Back when we first decided to visit Uzbekistan, and began researching how to travel between the Silk Road cities, we found an abundance of fancy-looking tour itineraries and some fascinating accounts of ‘slow’ travel through Central Asia. However, there was relatively little information directed at travelers like ourselves, who prefer to travel independently but have fixed time frames – as well as the common restriction of too little annual leave! For this reason, we tend to avoid the ex-Soviet staple of long distance marshrutka (cheap, slow and not very comfortable minibuses, for the uninitiated!) and shared taxis, as these are not ideal for following a tight itinerary!
The revelation that there is an excellent Uzbek train network, which will reliably take both locals and tourists to all the main cities and beyond, therefore came as a huge relief – meaning that we could easily work out how to travel Uzbekistan in two weeks and feel like we’d done the trip justice. Trains were by far the easiest way to travel between the cities of Uzbekistan – some of these journeys are seriously long distance, but we managed to get between Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara with nothing longer than a 6 hour train on any given leg.
From Tashkent to Khiva, via the wonders of Samarkand and Bukhara, here’s our top tips on how to travel Uzbekistan by train.
Uzbekistan’s Train Network
The Uzbek train network connects the capital, Tashkent (which happens to have an excellent metro system!) with the classic Silk Road destinations of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Given that these cities were very much the focus of our trip, we didn’t venture anywhere else by train – but the network continues East into the Fergana Valley, South towards Taraz or up to Nukus in the far North West of the country.
The network is mainly long-distance, average speed ex-Soviet rolling stock, but there are a small number of high speed trains – called Afrosiyob – which currently run between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
How to book trains in Uzbekistan
Although the train network is brilliant, the trains themselves can vary in frequency between stations – as an example, the Bukhara to Khiva train only ran 3 times per week when we travelled there in October 2019. If you’re planning to travel to Uzbekistan independently, it’s therefore likely that you’ll need to plan your itinerary around the trains. We have a fairly simple two-pronged approach to booking trains in Uzbekistan, which went something like this:
- Research and choose your date and time: We found that Tutu Travel was the most user-friendly site for researching train dates and times – particularly as you can easily search using the Latin alphabet!
- Book the train: When it comes to booking your tickets, it’s time to brave the Uzbekistan trains website, which (when we traveled) could be somewhat temperamental. The website isn’t the most user-friendly, but despite the potentially frustrating process it is the cheapest option by far (as you’re buying direct, rather than through a travel agent) and allows you to book your tickets in advance.
Some key things to remember when booking trains in Uzbekistan:
- The booking window on the Uzbekistan trains website opens 45 days before departure.
- Try to book as early as possible – trains do sell out, especially for popular routes on the high-speed Afrosiab service. As an example, our ideal train from Samarkand to Tashkent was already sold out when we went online to book it 43 days in advance. We suspect that a lot of the Afrosiyob tickets are immediately bought up in bulk by travel agents before being sold on for a significant mark up!
How to use the Uzbekistan trains website
To use the Uzbekistan trains website, there are a key bits and pieces you’ll need to keep in mind:
- Register using an email address – don’t give up if it doesn’t accept your address on the first attempt. We tried 3 different email addresses before it finally accepted one, and we couldn’t work out a pattern as to why the others were rejected!
- International cards are accepted – but only Visa! As of September 2019, Mastercard, American Express and others were not able to be used.
- Although the website has an English-language option, place names must be input in Cyrillic. The easiest way to do this is to copy and paste – we’ve listed out the main stations on the Uzbek tourist trail as they should appear on the website:
- Tashkent = ТАШКЕНТ
- Bukhara = БУХАРА 2
- Khiva = ХИВА
- Samarkand = САМАРКАНД
One alternative to using the Uzbekistan trains website is to book via Tutu Travel – but this is best done only where an e-ticket is issued online.
What to do at the station in Uzbekistan
To gain access to the main stations in Uzbekistan, you’ll first need to go through a ticket and security check. The first checkpoint tends to be located outside the main building, and you’ll need to show your train ticket and passport in order to proceed through – if you have a reservation or booking confirmation rather than an e-ticket, you’ll need to exchange this for the proper ticket at the ticket office, which is normally a separate building near the station.
Your bags will then be scanned, and you’ll walk through into the main terminal. Once inside, your ticket will be checked and stamped to show it is validated – this is the final step in the process, and once you’ve got your stamp you’re free to relax until your train arrives!
