Is Indian Tourists' Tashkent Dream Over?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Looks like it is. And maybe I am too late in saying so because I discovered this only during my first and perhaps the last trip to Uzbekistan in January 2017. The change had in fact started a few years ago when the male tourist-oriented "entertainment" industry of Tashkent was chased away from the city by the police and forced to relocate to outskirts from where it started operating in an even shadier and riskier manner. Now its a tired show that is somehow being kept alive to serve the unsuspecting or unrelenting members of the few tour groups still coming from India. Even that may not last very long because Indian tourists are fast discovering other destinations, such as the nearby Kyrgyzstan (called Thailand of Central Asia) where "entertainment" is legal and much easier. Tashkent is losing out very fast. The stars of the Uzbek "entertainment" industry have migrated to Kyrgyzstan in search of more business and more money. The entire chain of conducted tour business from India (Delhi) to Uzbekistan, be it the Indian or Uzbek travel agents, Ubzek hotels, or the airline of compulsion - Uzbekistan Airways - have all lost respect for the Indian tourist. Only one Indian restaurant is said to be operational in Tashkent (Raaj Kapoor) because it partly caters to tour groups. The erstwhile "Tata Hotel" in Tashkent, now called "Le Grande Plaza" is just a rundown lodge with dirty rooms and broken bath fittings. Interestingly, despite all this, Uzbekistan Airways still operates full flights between India and Tashkent. Well, there is something else going on...

Chimgan Mountain Near Tashkent Uzbekistan

Medical Tourism

Uzbekistan Airways carries dozens of Uzbek nationals everyday who come to India for medical treatment. I was surprised to see an Amritsar - Tashkent flight of Uzbekistan Airways but then remembered that Amritsar has some of the best facilities for eye treatments.

Bad Airline

Uzbekistan Airways does not care at all about Indian tourists. There is no vegetarian food on the Tashkent to India leg of the journey unless someone has pre-booked it. The chicken served for non-vegetarians is not a chicken curry but a grilled variety that most Indians will not like. On the Delhi to Tashkent flight they do serve some vegetarian food but probably because it is cheaper to buy veggie food in India. The airline's staff do not respond very well to requests from Indian tourists. No alcohol is served or sold in the economy class on the airline's India routes. And it is not a religious thing (Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country), but an "economy" thing because they do serve alcohol to their business-class customers.


Uzbekistan Airways Indian Food 

Uzbekistan Visa For Indian Nationals Is A Problem

Indian nationals cannot get a tourist visa to Uzbekistan unless they are part of a tour group or an Uzbek travel agent is involved in some way. Business visitors will need a letter of invitation from someone in Uzbekistan. But for the individual leisure tourists, going to a travel agent in India is the only option. I did that and got cheated by my agent - 'McTrip Holidays' Delhi. If I try to choose a better travel agent, like the big online travel sites, the trip cost goes up by 50%. Cost of an individually bought air ticket on Uzbekistan Airways will also appear to be too much. Its a three hour flight that costs around INR 33,000 for the two-way trip. Travel agents get these tickets a lot cheaper.

What Uzbekistan Offers For The Family Tourist?

Not a lot but there is still some. The city of Bukhara is beautiful but unfortunately no travel agent from India keeps that city in the itinerary. Even Samarkand is an optional add-on. The focus of tour operators from India is on "entertainment" for the Indian solo male tourist in Tashkent but that entertainment is mostly of low quality. Though I must admit that our day-trip to the snow-clad Chimgan mountain, and the chair-lift experience there were great. We were supposed to spend a couple of hours at the Charvak lake but our fraud travel agents - McTrip Holidays in Delhi and iTravel in Tashkent robbed us of that. If one has booked with an honest tour operator and is going to Tashkent in January-February, this day trip to Chimgan / Charvak alone maybe worth the cost of the trip. The very cheap shopping for almonds / walnuts, etc. in Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent is another attraction. Again, your tour operator may not take you there. Samarkand has Emir Timur's (Temur Lang) grave and the famour Registan (Desert) Square where the tour operators stop for a photo-op as a part of the half-day tour. The 'Tashkent - Samarkand - Bukhara' high-speed train "Afrosiyob" is not exactly a bullet train as claimed by the travel agents. I saw this train gaining a maximum speed of 219 km/h only briefly during our ride from Tashkent to Samarkand. For the most part the speed was around 150 km/h. Still, this train ride is a nice experience. Now if you find Uzbekistan appealing, doing everything in a satisfactory manner will require a self arranged tour which is not possible unless you can get a letter of invitation in some less than legal manner. If you book with a tour operator, you may only get about 50% value from the deal.

Uzbekistan May Get Even More Difficult

After the demise of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's first and long-serving President in September 2016, the country is changing under its new leadership. The focus is now less on making money via corruption and more on economic development. The country till today has only one car manufacturer - General Motors. All the cars in the country are either Chevrolet or Daewoo-Chevrolet. Now there is talk of Hyundai coming to Uzbekistan. Foreign retail brands have started to appear. Uzbek nationals have aspirations and being host to Indian solo male tourists looking for some "entertainment" is no one's priority there. The Indian tourists' Tashkent dream, if it ever was, has ended.

Side Effects?

The recent changes in the government's priorities may also have side effects. In this period of transition, religion may gain more prominence in this otherwise liberal country thus restricting individual freedoms for both locals and tourists.

Don't Blindly Trust Your Travel Agent

Contrary to what your travel agent may tell you, Uzbekistan is neither Switzerland nor Thailand. It has never been. And if you must visit Uzbekistan as a tourist, keep your expectations low so that you will not be too disappointed.





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Posted by Narinder Singh



 

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I left my day job in October 2013 and became a full time blogger. I love travel and hence a travel blog was the obvious place to start from. The result is desiyatri.com. I currently live in Bengaluru, India. - Narinder Singh.

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