Uzbekistan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Uzbekistan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Alex Ulko


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857338522
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 825,848
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Alex Ulko is a linguist, art critic, filmmaker, and writer. He taught English at the University of Samarkand, Uzbekistan for ten years and became the first Hornby Scholar from Uzbekistan to obtain an MEd TTELT degree from the College of St. Mark and St. John in the UK. Since 2003, he has been an independent consultant in English-language teacher training, a translator, and a writer on contemporary Central Asian culture and art.

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Uzbekistan - Culture Smart!

By Alex Ulko

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Alex Ulko
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-852-2




Uzbekistan is home to parts of the two largest mountain ranges in Central Asia — the Pamirs and the Tien Shan — but its territorial core is the vast Kyzyl Kum Desert, which lies between the Amudarya (Oxus) and the Syrdarya (Jaxartes) Rivers. One of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world, it has a landmass of 172,700 square miles (447,000 sq. km) and a population of over thirty million, the largest in the region. Only about 10 percent of the land is irrigated — in the river valleys and oases that host its largest cities and most of the population. This has resulted in an extraordinarily uneven distribution of the population: the huge Karakalpak Autonomous Republic in the west occupies 37 percent of the country but has only 5.7 percent of its population, while the fertile Ferghana Valley in the east, a mere 5.1 percent of the territory, is home to about 30 percent of the population.

Mountains make up 23 percent of the total area, the highest peak being Babatag, 14,780 feet (4,668 m) above sea level. However, the mountain ranges, although not particularly high — rarely exceeding 6,000 feet (2,000 m) — split the country into different parts, especially in the south and east, and make traveling between them a bit problematic. They almost completely surround the Ferghana Valley in the east, as well as the smaller valleys in the south, and form natural barriers between the cities of Jizzakh, Samarkand, and Shakhrisabz. The great Kyzyl Kum Desert lies between Khoresm, an oasis region in the delta of the Amudarya, and the rest of the country. As a result, the rivers, although not easily navigable in recent years, served as natural communication lines for travelers to follow on land, first in their caravans and later by car and train.

The way Uzbekistan was created, and its borders defined, in 1924, reflected the perceived need to give all the newly formed Soviet nations their own land. Drawn up for administrative convenience, and not intended to divide the peoples of the USSR, these borders became a reality in the early 1990s when the newly independent states failed to form a union without travel restrictions. Because the state borders did not coincide with either topography or ethnic makeup, the internal coherence and integrity of transportation was seriously weakened. The Tien Shan range effectively cuts off the Ferghana Valley from the rest of the country, with the only natural access route now going through Tajikistan. The Hissar range separates the southern province of Surkhandarya from the center. Uzbekistan had to build additional roads and railways to improve connections between Tashkent and Samarkand, Tashkent and Ferghana Valley, and the south of the country and the center, and to streamline the Uzbek part of the Transcaspian Railway. Today, with these problems largely resolved, it is possible to travel from oasis to desert through the mountains in a single trip.


Uzbekistan has a sharply continental climate with hot, dry summers, unpredictable winter weather, and little precipitation. Most rain falls in the late winter or spring. In summer the average high temperature in June/July may reach 104°F (40°C), but in winter average temperatures do not generally fall below 30°F (-1°C), although at times the low temperature may hit -4°F (-20°C), usually in January/February. The locals believe that the extremely hot and cold spells they call chillya ("forty" in Persian) fall on certain dates and last for forty days, but global climate change has made this traditional timetable less than reliable.

Spring and fall tend to be much milder. The weather in March and April is pleasant if unpredictable, and sunny but cold days may alternate with warmer cloudy ones. In May and June the sky is often hazy and the days become increasingly hot. After the summer's heat peaks, the fall arrives with cooler nights, although it may continue to be hot during the day. In October the sky clears and the leaves turn golden, only to be washed off by the gray November rains. Sometimes winter proper starts in December, but increasingly it is January that brings snow and temperatures below zero.

The climate tends to be more extreme in the desert and in the mountains. Winters in the Kyzyl Kum Desert are windy and cold, and summers are hot. The hottest area is in the south of the country, where it borders Afghanistan. In recent years global warming and the drying out of the Aral Sea have turned long, snowy winters to shorter ones with less precipitation and greater temperature fluctuation.


Ethnic Makeup

Although Uzbeks make up about 70 percent of the total population, Uzbekistan is ethnically diverse, with sizeable Russian, Tajik, Kazakh, Karakalpak, Korean, Jewish, Armenian, Tartar, and other communities.

