The old town looked young now, nondescript in its grid of Russian streets, but its past drenched it black, and suffused its most innocent inhabitants for me. It had been called Khoh-kand, 'town of pigs', from the boars which infested its marshes, but in time the name grew other connotations. By the start of the nineteenth century, together with Bukhara and Khiva, its khanate had carved up the core of Central Asia, ruling from the rich Fergana valley to the steppes beyond Tashkent. Its citizens were known for cowardice and cruelty. Their khans were murderers and debauchees. Even their subjects loathed them. Their land was stubbornly fruitful -it exported wool, silk, fruit, hides and opium - but within its eight-mile battlements the town eventually became an arsenal shrunk among fields and cemeteries, and its diseased waters turned the inhabitants cretinous with goitre. The Russians absorbed the khanate in 1876, after routing an army of 50,000 for the loss of six dead, and abolished it wholesale.
Yet a moment of tragic distinction visited the town in 1918. In the chaos of the Revolution a Moslem congress assembled here to set up a rival government to the Bolshevik soviet in Tashkent. It was a unique sign of united national sentiment in Central Asia, and a first and last attempt to achieve democratic unity by peaceful means. Claiming that it spoke for the masses, Kokand appealed to Lenin in vain. The Tashkent Bolsheviks attacked the ill-armed town, slaughtered some 14,000 citizens, indulged in an orgy of rape, and burnt or mined every house and mosque. Then a tremor of fury and realisation surged through the Moslems, and within a week the whole region was in flames. It was from this moment that the basmachi guerrilla movement arose to plague the Red forces - and continued fighting for another five years - and that Moslem faith in Communism was lost.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
As the valley’s first significant town on the road from Tashkent, Kokand is a gateway to the region and stopping point for many travellers. With a historically interesting palace and several medressas and mosques, it makes for a worthwhile half-day visit. The city is, by Uzbek standards at least, a modern conurbation. Some 230km southeast of Tashkent and close to the border with Tajikistan, it is perhaps the most attractive city in the Fergana Valley. Kokand has maintained much of its rich history, from the vast and sumptuous palace of Khudyar Khan to the Juma Mosque and inevitable (but nonetheless interesting) collection of madrassas, and it's unfortunate that its slightly out of the way location means that many foreign tourists miss it from their itinerary entirely. If you have the time, make sure you visit Kokand.
Though there has been habitation in this area since the 10th century, as numerous travellers' accounts attest, Kokand village was only fortified by the Shaybanid ruler Shahrukh in the early 18th century. As the influence of his khanate grew, so did the scale of the city. Defined as the 'town of the boar' or the more enigmatic 'city of winds', Kokand lent its name to the powerful 18th-19th century khanate stretching from the Ferghana Valley to Tashkent and the southern Kazakh steppes. Kokand khanate was the valley’s true ‘hotbed’ in those days – second only to Bukhara as a religious centre in Central Asia, with at least 35 medressas and hundreds of mosques. Though young compared to other Ferghana towns, Kokand quickly blossomed into a prosperous trading and religious centre, contesting the spoils of Central Asia with the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva.
Around 1710 the Shaybanid Shahrukh established his Uzbek Min tribe as an independent principality in the western part of Ferghana. He built a citadel in his capital, the village of Kokand, as did his son Abd al-Karim. In 1758 Shahrukh's grandson Irdana was forced to recognize Chinese suzerainty that extended into the rule of Abd al-Karim's grandson Narbuta Beg, from 1774 to 1798. Kokand's authority was still limited to western and central Ferghana when Narbuta's son Alim succeeded him. Combining great ambition with ruthless efficiency, Alim Khan hired a mercenary army of Tajik highlanders to curb hostile tribal chiefs and dissenting dervish orders. He secured the whole valley and took Khodjent and Tashkent, before his assassins set his brother Omar on the throne in 1809. A poet who fostered cultural and religious life, Omar Khan nevertheless pursued expansion, taking Turkestan in 1814 and building steppe fortresses against the Kazakh tribes.
Omar's son Mohammed Ali (Madali Khan) was only 12 at his accession in 1821. During his reign, the khanate reached its greatest power and extent, frequently interfering beyond the Pamirs in Chinese Turkestan. Great Game diplomacy acknowledged Kokand's importance, though Russian mishandling of envoys paved the way for open enmity. British Officer Captain Arthur Conolly stayed for two months in 1841 in a fruitless attempt to persuade Madali to resolve differences with the neighbouring khanates. He left for Bukhara on the ill-fated trip to rescue fellow officer Colonel Charles Stoddart. Despite the best efforts of Omar's widow, the poetess Nadira, their son chiefly excelled at cruelty and debauchery, giving Emir Nasrullah of Bukhara the excuse to take Kokand and their lives in 1842. Preferring their own despots, Ferghana's people soon expelled Nasrullah and established Madali's cousin Shir Ali, but the next two decades saw the khanate riven by internecine warfare, worsened by Bukharan and Russian incursions. Shir Ali's son Khudayar ruled from 1845, amid the bloody conflicts of the Uzbek Kipchaks and the Persianized urban population. Towers of skulls marked the battlegrounds.
