10 things you didn't know about Uzbekistan
How much do you know about Uzbekistan? I knew almost nothing until we visited it. I thought it's gonna be just another Post-Soviet Central Asian country, but I was wrong.
Here are 10 things you probably didn't know (at least I didn't) about Uzbekistan:
1. World's largest open pit gold mine is located in Kyzylkum desert in Uzbekistan. That place is also rich in uranium, copper, silver, gas and oil.
2. Since the country has vast resources of natural gas, most cars run on gas rather than any other kind of fuel. Not only because it is cheaper than benzine, but simply because there is lack of benzine in the country most of the time. While riding through Uzbekistan we got into situations when locals would simply laugh when we'd ask them about 95 octane level benzine - it's something that most of the people rarely see at all there. 91 octane can be sometimes found in gas stations, but mostly people wait in long lines to fill their tanks with 80 octane benzine.
Once we managed to find a person in Samarkand, who's friend from school was working at some high position in the oil distribution base and through his connections, we were given a chance to fill our tanks up with 95 octane fuel which is only available for some "special" people... Other times we would simply search for 91 octane fuel in the black market as our motorcycles would run much better on that one than on the 80 octane...
3. The country's borders were strictly closed and all the international relationships with neighboring countries were shut down up until 2005, when the first president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov was ruling the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now the situation is getting slightly better while the second president Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over after Karimov's death, but still, Uzbek people, in order to visit a foreign country not only have to get the visa of the country they are going to, but also has to obtain a special exit-visa from their own government to be able to leave Uzbekistan. That applies for most of the countries in the world except for a short list of "friendly countries" mostly from the former Soviet block.
Meanwhile the borders are still closed for most of the import or the import taxes are so high, a lot of products are made locally. That includes the cars. Uzbek government together with General Motors, owns a car factory "GM | Uzbekistan" which used to produce Daewoo brand and now continues with Chevrolet brand cars. Therefore probably 90% of the cars in the streets of Uzbekistan are Chevrolet. The other 10% consists of old Daewoo models, some fancy imported Toyotas or Mercedes that only the few rich people can afford and a few Ladas that are still alive from the Soviet times.
4. Melon country - Uzbekistan has a crazy variety of these juicy giants and they eat them all year long (fresh or dried). There are hundreds of shacks around every road in the country, where, when the season starts, you can buy tasty melons. The people selling them, were as curious about our motorcycles as we were about their melons :)
5. Modern slavery is still present in Uzbekistan. At the time of cotton-harvest most of the public sector workers are sent to the cotton fields for obligatory work for a ridiculously low wage. Cotton in called "white gold" here and it's very important for the country's economy as they are the 6th largest producer and 11th largest exporter of cotton. International organisations are pushing the country's government to change the situation, therefore in some places cotton fields are replaced with fruit gardens.
6. Drones are forbidden in Uzbekistan. It's illegal not only to fly it, but also to have one. And the border control at the time of immigration checks specifically for drones among other forbidden items like some painkillers which are illegal in Uzbekistan, books on Uzbek politics or pornography in people's phones, tablets and laptops.
7. Up until recently the black market of currency exchange was thriving in Uzbekistan. Until August 2017 you could get about 5000 Uzbekistani Som for 1 Euro in the bank and almost 10 000 Som for the same 1 Euro in the black market, so people were exchanging currency in local bazaars rather than in banks. However, we were visiting the country in early autumn, and the government had already matched the official rate to the one in the black market, so luckily we didn't have to search for the right person on the street for exchanging currency - we could do it in the bank.
Meanwhile most of the ATM machines in Uzbekistan look more like a video game machine rather than a cash dispenser that we are used to and would only accept Uzbek bank cards. Only a few ATMs in big cities would accept Mastercard or Visa cards and would usually dispense US dollars rather than Uzbek Soms...
8. Aral sea was a big lake in the territories of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but as during Soviet times, most of the water from the rivers that were feeding Aral sea was taken to water the fields used extensively for agriculture in these countries, the lake shrank and was almost turned to a desert. This not only completely changed the lives of villages which were once on the coast of this lake, but also had a huge impact on the local climate which became much more dry. Kazakhstan has already built a dam in attempt to bring back Aral sea, but Uzbekistan continues to ignore the issue.
9. Before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the current capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent was the fourth-largest city in the USSR and a center of learning in the fields of science and engineering. The earthquake that happened in 1966 in the center of the city, destroyed most of the ancient buildings in the area and large groups of workers were sent to Tashkent by the Soviet government to rebuild the city, therefore little architecture is left there from before the Soviet times.
9. In spite of Tashkent being a typical Soviet-style city now, there are some other cities in Uzbekistan, which were established and built during the times of the Silk Road connecting far east Asia with Europe. We have visited three of them: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva and were fascinated by the beautiful architecture there.
Now, after visiting Iran as well, which has very similar architecture from those times, we must admit, that the Uzbek cities are much cleaner, and better preserved - more like museums, while in Iran, the mosques, mausoleums and other spectacular buildings are used in their everyday life and therefore have more movement and action around them, but are not as tidy and picture-perfect as the ones in Uzbekistan :)
So all in all, Uzbekistan, with it's rich history from the Silk Road times, with addition of Russian ruling for so many years, the heritage of Soviet Union and then more than two decades of independence behind closed borders, has made this country a unique place, very much worth visiting and experiencing it.