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The Kyrgyz Fergana valley

The Fergana valley is the huge flood plain of the Syr Darya river. The bulk of the valley, 300 kilometres long and 170 kilometres wide, belongs to Uzbekistan and is claimed as the Uzbek heartland. The valley is an agricultural oasis and is crammed with 20 per cent of Central Asia's entire population. It is also the most firmly Islamic part of Kyrgyzstan.

The icy crowns of Kyrgyzstan's mountains tower around this green gem. Kyrgyz territory abuts the frilly, indeterminate border on three sides, hugging the lowlands of the Fergana range to the east, the Pamir Alay to the south and the Chatkal range to the north. This is the most populous region of Kyrgyzstan, supporting 100 people per square kilometre (compared to the national average of 24 people per square kilometre). This seat of ancient culture is soaked in history, where seemingly every stone has a legend to tell. Sultan Babur (1483-1530), a military genius who loved learning, wasn't alone amongst travellers to herald it a charmed land of beautiful people, its meadows sweet with flowers, its slopes rich with fruit and nut forests.

Bronze Age peoples settled around Osh's Suleiman mountain, farming the land and working stone and metal. Over two thousand years ago, the Sogdian Davan Kingdom of Fergana was famed for its 'heavenly' horses; elegant and speedy, and said to be relatives of today's equally prized Akhalteke horses of Turkmenistan. Their images are found in rock carvings in the Aravan valley and on Mount Suleiman, as well as along the Chinese Silk Road. The Fergana valley, ever an artery of trade, supported one of the main branches of the Silk Route.

From the 10th to 11th centuries, the Turkic Karakhanid empire built an elegant local capital at Ozgon. Sultan Babur, great-great-great grandson of Timur, who was born at Andijan in 1483, inherited the throne at Osh at the age of 12. Banished by the Uzbek Shaibanids in 1504, he roamed south-east to India where he founded the Mogul empire but was forever haunted by nostalgia for his beautiful homeland.

From 1747, the Kokand khanate ruled the whole of the Fergana valley, before being crushed by the Russians, who claimed the lands as their own. As Soviet aggression succeeded Russian colonisation, the Fergana valley erupted into the basmachi (anti-revolutionary bandit) movement. In 1924, Joseph Stalin's divide and rule tactic devised today's unlikely jigsaw of borders, carving up the valley into the states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These borders were never taken seriously until their govern-ments began to fortify them in 1991, leaving islands of Uzbek territory adrift in a Kyrgyz sea. With Moscow's coffers in mind (and little regard for the balance of nature), the gentle beauty of the Fergana valley was churned up, irrigated and marshalled into the annual production of thousands of tons of cotton and 'Hero of Socialist Labour' awards were showered down on farmers of the silver fleece.

The cotton monoculture of the region is neither economically viable for the new republics nor environmentally sustainable. Even the vast water supply of Kyrgyzstan's Tien Shan was not enough to satisfy Moscow's unwieldy desire for mass irrigation. The inability of the new regimes to maintain irrigation systems has led to their collapse in many areas, particularly in highland regions, leaving whole settlements literally high and dry. As a result, many industries stand derelict and whole communities are unem-ployed. The result has been large-scale migration; 70 per cent of the inhabitants of Kara Kulja village have moved away in the last years.

The Fergana valley is the site of most of Kyrgyzstan's mineral and oil wealth. These were located, according to the Soviet journalist Victor Vitkovich, with the help of the Soviet Kyrgyz press, who appealed to the people in the 1930s to come forward with information on the whereabouts of the country's oil and mineral reserves. The response was huge and a number of expeditions were embarked upon, resulting in a large number of mines all over southern and central Kyrgyzstan. The coal mine at Kyzil Kiya (named 'Red Uphill Road' for the red cliffs it lies in) was renowned as a hotbed of regional propaganda; held responsible for spreading the Bolshevik word amongst the nomads of the region.

A large part of Fergana's fascination lies in its colourful mix of nationalities- Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kurds and Uighurs, to name just a few. The Ferghana Valley's uncompromising monopoly of skullcaps is broken in its Kyrgyz part by the appearance of curious white felt hats resembling miniature yurts and men with Mongol cheekbones ride the village streets confidently on nomadic steeds. The eastern edges of the Ferghana Valley rise like a curved scimitar over the valley floor; beyond rises an amphitheatre of awesome mountains opening on China, Afghanistan and India. The traveller has reached the edge of the Uzbek world and approaches the gateway to a distinct and rival tradition. The fumbling modern boundary between the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan masks a more ancient geographical, ethnic and cultural transition zone, dividing settler and nomad, lowland and highland, Uzbek and Kyrgyz, east and west Turkestan.

But this, combined with its geographical position, also makes it one of Kyrgyzstan's most unstable areas. Ethnic unrest is exacerbated by unemployment, poor housing, population pressure and poverty, combined with the failure of the government to ensure fair and even distribution of land and resources. About 40 per cent of the population of Kyrgyzstan's Fergana territory is Uzbek; people who report feeling like outsiders in Kyrgyzstan but who are considered Kyrgyz by Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. All of these destabilising influences make people more susceptible to the influence of Islamic extremism from the south.

The Fergana region's physical isolation, both from trade routes and the power centre of the country, exacerbates the feeling of insecurity and discontent. Plans are afoot to restore the traditional trade route between the Fergana valley and Kashgar in China through the Irkeshtam border post. Mending the road and even constructing a railway line have been mooted but immigration and customs disputes at either end have yet to be resolved.