An abridged version of this piece appeared in the December 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller.
The train from Tashkent to the Fergana Valley winds south-east through the rugged landscape of the Kamchiq Pass and through the 19km-long Kamchiq Tunnel, the longest broad-gauge rail tunnel in the world. It’s called Ozbekiston (the Uzbeks have a propensity towards rounding their vowels, like Bengalis do), and is decked out prettily in the blue, white, and green colours that are part of the national flag of the country. The carriages are immaculate and well-appointed, and the ride is comfortable. About the only aspect that reminds us of the railways back home are the uniformed coach attendants, who treat all the passengers with some disdain.
Most of the people in our carriage – it’s a day ride, so it’s a chair car – are Uzbeks themselves. The Fergana Valley is not generally on most tourists’ itineraries. Shukhrat Ghaziev, our Tashkent-based tour coordinator, a bustling, efficient, and humorous dynamo of a man, had said as much. “Very few Indians are interested in our culture,” he told us once he had got comfortable with us. “They come here only for, you know, … boom-boom.” Yes, we know, we said, rolling our eyes.
There is one large group, mostly middle-aged men but with one matriarch type and a couple of young boys, who are excited that we are from ‘Hindostan’. It’s a reaction we have encountered throughout the country, and a welcome departure from the apathy, apprehension, or more often outright disgust with which Indian travellers are (somewhat justifiably) met in other countries. Their English is virtually non-existent but they are curious about the four of us – besides myself, there’s my wife Anjali and two friends, Rajiv and Srijit. Satisfied that Anjali and I are a couple, and that Rajiv is married but travelling alone, one of them asks Srijit, at 30 the youngest of us, “No madam?” When Srijit laughs and says, “Not yet”, he points to a younger man in their group and says with some pride, “Only 25, but two…” Not sure of the word for children, he gestures with his hands to indicate kids.
Also on the train are members of a sports team – young men in yellow and black track suits – that we learn later is a local football team called Kokand 1912. More about them later.
We disembark at Kokand – though all English sources call the city that, the signs read Qo’qon, which is the way it’s spelt locally.
The stations in Uzbekistan, following a Russian precedent, are called Voksal. There are a couple of interesting tales behind this, one apocryphal and one more rooted in reality. According to the first one, which like all fake etymologies is the more attractive story, a Russian delegation visiting Vauxhall in London to inspect the construction of the London & South Western Railway in 1840, mistook the name of the station for the generic name of the building type. So, when Russia started building its own railway, the stations were named vokzal as a result of that misunderstanding. The trouble with that origin story is that the first public railway in Russia had already been built by 1837. This line ran from Saint Petersburg via Tsarskoye Selo to Pavlovsk Palace, where a music and entertainment pavilion called the Vokzal in homage to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was established. As the entrance to the station was through the gardens, the name soon came to be applied to the station itself.
Our welcome wagon is, to put it mildly, startling. It’s a full-scale tour bus, and we fear for a moment that we are going to be clubbed with some group. But it turns out that the bus had been hired by the operator for other purposes, but turned out to be available for the afternoon of our arrival. So the four of us ended up having the behemoth all to ourselves. Aziz Odilov, our earnest cicerone, even tried at one point to address us using the PA system, but we were having none of it.
Everywhere during the trip – in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand before this – we have travelled luxuriously and without the slightest hitch. We have been met at every point of transit by courteous and friendly English-speaking guides, led by them to air-conditioned, spacious vans, and taken to wherever the itinerary required. Ever since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev opened up the country to the outside world after taking over from his predecessor Islam Karimov (who died in 2016 after 25 years of authoritarian rule), Uzbekistan has massively upgraded its tourism industry, seeing it as a major potential contributor to the country’s economy and to its image. Our visit was thus fortuitously timed, as we were in early on an experience whose boom times lie ahead.
It’s an amazing country to visit. Its location at the heart of the Silk Route – it’s often referred to as the Crossroads of Asia – have given it a history and heritage that’s as glamorous as it is gory. The overweening ambition of many of its rulers – from the enlightened and progressive Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th and 9th centuries to the Persian Samanids who succeeded them, from the Mongol Horde to the Timurid Dynasty in medieval times, and from the Khanates of Bukhara and Kokand to the Russian Empire that invaded the region in the 19th century – ensured that each of them left behind magnificent edifices as symbols of their own greatness. Of course, many were destroyed in succession, a trend that continued into the first half of Soviet rule, but from the 1960s onwards, the USSR also played a key role in restoring many of the grand palaces, gates, mosques, and madrassahs (repurposed for non-religious use) to sparkling newness.
