We approached the Uzbekistan border crossing with some trepidation. The Uzbek border guards (and police generally) have a reputation as being some of the most corrupt and difficult to deal with anywhere. Add to this the large amount of bureaucracy associated with entering the country and the slight irregularity in our visas (the Uzbek embassy in Bishkek made a mistake in the dates and corrected them by hand) and we were ready for the worst.
Happily, it didn’t materialize. In fact the whole process was very pleasant and smooth! There was a friendly English speaking lady who helped us fill out our customs declaration forms (the Uzbek government is extremely nervous about the flight of wealth from their nation and are very strict about ensuring that visitors leave with no more hard currency than they enter the country with.) And while the immigration guards raised their eyebrows when they saw our visas, when we pointed out that the changes had been stamped and signed by the embassy officials, they said it was A-Okay and welcomed us to the country.
On the far side of the border gate was, well, nothing. There were a few soldiers sitting around chatting and one guy with a minivan waiting to take passengers somewhere. We were passengers of just the sort he was looking for. With no alternative and only a vague idea of how much the ride ought to cost. We knew the $30 we paid for the trip to the city of Kokand was clearly too much, but after the smooth border crossing we were feeling happy enough not to be too too worried about it.
A weaver at work turning silk fibres into fabric by hand in the Fergana Valley town of Margilon
We were deposited by the large park at the centre of the city and were a bit surprised by what we saw. The central areas of Tajik cities had been pretty, but clearly rooted in the past. Their charm came from Soviet or even older buildings. Meanwhile the centre of Kokand was pretty much brand new and looked as though it belonged in a brand new “lifestyle community” in the US somewhere.
We sat down in the main park in front of the impressive Khan’s Palace to collect our thoughts and decide what to do next. By the time we’d found a seat we’d already had friendly conversations with two Uzbek women and been offered a bed for the night in the home of a young man (unfortunately Uzbekistan only allows foreigners to stay at registered hotels, and there’s at least a theoretical possibility that you’ll be asked to produce your hotel registration slips before you’re allowed to leave the country so we had to politely but sadly decline.) We’d actually planned to head straight out of town, but after a look around and some confusion about exactly how we’d go about leaving right then even if we wanted to, we decided to stick around in Kokand for a day.
Our first order of business, beyond cooling off a bit from the roasting heat outside, was to get some Uzbek currency.
In most places this would have been as simple as going out to an ATM, or at worst a bank or official exchange office. In Uzbekistan it’s not so simple. The government insists that the Uzbek Som is worth more than anyone else in the world is actually willing to pay for it. So if you exchange money at any official location you’ll actually be losing about 30% of the value of your hard currency. To get a “proper” exchange rate you’ve got to find one of the many black market money changers who operate in cities across the country.
This actually sounds a lot dodgier than it is. In fact pretty much all ordinary Uzbeks do things this way, and its such an entrenched part of the economy that no one is really concerned about it. In Kokand I simply took a bus out to one of the city’s bazaars and found a guy (in white jeans and fancy sunglasses) right by the entrance saying “dollar! dollar!” to passersby. I asked him what rate he’d give, and he quoted me 2800 Som for a dollar, which was far better than the official rate of 1930. I handed him a $100 note and he gave me my Uzbek money in thousand Sum notes, the largest in circulation. Some of you may have done a quick bit of arithmetic and realized the OTHER problem with Uzbek money. For some inexplicable reason the government still hasn’t printed any notes larger than 1000 Som, despite the fact that inflation has reduced the value of the largest note in circulation to NZ$0.43
Equivalent values in the largest regularly circulated notes in US and Uzbek currency. It was not uncommon to see people walking around with arms full of bricks of 1000 Som notes
Back at our hotel, we had a rest before going out for a short stroll in the evening cool to admire the fabulously restored Tsarist buildings in the modern centre. This was the prelude to breaking our Ramadan fast for the day with bread and delicious sweet, red watermelon that I’d picked up at the bazaar during my money changing.
