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.
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 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.
Have you visited a country not yet accustomed to tourists?
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