The train from Tashkent winds southeast through the rugged landscape of the Kamchiq Pass, and through the 19 kilometres of Kamchiq Tunnel. Called Ozbekiston (like Bengalis, the Uzbeks have a propensity towards rounding their vowels), its carriages are decked out prettily in the blue, white, and green of the national flag. Most of the people inside are Uzbeks themselves.
The Fergana Valley is not 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 had told us. “They come here only for, you know...boom-boom.” We had knowingly nodded, and rolled our eyes.
We disembark at Kokand, and are met by Aziz Odilov, our earnest cicerone. Our welcome wagon is startling—a full-scale tour bus for just the four of us the entire afternoon. Uzbekistan has massively upgraded its tourism industry in the last few years to boost the country’s economy and image. With little of the trappings of capitalist monoculture that make so many cities around the world feel the same, Uzbekistan has spectacular architecture and a unique and unexplored culture, rich in arts and crafts. Add in the varied landscapes—from awe-inspiring deserts to snowy mountains—and warm, open people who are hospitable to the core, and you have a near-perfect tourist destination.
Our first stop is Kokand, at the Palace of Khudáyár Khán. Built in the early 1870s, it originally had seven courtyards lined with 114 rooms, but was reduced to a quarter of its size by the occupying Russians. Extensive restoration has now brought life and colour back to the vast gardens, the palace’s exterior, and two of the courtyards with their surrounding rooms. The room where the Khan’s secretaries and aides would screen visitors, along with his throne room, have been meticulously re-created, the latter having a 3D model of the original structure. Other rooms now comprise a museum of local history, which Aziz avidly takes us through.
After the engrossing history lesson, we do a quick trip to the Jami Mosque Museum, with its 22-metre minaret (rather endearing, compared to the towering ones in Bukhara and Samarkand) and the 100-metre-long aiwan (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 premises is a small museum devoted to ceramics, dolls, and suzani embroidery.
But the sweet spot of the complex is tucked away in one corner—a small room where sugar syrup, egg whites, and honey is mixed with sesame seeds, dry fruits, and sometimes even vegetables. It is then cooked and dried in the sun to create the archetypal Central Asian dessert, halva. We pack a few boxes that are demolished within the next few days.
Our bespoke bus carries us to Rishton, some 45 minutes away on a well-maintained highway. Rishton is the wellspring of beautiful pottery that floods the bozoris all over Uzbekistan and neighbouring countries. Some thousand-odd potters here reportedly 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. The quantity, variety, and quality of work being done there is jaw-dropping.
We are given a full tour of the cramped, dingy rooms, and taken through the entire process: from the preparation of the clay, through the moulding of items, their drying and firing, and finally to the exquisite glazing and painting.
We are then taken upstairs to rooms overflowing with brilliantly-coloured works of clay: 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. “Imagine setting it up on the floor of one of our rooms,” whispers Anjali, my wife. “It’d be like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle.” The exchange rates (Rs1=approx. 132 Uzbeki Som), and reasonable prices of Uzbek products make for wonderful deals.
Loaded with purchases, we travel to our journey’s base, Fergana, where we have been booked into the Taj Mahal Hotel. It’s an atmospheric relic of the Soviet era that has, as far as we can tell, no connection with India at all. Everything feels like it’s been left over from the Cold War period, and yet, nothing is old really. Just charmingly antiquated.
Breakfast the next morning is in the hotel’s basement. Done up completely in red, the restaurant has a circular dance floor around which are booths with plush red sofas. The columns and walls are mirrored, and there is a bar on one side. It’s like stepping into a ’70s Bollywood flick. Any moment now, we feel Helen or Zeenat Aman will sashay in and belt out a sultry number. That doesn’t happen, though a sumptuous breakfast is laid out before us: sausages and sunny-side-up eggs, arranged to resemble a wide-eyed rooster with a ketchup cockscomb. There are crêpes with honey, a charcuterie board, breadbaskets, and overflowing cups of hot black coffee.
Aziz is waiting in the lobby, impatient at our tardiness. There’s no extravagant ride today, but a spacious minibus. The one visible foreign element in Uzbekistan are the cars—GM and South Korean models are everywhere, though buses and trucks 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 northeast on the highway to Andijan. We spot a small table at the roadside, where a stocky old man stands next to a small table on which is a plate with pomegranates sliced open. A digital scale lies idly, along with crates of the plump red fruit cosying up against the legs of the table. The man, Bahodur Rahimov, owns the 300-hectare plantation that surrounds this little store. The pomegranate is Uzbekistan’s national fruit, and shows up in all kinds of iconography and arts and crafts. The Fergana Valley is, in fact, the country’s fruit basket . The drive to Andijan takes us past vast tracts of land devoted to the growing of apricots, plums and melons, besides the ubiquitous ruby offering.