Russian architecture in the town’s main intersection. Elsewhere more of the old town remained. Though the buildings were almost all new concrete structures, the configuration of the narrow, winding lanes remained unchanged from hundreds of years before
While in Kokand we learned something new about Ramadan: we’d originally made the common mistake of believing that the fast takes place from sunrise to sunset. In fact this is only half true. In fact according to the “letter of the law” it actually takes place from the appearance of the “first thread of light” to appear in the morning, which actually takes place a couple of hours BEFORE dawn, depending on the time of year and atmospheric conditions. So we arranged for our breakfast to be ready at the correct time for Kokand on that day, around 03:30 in the morning!
Our alarm woke us. We zombie-walked to the cafe, where the very kind staff had provided us with a very large plate of plov (central Asian rice pilaf, invented in Uzbekistan), tea and fruit. We scarfed down enough to hopefully last us 19 hours, then returned to bed for a bit more of a rest.
The next day we went back out to the park to take a look at the Khan’s Palace. The Khanate of Kokand was one of the three major central Asian monarchic states around in the mid to late 19th century when Russia took a serious interest in the place. It was also the only one of the three that succumbed to Russian power before the 1917 revolution. This meant that, unlike the two more famous Khanate seats of Bukhara and Khiva, almost all of the grand buildings in Kokand were destroyed. The sole survivor was the main area of the Khan’s palace, which was put to a wide variety of uses by the Russians after their conquest.
The tiled facade of the Khan’s palace. The different styles on the left and right sides of the entrance are because they were constructed by artisans from different regions of the country
Detail of the spectacular glazed tile work that covered every square centimetre of the front of the palace. The wooden beams extending out from the face serve the function of wicking moisture out of the brick, thus ensuring it isn’t damaged by cycles of expansion and contraction.
Since Uzbek independence, however, the palace has been lovingly restored. Its brilliant tiled facade and turquoise domed towers are now the focus of the city’s main park. We climbed up the sloping walkway to the entrance arch. Inside, we bought our tickets and were offered a free tour by a new English speaking guide who’d just signed up and wanted to practice before she had a go at guiding big groups around.
The palace had been wonderfully restored, striking a good balance between “grubby original” and Chinese-style “completely rebuilt.” That said, the best parts probably were those that had required a minimum of restoration work: the impressive plaster ceilings and mouldings and the fabulous ceramic tile facade. As for the tour, our guide was a pleasant lady ho had lots to say about the history of the Khanate and the palace. Although as with many such tours, the key was to pick out the fun and interesting bits from the torrent of other stuff that, while mildly intriguing, you’d never remember the next day if your life depended on it.
The ceiling of the Khan’s private (as opposed to reception) throne room
The dome above the entrance portal to the palace, complete with partially deflated Spongebob Squarepants balloon stuck at its top
Following our tour of the palace we headed back to our hotel and, with the help of one of the staff, got a taxi to the bus station. The trip down to the city of Fergana took about 90 minutes and allowed us to see some of the valley’s countryside. Or at least what passes for it. The Fergana Valley is the most agriculturally productive area of three different countries: Uzbekistn, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (indeed, we were now only 100km or so from Osh, our final stop in the Kyrgyz Republic.) Given its fertility, its also the most heavily populated area of these countries. And Uzbekistan is, itself the most populous of the three, meaning that the Uzbek Fergana Valley is actually filled with people, towns and villages. There were farm fields, especially the cotton that the area is famous for (and for which the Aral Sea was sacrificed) and sunflowers, but the overall impression was that the valley was packed with people.
Fergana was an even larger city than Kokand. While slightly rougher around the edges, it still had its fair share of shiny new buildings, and was probably even more friendly than our first stop in the country. We began our stay on the edge of the bustling bazaar, roasting under hot afternoon sun. From there we spent out first couple of hours in town trying to locate a place to stay. We had a recommendation from friends, but after several failed phone calls we set out and tried to find our way there. This involved the assistance of several kindly folks who gave us directions, as well as a man who offered to let us stay in his home during our stay and as a porter who was bringing a load of tiles to a construction site, and insisted that we sit our packs down in his barrow while he walked along showing us the way to our destination. Once we arrived, we realized that the reason our calls had gone unanswered was that the owners had gone on an extended holiday.
