By Tara Isabella Burton
The Situation on the Ground: Like many of the former-Soviet “stans” of Central Asia, Uzbekistan (ruled with authoritarian brutality by President Islam Karimov) has long suffered from a combination of dictatorial isolationism and intermittent terrorist threats. But despite, if not because of, Karimov’s hypervigilance, Uzbekistan is extremely safe for travelers. Once the epicenter of the legendary Silk Road, Uzbekistan is one of the most stunning, historically rich destinations in Central Asia. And for travelers willing to veer off the encouraged tourist path, it offers not just extraordinary natural and architectural beauty, but gleeful, hospitable chaos. A quiet dinner on the cross-country Soviet-style night train between Tashkent and Bukhara will more likely than not erupt into a jovial vodka-toasting party with total strangers.
Why Go Now: Uzbekistan’s main historic centers–the extraordinary blue-tiled caravanserai complexes at Bukhara and Samarkand–have undergone extensive renovation in recent years, as the government has transformed 14th-century ruins into glistening, pristine palaces; a decades-long renovation of Samarkand’s Registan Square was completed only last year. While critics decry what they see as over-restoration, Bukhara and Samarkand remain two of the most outstanding examples of urban architecture from the Islamic world and provide evocative glimpses of the centuries in which the steppes of Central Asia doubled as cosmopolitan capitals of learning, art, and trade.
Don’t Miss: Avoid the hoary "palace" architecture and English-advertised belly dancers in Uzbekistan’s more tourist-focused restaurants. The best places to sample Uzbekistan’s aromatic, lamb-sizzling dishes—plov (pilaf) in the country’s west, lagman noodles in the Chinese-influenced east—are at roadside cafés and anarchic, Soviet-influenced bazaars. In the heart of the New Bazaar in Bukhara, far from the touts selling velvet embroidery for $100 a jacket in the historic center, undecorated cafés serve different family-recipe plov out of gargantuan cauldrons stationed as olfactory advertisements right at the entrance. The blend of lamb, carrots, earthy red sumac, and rice—variously elaborated upon with quail’s eggs, garlic cloves, or even horsemeat—is decadent, if soporific.
Practical Tip: While Uzbekistan’s political situation is unlikely to affect you directly (foreign travelers are often waved through otherwise chaotic military checkpoints between provinces or at train stations), it’s unwise to engage locals in discussions about the man euphemistically known as Uzbekistan’s “first and last president.” Fear of the KGB-style National Security Service is justifiably rife, and political dissent in Uzbekistan is still punished with torture or death. Travel in politically restrictive countries can be a powerful act of cultural exchange but be mindful that the effects of your visit may linger long after you’ve boarded the plane home.