Transport in Uzbekistan
In modern times, Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent has pursued its traditional crossroads role to become the communications hub of Central Asia and a mid-point transit stop for trans-Asian long hauls. Road, rail and air routes converge to make the city the major starting point and base for regional travel. With independence has come ever wider international access, enabling foreign tourists to forego the time-honoured transfer in Moscow and fly to Tashkent direct, or trace the Silk Road by train, bus or boat from Russia, China, Iran and Azerbaijan, through the neighbouring republics ol Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Recent upgrading of the Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench airports enables occasional international charters to flу directly to these cities, as well as scheduled flights from across Russia.
Entering Uzbekistan - As long as your papers are in order, entering Uzbekistan should be relatively easy, long lines at the airport notwithstanding. You will be asked to fill out two identical customs declarations forms, one to turn in and one to keep (which must be handed in upon departure). The customs form is necessary for changing travellers cheques and will smooth your departure, so don’t lose it. Declare every cent of every type of money you bring in on your customs form; travellers have reported being hassled and/or having large sums of money confiscated for the most minor discrepancies.
Air - For somewhere so centrally located geographically, Uzbekistan can be surprisingly challenging to reach. There is a shortage of direct flights from Europe and the US, land borders open and close on a whim, and arriving by train requires you to have a passport full of transit visas and the patience of a saint.
If arriving by air, your grand entrance into Uzbekistan will most likely occur at Tashkent International Airport, and this is, on balance, the easiest way to travel. A few flights from Russia arrive in regional hubs such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench. Uzbekistan Airways (Havo Yullari) may rank as the best Central Asian carrier, for its extensive network and mission to modernize, though booking flights online remains a particular challenge. For information, timetable and destinations try www.uzairways.com, for booking online skyscanner.net might be a good option.
Direct Tashkent flights include: London (twice a week); Delhi (5); Amritsar (3); Geneva (2); Madrid (2); Milan (1); Rome (1); Paris (2); Frankfurt (2); New York (2; via Riga); ; Istanbul (5); Tel Aviv (4); Bangkok (5); Sharjah (2); Kiev (2); Lahore (3); Osaka (2 via Tokyo); Kuala Lumpur (3); Beijing (2); Seoul (2); Lahore (2); Moscow (two daily), St Petersburg (three) and Tokyo (2), plus other 'domestic' destinations throughout the CIS. Most cities in Uzbekistan have weekly flights to Moscow and St Petersburg. Regional Uzbekistan Airways connections from Tashkent include Almaty, Astana, Ashgabat and Bishkek, but not Dushanbe.
The numerous aviakassa (private ticket kiosks) scattered around major cities can help book international tickets on national carrier Uzbekistan Airways and other airlines. Uzbekistan Airways has convenient booking offices in Tashkent and all regional hubs. According to new legislation foreigners have to pay for airline tickets in USD only.
From Europe the best connections are with Lufthansa (Munich to Tashkent; www.lufthansa.com), Turkish Airlines (via Istanbul; www.thy.com) and budget airline AirBaltic (via Riga; www.airbaltic.com). From America's West Coast both Asiana (www. flyasiana.com) and Korean Air (www.koreanair.com) have good connections via Seoul. From the east coast consider Uzbekistan Airways, Lufthansa or Aeroflot. Regional connections from Tashkent include China Southern (www.flychinasouthern.com) to Urumchi, Iran Air (www.iranair.com) to Tehran, Air Astana (www.airastana.com) to Almaty and patchy Kyrgyz connections to Bishkek. Connections through Russia include Aeroflot (Moscow Sheremetyovo; www.aeroflot.com), Transaero (Moscow Domodedovo; www.transaero.com) and Rossiya Airlines (St Petersburg; ww.rossiya-airlines.com/en/). If transiting through Moscow ensure that both flights leave from the same airport and terminal, otherwise you will need a Russian transit visa and plenty of time to transfer.
Open-jaw tickets can be particularly useful if visiting another republic, allowing you for example to fly into Tashkent and out of Almaty. AirBaltic have flights to Almaty and Dushanbe; Turkish have connections to Almaty, Astana, Ashgabat, Bishkek and Dushanbe; and Lufthansa flies to Ashgabat, Almaty, Astana and Bishkek. Travellers can also consider Almaty and Bishkek as useful entry points into Central Asia, given their more lenient visa regimes and growing international connections.