The result is a country with few of the trappings of capitalist monoculture which make so many cities around the world feel the same, but with spectacular architecture of monumental proportions, and an unexplored culture rich in unique arts and crafts. Add to that varied landscapes – from vast desert plains to snowy mountains – and warm, open people who are hospitable sans pareil, and you have a near-perfect tourist destination.
Our first stop, after a quick but filling lunch at the oddly-named Kafe Restoran, was the Palace of Khudayar Khan, Kokand’s touristic showstopper. Built in the early 1870s, it originally had seven courtyards lined with a total of 114 rooms. But the unfortunate Khan could barely savour the delights of his lavish new residence. Within two years of its completion, he was forced into exile in Russia as the outcome of a rebellion by his subjects. The revolt gave the Russians a convenient excuse to move into the region, squelch the khanate, and blow up parts of the sprawling palace.
Today, extensive restoration has brought life and colour back to the vast gardens, the palace exterior, and two of the courtyards with their surrounding rooms. At the front of the palace, the room where the Khan’s secretaries and aides would screen visitors, and the throne room where he would then receive them, have been meticulously re-created to reflect that era. A centrepiece of the latter is a 3D model of the palace in its time of full glory.
Other rooms have been made over to a museum of local history which Aziz shows us avidly. My companions soon bore of the deep immersion he is treating us to, and drift off to loiter in the courtyards. As a result, they miss an interesting item – an old, yellowing photo of a football team called Muskomanda (meaning ‘Muslims’). Formed in 1912 by Kokand residents – making it the first football team anywhere in Central Asia composed of locals (other teams of the time were exclusively Russian) – it is the predecessor of the Kokand 1912 team that we encountered in the train. I told you I would come back to them.
After the engrossing history lesson, we do a quick trip to the Jami Masjid Museum, with its 22m minaret (rather endearing after the towering ones we have seen earlier in Bukhara and Samarkand) and the 100m-long aivan (covered portico) with 98 rosewood columns brought from India.
“Even now, if there are any repairs required,” Aziz says, “the wood is brought from India.”
Also within the masjid premises is a small museum devoted to ceramics, dolls, and suzani embroidery from the region. But the sweet spot of the complex is elsewhere – tucked away in one corner is a small room where a couple of vessels rest on wood fires. On these, a mix of sugar syrup, egg whites, and honey is being reduced to a thick paste to which – depending on desired variations – sesame seeds, dry fruits, nuts, and sometimes even vegetables will be added. The concoction will then be levelled out in large trays that are placed in the sun long enough for the paste to thicken and crystallise. It is then cut into rectangular pieces, and voila – delicious halva! We pack a few boxes of different types that are quickly demolished over the next few days. Hardly any halva makes it back home, as originally intended.
Our bespoke bus carries us from Kokand to Rishton, some 45 minutes distant on a well-maintained highway. The Soviet Union added some marvellous infrastructure to the country, and the Uzbeks have taken good care of it all since independence in 1991. The villages and towns, despite being in great shape, have enough of a touch of the traditional to keep them full of character.
Rishton is the wellspring of an outpouring of beautiful pottery that floods the bozors all over Uzbekistan, and even neighbouring countries. There are reputedly some thousand-odd potters here who make their living from the craft. The secret, Aziz tells us, is in “the local soil. It produces the best clay for pottery without any additives apart from water.”
This claim is repeated by Farkhod, a student of master potter Usta (we would add a ‘d’ to that) Ravshan Todjidinov, who shows us around the Koron ceramics factory in Rishton. The quantity, variety, and quality of work being done there is jaw-dropping. We are given a full tour of the cramped, dingy rooms around the factory, taken through the entire process from the preparation of the clay, through the moulding of the numerous items, their drying and firing, and finally to the exquisite glazing and painting that each object is treated with.
Having seen the work-in-progress, we are taken upstairs to rooms overflowing with the most brilliantly-coloured works of clay art. There are tiny bowls, butterflies, and pomegranates; plates, cups, and jugs of every size; figurines and wall decorations by the hundreds; and tiled mosaics that are as big as a room. “Wish we could take these home,” Anjali whispers to me. “Imagine setting it up on the floor of one of our rooms. It would be like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle.”