Contrary to the official doctrine, which follows the Soviet nationality-building model, the Uzbeks themselves are not an ethnically homogeneous nation, but have different roots and were assembled under one name in the 1920s and '30s. Modern Uzbeks come not only from the Turkic–Mongol nomads who first claimed the name, but also from other Turkic and Persian peoples living within the borders. Over centuries, waves of mostly Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes passed through the area, interspersed with Greeks, Chinese, Arabs, and Mongols. They interacted and mixed with the sedentary population speaking dialects of old Persian. Thus different population groups, dynasties, countries, and cultures emerged and disappeared in the course of history, giving birth to the peoples that, in the early twentieth century, were divided into distinct modern nations.

Today the government is strengthening Uzbek national identity, in order to prevent the ethnic splintering seen elsewhere. Some people have assimilated with seemingly little concern. Many local Tajiks consider themselves Uzbek, though they retain the Tajik language, of the Persian language family. This may be because they have long shared a common urban lifestyle, which was more of a bond than ethnic or linguistic labels. The Karakalpaks, who live in the desert south of the Aral Sea, have a separate language and tradition closer to Kazakh than Uzbek. Under the Soviet Union they had their own republic, and it remains autonomous within Uzbekistan.

Ethnic Tajiks live compactly in the historical cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, but differ from local Uzbeks only in language (both communities almost universally speak Uzbek, Tajik, and Russian languages, to different extents). Once-nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz form sizeable minorities in Uzbekistan, as well as Irani, Turkmen, and Uighurs, but they are also well integrated with the Uzbek majority and retain only some aspects of their original culture.

An important change in the ethnic makeup of Central Asia occurred in the 1850s to '80s, when the Russian Empire colonized the region and there was a steady influx of "Russians." This population group also included other Slavs, such as Ukrainians and Belarusians, and a significant number of Armenians, Germans, Jews, Poles, Tartars, Greeks, and others. They settled mostly in newly built cities. Although they are estimated as constituting between 5 and 12 percent of the whole population, depending on different interpretations of identity, their contribution to the local culture was considerable.

After Independence, many Russians and Russian-speakers of different ethnicities left the country and changed its ethnic composition once again. Cities such as Tashkent, Andijan, and Ferghana, which had been only 30 to 50 percent Uzbek, are now virtually entirely Uzbek. In 1990, 600,000 Germans lived in Uzbekistan; 95 percent have since left. In 1990, 260,000 Jews lived in Uzbekistan; 90 percent have left.



Tashkent is the capital and by far the largest city of Uzbekistan. Its officially registered population was 2.3 million people in the early 2010s, but the actual number is thought to be more than 3 million.

One of the oldest cities in the region, Tashkent was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219, but it was later rebuilt and became a prominent strategic center of scholarship, commerce, and trade along the Silk Road. In 1865 it was annexed from the Kokand khanate by Tsarist Russia and became the capital of the Russian colonial enterprise in Central Asia. In Soviet times it witnessed major growth and significant demographic changes. Today the capital of an independent Uzbekistan, Tashkent is its most culturally diverse and modern city, with ethnic Uzbeks as the majority.

Since 1991 the city has changed economically, culturally, and architecturally. New developments have replaced the iconic monuments and edifices of the Soviet period. Many colonial and early Soviet buildings have been taken down, and others from the late Soviet era have been remodeled. Tashkent's new city center includes banks, modern hotels, business centers, and supermarkets, mostly constructed in a style that involves tinted glass, glossy white walls, and concrete columns, in various proportions.


Samarkand is the oldest and arguably the best-known city in Uzbekistan and in all Central Asia. It is also the most popular tourist destination in the country, with its iconic Registan ensemble, Shahi-Zindah memorial complex, and the Guri-Amir royal mausoleum adorning book covers, billboards, and Uzbek banknotes. With a population of about half a million, it is much smaller than Tashkent and has fewer modern facilities. Although Samarkand seems less affected by Russian culture, the recent restoration has turned most of its historic monuments into sanitized objects of Orientalist admiration.

Yet, beneath the veneer of the hospitality industry there are hidden gems and surprising discoveries to be made in its old quarters, in the well-preserved but underrated colonial part, in the scenic views from the city's hilltops, and in the country's best wines, beers, unexpectedly good restaurants, and cozy B&Bs.

The old town is still mostly Tajik-speaking, but in recent years almost all the Russian population once living in the green city center has been replaced by Uzbeks and Irani from the city's suburbs, creating an exciting mix of languages on the streets.


Bukhara is more than two thousand years old. It is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with over 140 monuments, and an urban environment that has remained mostly intact. Monuments of interest include the tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of sophisticated brickwork from the tenth century, and a large number of mausoleums and madrasas of the seventeenth. Bukhara's historical city center is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, which emphasizes that "the real importance of Bukhara lies not in its individual buildings but rather in its overall townscape, demonstrating the high and consistent level of urban planning and architecture that began with the Sheibanid dynasty."