The arrivals procedure is relatively straightforward. When you enter the terminal building collect an immigration form (sometimes they are distributed on the plain), fill it in and then wait in the interminably long immigration queue. Keep a sense of humour and be prepared to use your elbows and hand luggage strategically to avoid getting shoved to the back of the crowd. The baggage hall is the usual scrum, and there is a bottleneck near the exit as you have to submit your customs form and have it stamped. Be sure to declare all your foreign currency. You will need to keep the stamped form for when you leave. All your baggage then has to pass through the X-ray machine. Generally the whole procedure of passing border control, getting the luggage and then passing the Customs is quite lengthy and might take more than 1 hour if you are unlucky to arrive at the same time with flights from Turkey and China packed with merchants and tons of luggage.
Train - There is a certain romance attached to train travel, and if you have the time to sit and watch the world pass by at a leisurely pace (very leisurely in the case of the old Soviet rail network), it is still a viable way to reach Uzbekistan. Regardless of where the train originates, you will need to ensure you have a valid transit visa lor every country en route, as well as a visa for Uzbekistan.
Ticket classes are categorised in the Russian style. First-class or deluxe accommodation (spalniy vagon) buys you an upholstered seat in a two-berth cabin. The seat turns into a bed at night. Second class (kupe) is slightly less plush, and there are four passengers to a compartment. Third class (platskartny) has open bunks (ie: not in a compartment) and, if you are really on a very tight budget indeed, a fourth-class ticket (obshchiy) gets you an unreserved and very hard seat.
The Trans-Siberian from Beijing to Moscow is the most celebrated Eurasian train epic, yet for over a decade another line has linked China and Russia, from Urumqi in Xinjiang via the Kazakh capital Almaty. A minimum of three trains is necessary (Moscow-Almaty, Almaty-Urumqi, Urumqi-Beijing), though the wealth of sites along the route begs frequent diversions. And for sheer natural beauty, few lines will challenge the next Central Asian rail adventure-a planned 453-kilometre Pamir-crossing, Kyrgyz-liberating railway from Kashgar, via the Torugart Pass, to Jalalabad and finally Andijan in the Uzbek Ferghana Valley, with connections on to Tashkent and Moscow. Dream on.
For now, trains depart from Moscow's Kazan Station (for Tashkent and Almaty), or Pavelets Station (Ashgabat) and trace a twin branched route for 70 hours through forest, steppe and desert via either Kazakhstan and the Syr Darya, or Urgench and the Amu Darya, respectively. Direct trains to Tashkent, in new German wagons, follow the Syr Darya route four times a week and take two and a half days (66 hours), while the southern route from St Petersburg gives the option of entering Uzbekistan at Urgench/Khiva or continuing to Ashgabat. You will need visas for each republic you enter. Train routes continue on from Tashkent to Dushanbe. Tickets from Moscow to Tashkent start from around US$520. The train timetable for the whole Russian rail network (including central Asia) is online at www.poezda.net.
Side routes into Uzbekistan also include the Trans Caspian link from Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) in Turkmenistan to Tashkent, and the Turk-Sib (www.turksib.com) branch north, via Almaty, to connect with the Trans-Siberian at Novosibirsk. Trains also continue east from Almaty to Urumchi, connected to Kashgar by a comfortable and scenic 24-hour train ride. The promise of the 2002 inaugural journey on the Almaty-Istanbul rail connection has stalled with Uzbekistan's subsequent refusal to let international passenger transport cross its borders. Should this change, this line will offer another epic transcontinental journey by linking Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with a change of trains in Tehran. Obscure rail routes to/from Russia include Tashkent to Sverdlovsk via Astana; Saratov (Russian Volga) via Nukus and Urgench; Novisibirsk via Almaty; Ufa via Kazakhstan; and Kharkov (Ukraine), Orenburg and Chelyabinsk via Kazakhstan. There's also a weekly train to Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul via Bishkek and even an Almaty-Nukus service. Moscow-Dushanbe trains transit Uzbekistan via Nukus.
ROAD Reaching Uzbekistan from Afghanistan tends to be fairly straightforward as diplomatic relations between the two countries are generally good. The main border crossing is at Hairatan between Mazar-i Sharif and Termez. Theoretically the border is open 24/7, but you may have to wait if the relevant official is at dinner or sleeping.
There are several crossing points between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The main crossing at Chernayevka (between Shymkent and Tashkent) is open 24/7 but there are often long queues. If you are travelling by public transport you will need to ride to the border, cross on foot, and then pick up another vehicle on the other side.