Our next stop was the Hotel Fergana which, true to our eight-year old guidebook’s opinion, didn’t accept foreign guests. The staff DID, however call up a friend of theirs who ran a homestay/guesthouse out of her apartment. Five minutes later, a white Lada appeared. High tempo, accordion based music pumped out the windows. Inside was a small grey haired man and a very large Russian looking lady with bleached blonde hair and an elaborate, wide brimmed hat. She looked as though she was dressed for a day out at the horse races. The boot of the car where we set our packs was strewn with 1000 Som notes. All of which combined to make the whole situation feel a bit dodgy. For no good reason as it turned out. Our host Valentina showed us up to her apartment and gave us a lovely big room complete with A/C and king sized bed for an entirely reasonable price. She even offered to change some more money for us, saving us the trouble of heading out to the bazaar and engaging in the simple, but shady-feeling process ourselves.
That evening we discovered the best feature of Fergana: its bazaar. Everyone we met there was fabulously friendly. They all wanted a chat. Oddly, virtually everyone in the bazaar (and we heard from perhaps half of the people we walked past, to it wasn’t a small sample size at all) assumed we must be French. (Apparently Uzbekistan gets lots of French tourists.) Many of the sellers offered samples of their goods, intensely sweet seedless grapes, salty-spicy carrot salad, dried fruit, pastries. The Fergana bazaar (in summer at least) was a culinary delight. One kind old man even scooped us out a bag of sunflower seeds as a gift!
At the bazaar we picked up supplies for the following morning’s breakfast (can you actually call it breakfast if you’re eating it before 04:00AM? It kind of seems more like a late-night snack…) before heading back to Valentina’s.
Brand spanking new buildings in Fergana City
Akhmad al Fargoni, the 10th century Muslim astronomer (note the scroll printed with stars in his hands) who lent his name to the valley. This statue was the focal point of the pleasant park at the centre of the city. Wet took a stroll through the park with two English students on their way to class
Not only were the people in Fergana eager to have their photos taken, they struck interesting poses for them too
The gentleman who so kindly gifted us some of his wares
Pyramids of eggs at the Fergana bazaar
Ladies selling cottonseed oil in the bazaar. I’ve yet to really pick it out in Uzbek dishes (largely because we’ve only been eating fabulous bread and melons!) But its flavour is supposedly one of the identifying characteristics in Uzbek cuisine
The next morning we headed out to the town of Margilon, 20km or so from Fergana city. We made our way to the bazaar and asked the first person we walked past where to get the bus to Margilon. He not only took us all the way to the share taxi stand where they left from, but on arriving reached in his pocket and gave the driver our fare before we even had a chance to ask how much the trip would cost! At our destination, as our fellow passengers disembarked we asked the driver where the Yogdorlik silk factory was and he said something along the lines of “OH! You wanted to go THERE!” started up the car again and drove us there from the bus park, again not giving us even the tiniest opening to pay for the extra distance.
We didn’t really hold out high hopes for the silk factory. It sounded like it had “tourist trap” written all over it (this despite the relatively small number of tourists in the Uzbek Fergana Valley. But it had been recommended by Kev and Nat, our Pamirs travel companions, so we decided to give it a go. And boy am I glad that we did. Margilon is the centre of the Uzbek silk industry and its still the major industry in town. Many residents still raise silkworms from cocoons provided by the government, and many others still spin thread and weave fabric in their homes.