Outside the area of the historical monuments and adobe housing, Bukhara offers little of interest. Like Samarkand, it is located in the Zeravshan Valley, farther into the desert, and can be very hot in summer.

This is a predominantly Tajik-speaking city, but with thousands of tourists visiting its compact old town visitors are greeted in several languages by cheerful children and imperturbable elders alike.

The Ferghana Valley

The Ferghana Valley is Uzbekistan's most densely populated area, home to about one-third of the country's population. It has four important cities: Ferghana, Andijan, Namangan, and the smaller Kokand, which was the capital of a khanate in the nineteenth century.

Surrounded by mountains, the Ferghana Valley is accessible from the rest of Uzbekistan only via the picturesque Kamchik Pass or by air. The natural entrance to the valley now lies in neighboring Tajikistan. The mountains feed a number of small rivers that flow into the valley, making it the greenest region in the country, with large areas of fertile land.

Culturally, the valley is different from other parts of Uzbekistan, as the majority of its population are Uzbeks, although there are small minorities of Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs living on its fringes. The local Uzbeks often regard themselves as the "true Uzbeks," as opposed to those in more multiethnic areas, and are more conservative and religious than the rest.

There are few architectural monuments here to attract visitors, although the nineteenth-century Khan's Palace in Kokand is a remarkable example of Central Asian colonial style. The valley also houses Uzbekistan's largest car factory, assembling the ubiquitous Chevrolet models. The smaller towns of Chust and Margilan are the country's undisputed centers for knife and silk manufacturing respectively.


Khoresm is an ancient oasis region in the north of the country, isolated by the Kyzyl Kum Desert. Located southeast of the Amudarya River Delta, it is also the coldest area in Uzbekistan in winter, although its summers are as hot as everywhere else in the country.

The Uzbeks of Khoresm speak a dialect of the language that sounds closer to Turkmen or Azeri, and the people often call themselves "Khoresmians" to underline their distinctive cultural heritage.

The key attraction is the city of Khiva, the best-preserved "open-air museum" in Uzbekistan, mostly constructed in the eighteenth century, although some older buildings feature prominently in its skyline. There are spectacular ruins of fortresses in the desert, remains of the once mighty Bactrian civilization. The capital of the province is Urgench, a Soviet-style city that has been rebuilt in a modern Uzbek fashion. It has a small international airport that connects it with the rest of Uzbekistan and receives charter flights bringing in tourists who want to bypass Tashkent and plunge straight into the exoticism of the East.


The First Central Asian Kingdoms

The earliest settlers in Central Asia were Indo-Iranian farmers who cultivated wheat and barley. In the first millennium BCE, they started to develop an irrigation system along the rivers of the region and founded the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, which gradually grew in importance.

By the fifth century BCE, the independent Bactrian, Soghdian, and Tokharian kingdoms dominated the region, having survived frequent onslaughts from Persia. Alexander the Great occupied the area in 328 BCE, bringing it briefly under the control of his empire, which had a lasting cultural influence, especially in what is now southern Uzbekistan.

By the end of the first millennium BCE China had begun to develop its commercial relationships with the West, and the Central Asian cities took advantage of the situation by becoming major trading centers on what was much later called the Great Silk Road. Soghdian merchants traveled as far as Japan in the east and Rome in the west. They dominated the trade along the Silk Road from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE. Because of this trade, Bukhara and Samarkand became extremely prosperous, exceeding Rome and Athens in size.

The wealth of the oases scattered between the Amudarya and Syrdarya Rivers (known as Transoxiana) was a magnet for military incursions from the northern steppes and China. Several local wars were fought between the Soghdian states and the other states in Transoxiana, and the Persians were in endless conflict over the region with the Chinese. The region by now was an important center of intellectual life, culture, and religion. Until the first centuries CE, the dominant religion in was Zoroastrianism, but Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity also attracted many followers.

Turks, Arabs, Mongols, and Tamerlane

The earliest documented Turkic population was a group of nomadic tribes living in Siberia just north of the Great Wall of China, which was built between 206 BCE and 220 CE. The first reference to "Turks" appears in sixth-century Chinese sources. The earliest evidence of Turkic as a separate linguistic group comes from the so-called Orkhon inscriptions of the early eighth century. In the sixth century the Turks began their westward expansion and formed a loose khaganate that led to perpetual conflict with China.

By the time Central Asia was invaded by the Arabs in 673, the Turkic tribes had already mixed with the local Soghdian population and offered some resistance that lasted until the decisive Battle of Talas in 751, when the Arabs defeated the Chinese and consolidated Transoxiana under Muslim rule.

During the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and ninth centuries, Transoxiana experienced a golden age. Bukhara and Samarkand were centers of culture and art in the Muslim world and, despite strong Arabic influence, the region retained much of its cultural connection with Persia.


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Table of Contents


Map of Uzbekistan,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Further Reading,

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