Uzbekistan, officially the Republic of Uzbekistan, is a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. It shares borders with Kazakhstan to the west and to the north, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the south. Once part of the Persian Samanid and later Timurid empires, the region was conquered in the early 16th century by Uzbek nomads, who spoke an Eastern Turkic language. Most of Uzbekistan’s population today belong to the Uzbek ethnic group and speak the Uzbek language, one of the family of Turkic languages. Uzbekistan was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century and in 1924 became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, known as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (Uzbek SSR). It has been an independent republic since December 1991.
Uzbekistan's economy relies mainly on commodity production, including cotton, gold, uranium, and natural gas. Despite the declared objective of transition to a market economy, Uzbekistan continues to maintain rigid economic controls, which often repel foreign investors. The policy of gradual, strictly controlled transition has nevertheless produced beneficial results in the form of economic recovery after 1995. Uzbekistan's domestic policies of human rights and individual freedoms are often criticized by international organizations.
The territory of Uzbekistan was already populated in the second millennium BC. Early human tools and monuments have been found in the Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Khorezm (Khwarezm, Chorasmia) and Samarkand regions.
Alexander the Great conquered Sogdiana and Bactria in 327 BC, marrying Roxana, daughter of a local Bactrian chieftain. The conquest was supposedly of little help to Alexander as popular resistance was fierce, causing Alexander's army to be bogged down in the region. For many centuries the region of Uzbekistan was ruled by Iranian Empires, including the Parthian and Sassanid Empires.
In the fourteenth century AD, Timur, known in the west as Tamerlane, overpowered the Mongols and built an empire. In his military campaigns, Tamerlane reached as far as the Middle East. He defeated Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, who was captured, and died in captivity. Tamerlane sought to build a capital for his empire in Samarkand. Today Tamerlane is considered to be one of the greatest heroes in Uzbekistan. He plays a significant role in its national identity and history. Following the fall of the Timurid Empire, Uzbek nomads conquered the region.
In the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire began to expand and spread into Central Asia. The "Great Game" period is generally regarded as running from approximately 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a second, less intensive phase followed. At the start of the nineteenth century, there were some 2,000 miles (3,200 km) separating British India and the outlying regions of Tsarist Russia. Much of the land in between was unmapped.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Central Asia was firmly in the hands of Russia, and despite some early resistance to Bolsheviks, Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia became a part of the Soviet Union. On 27 October 1924 the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was created. On August 31, 1991, Uzbekistan declared independence, marking September 1 as a national holiday.
The country is now the world's second-largest exporter of cotton, and it is developing its mineral and petroleum reserves.
Uzbekistan is approximately the size of Morocco and has an area of 447,400 square kilometers (172,700 sq mi). It is the 56th largest country in the world by area and the 42nd by population. Among the CIS countries, it is the 5th largest by area and the 3rd largest by population.
Uzbekistan stretches 1,425 kilometers (885 mi) from west to east and 930 kilometers (578 mi) from north to south. Bordering Kazakhstan and the Aral Sea to the north and northwest, Turkmenistan to the southwest, Tajikistan to the southeast, and Kyrgyzstan to the northeast, Uzbekistan is not only one of the larger Central Asian states but also the only Central Asian state to border all the other four. Uzbekistan also shares a short border (less than 150 km) with Afghanistan to the south.
Uzbekistan is a dry, landlocked country; it is one of two double-landlocked countries in the world, i.e., a country completely surrounded by land-locked countries – the other being Liechtenstein. Less than 10% of its territory is intensively cultivated irrigated land in river valleys and oases. The rest is vast desert (Kyzyl Kum) and mountains. The highest point in Uzbekistan is 4,643 meters (15,233 ft), located in the southern part of the Gissar Range in Surkhandarya Province, on the border with Tajikistan, just north-west of Dushanbe (formerly called Peak of the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party, today apparently unnamed).
The climate in the Republic of Uzbekistan is continental, with little precipitation expected annually (100–200 millimeters, or 3.9–7.9 inches). The average summer temperature tends to be 40 C, while the average winter temperature is around 0 C.
Major cities include Bukhara, Samarqand, Namangan and the capital Tashkent.
The Uzbek language is the only official state language. The Tajik language is widespread in the cities of Bukhara and Samarqand because of their relatively large population of ethnic Tajiks. Russian is still an important language for interethnic communication, especially in the cities, including much day-to-day technical, scientific, governmental and business use. Russian is the main language of over 14% of the population and is spoken as a second language by many more. The use of Russian in remote rural areas has always been limited, and today school children have no proficiency in Russian even in urban centers.
In 1992 Uzbekistan officially shifted back to Latin script from traditional considerations of consistency with Turkey, but many signs and notices (including official government boards in the streets) are still written in Uzbek Cyrillic script that had been used in Uzbek SSR since 1940. Computers as a rule operate using the "Uzbek Cyrillic" keyboard, and Latin script is reportedly composed using the standard English keyboard.
