Is Uzbekistan Ready for A Tourism Boom? Or, #$%& This Stupid ATM!!!

26 comments
Travel, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan seems poised to the next great travel destination as word of the stunning Silk Road cities, mountain treks, and welcoming culture has gotten out. In recent years, the government has invested millions in infrastructure, set up an online visa system, and eased entry requirements. With direct flights now connecting Tashkent to London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok, and Jakarta, the country has never been easier to visit.

Yet, before going to Uzbekistan, I dealt with Soviet-era inefficiency, gruff people, and maddening bureaucracy that made me wonder: Is Uzbekistan a tourist-friendly country? Is this trip going to be frustrating as hell? Should I go somewhere else?

The Wonderful World of Online Visas

My adventures in the frustrating world of Uzbek inefficiency started with the online visa application, which is sort of straight forward – provided you are on the correct website. The Uzbek government never bothered to take down the old, defunct website, so after spending a great deal of time filling out online forms, I realized something wasn’t right. At the end of the process, it told me to print out the document and take it to an embassy. I knew I should be able to pay and print the visa online, so I sat there bewildered.

Then, I found the new online visa portal, problem solved, right? Not so much. I got all the way to the end but couldn’t get the website to accept my passport photo. Everything about the photo must be exact, or the website will reject it. Finally, after trying several times over the course of three days, the photo loaded and I did a happy dance in my front room.

Note: I spoke to other travelers who never could upload the photo and had to go to an embassy after all.

Pro Tip: Use this website for the Uzbekistan online visa.

Uzbek online visa

This is the defunct Online Visa Website. Don’t use this!

Uzbek Visa photo problems

Although my passport photos looked exactly like these, the website didn’t want to accept them. And, I think we can all agree that the model in this photo is amazing.

Uzbekistan by Rail: Futuristic Bullet Trains with a 1980s Booking System

I tried to book train tickets in advance and found that to be even more frustrating than the visa. The booking website is available in English, except some essential parts were in Russian. For example, all the place names in the drop-down menu were in Russian, so it was nearly impossible for me to select my departure and arrival cities without Google translate and an exploration of what keys on my computer correspond to Cyrillic.

Once I finally selected the correct destination and date, the website asked for my nationality. Again, all the options were in Russian.  I accidentally listed my nationality as Japanese, couldn’t figure out how to change it, then shouted profanities so loudly my cats hid under the bed, and my neighbor called security. I decided to buy the tickets in the country.

Uzbekistan Online Train Bookings

Perhaps a smarter person than me can figure out the online train booking site.

Uzbekistan Airways: The Airline With Less Than Stellar Service that is still Way Better than American/United/Delta.

On the day of departure, we arrived at the Bangkok airport over two hours in advance and found a serpentine line that spilled out of the stanchions and flowed into the main walking area. After spending a frustrating hour in the queue, much of it spent fighting off Chinese and Central Asian passengers trying to cut, I began to fear our entire trip would be an adventure in Soviet-era efficiency.

Aboard the plane, our flight attendant was a Russian woman in her late 50s named Elena. Although she worked hard and took care of us, her gruff mannerisms and lack of tact had us simultaneously laughing and shaking our heads in disbelief. After takeoff, the cabin reached an air temperature usually associated with long Siberian nights, and when I saw her walking by with blankets and pillows, I asked for one.

“We do not have enough. Women and children first,” she barked. I never did get a pillow, but later she gave me a second blanket to lay my head-on. The Southeast Asian passengers wrapped themselves tightly in blankets like pork in a wonton; The Russian passengers lounged about like seals on an ice floe, happy to be out of the tropical Thai climate, and didn’t use the blankets. As a result, there were enough blankets to go round.

Then, Elana came by with headphones. Since my wife and I already had our own set, we declined the cheap ones handed out by the airlines.

“No, you take,” she said and forced them on us. “You can sell on black market for 5 rubbles.” Okay, she didn’t say that, but that is what she was thinking. We gratefully took the headphones, not wanting to argue with Elena.

