Uzbekistan: Facts for Visitors
One country with three royal cities: Few countries can boast of an architectural heritage as rich and dazzling as Uzbekistan's, and we owe it to monarchs who shared a passion for magnificent buildings. In the 14th century, the conqueror Tamerlane, known here as Amir Temur, imported the finest artists and craftsmen from all over his empire to create his imperial city, Samarkand, often called one of the wonders of the world. Today, Bukhara is only a city but until 1920, it was the capital of a country, about the size of Italy, of the same name. There, a long succession of ruling shahs, khans and emirs traditionally sponsored the creation of grand mosques and madrassahs as memorials to themselves. And the breathtaking palace complexes of Old Khiva were built by khans who had ruled over their lands and people since ancient times.
Our land and landscape: Since much of Uzbekistan's territory consists of desert, all our major towns and cities have been built on oases, where a plentiful water supply keeps them green and fertile. We also have the impressive mountains of the Western and Southern Tien Shan ranges, popular with our own people as well as climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts from abroad.
Best times to visit: Throughout spring and autumn, you can expect to enjoy warm days with plenty of sunshine and little rain. From April through June, even the desert bursts briefly into bloom, and from September through October, our trees turn from green to gold.
Our people: With over 31 million citizens, Uzbekistan is the most populous of all five of the Central Asian “stans.” Though the official language is Uzbek, related to Turkish, Russian is also widely spoken.
Our unique arts and crafts: Recent years have seen a major revival of traditional arts and crafts in Uzbekistan. The word suzani, or embroidery,comes from the Persian word suzan, meaning “needle.” Originally, a girl was expected to learn the art of embroidery to decorate items such as table linens, cushion covers and even clothing for her trousseau, and the quality of her needlework was thought to predict how capable she'd be as a wife and mother. Today, despite an ever-growing international demand for suzani, the finest examples, at the lowest prices, await you in markets and specialty shops throughout Uzbekistan.
Our part of the world has long been known for its textiles, including deep red “Bokhara” carpets and our unmistakably distinctive “khanatlas” silk ikat, notable because the patterns are woven into the fabric on a loom rather than printed. Today, you can watch carpets being made as well as buy ready-to-wear garments for men, women and children in silk and cotton-silk ikat blends. Many sellers will even custom-tailor garments for their customers.
Miniature painting and calligraphic art, ceramics, decorative wood carving and metalwork have also enjoyed a major revival in Uzbekistan.
Three of our most internationally-famed former residents: Just outside the walls encircling the palace complexes of the khans of Khiva is a statue of the great mathematician Muhammad ibn-Musa Al-Khorezmi. Born in 780 in the town of Khorezm just outside Khiva, Al-Khorezmi was the author of more than 20 books on various branches of mathematics and is often credited with inventing algebra. Computer-savvy people have probably heard his name without recognizing it. Since Europeans couldn't pronounce it properly, Al-Khorezmi was corrupted to “algorithm,” a technique he devised for solving mathematical problems in a finite number of steps. He died in 850.
The towering genius that today's Bukharans are proudest to have once shared their city with was Abu Ali-al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, but since that name was more than a mouthful for Europeans to pronounce, it was Latinized to the one he is still best-known by in the West today – Avicenna. Born in 980 near Bukhara, which was then the Persian empire's greatest centre of culture and learning, Avicenna was the author of some 240 surviving treatises on philosophy, mathematics, music, metaphysics and science. However, his most famous and influential work was The Canon of Medicine, completed in 1025. This encyclopedia of medical practice remained the authoritative reference book for physicians in Europe and Asia right up until the advent of modern medicine. Avicenna died in 1038.
Ironically, the great mathematician Omar Khayyam, born in 1024 in Nishapur in present-day Iran, is best remembered today for a hobby he pursued when he wasn't busy with scientific pursuits. Khayyam loved writing poetry, specifically the Persian form of four-line verses known as Rubaiyat, translations of which are still widely available in bookstores today. Contemporary astronomers, though, still marvel at the feat Khayyam managed to achieve when he reformed the solar calendar to a degree of accuracy within one day in 3,770 years. Specifically, Khayyam measured the length of a year as having 365.24219858156 days. For much of his life, Khayyam lived in Samarkand and Bukhara and died in Nishapur in 1123.
