Our first foray into Uzbekistan was right at the border with Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyzstan, the land of Horse Games and Golden Smiles) in the Fergana Valley where we arrived after a somewhat tense but successful border crossing. Crossing borders in Central Asia always seem stressful: pain killers are banned in most countries, and anyone carrying the usual precautionary bag of emergency medicines can suddenly be turned into an inadvertent drug smuggler.
The Fergana Valley is the most fertile area in Central Asia. It seems fertile in more than one way, as the area is known for its crops, crafts, and architecture. The old town of Margilan is famous for its silk, and one of the factories demonstrated the traditional methods of silk production, from unraveling the cocoons to weaving. Of course, silk-producing factories are ubiquitous in Asia, but I have to admit that I am always mesmerized by watching a worm produce what could become a beautiful scarf.
The trades vary from one village to the next. The nearby town of Rushtan is well-known for its ceramics, apparently due to the quality of its soil, which is said to be legendary. All over Uzbekistan, one can see the Rushtan pottery being sold to locals as much as to visitors, which is good for them because there is not much tourist trade.
A bit further is the city of Kokand which was once the centerpiece of a powerful khanate (an area governed by a khan). The Palace of Khudayar-Khan is a big attraction for local tourists, and a group of young girls offered to pose to add some local color. And at the Dhakma-i-Shokhon, where the khan and his family were buried, a local woman offered vigorous massage to tired locals. I helped her earn some money by recruiting a couple of my fellow travelers who lived to tell the tale.
On to Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, where one can find the bazaar of all bazaars, the Chorsu bazaar, an immense market topped by a giant dome where I watched the skillful bread-makers produced loaves after loaves. Tashkent is a city that was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, so other than the famous Tillya Sheikh Mosque, where the oldest Koran in the world is kept, most of the buildings are from the Soviet era (though with a little more style than the usual examples of this genre).
Our next stop was the highly anticipated Samarkand. No city is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. Over the centuries, it has inspired poets and writers, all in agreement with the description of Samarkand by Alexander the Great as “much more beautiful than I imagined.”Samarkand is one of the most ancient cities in the East and has been the location of many historical events. After Alexander the Great’s conquest in the 4th century, it was ruled by a series of mostly Islamic leaders until Genghis Khan took control in 1220. But it is Timur (Tamerlane), an Uzbek (obviously Uzbekistan did not exist then, but he was from a village near Samarkand) ruler who took control in 1370 and left the largest mark on the city. Timur put Samarkand on the world map as the capital of his empire, and much of the historical architecture visible today was built by him or his descendants. The centerpiece of Samarkand is considered to be Registan Square, a plaza bordered by three grand madrassas. It is indeed a quite stunning site, though the madrassas, traditionally educational institutions, are not in use any longer, many replaced by small shops.
The most unique site, however, may be Sha-i-zinde, the burial place of royals and nobles. Sha-i-zinde is basically a street (maybe more an avenue) of tombs and mausoleums, a number of them with blue domes and very intricate tilework. There is a small mosque at the entrance and a staircase that leads to the complex. The legend says that one has to count the stairs on the way up and down, and if one gets the same number, a wish will be granted. (Still waiting for my wish to come thru).
Personally, my favorite place was the Gur-Emir Mausoleum, where (Timur) Tamerlane and his three sons are buried. It has an unexpected intimacy. A few tourists were at the site, but primarily locals there came to pray and pay their respect to the Great Timur.
And, of course, as food is always on my radar (with tasting only done for reportorial purposes), I made a short visit to a small eatery that produced large quantities of what was called “dumplings” but were more like savory pastries. Delicious!
Next on to Bukhara,
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