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.