Nasrullah's second entrance into Kokand in 1858 replaced Khudayar with his brother, but once restored in 1865, Khudayar immediately came under the sway of Nasrullah's successor. The rivalry of the khanates fatally undermined resistance to the common enemy, tsarist Russia. Since 1850 Kokandi troops had fought the infidel invaders with greater zeal than their Bukharan or Khivan counterparts, but force of numbers and arms toppled their northern forts one by one. Appeals for British military assistance met no response. Tashkent fell the following year, Khodjent a year later. The khanate was reduced to the valley from which it had sprung. At this time Kokand's most infamous export, Yakub Beg, one-time lord of Tashkent, seized Kashgar from the Chinese to begin a decade of terror.
A commercial treaty in 1868 left Khudayar a Russian vassal, yet free to continue building his lavish palace by squeezing more taxes from a shrunken proletariat. Visitors were impressed with this city of 80,000 people, whose 600 mosques and 15 madrassah, teaching 15,000 students, bestowed a reputation second only to holy Bukhara. American diplomat Eugene Schulyer visited in 1873: "Everywhere around are clay roofs, half hidden in luxuriant verdure, and surrounding all the brilliant green of the gardens and orchards." The Russians had left native justice in place: "When a criminal is to be put to death-and executions are very frequent there-he is taken through the streets of the bazaar, the executioner following behind him, while the crowd hoot and pelt him with stones. Suddenly, without a word of warning, when the executioner thinks the spectacle has lasted long enough, he seizes him by the head, thrusts the knife into his throat and cuts it, and the body sinks to the ground, where it is left for some hours before it is carried away and the blood is covered with sand."
Insurrections against the puppet khan spread across the valley, forcing Khudayar into Russia's embrace in early 1875; first Tashkent, then Orenburg and death in exile. His kinsman Pulad Khan's anti-Russian stance provoked the annexation of Kokand in August by Generals Kaufmann and Skobelov. By March 1876, after fierce fighting, the khanate was declared the province of Ferghana in Russian Turkestan. Tsar Alexander II had "yielded to the wishes of the Kokandi people to become Russian subjects". Colonial rule added a Russian town of wide avenues and increased cotton and silk production, yet rebellion was never far away. In the wake of revolts against the World War I draft and the Russian Revolution, Mustafa Chokayev in late 1917 established in Kokand the Provisional Autonomous Government of Turkestan, a progressive, nationalist, Muslim alternative to the Tashkent Soviet. Branded counter-revolutionary by the Bolsheviks, this last hope for democratic self-governance was snuffed out by the Red Army. Breaching the walls of the old Muslim city on February 18, the attackers began a three-day rampage of rape, plunder and arson, leaving 14,000 slaughtered and old Kokand ablaze. Chokayev escaped to Bukhara and then Paris, as his armed chief Irgash Bey channelled Ferghana's outrage into Holy War. From their mountain strongholds basmachi groups harassed the Red Army throughout the early years of Soviet rule.
The Khan’s Palace stands in the central Muqimi Park. Most restaurants and shops of interest are on or just off the 1km stretch of Istiklol running east–west between Muqimi Park and Abdulla Nabiev maydoni. The mosque-sprinkled old-town lanes squeezed between Khamza, Akbar Islamov and Furqat make for good wandering. If you walk Kokand's streets today, you will find only a polite, subdued Uzbek town, its old centre hedged by colonial avenues, bearing little resemblance to Bukhara.
Nevertheless, traditionally conservative Kokand is changing fast as money flocks in from somewhere. A few high-end boutiques have sprouted on the spruced-up main street, Istiklol, and all central squares and parks received massive makeovers. The town still shuts down by about 9pm.
Kokand airport, 10 kilometres from the city centre, remains dormant, so most tourists fly into the valley via Ferghana city. The train station in the southwest has departures to Tashkent every other day via Tajikistan but are very inconvenient as you'll need a Tajik transit visa and multiple-entry Uzbek visa. The long-distance bus station for all valley destinations is at 102 Furkat St beside the main bazaar. Services to Ferghana/Margilan take two hours, Andijan three. Share taxis to Andijan are available and take 1.5 hours. There are no buses to Tashkent, so bargain hard for a share or private taxi minibus taking the Kamchik tunnel route (US$10, 4 hours). Tashkent-bound taxis crowd the bus station or the Krug roundabout 5 kilometres north of town, though it is sometimes possible to get a ride from the main bus station, too. Getting around Kokand is straightforward. The most useful buses are No 8 between Hotel Kokand, the railway and bus stations, also passing the Khudyar Khan Palace and the Juma Mosque; and No 14 between the airport, railway station and Hotel Kokand. Minibuses No 2 and No 4 link the Dekhon Bazaar with Hotel Kokand; minibuses No 15 and No 40 go north from the bazaar to the Juma Mosque.