Our first impressions of Uzbekistan were that this was more the Central Asia we expected to find on leaving China: largely gone were the Russian influences and Slavic faces so evident in Kyrgyzstan; instead here the people look more Turkic, like the Uighurs in Western China, and dress more conservatively too. Many of the men wear sombre suit jackets and the older women wear all enveloping velour gowns and headscarves. Unlike in Xinjiang though we’ve seen no women covering their faces, and exposed forearms, ankles and even calves seem entirely acceptable, while gold teeth seem even more popular than they were to the east and it’s rare to see anyone over the age of 40 without a mouth full of shiny metal. We’ve heard little Western, or even Western-style music, since we arrived, with Uzbek, Arabic and Turkish music popular instead. On one bus journey a local girl asked us who our favourite Uzbek pop star was and seemed astonished to hear that people didn’t listen to much Uzbek pop in England.
We crossed into Uzbekistan through the Fergana Valley, the most densely populated area in the country and its industrial and agricultural heartland. Indeed, so fertile and productive is the Valley that when Stalin created the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics he divided it between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to prevent any single region controlling the Valley and becoming an alternative political and economic power base to Moscow.
The Fergana Valley remains the country’s breadbasket and one of the delights of reaching Uzbekistan for us has been the mass of fresh fruit and vegetables that are sold in every market and most street corners, particularly welcome as in China and Kyrgyzstan we’d struggled to find fresh fruit except for the odd tasteless imported apple. Here most lunchtimes we’ve picnicked on enormous strawberries and tomatoes, delicious cherries, apricots, cucumbers, and wonderful local bread.
Since independence, the Valley has become the centre of Islamic resurgence within Central Asia, and the Uzbek President Karimov has closed many of the mosques and cracked down on opposition in the Valley in the name of the War on Terror. As a result, parts of the Valley have a reputation for conservative extremism and xenophobia, yet as elsewhere in the country we were welcomed both at mosques and elsewhere with curiosity and warmth.
Though we’ve been on the Silk Road now for over a month, before reaching the Fergana Valley we’d seen no sign of any silk. In the Valley and throughout Uzbekistan however many of the women wear long silk gowns in the traditional (and to our eyes rather garish) atlas design, and the Valley is also the centre of silk production in Uzbekistan. While there we visited a small factory where all production is carried out by hand – from rearing the silk worms on fresh mulberry leaves, to boiling their cocoons and extracting the thread, to dyeing and weaving.
Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is a pleasant city. Much more visually interesting than Bishkek, the centre consists of a collection of grand new and colonial buildings set around wide, tree-lined avenues and beautifully designed and maintained gardens. Many of the old Soviet-era housing blocks are decorated with mosaics and murals, and the metro stations are beautiful: a mix of grand marble and art deco designs. Yet though the area around the farmers market buzzes with life, most of the city felt rather lifeless, and the collection of central museums were very underwhelming.
Travelling in Uzbekistan we’ve also been continually reminded that we’re back in an authoritarian state. There are police everywhere, and each time we travelled on the metro in Tashkent we were searched and asked for our passports, while we had to pass through frequent, lengthy police checks on the drive from Fergana to Tashkent. Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, where one of the highlights for us was staying with locals, here foreigners must stay in hotels licensed to take non-Uzbeks and be registered with the security services. Yet though this has at times proved irritating, we foreigners get off lightly compared to Uzbeks who apparently face continual low level police harassment and demands for bribes and are forced to work for free in the country’s cotton fields for two months every year, while the State’s human rights and torture record is one of the worst on the planet.