Our national dish: In Uzbekistan, we call our beloved national dish plov, a variation on the word “pilaf.” Even though plov has only three main ingredients, rice, meat and julienned carrots, it's no exaggeration to say that here, you could dine on plov every day of your visit without ever tasting the same dish twice. Not only do recipes vary regionally, they also vary from one chef to another, especially when special occasions are involved. And to people here, the definition of “special occasion” is any time a guest comes for dinner.
Traditionally, when a special-occasion plov is on the menu, men take over the kitchen. Each man has his own personal recipe, which he treats as a closely-guarded secret. Whole heads of garlic may be roasted inside the rice as it cooks until each clove is as sweet and creamy as butter. Fruits such as raisins and quince may also be incorporated into plov recipes, as well as spices such as cumin and saffron. Since a special-occasion plov must also be a feast for the eyes, expect to see decorative touches such ruby-red pomegranate seeds and chopped fresh dill cascading down the sides of that colourful pyramid on the platter.
Currency and money matters: Uzbekistan's currency is called the soom. Since credit cards and traveller's checks aren't widely accepted, visitors are advised to bring the amount of cash they think they will spend, preferably in U.S. dollars, which are widely convertible everywhere. If you run short, some ATM machines in Tashkent hotels can be used to withdraw cash against Mastercard or Visa credit cards
Some notes on spelling and pronunciation variations in Central Asia:
If you've ever been to Central Asia, you've probably already noticed this but...
For travellers who pride themselves on mastering the correct spelling and pronunciation of the cities and historical sites they visit, seeing place names spelled multiple different ways in guidebooks and online sources can be both confusing and annoying.
For instance, when you're in one of Central Asia's oldest, loveliest and most historically important cities and want to tell the folks back home where you are or have been, what should you say or write? Were you in Bukhara, the English-language spelling most often seen nowadays? Or were you in Bokhara, or even Bokhoro, older spellings of the city's name which are still used when referring to the traditional design of carpets either woven or sold there? Or is it possible that you might even have been in Buxoro, now the official Uzbek-language way to spell the name of that city? The good news is that the choice is yours.
However, since we sympathize with the linguistic dilemmas that our English-speaking guests often experience, a little background on that subject may be in order:
In Silk Road days, Central Asia's position at the geographical midpoint between China and Europe meant that people here were constantly exposed to many spoken and written languages. Naturally, merchants who traded in carpets and textiles were happy to learn to get by in any tongue that helped them do business. But the fact that so much of our territory consists of vast tracts of uninhabited desert between populated oasis cities meant that local languages often developed in relative isolation from each other, giving rise to many regional dialects. Some of these, called Turkic languages, had roots in Turkish. Others, called Iranian languages, had roots in Persian. Over time, although language groups swapped words freely, the pronunciation tended to vary somewhat from one group to another, and still does.
In the latter years of the 19th century, most of present-day Central Asia was colonized by Imperial Russia, which named this region Turkestan. During that era, it became highly advantageous for people to be able to converse in Russian, so words and inflections from that language also crept into local languages. Up until then, though, the Persian alphabet, not identical to the Arabic alphabet but close, was used for writing most of them.
After the Turkestan colonies were absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1919 and 1920, Russian became the region's dominant language. In Uzbekistan, the Latin alphabet was introduced in 1929 but by 1940, though local languages, including Tajik (a Persian dialect) and Uzbek (a Turkish dialect) were still widely spoken, they started being written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the government of Uzbekistan was faced with the enormous but necessary task of standardizing the spelling and pronunciation of the Uzbek language so that eventually, there would only be one correct way to speak and write it. The Latin alphabet was chosen over Cyrillic because in the Internet Age, it is the most widely-used and therefore the most useful. Even though alphabet reform is now well underway, while travelling through our country, you'll still see plenty of Cyrillic public signage keeping company with modern Uzbek in the Latin alphabet.