The first thought many visitors have on arrival in the Fergana Valley is, ‘Where’s the valley?’ From this broad (22,000 sq km), flat bowl, the surrounding mountain ranges (Tian Shan to the north and the Pamir Alay to the south) seem to stand back at enormous distances – when you can see them, that is. More 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. The drive here from Tashkent is fairly spectacular, however, passing a huge reservoir and crossing a high mountain pass before descending towards Kokand.
Fergana is also the country’s fruit and cotton basket. Drained by the upper Syr-Darya, the Fergana Valley is one big oasis, with some of the finest soil and climate in Central Asia. Already by the 2nd century BC the Greeks, Persians and Chinese found a prosperous kingdom based on farming, with some 70 towns and villages. The Russians were quick to realise the valley’s fecundity, and Soviet rulers enslaved it to an obsessive raw-cotton monoculture that still exists today. It is also the centre of Central Asian silk production.
The valley’s eight million people are thoroughly Uzbek – 90% overall and higher in the smaller towns. The province has always wielded a large share of Uzbekistan’s political, economic and religious influence. Fergana was at the centre of numerous revolts against the tsar and later the Bolsheviks. In the 1990s the valley gave birth to Islamic extremism in Central Asia. President Karimov’s brutal crackdown on alleged extremists eventually came to a head in the form of the Andijon Massacre in 2005, the memory of which still haunts the region today.
The post-Andijon crackdown has increased the police presence in the valley, but it’s not something that’s likely to affect most tourists as long as they keep a low profile. The valley’s people remain among the most hospitable and friendly in the country. Other attractions are exceptional crafts and several kaleidoscopic bazaars.