We have moved relatively seamlessly into Kyrgyzstan – to Osh,the southern capital, where in 2010 there were riots in which large parts of the town were destroyed and dozens of people killed. It was put out that this was inter-ethnic, but our guide assures us that this was not the case. It was a repressive response to protests against government corruption. The country now has a woman president who has pledged to address the issues that caused the riots. It is also moving tentatively towards parliamentary democracy.
Osh is a very ancient city, although little remains that is old. Like most settlements in Central Asia, it has suffered waves of destructive invasion. We climb up Suleiman’s Throne, where the prophet Mohammed is reputed to have prayed, to a shrine called Babur’s House. A simple place devoted to the descendant of Timur who established the Mogul Empire in India. It is a place of pilgrimage and recreation for all citizens of Osh. A group of locals of mature years are in fits of giggles as they slide down some smooth rocks that are supposed to heal back pain. They are on a 40th anniversary high school reunion.
In the bazaar, we are surprised to see shoppers carrying away their purchases in Morrisons carrier bags on which is printed the slogan, ‘More reasons to shop at Morrisons’!
I find that my iPad had mysteriously become disabled, which will seriously cramp my blogging style. I can no longer upload photos from my two cameras. I am typing this on an iPhone. Expect shorter posts and fewer pictures from now on!
The Ferghana Valley is the most populous and prosperous part of Uzbekistan. It has been a major Silk Road destination since ancient times and was one of the first places outside China to produce silk. It is still an important
The initial process of boiling up
the cocoons is a smelly business involving bubbling cauldro
ns. At a later stage when the thread is being woven into cloth on hand looms, the weavers stop every few minutes to take a mouthful of milk which they blow over the fabric in a fine mist. This softens the cloth – and gives the factory a cheesy smell.
The Ferghana Valley in general is quite a murky place. It has a lot of heavy industry and is surrounded by high mountains, as a result of which the pollution has nowhere to go and sits in the atmosphere in a brownish haze.
Our base in Ferghana is Kokand, which has a pretty murky past. It is an ancient city that was once the capital of most powerful khanate in the region. When the Russians invaded in the 19th century, they fairly comprehensively destroyed its medressas and mosques and later, in 1918, they responded to a separatist movement by finishing off the job and slaughtering thousands of its people. So the city
today has few old buildings, the remains of the Khan’s Palace being one of the most interesting. Although a 19th century creation, the painted ceilings and wood carving are very fine.
Tomorrow we cross the border into Kyrgyzstan and will spend one night in Osh before heading up into the mountains. Expect ‘radio silence’ for nearly a week then!
A seven hour drive today from Samarkand to Kokand in the Ferghana Valley. This involves a certain amount of zig-zagging to avoid, first, going through a corner of Kazakhstan on the way to Tashkent and, secondly, the northernmost finger of Tajikistan, which cuts off the direct route from Samarkand to Ferghana.
Our expectations of a more lush green landscape have so far not been met. The road is funnelled into a valley between mountains leading to the Kumchik Pass (2267m) and from the industrial town of Angren onwards, the air becomes increasingly polluted and the road is lined with frantic construction work: both a new railway (a Chinese project) and the building of a second carriageway for the main road between Ferghana and the rest of the country. As yet, the new carriageway is not complete, but it makes a very good highway for large flocks of sheep that are being driven by men on donkeys and horses.
Once over the pass, which now means going through two newly-constructed tunnels, the landscape does not change much and the air continues to be smoggy.
September is the cotton picking season and cotton is the main crop in Uzbekistan. It is crucial to harvest the cotton before the autumn rains which start from mid October, so all university students are conscripted to pick cotton for six weeks in September. They are bussed out to the farms, taking with them their bedding. The farmers provide them with board and lodging, but our guides, who have done this when they were students, say that there are very few facilities – no showers for six weeks! They also report that it is backbreaking work and that they are expected to pick a certain quota of cotton per day. Good pickers collect more than 100 kg. One of our guides said she picked about 80; the other only 20.
We cross one of two main rivers of the region, the Surdarya, and in a field by the road, spot a number of storks. We pull up and they take off. As we snap away with our cameras, a car pulls alongside and a cheery voice asks us in French if we are going to Ferghana. He is a French-speaking Uzbek travelling with his family, who once worked in North Africa. Later on in the journey, they pass us again, waving cheerily.
Before Genghis Khan’s horde destroyed everything, there was Alexander who named it Marakanda, and there were the Sogdians, who were the great traders of the Silk Road and gave Alexander a run for his money. He defeated them eventually and married the Sogdian leader’s daughter, Roxana. In the small museum next to Ulugbek’s 15th century observatory, we find an extraordinary room covered in 7th century frescoes of Sogdian traders, their elephants, camels and silken wares.
After Genghis Khan, the old city was abandoned and became a place of legend under the name of Afrosiab. Samarkand moved to adjacent hills and Timur, an indirect descendant of Genghis Khan, became its warrior king. The old city crumbled and was covered by sand. It is only since the twentieth century that archaeologists have made slight inroads into rediscovering it. Most of it is still buried.