We reach Andijan by lunchtime, hungry again despite the huge breakfast. At the end of every meal during our 10-day trip, we would gasp and wheeze, swearing 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. We did end up eating horse meat with our plov in a few places.
At the Irak Yo’li, where we stop to eat, there’s no horse meat, but the plov and the shashliks are delectable. We sit on a suffa, a large bed-like bench with a table in the middle to eat from, and Aziz teaches us the tea-drinking protocol. Every meal here begins and ends with green tea (kuk choy) or black tea (kora choy). The eldest in a group pours the drink, which comes in large blue-pottery teapots with matching pialas (small bowls without handles, and the origin for the Hindustani word for a cup).
A small cup-warmer is poured into each piala, swirled around, and poured back into the pot. Then a full cup is poured out, and returned to the pot. This is done thrice, before all the pialas are filled. The ‘host’ then breaks pieces off large nons (Uzbek bread) to go with the tea, and hands them out to guests.
Virtually next door to Irak Yo’li is one of the focal points of our trip—a complex built to commemorate the Mughal emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan. Set near the top of a large park landscaped over a hillside, the Babur Literary Museum is a teal-domed building. Inside, it has a big hall lined with showcases of costumes, armour, and weaponry from his era, its high walls painted with pastel-shaded murals depicting 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. Babur was a cultured man, who wrote lyric poetry in both Persian and Turkic, and avidly studied the arts and sciences. The Baburnama, in fact, is widely considered to be the first-ever autobiography by a Muslim.
Above the museum, near the 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).
By the time we are done, dusk is falling. It’s the end of autumn (Aziz charmingly pronounces the word with a vocalised ‘n’, so it sounds like ‘Ottoman’). The days are short, but it’s perfect weather.
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 all who come this way. Established in 1972 by the Soviets, its name, the first part of which is the same as the Hindustani word yaadgaar, translates to ‘heritage’.
We observe the cocoons boiling away as Okhunova Inoyatkhon, a veteran employee (“I have used this same stick to stir the vat for 35 years”), extracts the gossamer-fine threads from the unfortunate worms, and along with her more reticent colleague Masturna, spools and spins them into fibre. In other parts of the factory, we learn how the threads are dyed and woven.
It’s our final day in the Fergana Valley, and our last stop is the rambling Kumtepa Bazaar. We wander the maze of stalls and shops here; our first order of business is to pick up a new bag to fit all that we have accumulated. Anjali then picks up a blue pottery tea set, as do two of my friends. There are the typical card-backed cloth hats—the black ones for men with symbolic designs representing the wearer’s region—and more colourful, feathered and spangled ones for women. There are even miniature versions, to hang from rucksacks and rear-view mirrors, and varieties of kurt: dense salty cheese in different shapes and flavours, and many, many types of halva.
Aziz hurries us along, nervous at how close we are to the train’s departure time. The train out from Tashkent three days ago had left at 8.07am, precisely as advertised. We eventually get to the station with ample time to spare, and settle in 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.
Uzbekistan Airways has direct non-stop flights from Delhi to Tashkent, while Air Astana has flights via Almaty. From Tashkent, take the Ozbekiston Train to Kokand, Margilon, or Andijan. Do secure a tour operator with links in other parts of the country.
WHERE TO STAY
The Taj Mahal Hotel in Fergana (from $75; +998-73-2441086) is a comfortable base. Other good options are the Ahmadkhon Hotel in Kokand (from $40; +998-90- 5096462), Hotel Asia Fergana (from $85; +998-93-2441329; asiahotels.uz) and Hotel Bogishamol (from $250; hotel-bogishamol.uz) in Andijan.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
>Marvel at the Palace of Khudáyár Khán, and walk through the 98-columned aiwan at the Jami Mosque Museum in Kokand.
>Take a tour of the Koron Ceramics Factory in Rishton and buy some beautiful wares.
>Check out the Babur Literary Museum in Andijan.
>Immerse yourself in traditional silk-making and weaving at Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilon, and flex your bargaining skills at the vast Kumtepa Bazaar.
WHAT TO EAT
Menus are mostly in Russian and local languages, so have a guide or a basic translation app. In Fergana, Traktir Ostrov Sokrovish has excellent Russian style meat-and-potatoes as well as salads, pizzas and burgers. In Andijan, have a traditional meal at Irak Yo’li.