The Yogdorlik factory was not just, or indeed even primarily, a tourist attraction. It was a real working silk factory where all the steps of production were still done by hand using traditional methods. We saw women unravelling the cocoons in big vats of hot water onto spindles. And had the entertaining experience of unravelling one ourselves by running out the door holding the filament while our guide held the other. Peeling 100m of fibre off a cocoon made virtually no difference in its appearance: a typical cocoon contains over 1km of silk! We also saw the tying of bundles of silk fibres prior to dying, which would create patterns on them that would appear in the woven cloth. We saw the dying of the fibres, then finally the weaving itself. The loom room was probably the most fun of all, the clickity clack of the pedals and the sliding shuttles made it a noisy, lively place, even with only a half dozen or so women at work there. Watching the feet of one master weaver operating the eight pedal loom at her breakneck pace almost made you feel dizzy!
Soaking the cocoons in hot water from where they’re drawn up through an eye and spun onto a spool. It was amazing that the weight of the damp cocoons alone was enough to keep them from being pulled up out of the water and fouling the spool as they unwound
Spinning the flywheel that keeps pulling the silk out of its bath and smoothly onto the spool. Sarah had a go at this herself later on!
The dying room. Tasks in the factory were segregated by sex: women unwound the cocoons and did the weaving/carpetmaking. Men tied the silk fibres and dyed them.
The weaving room at work
Stretching out pre-dyed bundles of silk fibres onto the loom, soon to be woven into fabric
But the most impressive stop of all had to be the carpet workshop. On a raised platform on the edge of the room, five women worked endlessly, tying tiny silk knots onto the substrate strings, 10 knots to the mm, carefully following the patterns tacked to the wall in front of them. It was time consuming work. VERY time consuming. Our guide explained that making a small (50cm x 1m) carpet would take about six months. And a larger one might take anywhere from three to five YEARS! One lady working on such a carpet appeared to be almost done, with little more than a centimetre of the monochrome border yet to knot. But even at this point she was still a couple of weeks away from finishing. I am awed. Stunned. By the persistence and patience of the carpet makers. Given that you need nimble fingers and sharp eyesight to do the work, their careers often don’t last all that long. Meaning that its possible that a life’s work for a silk carpetmaker might consist of little more than, say, twenty carpets. They’re very expensive. One small carpet in the shop had an $800 price tag. But when you realize that it might represent a significant portion of someone’s working life, this actually seems like a bargain.
Knotting a large (and beautiful!) silk carpet. After every few rows the carpetmakers would tamp the knots down to ensure a tight matrix of them, then cut the excess fibres at the end of the knots with scissors.
Before the silk factory began operations in the early 20th century some of its buildings had formed part of a Medressa (Islamic school) and their beautiful decorations had been left untouched
Back in Margilon town, the bazaar was like the Fergana one, but even MORE so. Its 10000 square metres bustled with people selling fruits and vegetable from huge piles. Brilliant red peppers, next to deep purple eggplant, next to almost fluourescent cubanelle peppers, next to big stacks of ripe, juicy peaches. Huge bowls of sticky-sweet sugar and egg white concoction, next to bag upon bag of multiple rice varieties. It seemed like virtually everyone in the place wanted to learn more about us and where we were from, and tons of them asked to have their photos taken, several of the women beckoning Sarah in behind their stalls to join in the photos as well.
We took a short walk back through town to the bus station, past the towering, turquoise domed minarets of the central mosque. On the way we stopped and rested in the shade with a shoe repairman, and struck up several more conversations with curious locals before catching a microbus for our return trip to Fergana.
A beautiful woman selling spices at the Margilon bazaar
Sarah with a vegetable saleslady
Anyone want to buy a watermelon? They sold for anytwhere from NZ$0.80 for small ones on up to just under NZ$2 for the very largest.
The next morning we had planned to take a second trip to Margilon to check out its Thursday Bazaar which came very highly recommended by friends. But we figured we’d already been there the day before, and failed to realize at the time that the Thursday (and Sunday) bazaar was a much bigger one, about 5km out of town. So we missed out on that, instead spending the morning arranging a place to stay in our next destnation, the Uzbek capital city of Tashkent.
