Uzbek. This is an Altaic Turkic language. It is written, officially, with the Latin alphabet, but in practice, the Cyrillic alphabet is still used; a hangover from Russian occupation.
Russian is the working language of central government and business, even if it is the mother tongue of only around 6% of the population. 65% of people speak Uzbek. After that, Tajik (7.7%), Kazakh (3.8%), Tatar (2.2%), Karakalpak (1.9%) ... Tajik is a Persian language; Kazakh, Tatar and Karakalpak are Turkic languages. English is increasingly widely spoken.
The country has many ethnic groups (around one hundred), but Uzbeks clearly dominate (65.6%). The Tajiks are a significant minority (7.7%), concentrated in the historic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. The Russians have emigrated a lot over the last twenty years and now account for only 5.7% of the whole. Mention should also Kazakhs (3.8%), Tatars (2.2%), Karakalpaks (1.9%) ...
Muslims (Sunni Hanafi) are the majority (nearly 90% of the population). They practice an Islam which still retains certain traits from the ancient religions of Zoroastrianism and shamanism. The Orthodox Church represents the Russians, and other Christian denominations are present but in tiny numbers. A few thousand Jews still live in Bukhara, and have done for centuries.
1 September: Independence Day (1991).
- January 1: New Year's Day.
- March 8: International Women's Day.
- March 21: Navruz (New Year Zoroastrian).
- May 1: Labour Day.
- May 9: Victory Day (1945).
- December 8: Constitution Day.
Muslim festivals fall on the lunar calendar and change dates each year.
Every country’s history is a millefeuille, but Uzbekistan’s has particularly many layers. The first settlement dates from 50,000 BC. At the end of the 3rd millennium, an identifiable ‘Oxus civilisation’ (the Oxus River is now called the Amu Darya) emerged, followed by the culture of Tazabagyat and the Sogdians in the region of Bukhara and Samarkand. In the middle of the sixth century BC, the Achaemenid Persians integrated these territories into their empire. Alexander the Great arrived two centuries later and installed the Greeks and the Seleucids. In the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire vassal kingdom Greco-Bactrian was formed but soon the Chinese Yuezhi, Sakas and Parthians sliced up the region before the Kushan Empire (Yuezhi of origin) restored some order and established the great network of the Silk Road. Hats off if you’re following all this, and on we go. In the fifth century, the Sassanid Persians dominate the region before they yield to the so-called White Huns, the possible ancestors of the Uzbeks. In the following century, the Sassanid return, along with Western göktürks. Then, in the seventh century, the Chinese arrive. In 712, under the Umayyads, the remarkably swift Arab conquest rolls into town, leading to the Islamisation (Zoroastrians were given tax exemptions to convert) of the region. In Talas, the Abbasids repress the Chinese (751), and Samarkand fast develops a reputation as the first true centre of paper making in the Islamic world, at a time when the Islamic Golden Age saw huge advances in science, Science, medicine, philosophy and more. During the Arab period, Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Termez grew significantly. The Silk Road began to circulate goods, ideas and beliefs, but unfortunately also allowed for the easy movement of armies. Persian Samanids imposed their rule in the tenth century, but faced Turkic Karakhanids, who seized Bukhara in 992 AD. Enter the Seljuk Turks, who supplanted everyone at the end of the eleventh century.
In the early thirteenth century, Khorezmians (Persian-Turkish) reigned supreme, but getting carried away they attacked the Mongols and Genghis Khan conquered the country in 1220 AD. After the death of Kagan, a Turco-Mongol khanate established. When Tamerlane (1369-1405, and now more commonly known as Timur) brought the Islamic world to heel he added Chatagai Khanate to his trophies. The last century of the Timurid era saw the shaybanids permanently settled modern Uzbekistan in the early 1500s. Gradually, the venerable Chatagai Khanate was divided into three khanates: Uzbek Khiva (1512-1920); Bukhara (1599-1920), which became an emirate in 1785; and Kokand (1709-1876) in Ferghana. The Russians appeared on the scene in the course of the 19th century, with their eye on eastward expansion towards the eventual target being British India as part of the so-called Great Game. Taking advantage of endemic quarreling between khanates, they imposed a protectorate (Kokand, 1876 Bukhara, 1878). After the victory of Shymkent, in present-day Kazakhstan, in 1884, a General Government of Russian Turkestan was established, which controlled the Uzbek khanates.
With the arrival of the Russians, industrial civilisation gained a foothold in Central Asia. Cotton cultivation and the development of the railways was encouraged, with varying success, by the Tsarist authorities. However, Russian meddling was met with strong resistance. In 1916, a revolt was brutally suppressed. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks finessed between national uprisings and Turanianism (a nascent Turkic ethnic identity) to keep hold of power. Stalin presided in person over the Sovietization of ‘Turkestan’. The Soviet People's Republic of Bukhara (1920) became the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924 (the Autonomous Republic of Tajikistan came out in 1929, but that of Karakalpakstan joined in 1936). As a result of this collectivisation of land, revolts resumed.
