Cottonpickin’ students and storks
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.