Eventually, we do each cart off a sizeable booty for ourselves and as gifts for friends and family back home. The exchange rates (1 INR = 132.74 Uzbeki Som on the day of writing) and the very reasonable prices of Uzbeki products make shopping here a wonderful deal.
Loaded with our purchases, we travel to Fergana, which is to be our base for the few days we are in the valley. Fergana is the newest town in the valley that it is named after, having been set up in the 1870s – named Novy Margilon after the nearby city of Margilon – as a garrison town for the occupying Russian forces, and later renamed and developed further by the Soviets into an industrial centre.
We have been booked into the Taj Mahal Hotel, an atmospheric relic of the Soviet era that has, as far as we can tell, no connection with India at all. It’s a place steeped in Sovietness, where you can imagine revolution brewing in every room. Everything feels like it’s been left over from the Cold War period, and yet nothing is old really, just charmingly antiquated.
For dinner, we head across the road to the Traktir Ostrov Sokrovish (the Treasure Island Restuarant), which is something of a revelation. We gorge ourselves on the meat-and-potatoes Russian dishes, but the real stars are the desserts from the patisserie attached to the restaurant. The humongous slices of Napoleon pastry and the pastel-coloured macarons are both a visual delight and a diabetic’s nightmare.
Breakfast the next morning, we learn, is in the Taj Mahal Hotel’s basement, which is down so many flights of stairs, we feel like we’re descending into dungeons. Stepping into the restaurant, though, we are left breathless. It’s a large circular room, done up completely in red. There’s a central, circular dance floor around which are booths in alcoves with plush red sofas. The columns and walls are mirrored, and there is a bar – untended at that time of day – on one side. It’s like stepping into a nightclub from a ‘70s Bollywood movie. Any moment now, we feel, Helen or Zeenat Aman will sashay in, take a mike, and belt out a sultry number while a disco ball throws sparkling light around the room.
That doesn’t happen, though a sumptuous breakfast is laid out before us. The sausages and sunny-side-up eggs are arranged, a little creepily, to resemble a wide-eyed rooster with a ketchup cockscomb. There are crepes with honey, a charcuterie board, baskets of breads and buns, and overflowing cups of hot black coffee. Somehow, the waiter finds out that it’s Anjali’s birthday – Srijit and Rajiv surprised her with a cupcake from Traktir that they had smuggled out at night – and we are presented with a plate of Fergana plov, compliments of the house. It’s a weighty start to the day, and makes us want to plonk right back into bed.
We are almost an hour late coming down to the lobby, and Aziz – who was there at 9am as planned – is not happy. He admonishes us for our tardiness, not because he’s been kept waiting, but because it genuinely saddens him that we will have to cut our itinerary a little short as a result.
There’s no bus for us today, but a spacious Daewoo minibus. The one visible foreign element in Uzbekistan are the cars – GM and South Korean models are everywhere, though the larger transport vehicles, the buses and trucks, largely seem to be of Chinese make. In this boringly familiar brandscape, it’s a pleasure to spot the occasional Lada, Volga, Moskvitch, and other Soviet-vintage cars.
After the obligatory tour of Fergana’s natural history museum, where as usual we are co-opted for picture-taking by local visitors, we head north-east on the highway to Andijan. A little outside Fergana city limits, we draw up next to a small building on the edge of a vast orchard. On a small table at the roadside, a stocky old man stands next to a small table on which is a plate with pomegranates sliced open, and a digital weighing scale. Crates of the plump red fruit cosy up against the foot of the table.
The man, whose name we learn is Bahodur Rahimov, is the owner of the 300-hectare plantation that surrounds this little highway store. The pomegranate is Uzbekistan’s national fruit, and shows up in iconography, art, ceramics, and crafts of all kinds. In Samarkand, at the Gur-e-Amir, Amir Timur’s mausoleum, we had been shown a marble tub that, according to the guides, used to be filled with pomegranate juice for Timur’s soldiers to imbibe before they set off to war. Even Babur spoke longingly about the pomegranates of the Fergana Valley.
The Valley is, in fact, the fruitbasket of Uzbekistan. The drive to Andijan takes us past vast tracts of land devoted to the growing of grapes, apricots, plums, apples, melons, watermelons, and other fruit, besides the luscious pomegranate. This region is a bowl surrounded by mountains – the Tian Shan range on the north and the Pamirs in the south – and drained by the Kara and Naryn rivers, which flow down from these two ranges to meet in the centre of the valley to form the Syr Darya. It’s a fertile land, completely in contrast with the arid parts to the east of the country.
