September 11, 2016: Our one full day in the Fergana valley began with a visit to the Kumtepa Bazaar in Margilan. This market sprawled over a big area, part covered, part not, and was very clearly a market for the crowds of locals, not tourists. Anything they might need, from beds and wardrobes, through jackets and shoes, to car parts and motor oil, was for sale somewhere in the vast area. I never saw anything that could be considered a souvenir. I didn’t find any meat for sale, but I did find produce, including piles of golden onions heaped on the ground. And I found an eating section off to the side, where men sipped tea and kebabs were grilled in clouds of smoke.
Lots to see, not so much to say, so I’m just going to post a few of the photos I took.
September 10, 2016: Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a reproduction of the Han dynasty “Flying Horse of Gansu”. The original statue is old (likely second century CE), but the horse’s pedigree is older still, as it was descended from the blood-sweating heavenly horses of Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, first brought to China at the end of the second century BCE. The desire for those horses, wanted for the fight against the pesky nomadic Xiongnu, was what drove the Chinese to first open trade routes to the west.
Look at the Fergana Valley today on a satellite view, and you will see a fertile area some 190 miles long and 100 miles wide, wider at the east than the west, ringed by mountains, and watered by the Syr Darya, formerly the Jaxartes: a coherent whole. But look at a political map and you will see a jigsaw, with the valley split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the irregular boundaries drawn by Stalin in a textbook example of “divide and rule”. Should you wish to follow one of the main branches of the Silk Road east from Dzizak in Uzbekistan, you would cross into Tajikistan to visit Khujand, founded as Alexandria the Furthest by Alexander the Great, go back into Uzbekistan for Kokand, Fergana and Margilan before entering Kyrgyzstan near Osh for the final leg to the Chinese border. You would, of course, have obtained the necessary visas beforehand… But even worse than the political jigsaw, or the forced end to the nomadic lifestyle, or the suppression of religion, was the Soviet insistence that the valley produce cotton. Although the valley was naturally fertile, cotton consumed far more water than had been needed before, and the resulting irrigation starved Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea to the point of ecological disaster.
Besides cotton, the area is known for crafts, and I was looking forward to visits to an important pottery and a silk factory. While I had visited silk factories before, I was interested in the ikat weaving that was a local specialty. I would love to visit the other parts of the valley, but for this trip I would just be in Uzbekistan. We set off from Tashkent the morning of day two of the tour, by car. Apparently, coaches were not allowed to cross the mountain passes. Normally I would have preferred the car, but since I was in the front seat, we were heading directly into the sun, and the AC was off most of the time, I felt I was being broiled. I was very happy to change seats when we stopped part way. At one point we had a good view of the new rail line from Tashkent that had just been finished – perhaps future tours will travel by train, now the line does not go through Tajikistan?
The mountains did not reach the snow-capped heights of those that flank the valley further east, but were nonetheless quite scenic. Still, I was glad to arrive in Kokand for some afternoon sightseeing (we had lunched on the way), although it was really too hot to fully appreciate the buildings and by common consent the last stop turned into a drive by. Rather than keep mentioning the heat in future posts, I will say now that afternoon temperatures were consistently in the mid to high 90s, and we frequently spent the early rather than the late afternoon sightseeing. When I provided feedback on the tour I suggested that it should run a bit later in the year – what made sense 30 years ago has been overtaken by global warming.
I did not take good notes that afternoon, but I did take photos, and I have the itinerary (plus books and the internet). Since one of the photos is of a sign saying “Kokand Regional Studies Museum” I know we visited Khudaya Khan’s Palace, as that is its current incarnation. Only 19 of the original 113 rooms were intact, a sad remnant of the time Kokand was the center of a powerful khanate. Admittedly the khanate was often at war with its neighbors, and the royal family was given to internecine strife, but it was the Russians who finally put an end to it in 1868, even before the palace was finished. Russian control did not lead to peace, as the valley was the source of numerous revolts against both the tsars and the Soviets. After independence the rise of Islamic extremism was met by a crackdown by then President Karimov, culminating in the 2005 Andijon Massacre (the casualty count, of unarmed protestors, ranges from the official 187 up to 1,500). The valley may look peaceful, but its history says otherwise.
But the standout for me was not the palace, but the Jummi (or Jami, or Juma) mosque. Once Kokand boasted 600 mosques and 15 madrassas, but few remain. This, in English the Friday mosque, dates only from the beginning of the 19th century, but the beautiful carving of the 30 foot open arcade on one side of the courtyard seemed timeless. The honeycomb carving at the top of the 98 supporting columns echoed some I had seen at the Abakh Hoja tomb in Kashgar, on the western edge of China. A reminder that it was not only merchandise that traveled the Silk Road, but ideas as well.
