There’s no better feeling than checking the trip of a lifetime off your bucket list – which I got to do last summer, when I explored Uzbekistan.
Central Asia and the cities that made up the Silk Road had fascinated me ever since I heard the 1977 Roberto Vecchioni recording of the Italian song “Samarcanda.” So when ExplorHer, an Italian travel project aimed exclusively at women and girls, announced a trip to Uzbekistan, I knew I had to be a part of it.
My payment to the agency for this trip was €2250, which covered everything from airfare – a direct flight from Milan Malpensa to Urgench, and another back from Tashkent’s Karimov Airport – to the entrance tickets for pretty much all major tourist attractions, from the madrassas of Bukhara to the Ulugbek Observatory in Samarkand.
A tour leader from Italy and an Italian-speaking Uzbek guide accompanied us throughout our trip. We moved from one city to the other in a private minivan with a local driver.
The fee included all accommodations: one night at the Zarafshon Boutique Hotel in Khiva, two at the Amelia Boutique Hotel in Bukhara, two at the Grand Samarkand Superior Hotel in Samarkand and a final one at the Inspira-S Hotel in Tashkent. Finally, it covered our second dinner in Bukhara, which was spent inside the Nadir Divanbegi madrassah, where we watched a show of typically Uzbek folk music and dance.
On the ground
Lunch: The first occasion to spend my newly exchanged Uzbek currency came when we stopped for lunch after a morning exploring the incredible Ichon-Qala, the old citadel of Khiva. At a local restaurant, we dug into Uzbek cuisine – I went for some freshly fried gumma meat pies – as well water and soft drinks. At the end of the meal we also ordered a plate of watermelon slices, which would become a staple of our diet on the trip. We split the bill eight ways; my share came to €5.20.
Activities: During our action-packed day in Khiva, we explored the old Juma Mosque and the blue-tiled courtyards of the Kuhna Ark fortress. My favorite activity was climbing up the walls around the West Gate late in the afternoon to watch the sun set over the entire citadel. The steps leading up the walls are very much a feat for your knees and sense of balance – but what waits at the top is worth it, especially if there are no clouds obstructing the sun. (The ticket that includes access to the walls is around €11, which our group had paid months in advance.)
Dinner: For dinner, we sat down at Tapas Restaurant, which has a beautiful view of the Kalta Minor Minaret. I ordered Uzbekistan’s national dish, plov rice, plus a couple of beef skewers, as well as water, soft drinks and a final plate of watermelon and white melon. My share of the bill came out to €8, which turned out to be the second most expensive meal of our entire trip.
Extras: Since our guide advised us not to drink the tap water, I bought a one-liter bottle of water I used to refill my own bottle for €0.40.
Saturday: Kyzylkum Desert and Bukhara
Lunch: The drive from Khiva to Bukhara across the Kyzylkum Desert took about seven hours. Along the way, we stopped at Zahratun Restaurant, where we ate our share of freshly grilled skewers – I chose the deliciously spicy chicken – and drank pretty much all the water available. We also got served our first taste of Uzbek non, the country’s typical round bread. My share of the bill was €2.40.
Dinner: After arriving in Bukhara and taking a first walk around the city, we sat down at another terrace at Old Bukhara Restaurant. I went with a salad and then delicious dolma rolls (meat wrapped in boiled grape leaves); we also ordered water, beers and watermelon for the table. My share came to €5.35.
Lunch: When we sat down for lunch at Anor Restaurant, we were all sweating from the desert heat. Still, we followed local custom and (mostly) ordered soups, as well as a variable number of samsa stuffed buns. I went for mastava, a soup with meat and rice, two cheese-filled samsas (to limit my meat intake a little) and water, plus pretty good espresso at the end. My share was €4.95.
Transport: After dinner, seven of us took a final stroll back to the Poi Kalon complex to see the mosque, madrassa and minaret all lit up at nighttime. An electric tuk-tuk took us back to the hotel for €3.
Extras: In Bukhara, we stopped at the bazaar, an absolutely unmissable experience that’s a feast for the senses. It’s divided into several sections, from dried fruits to fresh ones, from meat to dairy. Strolling around it is an incredible activity in and of itself, and one you can definitely do without spending a single cent. Still, it’s very hard to resist the smells and flavors that are coming at you from all corners and the samples that vendors will offer you to convince you of the quality of their wares – which is how I ended up with three boxes of halvah (a local sweet made of sugar and nuts) to bring to my family back home. The cost came to €9.50.