The Bolsheviks, when they took control of the region, converted much of the land into collectives that grew cotton, a very thirsty crop. The move made Uzbekistan the second largest exporter of cotton in the world (while it was part of the USSR – it’s at number 10 on the list now), but it devastated local agriculture and pomology, and effectively made slaves of the farmers and horticulturists. It’s an inertia that has been difficult to shed, but fruit and vegetable production is coming back to the fore, with the government freeing up more and more land each year for the purpose. Last year, for example, a government bulletin proclaimed that close to 100,000 hectares would be given over from growing cotton and grain to fruits and vegetables.
By the time we reach Andijon, it is lunchtime, and despite the huge breakfast, we are hungry again. This really tends to happen on holidays, doesn’t it? At the end of every meal we ate during our 10-day trip, we would gasp and wheeze, and swear that we were done with meat for the rest of the day, only to find ourselves ravenous enough to eat a horse in a few hours’ time. For once, that cliché was fitting, because we did end up eating horse meat with our plov in a few places.
At the Irak Yo’li (meaning Silk Route) restaurant where we stop to eat, there’s no horse meat, but the plov and the shashlyks are delectable. They have an open kitchen going, so I stand and watch the skewers of beef and lamb browning over coals, the aroma getting my gastric juices flowing. Then I join the others on the suffa (the word ‘sofa’ originates from the name) – a large bed-like bench on which you sit with a table in the middle to eat from.
Aziz is teaching the group the tea-drinking protocol. Every meal in Uzbekistan begins and ends with cups of green (kuk choy) or black tea (kora choy). I am not much of a tea drinker, but the others have taken to this tradition enthusiastically. The eldest in any group pours the tea which comes in large blue-pottery teapots with matching pialas (small bowls without handles, and also where the Hindustani word for a cup originates). First, a small cup-warmer is poured into each piala, swirled around the bowl, and poured back into the pot. Then a full cup is poured out in one of the cups, and returned to the pot. This is done thrice, before all the pialas are filled. After that, the ‘host’ breaks pieces off the large nons (Uzbek breads) that generally go with the tea, and hands them out to the guests.
Plov – the same word as the Arabic ‘pilaf’ and the Hindustani ‘pulao’ – is the staple of Uzbek meals. It’s a relatively simple dish of rice, meat, and vegetables cooked together, but there are many variations in what goes in and how they all come together. Each city or region has its own take on the plov, and each claims precedence over the others in the matter. Wherever you go in the country, you cannot escape being asked which plov you like the most. Whatever your opinion in the matter may be, it bodes well if you say it’s the one that you are eating at the moment. There is enough variation from one type to another for each of us to have formed different favourites based on our individual tastes. Mine is the Bukhara plov, which is a sweeter variety with raisins and slivers of yellow carrots. At the huge and bustling Hotel Magistra (meaning ‘Highway’) where we had had it, it had been crammed with juliennes of beef, topped with rondelles of horse meat and whole quail eggs, and served with accompaniments of herb-flecked yogurt and a tomato-and-cucumber salad.
The Fergana plov that we are now having is greasier, contains sliced potatoes, and is topped with halves of boiled eggs (regular hen’s eggs). On Aziz’s suggestion, we have also ordered bowls of soup-like mutton stew and several varieties of shashlyk. It’s a delicious combination, but as always we struggle to get through all the food that is on the table. At the end of the meal, the others indulge in more kuk choy – they say it really helps wash down the greasy meatiness of Uzbek meals – while I wander around taking photos.
Virtually next door to Irak Yo’li is one of the focal points of our trip – a complex built to commemorate Babur, who was born here in Andijan. Set near the top of a large park landscaped onto a hillside, the Babur Literary Museum is a teal-domed building overlooking the Andijan countryside where the founder of the Mughal Empire grew up. But when we get there, we find, to our consternation, that the museum is closed for renovations. Scaffolding and debris surrounds the entrance, and workmen stand on wooden platforms painting and sanding the exterior of the building.
Aziz walks off to figure out if there’s someone who can authorise entry into the museum for. We wander around the park looking at what else it contains. Up above the museum, near the very top of the slope, there’s a small pavilion with a grey marble grave. The headstone reads, in Uzbek, Arabic, and English: “Sacred remains of our Great ancestor Zahiriddin Muhammad Bobur taken from his graves in Agra and Kabul is buried here” (sic). Lower down the hillside, well below the museum building is a bronze statue of the man himself.
