Tashkent and Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

For a country with so much outsider interest, home to what was once the largest, most advanced civilisation in the world, Uzbekistan seems oddly insular, with two contrasting narratives on its reputation. On one hand, this country is known for its Silk Road history, and with that comes the beautiful crafts of ceramics, fabrics and silk (obviously), both still produced to mastery in the Fergana Valley. There’s also the vast blue mosques that bring about massive tourism to the country’s west, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

On the other hand, this is the country that makes headlines for an autocratic leader who passed away just one month ago, a Harvard-educated corrupt businesswoman/popstar daughter who he put under house arrest (which she is still under) several years ago, the use of torture with rumoured tactics such as boiling opponents alive, massacreing over 500 peacefully protesting citizens in the Fergana Valley in 2005, and modern slavery in the form of forcing citizens young and old to work in cotton fields for next to nothing. Not so much in the headlines but in everyday reality is that the currency is inflating severely, with a black market exchange running twice as high as the bank rate, and the highest bill available (5000 som) still less than US$1 black market, causing everyone to carry and use giant stacks of money on a regular basis. Also, while not terribly intrusive, inconveniences abound — police checks, registering at every place you stay at as a foreigner, surveillance measures seemingly designed to project a sense of danger and government protection, like getting out of a share taxi outside of a gas station or crossing a bridge on foot or having to remove headphones in a car or draw down the curtains in a train when going through a tunnel. The first assumption upon visiting would be some sort of dystopia of fearful, unhappy citizens.

Hardly. Instead, it’s obvious when walking around that Uzbekistan is the second-richest Stan in Central Asia. People openly bring up the topic of so-far-only president Islam Karimov’s death and the tears they shed (well, everywhere but the Fergana Valley). And at least tangentially, people allude gratefully to the actions he’s taken to keep the country stable, fracturing hardline Islamic terrorism, and their newfound prosperity. I’m constantly being welcomed to Uzbekistan and asked how I like the country. The populace is quite educated, and it seems many more here speak English — good English! — than in the other Stans. And sure, while music and its accompanying videos are almostly universally in the form of singers standing in front of the country’s famous sites, looking around as if there for the first time, or singing about the sights in front of a backdrop of the flag, you get the sense that while probably state-controlled, it comes from a genuine sentiment. Whether or not they know of the wrongs, there is much they clearly feel is being done right, and they’re proud of their country.

US$100 here converted to 645,000 som on the black market. Gypsy taxi rides around 5000 som, dinner and drinks usually around 15,000 som, cheap accommodation 60,000 som per night. Counting bills is a regular, time-consuming process for locals and tourists alike.

Tashkent, while not particularly interesting to me, has some enormously wide boulevards, the grand Chorsu Bazaar, nice parks, grand buildings, and a spiffy Soviet-built metro with some beautiful stations. (My gripe is that everything is just spaced so far apart, designed for cars, and with little in between.) I spent a few days dealing with visa bureaucracy, filling time with museums and eating lots of plov.

Oh yes, plov, the national dish. Sure, it’s found everywhere in Central Asia, but no country is more synonymous with plov than Uzbekistan. Incredibly fragrant — and what wouldn’t be, when cooked in lamb fat? — and delicious, it’s even considered somewhat of an afrodisiac. Thursdays are for some reason considered the “plov day”, where everyone comes out, filling the best places, loading up their plates with piles of plov topped with fall-off-the-bone lamb, and a purposeful splash of kazi (molten lamb fat) on top.

The State Museum of Fine Arts was my favourite of the several I visited. While pan-Asian with a heavy Uzbek focus, I particularly enjoyed the sections with both Russian artists and Russian-trained Uzbek artists painting typically Uzbek scenes in Russian style, along with the more contemporary, abstract art painted by Uzbeks.

The museum also had a collection of some of Uzbekistan’s cultural clothing and tilework, all extremely colourful and intricate. So…why not just head to the source?

Five hours overland east of Tashkent is the city of Fergana, in the heart of the valley, which I used as a base. Modern and with many Russian and some Korean (yet Uzbek-speaking and Uzbek-dressing) residents, both very visible selling their ethnic foods in the bazaar, it stands in contrast to the rest of the region. It’s also the country’s breadbasket, with wonderful fruits on offer. Not only is the Fergana Valley the most densely populated area of the country, but it’s also the most heavily Uzbek, with a more conservative Muslim climate (hence the protest and subsequent bloody crackdown), and the country’s traditions run strongest here. In contrast to urban Tashkent, many people here are dressed traditionally, with men wearing the square hat and headscarf-sporting women in colourful dresses. (Both are very much like the Uighurs in Kashgar; their languages and appearances are most related despite Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in between them.)

The city of Rishton, west of Fergana, appears pretty normal, but behind the high walls and gates forming the old neighbourhoods, around a thousand of its residents are potters. At the Ceramic Museum, run in the home of pottery master Rustam Usmanov, I saw wall-to-wall displays of plates and tiles, glistening in bright blues and showing off mesmerising spirals of detailed designs. Words can’t describe the scale of absolute skill and precision involved.

I was also guided through the creation process by two of his nephews/employees. Using the local loam, famous for its extremely high quality, I saw a lump transformed into a perfect bowl in mere minutes: spinning it on a pottery wheel, narrowing it into a cone, making a depression from the top, shaping it, then using both hands and a sponge to get perfectly aligned creases. After a day of drying, the still-malleable bowl is spun again, with the bottom shaped to be the stand, and the whole thing is glazed with kaolin (white clay) and put in the kiln at 1000°C.