Then we traveled, by coach, another 55 miles to Fergana, where we would spend two nights in the Asia Fergana hotel. Another tour group hotel, this was part of a local chain we would encounter again further west.
One reason I chose the MIR tour of Uzbekistan was the small group size. On my tour there were just eleven of us: two trios (a couple with a woman friend), two duos (one couple, one pair of sisters), and me. Everyone was well-traveled, some had lived abroad, and several had used MIR before – one of the trios had met on a MIR tour of Iran the year before. Even better, everyone was friendly, and everyone was hyper-punctual. Only eight of us met up for introductions and lunch on the first day, as one trio was flying in from Seoul that afternoon, having chosen to avoid Istanbul.
Although there were only eleven of us, lunch, as with most meals, was at a tour-group-friendly restaurant (Taroma, in this case). Another group was already there, and an online check indicated that music and dance accompanied dinner. But I certainly couldn’t complain that we were underfed. The meal started with Indian-style samosas, followed by cream of potato soup, stuffed cabbage and peppers and dessert (which I mostly skipped). And bread, Central Asia’s other staple food, alongside plov. Not only is it a staple, it is treated with great reverence, and left over bread is never just thrown away. Cooked in a tandoor style oven, it comes in rounds, with a thick raised rim, the size and style varying with location. (One of the photos below is from Tashkent, and one from Bukhara.) However, it was always made from white flour, one of the bad carbs I was avoiding.
Sightseeing started after lunch, with a drive to the Chorsu bazaar. Chorsu means “four ways” or “crossroads”, and this area served traders even under the Soviets, who built the two-story dome that sheltered the main section, where meat, vegetables and spices were sold in clean and orderly surroundings. Less-favored vendors sat on the ground outside, and after giving us time for photos Abdu led us round the corner to a clothes section, offering both everyday gear and wedding finery.
The day was hot and getting hotter, but we pressed on to the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shoshi mausoleum, which held the sarcophagus of a tenth century doctor, philosopher and poet, although most of the building dated only to the 16th century, followed by the Moyie Mubarek Library Museum which sheltered the 7th century Osman Quran, said to be the world’s oldest. The library held a number of other interesting Qurans, but unfortunately no photographs were allowed. More beautiful tiled buildings flanked the large Khast Imom square, including the residence of Uzbekistan’s grand mufti (think archbishop).
After this visit to old Tashkent (although a number of the buildings were new) we returned to the present day at the Crying Mother Monument. Built in 1999, it honored and memorialized the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers who died in WWII. Their names were recorded along the corridors leading to the weeping mother and the eternal flame. This was clearly not a memorial to heroism or glory, and I find it interesting that war memorials are becoming less grandiose. I was reminded of the memorial to the Russian dead from the Afghan war I had seen in Ekaterinburg, centered on a tired soldier leaning on his rifle. I found this memorial particularly moving.
We finished the day walking through Independence Square, where we chatted with some English-speaking kids, and were introduced to the storks I had noticed in the morning. A guard warned me off photographing one of the buildings, although I think I had already done so earlier. Then Abdu went off to the airport to meet the final three group members, one trio went off to the ballet, and the others returned to the hotel for food and sleep. I chose to go back to Bar Sylva. Since I passed on the home made wine this time (too sweet), the bill, with tip, was only 36,000 som (about 12 USD at the then current exchange rate, about 10 USD today).
September 8-9, 2016: Despite my preference for traveling on the ground, I have been through a fair number of airports in the last 16 years. Until I flew into Tashkent the clear winner of “worst airport ever” was Kathmandu, although Newark got a strong dishonorable mention. But there was no question that Tashkent was much, much worse. Fortunately, I had looked Tashkent up on sleepinginairports.net, and was forewarned. I also had the (intentional) advantage of arriving in daylight, with no other international flights providing competition. (The Uzbekistan Airlines flight was just fine. I seemed to be the only non-Asian, but my seat mate was friendly and the food was edible.) Still, the scrum of determined, shopping-bag-laden women fighting for position ahead of passport control was not my idea of fun, and nor was a long wait in the heat.