During WWII, the Russians took refuge in large numbers in Uzbekistan and relocates a portion of their industry there. Ethnic Germans from the Volga region were deported there. Illiteracy was overcome in the Fifties as the price for increasing Russian influence. Between 1960 and 1980, the intensive cultivation of cotton was implemented with, among other catastrophic results, the drying up of the Aral Sea. Long dependent on the Soviet system eventually gave way to independence in 1991. The reign of Islam Karimov (born in 1938) started and only ended with his death in 2016. Economic reforms have come gradually and Uzbekistan has fought hard against Islamism, with the support of both the US and Russia in this area.
The 1992 Constitution states that Uzbekistan is democratic, multiparty and presidential. In reality, it is particularly presidential. It is the President who appoints and dismisses members of the Cabinet, and who directs the work of government and administration. The Parliament (one chamber of 120 deputies and 100 senators, elected for five years) is a simple recording chamber. The president is elected by direct universal suffrage for seven years and - in principle - can not run more than two consecutive terms ...
- Ozbeg (1282-1341) was a Mongol ruler of the Golden Horde. The Shaybanids (one of the later Genghis Khan spawned dynasty in the sixteenth century), honoured Ozbeg by naming themselves the Uzbeks.
- Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (born 1964) was a cycling sprinter and one of the top names in the Tour de France in the 90s before a series of positive tests ended his career abruptly.
- Rustam Kasimdjanov (born 1979), a Tatar and World Chess Champion in 2004. Chess had been promoted to the rank of national sport by the Soviet Union, but failed to take hold in the ‘Stans’. On the subject of chess, the oldest known pawns were discovered at the archaeological site of Afrasiab, near Samarkand.
- Yulduz Usmanova (born 1963) is the star of the Uzbek music scene mixing Maqom traditional and pop rhythms.
- Polymath Al-Khwarizmi (783-850 AD) was a mathematician, geographer, astronomer and native of Khiva. Some believe him to be the father of algebra, algorithms and even the computer.
Tipping is at your discretion, and with regards anyone employed by us during your visit, rest assurance that your tips will never replace their salary. For drivers, we recommend five dollars per day per person (for groups, three dollars euros per day per person). We recommend ten dollars per day per person for guides (for groups, five euros per day per person). And tips in dollars or Euros are appreciated. As for local staff (porters, waiters ...), use your discretion. Try to avoid encouraging begging, especially by children, by distributing things such as pens in the street. If you want to help (and it’s admirable that you do) provide school supplies, clothing or medicine, then do so to a school’s head, the village chief or the nearest clinic, respectively, and they will then distribute them to the most disadvantaged.
Your guide can help you identify who to speak to. In Uzbekistan, time is a subjective concept. It is elastic. Uzbek hospitality is legendary, and in keeping with the ancient practices of Islam. If you find yourself being hosted in an Uzbek house, remember that bread is sacred, guests take food from the common dish which is in front of them, and the meal ends with ‘Amin’, a blessing. Do not eat anything more after that. During Ramadan, avoid eating, or drinking in public during the day. Tamerlane remains the historical reference and political Uzbeks tend to like strong characters: Napoleon, Stalin. Better to avoid discussions on the subject. Better also to refrain from any religious proselytism because this area is sensitive. Do not photograph someone without asking to do so. Bans on filming or photographing particular places (public buildings, military installations) must be observed.
Spices and herbs, silk carpets: the Silk Road is still very much alive in the markets of Uzbekistan. Beware, though, that Uzbek customs are finicky: carpets and kilims must be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity provided by the shop where they were purchased.
Plov (osh in Uzbek) is the national dish, comprising mutton, rice, vegetables, garlic, cumin and regional and domestic flourishes; the chicken version with raisins is also very popular. Shashlik kebabs are lamb, beef or chicken, always with pieces of fat. Kebabs are come as skewers, but with chopped and spiced meats. You eat them accompanied by raw onions. China gave Uzbekistan noodles: fried, in soup or in beshbarmak (with lamb, liver, vegetables). The ravioli, meat or vegetables are delicious. In autumn enjoy the abundant fruit: grapes, apricots, pomegranates, apples, melons and more. The bread in Samarkand is famously good; prepared unleavened and bearing the baker’s mark.
We do not recommend drinking the tap water. Drink bottled mineral water or purified water and avoid, of course, ice. Tea, black or green, is omnipresent and involves a certain ceremony: only use the right hand to drink or serve. In town, tea houses are institutions, generally fund beside ponds or streams. They are called chai khana. The vodka is Russian. Beer is widespread, and Sarbast (owned by Carlsberg) is great. Breakfast often consists of kefir - a fermented milk like yoghurt but thinner.