I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled throughout Uzbekistan for an elephant to add to this blog, and finally I found this one on our last day in the country, in Fergana city in the far east of the country. We were walking through a park to get to the bus station, and came across a series of fairground rides which – for once – seemed to be functioning. All the fairground attractions we’ve passed in other city parks have been disused and rusting, though these ones were making such a disturbing rattling noise as they whizzed round that we were in no way tempted to try them out. Besides, we were on a tight schedule, trying to get through the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border that day, which was supposed to be a particularly difficult and lengthy border crossing due to ongoing land disputes between the two countries. (In the end it was possibly one of the easiest border crossings I’ve ever done so we needn’t have worried!)
Our stay in the Fergana valley was perhaps one of our oddest, though it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why – perhaps it’s because it’s a less-visited region so we aroused more attention, so we had a greater number of intriguing exchanges with the Uzbek people while out and about in our strange, stilted Russian. Fergana city itself is odd and sort-of-modern – with cafés that print a page of different types of coffee, but waiters that look entirely perplexed if you try and order one – and very very Russian: the apartment we stayed in could not have felt more soviet if it tried, with its frilly curtains and oppressive beige atmosphere.
The Fergana valley surrounding it is an area with an interesting history due to its geography and climate: while much of the rest of Uzbekistan is deserted and barren, this valley (which straddles both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) is lush, green and well-populated. Historically, it nursed the world’s best horses, which were traded out from here to places all over the continent, and most especially to India, where having a sleek Fergana steed was apparently to an Indian prince what a flash Ferrari is to a playboy today. Its fertility also means it is one of the best places in Central Asia to grow crops and provide a steady food supply, which is why it’s always been fought over.
Our day exploring it yesterday started relatively normally – visiting a silk factory in Margilon with some other tourists (most of whom we had met in other cities earlier in our trip – Uzbekistan has a very defined tourist trail!), and a highly ornate Khan’s palace in Kokand. The silk factory was especially interesting as we’ve obviously been reading a lot about the Silk Road so it was cool to finally find out in detail about how silk products are made. (Though it also brought back unpleasant memories of a 24-hour train trip through Vietnam last year where we shared a train carriage with a box of silk worms which were prone to escaping and crawling around the floor under the bunks….)
The sightseeing took a turn to the bizarre when on the hunt for wifi to book our first guesthouse in Kyrgyzstan. The only place in Kokand that seemed to have a wifi connection was an English-teaching establishment. However although the youthful and enthusiastic English teachers happily gave us the password we were not allowed to actually use the internet as we were bombarded with questions about England and how to get into English universities, paraded in front of an English class and quizzed about life in the UK, photographed in various places, filmed a bit, and finally taken out to dinner. Most of the teachers were very polite and friendly to us (one even obliged me by finding an Uzbek cartoon on YouTube to show me about Queen Tomyris, whom I wrote my undergrad thesis about and who happens to be an Uzbek national hero), but one of them was really quite aggressive as he demanded to know why Europeans hate their parents so much that they don’t live with them all their lives (apparently this means that England must be a very unkind place), why English people are less religious (“so you don’t pray every day?!”), and why we have different marriage customs. In Uzbekistan, the tradition is that parents choose partners for their children. A prospective bride and groom are allowed one meeting before the wedding, a quick chat over tea accompanied by at least four witnesses. Either family can back out after this meeting, but that’s the only contact the couple are allowed before the marriage ceremony. Brides are young by our standards – aged between 16 and 23, but grooms may be more like 26 or 27. We were informed that the British system of couples getting to know each other over time before getting married “is a complete waste of time” – and as for the idea that brides have much of a say in their marriage, that was deemed very strange as well.
Four hours after we had just popped in to try and find the wifi we were finally allowed to go back to Fergana, in a taxi where the driver promptly handed over a mobile so we could talk to his wife in English. We weren’t sure whether this was because she wanted to practise her English or because he wanted to prove he really had English passengers in his car. But several adventures later and we are now safely in Kyrgyzstan and looking forward to trying to see what this country had to offer two backpackers. First up is an attempt to go to a horse festival on Saturday – if we can negotiate the transport there, that is. Stay tuned…