Duly admitted to Uzbekistan I now needed to claim my bag. After spending too long watching other people’s luggage emerge onto the carousel, it dawned on me that my one small bag was probably in the pile on the far side of the belt. Taking advantage of a temporary stoppage I climbed across the belt and was able to disinter my bag and head for customs. They found me uninteresting, although I still needed to put my checked and carry-on bags through an X-ray machine before escaping the building. It had taken me an hour, apparently three hours is not unusual. The head of MIR’s Tashkent office, plus the guide for my tour, Abdu, had come to meet me, although it didn’t look like they had expected me to emerge so quickly, as they were a couple of rows back in the crowd opposite the terminal. Being driven into town, instead of sorting out public transport, was a pleasant change, and I also appreciated that Abdu handled currency exchange for me (I was carrying an assortment of crisp USD, although since I don’t shop I really only needed the hundreds. My bank had had its usual difficulty in finding enough brand new bills.)
While Tashkent was probably founded in the first or second century BCE, and acquired its current name in the 11th century CE, it was effectively wiped out (like the other Central Asian oasis towns) by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century. After a long recovery it fell to the Russians in 1865, and remained part of the USSR under the Communists. But another disaster occurred in 1966 when much of the town was leveled by an earthquake, leaving 300,000 people homeless. While the broad avenues (plenty of rooms for tanks) and ranked apartment buildings had a definite Soviet feel, the effect was softened, as in all Uzbekistan towns, by plenty of trees.
The tour hotel, the Shodlik Palace (eventually renamed by the group the Shoddy Palace), turned out to be in a food desert. Abdu volunteered to go out to dinner with me, but the first place we tried was empty as it was really a lunch place. A couple of streets further on he dropped me off at Bar Sylva, while he went next door for plov. I’m sorry if my rejection of plov seems unadventurous, but the fact that plov was Central Asia’s signature dish was, for me, one of the downsides of visiting. For those who don’t know, plov is basically white rice, cooked originally in mutton fat, although these days sometimes in oil, with mutton. White rice was on the list of “bad” carbs I was avoiding, and the mutton kebabs I had eaten in neighboring Xinjiang had ranged from barely acceptable to flat out inedible. I was sure I would wind up eating plov at some point, but meanwhile I was happy to dine on chicken and mushrooms.
The first group meeting was at lunchtime the next day, so I had the morning to myself. I set out, map in hand, in search of the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan. I crossed a nice canal, passed a serried rank of fountains, and than spotted a Romanov-style building I thought might be my target. Not so, originally the home of the exiled Grand Duke N. K. Romanov, it was now in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The security guard pointed out instead a Soviet era construction with plenty of steps and a stern facade. Sadly, I did not feel that the exhibits lived up to the description n Lonely Planet, aside from some nice 4-5th century BCE pieces, although this was partly due to the fact that the top floor was closed while the exhibition on the recently deceased President was revamped.
I retraced my steps, taking time to photograph the fountains and a statue of some attractive long-necked birds crowning the entrance to a formal walkway. I would meet the birds again in the afternoon, with the group, and learn that they were pelicans, an important symbol of good luck, decorating the entrance to Independence Square
I apologize for the long gap in postings. The MIR tour of Uzbekistan was too busy for me to have time to post, even if I had had decent internet connections. I did get the blog as far as Istanbul while traveling but I decided to wait to tackle Uzbekistan until I got home. However, I arrived right before Thanksgiving, and then started having problems with muscle pain. I’m still having problems, despite targeted exercises and supplements, and have little spare energy. I have finally bought a much-needed new mattress, which I hope will help when it arrives next week. I don’t like drugs, but gave in and took aspirin today, so am going to try and finish this while I feel better.
I first realized that the Silk Road and Central Asia were becoming tourist destinations a couple of decades ago, while visiting eastern China. I had been vaguely aware of the importance of the land-based trade routes across Eurasia, before they were eclipsed by the sea routes pioneered by the Portuguese and exploited by the Dutch and the British, but when I started reading up on the area I found out how little I really knew. Besides the books on the Great Game between Russia and Britain for control of access to India, the books on the early explorations by archaeologists and adventurers, the books on the tribes and the textiles and the merchandise of the caravan routes, I also read guide books. Not that there were many – Lonely Planet, Trailblazer and Odyssey. But actually getting there didn’t go so well.
In 2001 I traveled Beijing to Islamabad around and across Xinjiang’s Taklamaklan desert and over the spectacular Karakorum Highway with a small Intrepid tour group. Unfortunately, we crossed the border into Pakistan the day of the 9/11 attacks, and left the country rather earlier than intended. In 2009 I visited some of the western end of the skein of routes that made up the “Silk Road” in Georgia, Armenia and the Middle East – the trip that started this blog. But despite two round the world trips in 2004 and 2010 I never made into Central Asia.