The trip there was one of many stages: a walk to the Fergana bazaar, a bus back to Kokand (which, oddly, seemed to take longer than I remembered it taking on the trip there), a spell of standing around looking confused, a bunch of photos and conversations with the kind Uzbeks who asked where we were going and told us how to get there. A taxi trip, accompanied by a young English speaking Uzbek who absolutely insisted that he come along and help us negotiate the fare for the trip. Then the share taxi ride for the 300km to the capital.
I’d planned to spend most of the trip reading, expecting more of the same kind of boring scenery as we’d seen between Kokand and Fergana. But I scarcely got achance. The driver and our one other passenger were just as curious as all the other Fergana Valley residents we met, and so we spent a good deal of the trip talking with them in snippets of English and Russian (and a tiny bit of French. Our driver had arrangements to guide a group of French tourists the following day.) Then there were the several checkpoints on the way. The Fergana Valley is the centre of resistance to the authoritarian Uzbek central government, most of which is inspired by the strong religious sentiments in the region (and the government’s massacre of hundreds, if not thousands of civilian demonstrators in the Fergana town of Andijon in 2005.) So the government takes the checkpoints on the road (there’s only one, all the better for keeping tight control on the region) in and out of the valley very seriously. At two of them we saw soldiers in full battle gear. No dress uniforms here: camouflage, helmets, automatic rifles and black face masks were the order of the day.
One of the many crane nests we saw piled on top of everything from power poles to minarets during our trip to Tashkent
Contrasting this were the food markets along the way, selling local specialties. We stopped and bought some dinner for the night: some beautiful bread (since when is bread beautiful? But this really was, with its thick, chewy scalloped rim and thin, crispy patterned centre.) And a couple of melons (one watermelon and one smaller one that was kind of a cross between a honeydew and a cantaloupe.) I’d already agreed to pay 4000 Som (NZ$1.60) for the two of them when our driver appeared and said something to the effect of “no no, those shouldn’t cost more than 3000,” retrieved a 1000 Som note from the saleslady and handed it back to me.
I swear this woman looks more like a runway model than a bread seller. But then her bread looks more like art than food
Finally there was the scenery. I thought we’d left the mountains behind when we departed Tajikistan, but we had one final pretty mountain pass left. We climbed up, up and over it before descending into the industrial heartland of the country around Tashkent. As we approached the city, high winds kicked up a dust storm which combined with the already present industrial haze to reduce visibility to the point that you could barely see the towering stacks and cooling towers of the big coal fired generating station a few hundred m away.
The view from the top of Kamchik pass. Photos were allowed here, but at many spots, especially near tunnels or where the valley was narrow there were signs (and frequent admonitions from our driver) indicating that photography was prohibited.
The outskirts of Tashkent were a bit of a shock after the farms and market cities of the Fergana Valley. At one point we sat in an entirely inexplicable traffic jam, virtually immobile for about fifteen minutes. We crept through the chaotic crowd of cars (everyone having given up on paying attention to lane markers, and even the correct side of the road shortly after the jam started.) Eventually we found a policeman directing traffic as cars wound their way through a semi-gridlocked intersection. Even here it took us three cycles of the (entirely useless) lights before we could make our way through. On the far side of the intersection we realized the cause of the trouble which was… Nothing. Just a bunch of people all trying to get through an intersection at the same time. Sigh… As wonderful as Asia is it can be a bit frustrating sometimes
Thankfully there were no more such delays to contend with and soon we pulled up in front of our accommodation, the fancy Hotel Uzbekistan where we were ushered inside the flash lobby and soon happily ensconced in our room admiring the view out over Amir Timur (Tamerlane) square.
There wasn’t actually all that much to DO in the Fergana Valley, but it was an absolute delight to visit. The warmth and generosity of the people was the amongst the greatest I’d ever seen, with only perhaps Syria and Northern Pakistan equalling it. While western Uzbekistan may have all the flashy and obvious tourist sights, I already get the feeling that a trip to the country wouldn’t be quite complete without a visit to the Fergana Valley.
Tags: Fargona, Fergana, Fergana Valley, Kokand, Margilon, Travel, Uzbekistan