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Trip Report Uzbekistan: A Lesson in Silk Road Hospitality

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I'm just back from a fantastic two week trip to Uzbekistan. I found the history intriguing, people welcoming and helpful and can't wait to explore the other Stans. I booked air to Uzbekistan myself but used Advantour for hotels and transportation in Uzbekistan. I can't say enough about the great work, including running interference when needed, by Feruza at Advantour. The drivers were English speaking, professional and my husband and I always felt safe. The hotels better than expected (mostly) and everything went off like clockwork. We hired two guides through Advantour and they were top notch, well informed and not motivated to herd us into shopping "opportunities."

I'll begin at the beginning. We were in Istanbul for five days before going to UZ, so after a lot of thought and wary about booking air from Istanbul on a "third world airline," I finally clicked on their website and bought tickets because Uzbekistan Airlines had a much better schedule and cheaper prices. It turned out I had nothing to fear. The planes were new, spotless, had clean bathrooms, good food, smooth landings and (get this, all American carriers) pleasant, courteous, multi-lingual flight attendants. What a concept!

Upon arrival, Tashkent airport was a crowded, chaotic mess. It's too small and understaffed to handle the traffic that was crammed in at that time. It would have taken hours to get through but Advantour contacted some Tourist Authority guys at the airport who ushered us (I did feel guilty) to the front of the line and facilitated our paperwork! BTW, we had no hassle from customs or immigration and were greeted with courtesy and smiles, welcomed and not searched or questioned. We experienced none of the feared entrance horror stories I'd read about. Not once during the whole trip, did we experience any of the threatening police behavior I expected to find.

We spent a total of four nights in Tashkent, at three different times, at the Tashkent Palace. It's was my least favorite hotel, primarily due to the staff. It was actually difficult to get someone to help us with our bags. The bellhops were more interested in chatting to each other than actually working. Advantour did get us two upgrades, which they didn't charge for, when we had problems with the lack of soundproofing in the standard rooms. If you stay there, get superior rooms facing the Opera. The breakfast, although varied was low quality, was the worst one on our trip. Many tour groups book at the Tashkent Palace so if you find yourself staying there, get coffee when the line is slow because you can wait for a long time if you don't jump on it. The location is great for sight seeing however, close to the metro, a lot of parks, monuments, some restaurants - there is a Pizza Bakery across from the Opera that is pretty good, and a convenience store on the corner. Free wifi in the lobby and the staff speak English.

One afternoon we ate lunch at at Aash Ahxop, near Independence Square and it was a real treat. The menu was in Russian so through signs and signals and my husband's limited Azerbaijani Turkish, I asked to see the kitchen to choose our food. That was cheerfully accommodated and we ended up with Plov and Laghman. Since my husband is a vegetarian, he settled for pushing the meat aside and eating what was left! UZ is not a place to exist solely on a vegetarian diet. It was delicious but a bit heavy on the grease. Laghman would turn out to be my favorite Uzbek food. We also ate at a Russian restaurant, Yolki Palki, that had delicious food, an English menu and great service.

Although most people see Tashkent as only a transit point, we really enjoyed the city - but I love cities, so keep that in mind. I particularly enjoyed walking through the narrow streets of older mahalas (neighborhoods) in Tashkent, the Chorsu Bazaar, Karst-I-Imom and all the parks! So many beautiful parks and boulevards lined with massive fusion of Soviet/Mongolian style architecture. It was fun watching wedding parties in the parks, where they come to take wedding photos. Subsequently, we would see them throughout the country. We also ran into a lot of street fairs with people selling everything from artwork to antiques. Tashkent is an easy city to navigate and we learned right away that young people are more likely to speak and understand English, but everyone tried to be helpful.

The Afriosiob train to Samarkand was clean and comfortable but a bit bumpy. We had VIP seats in a car shared mostly with Arab businessmen and a few other tourists, like ourselves. They served a small nice breakfast with tea - very nice, indeed. If you'd rather share your car with Uzbeks then first or second class will be more suitable.

In Samarkand we stayed at the Hotel Grand Samarkand, which turned out to be my favorite hotel. It's brand new, white glove clean, well run, puts out a nice breakfast, built around a charming courtyard, and has a polite, cheerful, English speaking, staff. There isn't an elevator, so if that bothers you, request a low floor. The beds are very hard so insist in a mattress top or padding if you aren't comfortable with what they describe as a "medical mattress." The staff will do all they can to help. The location, in the Russian part of town was perfect. Close to restaurants, Navoi Park, convince stores, it's possible to walk to the Registan, and close to some interesting neighborhoods and churches. Free wifi in the courtyard, lobby and your room if it reaches that far.

to be continued...

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