Finally, in 2016, realizing that I was getting neither younger nor healthier, I took another look at visiting Iran and the five “stans” that make up Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It dawned on me that the reason I had been having difficulty planning a trip was that I was trying to do too much, and that if I scaled back to the most important sights I might actually get there. It was a close contest, but given I was suffering from low energy at the time, I prioritized Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva over the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
I also decided that for a first visit to the area I should look into tour groups. Given that I wanted three nights in Samarkand and Bukhara, plus visits to the Fergana valley and Khiva, I didn’t have a lot of choice. I settled on MIR, which had been visiting the area for 30 years and had a good reputation, although I was not happy with the entire itinerary (I had no interest in a yurt stay – been there, done that three times – or the art gallery in Nukus) but it came closest and took a maximum of twelve travelers. An internet friend was going to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with Explore! but I hadn’t forgotten my less than stellar experience with them in Jordan, and I was willing to go a bit more upmarket for this trip. (It turned out that she had a very good guide in Kyrgyzstan and a very bad guide in Uzbekistan.)
September 5-7, 2016: The centerpiece of this year’s trip was a two week tour of Uzbekistan, starting in Tashkent. Getting to Tashkent from London, I discovered, would require a change of planes. I usually book my own air directly with the relevant airline, but this time I thought it safer to have the tour company, MIR, do it, so I had back up in case anything went wrong. But MIR’s initial suggestion had me changing planes in Moscow and arriving in Tashkent at 2:30 am. Turned out that if I wanted to arrive in Tashkent in daylight I would need to fly Uzbekistan Airlines, not Turkish, as MIR seemed to prefer, and would need to at least overnight between planes.
Stopping off in Riga was an attractive idea, but would put me into Tashkent three days early. Baku intrigued me, but I thought I would need an expensive visa (I later discovered that a transit visa might have worked). That left Istanbul, a city I have enjoyed visiting in the past, but in a country currently suffering political and security issues. Still, I figured that if I booked the rather nice WOW airport hotel I had used when in transit to Georgia, I could always hang out there in the event of serious trouble.
The trouble, of course, duly arrived in the form of the airport bombing in June, and the abortive coup in July, but fortunately I didn’t get to Istanbul until these were well over. There were a great many more very large Turkish flags flying than I remembered from past visits, and the crowds in Sultanahmet were much diminished (although the carpet sellers were still active), but my visit was unaffected. I did keep my reservation at the airport hotel, where I found myself staying in the five star property instead of the four star next door I thought I had booked, and I did eat dinner there both nights, but that was because I needed to get up early two mornings running.
While the WOW hotels are very convenient for the airport – one stop on the metro or a short shuttle ride – getting to central Istanbul by public transport takes an hour, and I had been invited to breakfast near Taksim Square by a long time Fodor’s poster. But early rising was a small price to pay for the time I spent with the charming and cultured OC and his equally charming and cultured wife, not to mention their adorable grandson. In addition, breakfast was delicious – I still remember the chestnut honey – and the apartment had a killer view of the Bosphorus. OC’s wife and grandson were headed for the couple’s other base in Izmir, and kindly dropped me off at my morning sightseeing objective, Dolmabahce Palace.
Dolmabahce was built for the 31st Sultan in the mid 1800s, after he decided Topkapi was too old-fashioned and uncomfortable. The cost of the ornate, baroque edifice was so great that it contributed to the Ottoman Empire’s default in 1875. Later the palace became the summer home of Kemal Ataturk, and he died in the palace on November 10, 1938. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized this when I set out to visit on November 10, 2009, and the crowds were so big I decided to try later. Later had now arrived, but while the crowds were indeed much diminished, the size of the groups shuttled through the building was still too large for enjoyable sightseeing, and the rooms were almost oppressively ornate. I had a better time eating lunch in their cafe, although the views of the Bosphorus easily outshone the food.
I spent the afternoon enjoying still more views of the Bosphorus, this time on a cruise. I had done a Bosphorus cruise back in 1998, and taken the ferry to the Princes’ Islands in 2006, but more recently I had stayed on land. The day was fine, and the banks were lined with interesting buildings. I sat back and let the sights flow past me. The boat was actually a water version of a hop-on, hop-off, bus, but it was late enough in the day I just stayed on.
