Uzbekistan Part 2 – Fergana Valley

From Tashkent, we took a 4-hour train ride east to the city of Kokand in the Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan. The Fergana Valley is a rich agricultural region spanning parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and long-standing border disputes make the ride from Tashkent to Kokand quite circuitous. We didn’t mind, though. The trains are new and excellent, and the in-cabin entertainment system introduced us to the raucous world of Uzbek stand-up comedy. People were L-O-V-I-N-G it. Like, grown men were crying from laughter. Sadly the jokes were lost on us but it was fun to observe the hysteria.

We were met in Kokand by our Fergana guide Kamil and driver Rahim. Spending a couple of days with these guys really made Fergana Valley a highlight of our Uzbek trip. They were funny, hospitable, and willing to ‘break script’, a refreshing treat after the sterility of Tashkent. In addition to seeing the sights in Fergana Valley we came away with some insight into the economy and religious spheres of this country that we understood so little about.

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Lunch in Fergana with Kamil (front) and Rahim (rear). We loved these guys!
Kokand, Fergana, and Margilan

Kokand was once a crossroad of ancient trade routes, and up until the 1880’s was the seat of a fairly large state called the Khanate of Kokand. Unfortunately the Soviets destroyed most of the interesting buildings in Kokand, but there are a few remaining vestiges. Highlights were the Khudoyar-Khan Palace, which was built by the last king of Kokand, several 18th-century madrasahs, and a nice Juma (Friday) Mosque. Many of the mosques in Uzbekistan have a very unusual architecture, with an open-sided prayer hall full of carved wooden pillars and an elaborately decorated wooden ceiling. In a desert climate like Uzbekistan, wood was a luxury product, and these mosques projected the wealth of the patrons who built them.

In addition to Kokand, we visited the weird-synthetic Soviet city of Fergana and the neighboring and much-more-organic city of Margilan. Evidently when the Russians tried to settle Margilan people got ‘sick’, so they built Fergana City as a creepy and sterile alternative. Fergana City is relatively unappealing has lots of really big wide streets, ‘Freedom Squares’, and a pantheon of Soviet-sized statues. By contrast, Margilan was sleepy but lived in and had some fairly lively bazaars despite it being Ramadan (more on that below).

The Uzbek Economy and Craft Production

We saw a huge array of produce at the Margilan bazaar, and it seems like half of Uzbekistan is a farm. We were surprised when Kamil told us that all of this produce is grown for the domestic market, and in fact the government prohibits the export of crops by individual farmers. In addition, all land is owned by the state and individuals can merely ‘lease’ their farms, a sure fire way to make sure no one gets too rich or powerful. Any commodities of value – things like cotton, natural gas, and gold – are state-owned, and the government has a policy of ‘import substitution’ to subsidize the manufacture of goods that would be otherwise imported. As a result of these policies, the Uzbek economy is extremely insular and any foreign investments or private business ventures are heavily dis-incentivized.

There is one exception to this lack of investment, however, in the area of artisan trades and handicrafts. No one wants to invest in farms or businesses that could be disrupted by the government, but a handful of successful Uzbeks have invested deeply in the knowledge and technology of various trades and traditional crafts. Pottery, weaving, carpet making, and woodcarving are huge business in Uzbekistan and we visited a number of workshops in Fergana. At first I was skeptical – we’ve seen a lot of ‘traditional workshops’ over the years, and 99% sell Chinese-made junk. Luckily, my skepticism was for naught – the Uzbek workshops were incredible. I have honestly never seen such beautiful crafts and it was exciting to meet the intelligent and creative craft-masters. Of the many excellent workshops we visited in Uzbekistan, two in Fergana Valley stand out: the Rustam Usmanov ceramic workshop in Rishtan and the Yodgorlik Silk Factory near Margilan.

The ceramic workshop in Rishtan is my heaven. The head ceramic master Rustam Usmanov worked for 10 years in the largest ceramic factory in the USSR, but after the factory closed in 1998 he started an independent venture. His workshop employs several master potters and about 10 decorative artisans who paint the pottery. Many of these artisans also have their own workshops, but they often work as a collective to pool their resources. Several years back Mr. Usmanov developed a relationship with the International Folk Art Alliance and Silk Road Collections, who together put on an annual craft show and exhibition in Santa Fe. This year 12 artists and craftspeople from Uzbekistan are selected to sell their crafts at the exhibition and this show provides a major income stream for participating workshops. I definitely plan to go next year!

We also loved visiting the Yodgorlik Silk Factory near Fergana, which is an impressive investment in the ancient and labor-intensive technology of silk production. Uzbekistan is the birthplace of silk, and this factory is one of the most famous ikat weaving centers in the world. I can’t believe how much time goes into cleaning the silk cocoons, spinning the raw silk threads, designing the ikat pattern, dying the silk skeins with the pattern, and finally weaving the cloth. It was such a treat to see this whole process, and I would love to do a ‘craft boot-camp’ in Uzbekistan. I think if I had like 3 months I could master some of this…

In case you can’t tell, these craft workshops were a major highlight for me, and I think that even Jeff thought it was ‘pretty neat’. We (okay, I) went a little nuts buying pottery and cloth, so our house will have an ‘Arabian Nights’ vibe. I can’t wait.

Islam in Uzbekistan

As we traveled between craft workshops across Fergana Valley, we had time for some interesting conversations with Kamil about religion in Uzbekistan. Before our trip, we’d read that Uzbekistan is ‘95% Sunni Muslim’ and we prepared accordingly (i.e. headscarves and a stash of snacks since it was Ramadan). Our actual experience in the country was such a divergence from our expectations.

Turns out, Uzbekistan is not really a Muslim country. At least not what I (and everyone else in the world) know as Muslim. Pork, alcohol, and dog ownership are popular. The call to prayer is banned, which is a huge bummer since I love it. Very few women wear headscarves, and those who do must abide by the ‘correct’ way of wearing a headscarf (tied behind the head, not under the chin). I was actually told not to wear a headscarf inside mosques… odd.

And Ramadan? Yeah… not really observed. One of our guides told us that she just pays charities ~12,000 SOM, or about $1.5 US, to skip a day of fasting. That means you can get out of all of Ramadan for like $45, which evidently the entire country was doing. This weirdness is due to several generations of the government restrictions on religious expression, ostensibly to combat the spread of extremism. True, the country does border Afghanistan, but these policies are just a Soviet holdover to maintain the authoritarian government’s stranglehold of power. It was very, very weird, but fascinating to see.

After a lovely couple of days exploring Fergana Valley and learning about the real Uzbekistan, it was time for us to head south and plant our feet firmly on the tourist trail again. We caught the train in Margilan and headed to Uzbekistan’s crown jewels: Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva.

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