Suddenly, Aziz comes hurrying back and gestures for us to come quickly. He has located the Director of the museum, and has got her permission to allow us a sneak tour inside the museum. We hustle in, and Aziz shows us around. There is one big hall with some showcases displaying costumes, armour, and weaponry from Babur’s era. The high walls are painted with pastel-shaded murals depicting scenes from the ruler’s life. The style is reminiscent of Mughal miniatures.
Off the main hall is a small room which houses many versions of the Baburnama, as well as other literary and scholarly works related to or about the man. Babur was a cultured man, who wrote lyric poetry in both Persian and Turkic, and avidly studied the arts and sciences. The Baburnama is widely considered to be the first-ever autobiography by a Muslim, and provides unprecedented insights into the times and into the mind of the ruler of what would become a vast empire. I had bought the book in anticipation of the trip, and it has been quite fascinating reading it and experiencing Uzbekistan with that perspective in my mind.
By the time we head back, with a quick sortie to the Jahon Bozori market, dusk is falling. It’s the end of autumn (Aziz charmingly pronounces the word with a vocalised ‘n’, so it sounds like ‘Ottoman’), and the days are short, but it’s perfect weather for the trip. On the highway, we see an unusual sight. From a distance, it looks like a police car with its emergency lights flashing, but when we come close to it, we see that it’s just a cutout of the vehicle, but with functional LED lights on top. Aziz tells us that these fake cars work as an active deterrent to speeding, as they are set up at different points from day to day, and drivers can’t tell from far off if they are actual police vehicles.
The next day, we head to Margilon, an important centre of silk production since the beginnings of the Silk Route in the 2nd century BCE. The Yodgorlik Silk Factory is on the itinerary of any visitors who come this way. Established in 1972 by the Soviets, its name – the first part of which is the same as the Hindustani word ‘yaadgar’ – translates to ‘heritage’. Names such as this are reflective of Uzbekistan’s mixed-cultural history, combining a Tajik Persian root word with a Russian suffix. This combination is also seen in the names of many Uzbeks, such as Okhunova Inoyatkhon, who has been working at the factory since 1983.
Inoyatkhan is matron of the first stop of the factory tour, an adobe structure in which silkworm cocoons are boiling away in large vats. Inoyatkhan extracts the gossamer-fine silk threads from the unfortunate worms, and along with her more reticent colleague Masturna, spools and spins them into fibre that will pass on to the next stages of production.
The factory employs some 450 people, about 60% of them women, and produces about 6,000 sq m of silk every month. In other parts of the factory, you are shown how the dyes are made from natural ingredients, how the silk is dyed, and how it’s woven by hand or on power looms into carpets and rugs, scarves, dress fabrics, and other products.
At the end of the tour is the inevitable shop. The wares on display are beautiful, but the prices are rather high. It’s a pay-off that you have to evaluate for yourself – take the time to wade through numerous shops in the bazaars to pick up ikat silk fabrics and clothing at cheaper rates, or pay the premiums here to get a lot of it in one place. The decision is easy for me, at any rate – I hate shopping, and if I can take care of most of it in one place, that’s what I’m opting for.
It’s our last day in the Fergana Valley, and our last stop is the rambling Kumtepa Bazaar. We wander the maze of stalls and shops that have just about anything on sale. Our first order of business is to pick up a new bag to fit all the stuff we have been accumulated over the course of the trip. The next is to fill in the gaps in the bag and in our gifting lists with things from Kumtepa. Anjali picks up a complete set of blue-pottery teapot-and-pialas, as do each of the boys. There are the typical card-backed cloth hats of the region, the black ones for men with symbolic designs that represent the region the wearer is from, and the more colourful, feathered and spangled ones for women. There are even miniature versions of the caps that one can hang from rucksacks or the rear-view mirrors of cars. There are varieties of kurt (pronounced ‘kurrut’), dense salty cheese in different shapes and flavours, and many many types of halva. The place is a shoppers’ delight.
Aziz is hurrying us along, nervous at how close we are getting to train departure time. Rail services are punctual here – the train out from Tashkent three days ago left at 8.07am, precisely as advertised – and foreigners need to go through a process of verification before boarding, which takes a little time. But we eventually get to the station with ample time to spare, and settle into the Ozbekiston train for the 4.5-hour journey back to the capital. It’s been a bit of a whirl, but so rich with experience, much like the entire Uzbekistan trip itself.