Just as Uzbekistan is the heart of Central Asia, the Ferghana Valley is the heart of Uzbekistan. Eight million people, one third of the population, live in this fertile flood plain of the Syr Darya. In geographical terms Ferghana Valley is a depression between the Tian Shan Mountains in the north and the Gissar-Alai range in the south. Some 300km long, up to 70km wide and naturally irrigated by two tributaries of the Syr Darya, it is the most fertile part of Uzbekistan and hence the country's agricultural heartland. It’s also the country’s fruit and cotton basket, it is both Uzbekistan’s most populous and its most industrial region. Agricultural wealth historically gave rise to Silk Road trading towns, fortresses and, most importantly, the 19th-century Khanate of Kokand.
For much of the past 100 years it has also been an area that is deeply troubled. Stalin's border policies divided the valley between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; not only are there main international borders here, but also a bewildering number of enclaves and enclaves that are nigh on impossible to administer but are fiercely defended at great financial and human cost.
The best approach for traders and conquerors was through the Khodjent Gates to the west, where the river leaves the valley before the Hunger Steppe. Stock-breeding tribes came this way in the Bronze Age, mixing with local farming peoples. Rock-carvings high in the mountains, such as Saimaly-Tash in the Ferghana range, reveal ancient scenes of hunting and agriculture.
Drained by the upper Syr-Darya, the Fergana Valley is one big oasis, with some of the finest soil and climate in Central Asia. Already by the 2nd century BC the Greeks, Persians and Chinese found a prosperous kingdom based on farming, with some 70 towns and villages. The town of Khodjent dates back to the conquests of Alexander the Great in 329 ВС, when the Macedonian founded his ninth Alexandria here, Alexandria Eskhate (the furthest). Two centuries later the Chinese envoy and Silk Road pioneer Zhang Qian reached the valley, after a decade spent detained by the nomads harrying China's borders. He welcomed Ferghana's more sophisticated civilization:
The people are settled on the land, plowing the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. The region has many fine horses which sweat blood; their forebears are supposed to have been foaled from heavenly horses. The people live in houses in fortified cities. .. the population numbers several hundred thousand. They fight with bows and spears and can shoot from horseback.
Descended from the legendary dragon-horses of the far west, the blood-sweating horses of Ferghana were coveted for their great size and speed by the Han emperor, Wudi. They formed the focus of Chinese campaigns that blasted open East-West trade routes, taking silk to Europe and wine to China. The blood was less celestial perspiration than the work of a busy parasite, but the door had been opened to commercial and cultural exchange. Sogdian merchants proved consummate Silk Road middlemen. Buddhist remains such as the temple near Kuva demonstrate the intellectual growth.
Arab invasion followed Turkic and Chinese as the valley became the Samanid empire's frontier against the heathen Turks. Leadership shifted from Kasansay to Aksiketh, Uzgen and Andijan, where Tamerlane's great-great-great grandson Babur, the last Timurid and the first Mogul, was born in 1483. His memoirs speak of great pride in a homeland he was forced to abandon by the triumphant Uzbek Shaybamd dynasty. From the early 19th century, the khanate of Kokand expanded beyond Ferghana into Central Asia's third power. Economic growth sponsored Islamic learning and public works in traditional styles, while territorial gains sparked frequent warfare with Bukhara.
When Soviet aggression succeeded Tsarist colonization, the valley arose in the basmachi (bandit) movement, Central Asian mujaheddin versus Russian infidels. As the last resistance was eliminated, national delimitation from 1924 carved today's ethnic jigsaw, where pieces are shared by the republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Divide and rule tactics have left national islands adrift in foreign seas, like the Uzbek enclave of Shakhimardan inside Kyrgyzstan. Soviet overlordship promoted intensive agricultural and industrial development. Following the proverb 'it is not land but water which bears fruit', the 270 kilometre - Great Ferghana Canal was dug in 1939 in only 45 days by 180,000 'volunteers'. Acclaimed as a grand example of the Uzbek khoshar, a collective undertaking for the common good, it typified efforts to extract the maximum from nature to placate cotton-hungry Moscow.
Independence has given internal borders a solidity never imagined by their devisors. In recent years petty disputes have occasionally exploded into pogroms between formerly fraternal peoples'. The valley, the most densely populated part of Central Asia, is not just a political but also a religious barometer for the region.
The province has always wielded a large share of Uzbekistan’s political, economic and religious influence. Fergana was at the centre of numerous revolts against the tsar and later the Bolsheviks.
Throughout the Soviet era, Islamic practices survived most strongly here. Foreign money now finds fertile ground for brands of Islam more extreme than local governments care for. With its overlapping cultures and hopefully interacting economies, Ferghana is a microcosm of Turkestan as it was and may be once more. Add to the intrinsic fascination stunning scenery, distinctive local architecture and traditional crafts, from silk-weaving and wood-carving to pottery and knife-making, and the result, at the very least, makes for a worthwhile side-trip from Tashkent, to the place locals proudly dub the 'Golden Valley'.
The valley’s people remain among the most hospitable and friendly in the country. Other attractions are exceptional crafts and several kaleidoscopic bazaars.
Getting there from Tashkent
Most vehicles take the high road from Tashkent, but trains still enter the valley through the traditional invasion route, via Khodjent in Tajikistan. Founded in the fourth century ВС by Alexander the Great some 3,500 miles east of Macedonia, Khodjent grew into a major city in Islamic times. Governor Timur Melik in the 13th century put up the most spirited resistance the Mongol invaders met in Transoxiana. Frequent sparring ground of the khanates of Kokand and Bukhara in the 19th century, the city was submerged in the Samarkand region of Russian Turkestan, then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and finally, in 1929, was ceded to Tajikistan. This enabled the mountainous republic to meet the one million-plus population requirement for full Union status, and perhaps compensated for the loss to Uzbekistan of Samarkand and Bukhara, historic centres of Tajik culture. After newly-independent Tajikistan slid into civil war in 1992, Khodjent was the base for pro-communist forces fighting clans from the more Islamic south. The town has shed its Soviet-era name of Leninabad, but thorough modernization has left nothing of antiquity to delay the traveller. Road and rail on to Kokand follow the great Karakul Reservoir, fed by the Syr Darya and fringed by the Kuramin hills, before crossing into Uzbekistan's Ferghana Province.
In the late fifties, Soviet might blasted a shorter connection between Tashkent and Ferghana through the southern slopes of the Chatkal range. South from the capital, the road skirts the depressed mining towns of Almalik and Angren to climb above a beautiful reservoir and into the cleaner air of the Akhangaran river valley. A monument commemorates the workers: "Our fathers looked for paths; we are building roads". And recently tunnels, which shorten the journey but deny views of the snow-capped Chatkal from the 2,268 metre Kamchik Pass. Out the other side, in Namangan Province, haze reclaims the mountains, while on the flat valley floor, the power of irrigation is obvious; desert retains the left side of the road while the right groans under the weight of the fruits of socialism: orchards, cotton fields and mulberry trees for silkworm farms.