistan is competing very well for the title of the world's most friendly people (like Indonesians). The amount of friendliness that was extended to us during the whole trip (even from stern-looking police) was exceptional. We got waived along, shown around and greeted with an open heart at every occasion. It was amazing! Entrepreneurship is alive Given the police state and the way Uzbekistan has suffered, you may think there is no entrepreneurship left, but that would be a major mistake. There is so much bubbling of small and big businesses which is a joy to see and given the restrictions is hard to believe. The exchange rate regime is crazy Uzbekistan runs the world's craziest exchange rate regime, with the official exchange rate at just half the black market rate. There are endless amounts of regulations in place on what you can't do with your currency - it's mind-boggling, but you can also use it to your advantage and get 50% off everything you buy or consume in Uzbekistan. Every 'bazaar' has a 'money exchanger' who seem to cooperate with police without issues. Uzbekistan is so cheap Central Asia is cheap but Uzbekistan is often beyond cheap. If you manage to exchange at the black market rate, 4-star hotels are just $40 and dinners are under $5; I had a hard time spending $300 in 5 days, trying to spend it on anything possible (including my stay at the Radisson Blu Tashkent!) The food can be superb Not all the food here is great, but if you invest some time in searching (and follow my recommendations) you will be amazed by how fresh, healthy and tasty Uzbekistan food is. We often ordered ten random items and were stunned by how well they tasted (and we'd never had them before). Fast internet is a challenge This should come as no surprise but the internet is slow. The government has little incentive for providing fast internet, as the control of information is more important than increasing productivity. Every car is an Uber This concept is true for most of Central Asia, but Uzbekistan takes it to another level. There are so many semi-Uber cars around, it's beyond belief. The going rate is 5000 SOM per ride inside the city (and that's a flat rate, even if it is far) and we never really heard of a ride gone bad. Amazing, but that's a rare benefit of a total police state. It's huge Uzbekistan is a country that stretches all the way to the Caspian Sea and it also has 32 million citizens - bigger than any other Central Asian nation. It's for real If you are an adventurous traveler, push Uzbekistan to the top of your list. It has it all and it's very affordable. All you need to do is deal with the visa and bureaucracy - but it's worth it!