Relative to its neighbors like Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan is a more dangerous travel destination but perhaps an even more rewarding one, provided safety precautions are taken. The Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is one of Central Asia’s most modern cities, featuring the only underground metro in the region and many charms that render it akin to Eastern European capitals like Sofia and Bucharest. Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union before the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence in the early 1990s, so the former Soviet influence in the capital is still omnipresent. The country overall has a rich history, dating from the ancient Silk Road days, through Chinese and Arab rule, and eventually into Russian and Soviet domination. American visitors can enjoy Uzbekistan’s rich culture by staying informed about security concerns and making safe travel a priority.
Why is travel in Uzbekistan less safe than elsewhere?
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world welcomed several new countries in Central Asia, each with different political and economic roads ahead. While some of these former socialist republics, like Kazakhstan, have steadily transitioned to Western-style economies and embraced relatively democratic values, others – like Uzbekistan – have not made what Americans would consider to be progress.
Islam Karimov was the president of the Uzbek SSR when it declared independence in 1991, and he was “elected” by the people later that year, supposedly winning almost 90% of the vote. Democracy watchdogs criticized these elections as being rigged, and most countries also considered Karimov’s subsequent re-elections and term renewals to be undemocratically executed. Specifically, Karimov’s major opponent in the 2000 election later admitted he was Karimov’s ally and was running just to give the illusion of choice.
The result of the almost dictatorial reign by Karimov is a wide degree of repression. Freedom of the press is considered nonexistent, and allegations of human rights violations are widely believed to true. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned Uzbekistan for its harsh practices. A former British Ambassador famously accused the Uzbek government of torture by boiling and other horrific practices, but he was hushed and eventually removed from his post for speaking out.
Perhaps the most internationally recognized incident was a massacre of protestors in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan in May of 2005. Police and military personnel killed several hundred demonstrators who were protesting Karimov’s government, as well as many passive observers who were just watching the demonstration unfold. Officials in Tashkent have recently rejected international attempts to investigate the matter, even barring observers from trials and allegedly threatening journalists. The Andijan incident increased international scrutiny, resulted in sanctions by the European Union, and highlighted the dangers for travelers, even though no US citizens were involved.
There have been several smaller suicide bombings in Uzbekistan as well, including one which occurred near the US Embassy. This particular attack, in 2004, is considered proof that at least some Uzbek citizens harbor anti-American sentiments.
Entry Requirements for Americans Visiting Uzbekistan
The first step toward a safe journey in Uzbekistan begins with solid planning. In addition to holding a valid passport, Americans wishing to visit Uzbekistan, even for tourist purposes, will need to obtain a visa in advance. Unlike some countries, where visas can be acquired upon arrival at an airport or a border crossing, Uzbekistan requires American visitors to have all their paperwork arranged prior to entry.
To apply for a visa, you will need to work with the Uzbek consulate in New York or in Washington. The cost for a “private visit and tourist visa” is $100, and applications can be downloaded in .PDF formats from www.uzbekistan.org (Washington) or www.uzbekconsulny.org (New York). Be advised that applications may be rejected if they are not typed. Information must be complete and accurate, including what you plan to see and do, as well as where you plan to stay. If you are being hosted by an Uzbek organization or a private citizen, you will need to say so. Tourist visas are granted for a specific number of days, so you will need to know exactly how long you are staying. Uzbek officials do not take kindly to answers like “a week or two.”
Uzbekistan also requires transit visas for persons passing through the country by train, even if you are not staying overnight or even disembarking the train. These visas are only $25 and are also available through the New York and Washington consular offices.
Registration with the US Embassy
Your advocates for safety in Uzbekistan will be the American Embassy in Tashkent, and you are required to register if you are staying in the country for more than three days. Most hotels will complete this registration on your behalf, but if you are renting a room privately or staying with a host, you will need to contact the embassy directly. It is located at 82 Chilanzarskaya Street in Tashkent, and its web address is www.usembassy.uz. Walk-in hours are maintained on weekdays, but there is someone on duty 24 hours a day for emergencies.
One piece of good news is that taxi service is Tashkent is relatively inexpensive compared to many other capital cities. However, it is important to distinguish between official cabs and private Uzbek citizens offering rides for a fee (which is extremely common). It is never safe to agree to a non-official ride, as you cannot be sure of the person’s intentions. Some Uzbek citizens believe that American tourists are all wealthy and can be extorted or charged excessively high rates. Also, taking rides from a private citizen may indicate your willingness to perform sexual favours, especially if you are female. The safest way to identify an official cab is to hail one from a hotel, preferably your own hotel.
If you speak Russian, you may safely venture onto Tashkent’s metro, as all the signage is in both Uzbek and Russian. Armed with a map, you can find your way. However, if English is your only language, the metro should be avoided.
Safe Tourist Tips
The US State Department recommends that visitors to Uzbekistan (or any foreign country with social unrest) avoid large public gatherings or anything remotely resembling a protest. Exercise caution when visiting a bazaar or even when attending cultural events like art or music shows. Some of the recent suicide bombings appear to have been targeted at attractions that might draw Western tourists, although these incidents have been sporadic. Petty crime is far more likely than violent crime, but both have been increasing. Western-looking travelers are considered prime targets for pickpocketing and purse-snatching. Accordingly, you should leave copies of all your documents, including your Uzbek tourist visa, at your hotel.
While you should feel free to move about, try to keep a low profile overall. If you have an Uzbek contact who can serve as a guide, perhaps a university student, take advantage of this person’s expertise. But don’t arrange such an agreement on the fly in a city like Tashkent (or anywhere else in Uzbekistan), as it is likely to be a simple pickpocket scam, even with an English-speaking Uzbek. Some young Uzbeks, desperate for money, will pose as students and offer to give you short tours of Tashkent. Be wary.
If you are taking photos, be sure that you stick to regular tourist subjects. Anything remotely related to authority (even pictures of Uzbek police officers) should be avoided, as it generally rouses suspicion and may result in your being watched for a period of time. Buildings with notable architecture or interesting natural landscapes, though, are fine. Because of the negative experiences many journalists have had in Tashkent and other cities, it’s best to carry a simple digital camera or an inexpensive film camera. Expensive cameras not only attract thieves but can also make you look like an independent journalist – not the assumption you want Uzbek authorities to make.
It should be obvious that on-street currency exchange is a bad idea because it involves flashing money around, inviting theft. You may get cheated on the rate or receive counterfeit currency. Some shops and restaurants will accept American dollars, but you will need to obtain the local currency, Som, for most purchases. By planning ahead and asking your US bank to order about $50 worth of Som, you can have a little bit of Uzbek money in your pocket when you arrive – but not so much as to arouse suspicion with customs officials. When in Uzbekistan, exchange money only in Tashkent, as it provides the safest banks.
Uzbekistan is a worthwhile place to visit, even though the political situation is questionable and Americans are not always well-regarded. If you keep informed, learn about local customs, and take precautions, you can travel safely.