According to the official source report, as of 10 March 2008, the number of cellular phone users in Uzbekistan reached 7 million, up from 3.7 million on 1 July 2007. The largest mobile operator in terms of number of subscribers is MTS-Uzbekistan (former Uzdunrobita and part of Russian Mobile TeleSystems) and it is followed by Beeline (part of Russia's Beeline) and Coscom (originally part of the U.S. MCT Corp., now a subsidiary of the Nordic/Baltic telecommunication company TeliaSonera AB).
As of 1 July 2007, the estimated number of internet users was 1.8 million, according to UzACI.
Tashkent, the nation's capital and largest city, has a three-line rapid transit system built in 1977, and expanded in 2001 after ten years' independence from the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan is currently the only country in Central Asia with a subway system, which is promoted as one of the cleanest systems in the former Soviet Union. The stations are exceedingly ornate. For example, the station Metro Kosmonavtov built in 1984 is decorated using a space travel theme to recognise the achievements of mankind in space exploration and to commemorate the role of Vladimir Dzhanibekov, the Soviet cosmonaut of Uzbek origin. A statue of Vladimir Dzhanibekov stands near one of the sation's entrances.
There are government-operated trams, buses and trolley buses running across the city. There are also many taxis, both registered and unregistered. Uzbekistan has car-producing plants which produce modern cars. The car production is supported by the government and the Korean auto company Daewoo. The Uzbek government acquired a 50% stake in Daewoo in 2005 for an undisclosed sum, and in May 2007 UzDaewooAuto, the car maker, signed a strategic agreement with General Motors-Daewoo Auto and Technology (GMDAT).The government also bought a stake in Turkey's Koc in SamKocAuto, a producer of small buses and lorries. Afterwards, it signed an agreement with Isuzu Motors of Japan to produce Isuzu buses and lorries.
Train links connect many towns within Uzbekistan, as well as neighboring former republics of the Soviet Union. Moreover, after independence two fast-running train systems were established. There is also a large airplane plant that was built during the Soviet era – Tashkent Chkalov Aviation Manufacturing Plant or ?????? in Russian. The plant originated during World War II, when production facilities were evacuated south and east to avoid capture by advancing Nazi forces. Until the late 1980s, the plant was one of the leading airplane production centers in the USSR, but with collapse of the Soviet Union its manufacturing equipment became outdated, and most of the workers were laid off. Now it produces only a few planes a year, but with interest from Russian companies growing in it, there are rumors of production-enhancement plans.
Uzbekistan has a wide mix of ethnic groups and cultures, with the Uzbek being the majority group. In 1995 about 71% of Uzbekistan's population was Uzbek. The chief minority groups were Russians (8%), Tajiks (5%), Kazaks (4%), Tatars (2.5%) and Karakalpaks (2%). It is said, however, that the number of non-Uzbek people living in Uzbekistan is decreasing as Russians and other minority groups slowly leave and Uzbeks return from other parts of the former Soviet Union.
When Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, there was concern that Muslim fundamentalism would spread across the region. The expectation was that a country long denied freedom of religious practice would undergo a very rapid increase in the expression of its dominant faith. As of 1994, well over half of Uzbekistan's population was said to be Muslim, though in an official survey few of that number had any real knowledge of the religion or knew how to practice it. However, Islamic observance is increasing in the region.
Uzbekistan has a high literacy rate, with about 99.3% of adults above the age of 15 being able to read and write. However with only 88% of the under-15 population currently enrolled in education, this figure may drop in the future. Uzbekistan has encountered severe budgeting shortfalls in its education program. The education law of 1992 began the process of theoretical reform, but the physical base has deteriorated and curriculum revision has been slow.
Uzbekistan's universities churn out almost 600,000 graduates annually.
Uzbekistan's environmental situation ought to be a major concern among the international community. Decades of questionable Soviet policies in pursuit of greater cotton production have resulted in a catastrophic scenario. The agricultural industry appears to be the main contributor to the pollution and devastation of the air and water in the country.
The Aral Sea disaster is a classic example. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth-largest inland sea on Earth, acting as an influencing factor in the air moisture. Since the 1960s, the decade when the misuse of the Aral Sea water began, it has shrunk to less than 50% of its former area and decreased in volume threefold. Reliable – or even approximate – data have not been collected, stored or provided by any organization or official agency. The numbers of animal deaths and human refugees from the area around the sea can only be guessed at. The question of who is responsible for the crisis – the Soviet scientists and politicians who directed the distribution of water during the 1960s, or the post-Soviet politicians who did not allocate sufficient funding for the building of dams and irrigation systems - remains open.
Due to the virtually insoluble Aral Sea problem, high salinity and contamination of the soil with heavy elements are especially widespread in Karakalpakstan – the region of Uzbekistan adjacent to the Aral Sea. The bulk of the nation's water resources is used for farming, which accounts for nearly 94% of the water usage and contributes to high soil salinity. Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers for cotton growing further aggravates soil pollution.