One can also use the Konysbayeva crossing north of Chinaz, which is considerably faster but only usable if you have your own transport. Further west, you can cross from Kazakhstan at Tajen on the Beyneu-Kungrad road.
Diplomatic relations with Kyrgyzstan are volatile, with border crossings opened and closed seemingly on a whim. The main border post is at Dostyk on the road between Osh and Andijan. Though relatively straightforward, you should note that the Kyrgyz and Uzbek sides have different opening times: the Uzbek post operates more or less around the clock, while the Kyrgyz side closes around 18.00 and reopens at 08.00. There are no facilities in no mans land if you have to stay the night, though you may be offered floor space to put down a sleeping bag.
Potentially more useful due to being closer to both Tashkent and Bishkek is the Uch-Kurgan crossing near Namangan. This has reopened to foreigners, though there is no public transport on either side. Note that minibuses and trains between Bishkek and Tashkent all pass through Kazakhstan, for which you will need a Kazakh transit visa.
Relations with Tajikistan are also a little erratic, and hence at the time of going to print one of the most useful border crossings between the two countries, between Samarknd and Penjkent, was closed. There is unfortunately no rumour of it reopening any time soon.
The Tursunzoda-Denau crossing west of Dushanbe remains open, and this is currently the best option if you are going to or from anywhere other than Tashkent and the northeast of Uzbekistan. It is well served by minibuses running in both directions, and providing you're not stuck behind a busload of returning migrant workers carrying all their worldly possessions, processing is fairly quick.
Travelling to or from Tashkent you need the Oybek crossing 60km north ol Khujand. The closest settlement on the Tajik side is the town of Buston. This crossing is open 24/7 for foreigners (locals have to camp outside the gates if they arrive at night) and it is relatively well organised on the Tajik side. Uzbek customs are utterly paranoid, want to X-ray every last sock.
The border crossing at Bekhobod, just to the south of Oybek, is currently closed to foreigners.
You can cross to the Fergana Valley from Konibodom, northwest of Isfara. This border is little-used by foreigners and onward transport is poor; try to arrange a taxi to meet you on the Uzbek side.
Crossing to or from Turkmenistan takes around two hours. Most foreigners use the Farap-Alat crossing between Turkmenabat and Bukhara, though the Shavat-Dashoguz border near Khiva and the Hojali-Konye-Urgench crossing near Nukus are also well used. All three of these border posts close for an hour or so's lunch at 13.00, and there are plenty of shared taxis and minibuses.
If you are bringing your own vehicle into Uzbekistan (regardless of the entry point) you will have to declare it on the usual customs form, plus fill in additional paperwork to be entered onto the computer system. Theoretically at least you will not be allowed to leave the country unless you take the vehicle with you. You may be told that right-hand-drive vehicles cannot enter Uzbekistan; this is not true so hold your ground. Expect to have the vehicle thoroughly inspected, sluiced with disinfectant, and to have all of its contents (sometimes right down to the jack and spare wheel) passed through the X-ray machine.
Intercity Coaches/Buses - Horrific bus crash in May 2009 led the government to put a curfew on all bus travel between the hours of 10pm and 4am. This rule, which may or may not last, effectively adds six hours to any long-distance bus trip that can’t be completed in a day, such as the Urgench – Tashkent bus. On shorter routes, buses have adjusted their schedules to ensure arrival well before 10pm.
The railroads laid into Central Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century had been a major factor in binding new acquisitions into the tsar's empire (In those days [wrote Count Pahlen ot the year 1908] it was possible to travel to Central Asia in the ease and comfort of a first-class carriage in an express train straight from St Petersburg for a ridiculously small sum, the journey . . . taking six and a half days). Charles Marvin, a Russian-educated English journalist ever anxious to alarm British opinion with Russian threats towards India, spoke of the line from the Caspian to Kyzil Arvat as having "abolished Central Asia", so easy did a railway make it for Russia to supply a military expedition against India. And Marvin did prod British strategists awake, with the realisation that a part of the globe which was now connected to the European railway system - cities you could buy a ticket to from Charing Cross -could hardly be the unnavigable wilderness of steppe affording its eternal protection to British India's north-western approaches. England - the "masterly inactivity" party at least — was startled. It happened so rapidly. In 1887 an officer travelling to India, Colonel le Mesurier, arrived by train at Merv and booked into the Grand Hotel - at Merv, where the Irish journalist Edmund O'Donovan had been held captive in the kibitkas of its savage Tekke chieftains five or six years before.
Journey to Khiva by Philip Glazebrook