Monday: Shahrisabz, on the road to Samarkand
Lunch: We stopped at Chorus Milliy Taomlar Restaurant at the entrance to Shahrisabz, the midway point between Bukhara and Samarkand. We were the only Europeans present, and I think this was the most authentic meal of the entire trip. I ordered three manti (steamed dumplings filled with sheep meat and spices) – excellent, even if they sat on my stomach for longer than I would have wished. We accompanied it with non, french fries, water, soft drinks and our unfaltering watermelon slices. My share of the bill was €2.35.
Dinner: At our destination, we dined at the aptly named Samarkand Restaurant, where I went with fried rice with vegetables and delicious eggplant-and-tomato rolls. I also split a serving of baklava to finish off the night with a touch of sweetness. We each paid €6 per person.
Extras: On the road, we stopped to use pretty clean bathrooms, for which we had to pay €0.15.
Lunch: During our tour, we stopped for lunch at Samarqand Osh Markazi restaurant, famous for its plov in the Samarkand style, made with yellow carrots. With sides, water and warm green tea, the bill came to €3.70 per person.
Activity: We kicked off our exploration at the Gur-e Amir mausoleum, which contains the tombs of Timur (Tamerlane) and several of his descendants. My favorite details of the impressive building were the green onyx panels that make up part of the walls inside the mausoleum itself. As a space nerd, I also enjoyed the visit to the small museum attached to the Ulugbek Observatory, which contains all sorts of information on the discoveries this extraordinary astronomer made in the early 15th century.
Dinner: Our second Samarkand dinner was the most expensive meal of our trip. We followed our guide’s advice and booked a table at Emirhan Restaurant, modern and elegant and with a terrace that opened right on the back of Registan Square. I went with a dish of goat cheese rolls and a serving of fried lagman, Uzbekistan’s traditional thick noodles. After finishing the meal with watermelon and baklava, we paid €8.70 per person.
Transport: We beat the heat during the day by taking a tuk-tuk to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque (€0.40 per person), then a taxi back from dinner (€0.55 each).
Extras: Samarkand is famous for its particular style of non, which can be stored for up to three years: if you want to eat it, just add a bit of water and heat it in the oven, and it will taste freshly baked. I bought a kilo of the bread at the bazaar for €0.75.
Wednesday: on the road and Tashkent
Lunch: Having traveled the entire morning, our first stop in Tashkent was lunch. At Karimbek Restaurant, we ate a very light meal of cheese rolls, soup and grilled vegetables (Uzbek cuisine, however delicious, was starting to take a toll on our untrained stomachs), non, watermelon, water and green tea. Splitting the bill 10 ways, we paid €4.20 each.
Activity: Our last visit of the day was to the Tashkent Metro, opened in 1977 and Central Asia’s only subway system. Like its counterparts in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Tashkent Metro stations are each decorated with a unique theme, reflected in the station’s name. We went underground at Amir Temur Khiyoboni station, and got off the train at Paxtakor, dedicated to the country’s history of cotton farming. Then we switched lines to reach Kosmonavtlar station, which honors Soviet space history. A metro ticket runs €0.10.
Dinner: We booked a late dinner at Restaurant Soy. I ordered a plate of fried manti and a side of roasted potatoes, as well as fruit, water and green tea for the table; my share of the bill came to €4.10.
Transport: Since Tashkent is by far the largest city in Uzbekistan, we took taxis to and from dinner, coming to €0.80 per person.
Thursday: Tashkent, then the airport
Lunch: After a final couple of hours of sightseeing, we packed up our now-heavier suitcases and headed to the airport, where I had a pre-flight snack of a Caesar salad sandwich and a bottle of water for €5.
Extras: Before saying goodbye to our guide and our driver, we each kick in €10 toward a tip for both of them – an appropriate custom to thank those who contributed to a successful trip.
The final tally: €2337
Cost vs value
Getting to Uzbekistan isn’t cheap – but once you arrive you’ll find that it’s very easy to stay on budget while eating to your heart’s delight. You can expect to bargain for every souvenir purchase, shaving the price of mementoes down a bit.
While I might have paid a premium for my peak-season group trip, there’s definitely a DIY version of this trip that would be a lot cheaper. Still, I very much enjoyed being with my travel companions as well as the luxury of a guide that followed us for our entire trip, sharing details of Uzbek life as we went from one madrassa to the next.