Visas are required for everyone apart from CIS countries. A 'Letter of Invitation' (LOI) is no longer required by citizens of some western countries (but not Dutch citizens). The Uzbek government is making the visa process more difficult and does not seem to be welcoming people from non-CIS countries. A LOI can be obtained from travel companies when a hotel booking is made. Talk to your local travel agent in your own country. The LOI will typically cost 30-40 USD for a short stay. For the latest information see the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Tashkent airport itself is reasonably modern and has various international carriers operating as well as the national Uzbekistan Airways. Though the airport infrastructure is good, the staff is good.
Usable passenger services only exist to Kazakhstan and via Kazakhstan to Russia and Ukraine. This include the following trains:
Tashkent - Moscow (3 times weekly)
Tashkent - Ufa (3 times weekly)
Tashkent - Celjabinsk (once weekly)
Tashkent - Kharkov (once weekly)
Tashkent - Saratov (every 4 days)
Nukus - Tashkent - Almaty (once weekly)
There are also railway lines linking Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
The main line Tashkent - Samarkand - Bukhara is served by two express trains named "Registon" and "Sharq": The "Registon" brings you from Tashkent in less than 4 hours to Samarkand and the "Sharq" makes the 600-km-journey Tashkent - Bukhara (with intermediate stop in Samarkand) in about 7,5 hours. A daily overnight train from Tashkent to Bukhara offers the possibility to travel during the night and win one day. Comfortable sleeping cars allow a good sleep. Overnight trains also run from Tashkent and Samarkand to Urgench (3 times weekly) and to Nukus - Kungrad (2 times weekly), so it's also possible to travel to Khiva (30 kilometers from Urgench, taxi/bus available) or to the Aral lake (Moynaq, 70 km from Kungrad) by train.
When land borders are open, buses run to all neigbouring countries. However, bus travel is only for the truly adventurous and not for anyone in a hurry in Uzbekistan. Except for special tours, buses are old, decrepit, crowded, painfully slow and prone to frequent breakdowns. If you do travel any distance on a bus in Uzbekistan, take toilet paper with you and be careful what you eat at stops along the way.
The majority of citizens are ethnic Uzbeks and most speak Uzbek as their first language, although many also speak Russian. There are also significant numbers of ethnic Tajiks and Kazakhs in Uzbekistan, primarily speaking their native tongue as a first language. In Samarkand and Bukhara, for instance, one is just as likely to hear Tajik being spoken as Uzbek. Russian is widely spoken especially in the cities. In Tashkent the majority of the population speak Russian and one is just as likely to hear it being spoken on the street as Uzbek.
In the semi-autonomous region of Karalkalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, the ethnic Karalkalpaks speak their own language, which is related to Kazakh. Many Karalkalpaks also speak Russian.
In the cities, more and more people speak English, especially those in the hotel and catering trades.
Osh (Plov) is the national dish. It's made of rice, carrots, onions, and mutton, and you will eat it if you go to Uzbekistan. Each region has its own way of cooking plov, so you should taste it in different places.
Chuchvara - similar to ravioli and stuffed with mutton and onions.
Manti - lamb and onion filled dumpling-like food.
Somsas, which are pastry pockets filled with beef, mutton, pumpkin or potatoes. In spring time "green somsas" are made from so-called "yalpiz" a kind of grass which grows in the mountains and in rural parts of regions. And the amazing thing is people just pick them up for free and make tasty somsas. You can find somsas being cooked and sold on the streets.
Lagman - soup with meat, spices, vegetables and pasta. By right, it should include 50 ingredients.
Shashlik - grilled meat. Usually served only with onions.
Bread - Uzbeks eat lots of bread (in uzbek its called "non"). Round bread is called lepioshka. You can buy it anywhere, while in the bazzar it costs around 400 sum. Samarkand very famous for the bread.
There are two national drinks of Uzbekistan: tea and vodka (result of more than a century of Russian domination of the land). Tea is served virtually everywhere: home, office, cafes, etc. If tea is served in the traditional manner, the server will pour tea into a cup from the teapot and then pour the tea back into the teapot. This action is repeated three times. If you are being served tea in an Uzbek home, the host will attempt at all times to make sure your cup is never empty. If the host fails to refill your cup, it probably means that it is time for you to leave. A mind-numbing variety of brands of vodka are available almost everywhere. Although Uzbekistan is predominately Muslim, for the most part the Islam practiced there tends to be more cultural than religious. Vodka ranges from cheap to very cheap, although the quality is questionable. Russian vodka is available in a few shops.
Visitors should consider tap water to be unsafe to drink, and drinking from bottled water is advised.
In Uzbekistan, and in Central Asia in general, elderly people are greatly respected. They are known by the name aksakal, which means 'white beard'. Always treat the elderly with great respect and defer to them in all situations.
Mobile connection works in most parts of Uzbekistan and the services are cheap. There are several popular mobile service providers in Uzbekistan - Beeline, MTC, Costcom, PerfectumMobile. However, you can get a sim card only if you have an Uzbek friend who is registered in the region you are buying the card. They need to register the cards to their passports.
You can find Internet cafes in most of the cities.