I don’t eat airplane food. It is usually a pungent, coagulated blob of rice and mystery meat that always makes me feel dirty and ashamed afterward. When Elena came by with food, I declined.

“Why you no want food?!” She barked in disbelief.

“I ate already,” I said. Elena glared at me, so I added, “I have snacks. I’m not hungry, really. ”

“In my country, as little girl, I wait in bread line in big snow for hours. I never turn down food. You must eat!” She commanded.

An hour before landing, the flight crew came through the cabin and took away the blankets and pillows, causing half the plane to suffer from hypothermia. God forbid a passenger absconds with the flat pillows and threadbare blankets and sells them on the black market.

Uzbekistan is Actually Easy to Visit

Once in Uzbekistan, we rode sleek bullet trains, transited through modern railway stations, ate at restaurants with delicious food and excellent service, and met nothing but wonderful people. Everything in Uzbekistan, once you arrive, is efficient and perfectly set up for tourists.

Except for the ATMs.

ATMs are new to Uzbekistan. Even a few months ago, guidebooks and blogs recommended bringing in Dollars or Euros. In Bukhara, the first time I needed to withdraw cash, I went to the two ATMs by our guesthouse and found them both out of order. I found a third, but it too was out of money. At that time, I did the only logical thing: I went to the fanciest hotel in the area. Rich people will have access to cash, or no one will.

I found a functioning machine in the lobby, but when I got to the last screen, it reverted to Russian. When I hit the button I assumed would confirm my withdrawal, a message in Cyrillic popped on the screen, and it spat out my debit card dramatically. After getting denied a second time, I asked the bellman if he could help. With his Russian language skills, he pushed the right series of buttons and the machine noisily ejected 3,000,000 Som into my hand.

“I WON!” I shouted as if I’d won the slots in Vegas. Truth be told, I’d probably have a better chance at winning big at a Casino than successfully buying train tickets online or using an ATM in Uzbekistan. It is a country set up for tourists, with a few kinks to work out.

Uzbek Cash

I’m an Uzbek Billionaire!

 

Have you visited a country not yet accustomed to tourists?


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Currently living in Bangkok, I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

26 thoughts on “Is Uzbekistan Ready for A Tourism Boom? Or, #$%& This Stupid ATM!!!”

  1. Hilarious post! Sorry for your woes. I can actually relate to the first one, though. I JUST got my Laotian Visa application approved a few hours ago!! (Several days after the British husband got his approved, even though we applied at the same time.) We, too, experienced trouble with the uploaded photos. They wouldn’t size correctly. We, uh, I mean the husband, finally figured it out. Hopefully we’ll be able to give you the details in person in a week or two, and since you’re an Uzbek billionaire, we’ll expect you to pay for the drinks. 😉

    • Although I lived large as an Uzbekie billionaire, I found that when I tried to use a 50,000 Som note to buy a car in America they laughed at me. Something about “exchange rate?” Not sure. Either way, I may need you to buy drinks.

      The visa process for all of Southeast Asia has gotten much easier over the last 10-15 years. I remember having to go to a consulate in China to get my Lao and Vietnam visas many years ago. Glad you got yours, and see you in LP.

  2. Seems like quite a process! I’d have been thoroughly aggravated with the websites and the ATM! Hope the experience of being there outweighed the trouble of getting there.

  3. Unfortunately bad travel experiences = storytelling gold. Case in point:

    “We do not have enough. Women and children first,” she barked. I never did get a pillow, but later she gave me a second blanket to lay my head-on. The Southeast Asian passengers wrapped themselves tightly in blankets like pork in a wonton; The Russian passengers lounged about like seals on an ice floe, happy to be out of the tropical Thai climate, and didn’t use the blankets. As a result, there were enough blankets to go round.”

    And that’s just one example of some fine writing, my friend. I almost want to go to Uzbekistan. Almost.

    • Tragedy + time = comedy. Thank you for the kind words, Lani. I think you’d like Uzbekistan – once you get there!

  4. Quite funny, Jeff!
    I think the countries I’ll mention have been seeing quite a few tourists, but I have to go with Bhutan for completely non-functional ATMs (although I might blame that 50% on my own bank), Russia for ghastly train ticket services (and trains for that matter), Mongolia for language difficulties, and probably Madagascar for the most disturbing bribery attempts!