It was Timur’s learned grandson, Ulugbek the astronomer, who built many of the most impressive surviving monuments: the first of the three extraordinary medrassas on Registan Square and the finest mausoleums of the Shah-i-Zinda – the Tomb of the Living Kings. He was a better scientist and builder of monuments than he was a ruler. He made Samarkand a centre of learning, but was murdered by his own son.
The gleaming tiled monuments have been substantially restored, having fallen into ruin by the end of the 19th century. Some of the restoration is impressive and highly skilled; some not. Would we prefer to see the place in ruins and the monuments without their blue tiles? I’m not sure. Most look pretty amazing as they are.
Tomorrow we head east for Kokand and the Fergana valley. Internet access becomes a question mark…
We visit Tamberlaine’s birthplace, Shakrisabz, en route to Samarkand. Our guide, Mafrulah, is profuse with apologies for all the works that are going on. “When it is finished, the restoration will be much more than cosmetic; it will be complete.” We look suspiciously at the bulldozers and fleets of trucks which have temporarily reduced Tamberlaine’s palace complex to a dusty waste land. According to the Lonely Planet Central Asia guide, published in 2007, ‘this crumbling relic blending seamlessly with everyday life will thrill critics of the country’s over-sanitised restoration efforts’. Not any longer, it won’t.
Nevertheless, the crumbling relics are still there and currently still crumbling in a satisfyingly romantic way. The remnants of Emir Timur’s grandiose family memorials are breathtaking in their scale and beauty.
From Shakrisabz to Samarkand, we take the fabled ‘golden road’ over the Takhtakaracha Pass (1788m). At the top, we admire the view and buy sugared almonds and dried melon sweets, which revive us for the last leg of our drive.
By midday we are ready for a break from mosques, mausoleums and citadels. We have seen the tomb of Ismael the 10th century Samanid ruler under whom Bukhara had its golden age. Our guide has taken us to Job’s Well, where the prophet is reputed to have struck the ground and caused water to flow, healing him of his rather nasty skin complaint. There is a tomb next to it, but we have already seen another tomb in Yemen which is supposed to be Job’s. Our guide admits that Job certainly got around. We have also entered the Ark (not Noah’s), the ancient citadel of Bukhara with its massive brick walls beneath which Charles Stoddart and Arthur Connolly, British soldiers of the Indian army, were executed by the infamous Emir Nasrullah in 1842. Two victims of the Great Game who played and lost. So now we are ready for lunch.
Our guide, Ms Shahodat, takes us to the Bolo Hauz restaurant just across the (wide and not very busy) road from the 16th century mosque of the same name. We eat somsas (the Central Asian prototype of the samosa) and plov (the local pilau), washed down with green tea. The food is tasty and the restaurant is popular with locals. We feel duly refreshed and ready for more sightseeing.
In the jewellery market, the stalls are mostly staffed by women. There is no security and one can try on pieces worth hundreds of dollars. It’s a relaxed sort of place.
We enter the cool airy space of one of the great Silk Road trading domes, where the caravans delivered and acquired their goods. A maker of traditional Uzbek stringed instruments, Jalol Avliakulov, gives an impromptu and very professional demonstration of his wares (http://youtu.be/mD3yWMu9oxE).
We see carpets being made and feel the lightness of locally made silk. Tourists are keeping the trade and the skills alive. And they have had foreign visitors here since time immemorial. The Silk Road continues to evolve.
The Tashkent Metro was opened in 1977 and now has 36 stops and 3 lines. A policeman checks everyone as they go down and searches bags. No photography is allowed. It is modelled on the Moscow underground and each station is themed. The station we enter is Aliksey Navoi, the poet who first wrote down the Uzbek language, and is in the style of an Ottoman sultan’s pavilion with illustrations from his romantic poems on the walls. We ride two stops down the line to Cosmonauts, which is designed to look like the side of a Soyuz rocket and celebrates Soviet cosmonauts. This is travel as a celebration of art and culture. Cheap, too!
Today, we get up early and head for Tashkent’s grand railway station in order to catch the Sharq train to Bukhara. We are travelling first class in a 3-seater compartment. A uniformed guard lifts our bags onto the train. He has his own compartment and toilet at one end of the carriage. The passengers have their facilities at the other end, including a smoking platform between the carriages. There is a samovar of hot water – we are brought glasses of black coffee.
The journey to Bukhara takes seven hours with a stop at Samarkand half way. We share our compartment with a man from Bukhara who speaks a little English. We exchange basic information about our families and spend the rest of the journey in companionable silence. We decline the offer of chicken and rice from the restaurant car, having equipped ourselves with cheese sandwiches and juicy pears from the breakfast buffet at our hotel.
Our driver for tomorrow’s tour meets us and we are driven down wide, empty roads into Bukhara. The focal point of the old town is a square with an ornamental pond called Lyabi Haus. It has a collection of life-size plastic camels, which give it an unfortunate theme-park feel, but once away from it, mosques and medressas predominate. This is a major Silk Road town. We will discover it tomorrow!