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. The river sweeps down from the Pamirs into a valley approximately 300 kilometres long and 170 kilometres wide, surrounded by spurs of the Tian Shan-the Chatkal range to the north, Ferghana to the east, and the Pamir-Alai to the south. Very often these spectacular peaks are shrouded in a layer of smog, produced by what is both Uzbekistan’s most populous and its most industrial region. It’s also the country’s fruit and cotton basket.
The best approach for traders and conquerors was through the Khodjent Gates lo 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.