Now a completed white piece of pottery, the painter takes over. In another room, I was introduced to Ruslan, who was painting a commissioned tilework, using what appeared to be dull colours — grey and brown. Turns out these are metallic paints: once painting is completed and dried and glazed with glass, a second time in the kiln changes the compounds into oxides: cobalt for blue, copper for green, manganese for blacks, and so on, with mixes for in-between colours and pigments for the rest.

The intricate designs themselves are also preplanned, first drawn on graph paper, with each curve plotted out carefully. Small holes are poked into every line, and the paper — now a stencil — is then put on top of the tile. Charcoal is lightly dusted to leave the stencil mark. Ruslan told me that only flat tilework gets the stencil treatment — everything else is done freehand, with the aid of the pottery wheel for circles. I saw a bowl divided into quadrants and further subdivided. Islamic art is like mathematics — no surprise, given how much of it originated with Islamic scholars from this area!

And that’s pretty apparent at Khudayar Khan’s Palace in neighbouring Kokand. (He was a ruthless leader, and as the story goes, the palace was made for his harem of 43 concubines; since Islam at the time only allowed him to have four wives, he would marry and divorce a concubine each night!) On the facade and in the woodwork, geometrical designs abound.

I walked around a bit more in Kokand, taking in the Juma Mosque and the new bazaar. It’s here where the traditional Uzbek character of the Fergana Valley becomes very apparent, and in an area that receives far fewer tourists than the west of the country, people were extremely friendly and chatty, selling anything and everything in a kaleidoscope of colour… while often asking me to join in their selfies, or just take photos of them.

Same goes at the Kumtepa Bazaar near Margilon (east of Fergana), which is most famous for their large selection of cottons, silks, and carpets, all locally made and sourced. Run just two days a week, the place was completely packed, the mood jovial — especially at the sight of foreigners, even if looking curiously rather than buying. But I gotta say, those carpets are awfully comfortable…

At the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilon, joining travellers Heike and Tom, we got a look into the extremely long process of making such fabrics. (And of course, a Silk Road trip wouldn’t be one without seeing actual silk!)

Mulberry leaves are fed to silkworms, with the fruit left for human consumption and the leaves providing silk with the perfect amount of stickiness. After cocoons are spun, 80% of them are boiled, killing the worms. (The remaining 20% are left to continue the life cycle.) The superthin threads are loosened in water, then spun into threads of 25-30 using a manually-operated wheel. The new threads are then left to dry, leaving them with a horsehair-like texture, before being boiled yet again with a mixture of baking soda. Before the invention of that product, locals used ash — but even getting to this point, I wonder how someone ever even came up with the idea of harvesting silk from worms, and how they came up with this method!

After being spooled by some very loud machines, the threads — whether cotton or silk — are then spun into 240 m long bundles. The way this is done boggles the mind — a man works a large, spinning wooden frame with pegs lining it up and down, then speedily manages to hook the threads onto the correct peg without missing a beat.

These bundles are then laid out onto a frame, and male artists (and only men, in this patriarchal society) draw one half of the design directly on them. Based on their lines, the bundles are taped and dyed various colours (using natural dyes including walnuts, pomegranates, insects, and flowers), with the process repeated until the threads are fully coloured. The bundles are then unfolded in a process I still find unclear, but it produces the trademark symmetrical designs of Uzbek fabric — and somehow, all of that thread results in just a 50 cm wide cloth! Using some pretty complicated machines, women then weave them together, forming either a single-sided (more complicated) or double-sided pattern (more simple).

In a different area was the carpet weaving process — something I have no prior knowledge about in terms of production. To my utter astonishment, we watched as women tied coloured strings onto a white thread base with just one hand, cutting the string with the other. They had an enlarged piece of graph paper with the design to refer to — again, some of the patterns are utterly mathematical. The factory manager told us that there are typically over 80 knots per square cm, and over 200 knots per square cm in the highest-quality carpets using silk threads! We saw a carpet near completion that had already been laboured on for on year, to be sold for somewhere over US$1000. That’s… actually very cheap, given how many hours must have gone into it!

It’s worth noting that the questions we asked about pay were not fully answered. Women operating the cloth weavers are paid by the metre, and carpet weavers are paid by the knot. How much? Who knows. Everyone is working on something detailed, straining their eyes, backs, and hands. And of course, the cotton is sourced domestically, and that in itself is controversial. Yet again, given how we distracted people from their work, asking them questions and receiving nothing but enthusiastic responses and beaming smiles, it’s hard to deny that the workers are proud of their work, and that both materials and the finished products are of high quality.

And that’s the thing here: amid the toil and tough conditions, there’s a deep sense of pride in the Uzbek way. Ceramic and fabric production traditions go back hundreds of years, if not a thousand — way before the Uzbeks were even a defined ethnicity! And whether or not there are outsiders looking to buy these products or not (in fact, Uzbek cotton is boycotted by many large international brands, including Walmart), there is always a domestic market, if the frenzy we saw in Uzbeks shopping for carpets and fabrics and bowls at the bazaars are any indication. Machines make the same products, but the quality is lower and less durable. (Machine-made carpets last for about 10 years, while handmade ones purportedly get better with age.) Craftmanship is well and alive here, and may as well be for another thousand years to come.

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