by Stef Hoffer
Among travellers, Uzbekistan, a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia, is probably best known for its impressive Silk Road history. Names like Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand evoke images of ancient trading routes and once great empires. Part of the heartland of Central Asia, these are, for good reasons, prime tourist attractions for many visitors to Uzbekistan. While the three cities are indeed not to be missed, travelling beyond this classic route can be rewarding for those interested to explore some of the more traditional regions in the country.
Leaving Samarkand behind, on the way to capital city Tashkent, my guidebook urges me to take another look at the Fergana Valley. On a map, this area seems to hold on to the rest of the country only by a marginal stretch of land, of around 30 kilometres wide. When browsing through the relevant chapters, I find out that the Fergana Valley lies only partially in Uzbekistan, and reaches into Kyrgyzstan to the East, and Tajikistan to the South. Borders that were drawn when the Soviet Union fell apart usually do not correspond with cultural boundaries and this seemed true for the Fergana Valley as well.
After reaching Tashkent for the second time, I decide to travel onwards to Fergana, which by now has made me curious. Notwithstanding the aching summer heat the cramped shared taxi ride quickly turns into an enjoyable one, with three friendly fellow passengers, a careful driver, and a beautiful landscape of rivers and rolling hills. Lunch is a treat, fresh ‘somsa’ (typical Central Asian baked pastry, filled with mutton and spices) are served at a local restaurant, accompanied by tea. As we get closer to Fergana, which is also a city in the actual valley, and my final destination, we are stopping more frequently. Farmers are selling cheese, honey, yoghurt and other products on the roadside.
We are also inspected by military personnel and, as a foreigner, I am required to register upon entering the province. I soon learn that these tight security measures are a response
to events that took place in the town of Andijon, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, a conflict between local businessmen and security forces led to a bloody crackdown, which left hundreds of people dead. It is a stark reminder of some of the tensions that still exist underneath the surface in post-Soviet Central Asia.
Approaching Fergana, traditional houses with vine-shaded courtyards slowly make way for wide avenues and apartment buildings. Fergana’s city centre is under construction, and after a long journey through pleasant landscape seems a bit of a disappointment. Gladly, I accept the generous welcome of my host family who run a guesthouse. And upon closer inspection, the town itself proves to be a lot friendlier than at first sight. I decide to make Fergana my base, as distances between towns are not that big, and transport is relatively frequent.
When making your way across Central Asia, it is hard not to -stumble upon some of the many bazaars that this region is famous for. Ranging from small mini markets to complete
outdoor shopping malls, bazaars are the beating heart of the local economy. This is no different in the Fergana Valley. In fact, because of its fertile soil and favourable climate, the
region produces some of the finest fruits and vegetables, which are freshly available at the markets. Strolling through the bazaars therefore becomes a delightful experience. I find my way to Fergana’s main bazaar, and also pay visits to a few other bazaars in the region, perhaps most notably the one in Margilon. Going by the name of Kumtepa, this bazaar is one of the busiest and most versatile in the Fergana Valley, if not in the whole of Uzbekistan. Virtually anything you can think of is for sale here. From hand woven carpets and leather sofas to bicycle wheels and spare Lada parts. Although jeans and t-shirts have also made it here, the majority of the people continue to wear colourful dresses, traditional skullcaps and beautifully patterned headscarves.
As I walk through the clothing section of the bazaar, I notice quite a few shops selling silk. Even with my layman’s eyes, it is not that difficult to notice the high quality of the material on offer. Soon I learn that Margilon is not only home to a fantastic bazaar, it is also the traditional centre for silk production. Uzbekistan is the third largest silk producer in the world, and a major share is prepared in this very town. It is intriguing to realize this is where the fabled Silk Road got its name from. Most silk factories in Margilon now use machinery to optimize their workflow. One of the few exceptions can be found in the Yodgorlik Silk Factory, conveniently listed in my guidebook. Most steps in the silk production process are still taken by hand here, and it is even possible to receive a tour around the premises. Witnessing the different stages of the process is fascinating, from the steaming of the cocoons to weaving the fabric.
Before moving on to Tajikistan, I want to conclude my journey through the Fergana Valley by paying a visit to Rishton. This small town is famous for its ceramics. Generations of artisans and potters have been attracted by the region’s clay, which is some of the purest that can be found. According to various sources, the town is home to around 800 to 1000 potters making a living from ceramics. Walking the backstreets and asking around, I soon get invited to several workshops, where local masters use their skills to produce beautiful pieces of art.
Having visited the big three attractions, Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand, I am glad to have glimpsed life in the Fergana Valley. This is a unique part of Uzbekistan, distinctly different from the rest of the country. The Turkic roots of most people, past Soviet glory, and a setting that perhaps feels like rural Italy a few decades ago, is interesting. Despite some of its political problems, Fergana is well worth the detour, and should rank highly on the list of anyone visiting Uzbekistan.