    • Lexi, this has me wondering about your Madagascar bribes. Do you have a blog post about this? I could see Russian trains being rough. It is a massive country and updating that infrastructure must be costly.

      In a way, it is amazing we can go to places like Uzbekistan or Bhutan, put a piece of plastic in a machine and get cash, so we shouldn’t complain. Modern travel is so easy!

      • I may have alluded to the “little gifts” that were requested of me at both the docks and airport in Madagascar in one of my posts about that trip, but I didn’t write a specific post on them. I was nervous! I really thought I was not going to get into the gate area for my flight out because I kept refusing to pay them anything. I just acted really dumb, as if I had no idea what they were saying or asking of me. They finally lost patience with me and sent me through! Maybe to punish me, they tore my luggage apart looking for something to confiscate, but HAHA – I’d already brought all of Lisa’s boat parts in on the arrival flight!

  5. Sounds like quite an adventure, even before you actually set foot in the country! I really should plan a visit to Uzbekistan while their airline flies to Jakarta (it’s not uncommon to see some airlines from far-flung countries start flying to the Indonesian capital, only to cancel the route in a few months’/years’ time). Your beautiful photos from Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand have convinced me to put this Central Asian country back on top of my wishlist.

    • If you can fly direct from Jakarta, it will almost certainly save you time and money. Currently, there are only 4 direct flights from Bangkok to Tashkent each week. The non-direct flights connected through India and added about 8 hours of travel time.

      And since you’ve read my blog, you know to bring a blanket and pillow on the flight. 🙂

  6. Jeff you are so funny. I snorted several times from laughing so hard. I can only imagine the tales Elena is telling about you, ungrateful tourist that you are. 🙂
    We have run into challenges in smaller towns, Mexico and Peru come to mind but nothing quite like Uzbekistan.

    • I bet you are right – Elena probably told her friends about the guy who didn’t eat and demanded a pillow. Almost all our hassle came before arriving. Luckily, I had several friends visit recently who told me how friendly the people were, so I didn’t get totally discouraged.

  7. You can look back and laugh now, but I might have given up at the visa application stage. I’m sure all the hassle pales in relation to the great time you had. Thanks for the information.

    • It was worth the hassle, but there was a time when I feared I may not get to go. Can I get a refund on this plane ticket since I can’t figure out your website?

  8. Pingback: Uzbekistan Travel Notes, Tips, and Advice | Planet Bell

  9. Your description of the flight and Elena just cracked me up. Thanks for the useful info on the application process. I didn’t win that darn Lonely Planet contest for a trip to Uzbekistan so I guess I’m on my own. I’ve been chatting up Mike with your Uzbekistan stories daily.
    My biggest ATM problems were in Argentina, a country most definitely accustomed to tourists. The enormous queues, small limits and hefty fees were crazy. Luckily we had been warned and unfortunately (or fortunately) carried around a huge stack of USD.

    • Argentina is such a great country and yet they are always dealing a government-made crisis of some sort. It isn’t much fun carrying around tons of cash, that is for sure.

      Uzbekistan is really great. If you are thinking of going, now is the time!

  10. Pingback: Uzbekistan in Black and White | Planet Bell

  11. This post was just too hilarious… I laughed out loud at your airplane ride and smiled at the difficulties re visas and train bookings, because well, the best way to deal with said frustrations is definitely via humor. It’s good to know though that once you actually arrived, things were easier and more efficient than the earlier indicators. The only time we have had trouble using ATMS is probably every single time we travel, as we tend to forget to do that important pre travel phone call to alert our bank to our upcoming travels…

    Peta

    • Uzbekistan has made major improvements just in the last year to make it easier to visit. It must have been a true nightmare a few years ago. And still, it has a ways to go. I assume a year from now it will be quite easy to visit.

      There is nothing worse than having to call the bank and tell them you are locked out when abroad.

  12. Pingback: 21 Leftover Photos from Uzbekistan | Planet Bell

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