We never quite managed to understand the train departure boards – but if you are travelling to one of the main cities, then there’s no need to worry too much. Just look out for any non-Uzbek traveler, and they’ll almost certainly be heading in the same direction as you – there’ll be plenty of tour groups with guides who will know exactly when and where to head to catch the train. If in doubt, the railway staff will generally speak enough basic English to point you in the right direction.
Uzbekistan Trains – Journey Reviews
The great thing about travelling by train in Uzbekistan is the variety. Whether you travel on the fast or slow trains, by day or by night, economy or first class, there are more than enough options to suit everybody. We’d definitely recommend trying out a couple of different types so that you can experience the full suite of what Uzbekistan’s trains have to offer!
We chose to stick to the economy class (always keen to save those dollars – railway staff will try to upsell you first class, but there’s really no need to worry about economy, it was great!), but mixed things up between the high-speed Afrosiyob service and the standard ‘slow’ service. We’d recommend both – here are what we thought of our journeys, and for a more detailed overview of all the services you can check out the excellent Seat 61.
Tashkent (ТАШКЕНТ) to Bukhara (БУХАРА 2)
Service: Sharq 010Ф
Cost: £8 per person – economy
Duration: 6 hours
Notes: The “Sharq” service was relatively average in terms of travel time – not quite as speedy as the Afrosiyob, but still no slouch given the distance travelled. This was a great first glimpse into life outside Uzbekistan’s capital, as city turns to fields full of cotton pickers, when then give way to miles of endless desert.
Bukhara (БУХАРА 2) to Khiva (ХИВА)
Service: 050Ф (Outwards) and 050Щ (Return). Each operate 3 times per week
Cost: £7 per person – economy
Duration: 6 hours
Notes: A lot of travel guides refer to Khiva not having a train station and list the closest station as Urgench. As of October 2018 this is no longer the case – the train line has been extended to run from Urgench to Khiva, which saves a 40 minute taxi ride! Get ready for plenty more desert views on your journey to and from Khiva!
Bukhara (БУХАРА 2) to Samarkand (САМАРКАНД)
Cost: £7 per person – economy, Afrosiyob fast train
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes
Notes: This was our only experience of the ‘Afrosiyob’ high speed train, which can reach speeds of up to 250 km/h. The trains are incredibly modern and extremely comfortable, even in economy class. It’s likely that you’ll be sat in a carriage with large groups of tourists, as the Afrosiyob services are favoured among tour companies.
Samarkand (САМАРКАНД) to Tashkent (ТАШКЕНТ)
Service: Sharq 009Ф
Cost: £8 per person – economy
Duration: 3 hours 30 minutes
Notes: This was our final train of the trip – another economy service on the slow train. Once again, the train was comfortable and punctual – a great job, considering we had a flight to catch when we arrived in Tashkent!
What to do when you arrive at the station
Arriving at one of Uzbekistan’s main stations after a long journey can be a hectic experience. Travelers are often dragging heavy backpacks or suitcases straight off the train, and the vast majority of the stations you’re likely to stop at are located a long way away from the city centers. This means there are a few things to keep in mind when you arrive at your station in Uzbekistan:
- You’ll likely have to exit out of a side gate rather than through the main station terminal, which is often reserved for departures.
- This means that you’ll immediately enter a throng of taxi drivers hoping to win your custom. If you do decide to take a taxi to your destination, then you should be prepared to haggle – and haggle hard! Do not listen to tales of the center being miles away, or petrol being really expensive.
- Perhaps the easiest way to avoid having to get into negotiations with the taxi drivers is to arrange a transfer with your accommodation. This will, of course, be more expensive than public transport, but will at least guarantee you a set price and the knowledge that a lift is waiting for you.
- There will be a bus station or bus stop not too far away. Aside from walking (or the metro, if you’re in Tashkent), this is by far the cheapest way to reach your final destination. It will, however, require a bit of research and a fair amount of patience – our bus from Samarkand station to Registan Square (the 3 or 73) took the best part of an hour, and filled up pretty quickly. It was, however, a really interesting journey and a true local experience.
- If you need to collect or exchange tickets for your onward journey, your arrival is the best time to do it! Given how far the stations are out of town, you don’t really want to be having to make the journey back just to sort out your tickets.
Overall, our experience with the trains in Uzbekistan was overwhelmingly positive. The trains were on time, comfortable and clean – they even had a regular tea and food service in case you’d forgotten to stock up on snacks. It was an extremely economical way to travel around Uzbekistan, especially considering the distances being covered, and offered some fascinating insights into local life as the countryside sped by. With a little research and planning, travelling Uzbekistan by train is definitely something which should be on everyone’s to do list!