Afterwards I took a tram to Sultanahmet to pay my respects to one of my favorite buildings, the Blue Mosque. I didn’t go inside this time, just admired the beautiful exterior. Stopping off for coffee afterwards was a mistake, though, as I headed back to my airport hotel during the rush hour.
Next morning I took the airport shuttle to the terminal to board my flight. Tashkent was next!
September 2-5, 2016: My journey from Sydney Sussex in Cambridge to LSE’s Grosvenor House on Drury Lane went without a hitch – train to Liverpool Street station, add money to my Oyster card, tube to Holborn, short walk past the Freemason’s Hall I had enjoyed visiting on my last trip to London. Check-in, somewhat later in the day, did not go smoothly, however. The room I had been assigned was on the ground floor facing a narrow alley, with mostly frosted windows and less room than I remembered from previous visits. I went back to the front desk to point out that it was too dark and too narrow for a multi-night stay. The second room was a big surprise – I was upgraded to a suite almost at the top of the building. I had a big sitting room with multiple views, a separate bedroom – and a narrow kitchen and tiny bathroom just like the regular rooms.
Having spent eight nights in London – in the same LSE student dorm – the previous year, I did not have an ambitious agenda this time. I had booked an architecture tour of the King’s Cross area, reputedly much transformed, for the Saturday, hoped to join a National Trust walk from Richmond to Ham House on the Sunday with my younger sister and her daughter, and had a ticket for a Noel Coward revival at a tiny theater in Earls Court. On my last day, I would eat breakfast at Delauney and then for lunch try the food at the Indian YMCA much praised on Fodors.
Aside from the Indian meal, which I found very disappointing, everything went well. The architecture tour, arranged by Open-City, was sold out, but the group was small enough I had no trouble hearing the guide. The station itself had changed since I last saw it, with a soaring blue glass canopy over a pedestrian zone. And north of the station the transformation was remarkable. New buildings were still going up, and as Google was moving it’s headquarters there, they will have input into future buildings. Prices will probably rise considerably as a result, although affordable housing was a feature of the existing developments. It had not previously occurred to me that Regent’s Canal ran behind the station, although I had once enjoyed a boat ride on it from Little Venice to Camden, and there was now a stepped grassy terrace overlooking it. All-in-all, I was impressed both by the tour and the developments. After the tour ended I ate lunch in St. Pancras station before taking in a Shakespeare exhibition at the British Library.
Saturday night I took the tube over to Earl’s Court and the Finborough Theatre, which occupied a room over a pub. I had had extreme difficulty hearing the actors at the National the previous year, and thought a smaller venue would be safer – besides, I have always enjoyed Noel Coward. “Home Chat” had not been performed since its first run in 1927, but the opening night had drawn a good review in the Telegraph. A biting satire on sexism, I found it thoroughly enjoyable as well as still relevant – and I had no difficulty hearing.
Sunday morning I took the tube still further out, to Richmond. I had renewed my membership in the Royal Oak Foundation, the US partner of the National Trust, and Ham House was one of the few London National Trust properties I had not seen. Plus, looking for activities in London, I had discovered a Thames River Festival, and the NT was offering a guided walk to Ham House on September Sundays as part of it. My concerns about possible rain proved unfounded, although the day stayed grey.
I met up with my sister and my niece in a popular coffee shop just outside the station, and then joined a handful of other people in front of the station to meet our two guides. We were introduced to some old buildings in Richmond itself, including the handsome Victorian public library, and the Gate House, one of the few remnants of the sixteenth century Richmond Palace, which was largely destroyed after Charles I’s execution. We went down to the river, then climbed above it, eventually reaching a viewpoint where the river made a sweeping curve below us, fringed with trees and with cattle grazing in the water meadows. Turned out that this view was the only one in England protected by Act of Parliament, and we all enjoyed it. We finished by walking a long, tree-lined avenue leading to Ham House, first pausing to watch the start of a polo match. Although I am glad to have seen the house, it was not from one of my favorite periods, and I really preferred the walk. We walked back to the station as well, but we followed the river.
Monday afternoon I set off for Horley, where I would spend a night in my usual B&B before catching a flight from Gatwick to Istanbul for the next stage of the trip. So far, I had been fortunate in avoiding Southern Railways, which was suffering from strike action (and, perhaps, from inefficiency), but it looked like I would be safe taking an afternoon train from London Bridge station. Alas, no. I had to change trains on the way. Still, all my other train trips had worked well, and all but one of my bus and coach rides. I would have no hesitation in planning another UK trip using public transport.