Thursday, April 16, 2015

Drive Through The Fergana Valley.

The beautiful scenery of the Fergana Valley.

Front entrance of the Shodlik Palace Hotel.
We arrived into Tashkent around midnight last night.  Any worries that no one would be at the airport to meet us were quickly dashed when a beefy, bald headed man, dressed in a track suit approached us.  He looked like that movie character who's hired to do a hit. He introduced himself as Yevgeni and told us he was our driver.  We followed Yevgeni, who I had quickly decided was our bodyguard, to our car.   Having gone through this same route before, I knew it would be a very short drive to our hotel - the Shodlik Palace.  Yevgeni deposited us out front and before we drove off, we agreed that we would meet back up with him at 9a this morning.


We got checked in and surprise!  We got the same room as before!  I felt like I had returned home!  By the time we got to our room, it was about 12:45a.  We went right to sleep.

This morning, it was breakfast at the hotel.  We're veterans of the Shodlik Palace tourist breakfast buffet! 

Yevgeni pulled up outside the Shodlik Palace Hotel a little after 9am.  Pat was worried as he was late but truthfully, it was only by, literally, a few minutes.  We've been so very spoiled with all our guides and drivers arriving either early or on time that even just a few minutes late stood out.  Yevgeni apologized profusely for being late but truthfully, had this happened in the US, no one would have blinked an eye at being just a few minutes late.  I cut the poor guy slack as he had to brave morning rush hour traffic in Tashkent which though not nearly as bad as what we have in the US is bad by Uzbekistan standards - it's all relative.

In any event, Yevgeni loaded our luggage in the back and we were off!  This morning's drive would take us through part of the Fergana Valley.  We're making our way east towards Kyrgyzstan.

It had been nearly three weeks since we arrived into Tashkent and what a different three weeks has made.  On our very first day in Tashkent, it was bare 30 degrees Farenheit.  Pat and I were so cold, we were bundled up in our down jackets.  Today, it was a picture perfect spring day.  Trees, which were barely leafing out when we were last here, were now in full bloom.  The city was looking pretty.

Yevgeni headed out of town on streets that we had been on before with many familiar sights - I felt like I was returning to my Central Asian home.

Russian built apartment buildings are a common sight in Tashkent.

In less than a half hour, we were on the outskirts of town.  The flat landscape of farmlands were yet another familiar sight.


The Fergana Valley is an enormous depression between the Tian Shan, Gissar, and Alay mountain ranges, lying mainly in eastern Uzbekistan and partly in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The roughly triangular valley has an area of  22,000 square kilometers (8,500 square miles).

The Fergana Valley is one of the most densely populated areas of Central Asia and is a major producer of cotton, fruit, and raw silk.  Additionally, the area is mined for mineral deposits including coal, oil, mercury, and antimony.  It's also the heart of Uzbekistan's heavy industries including a GM factory that pumps out countless models of the white cars that congest the streets of the cities here.


We passed through many a small town on our drive through the valley.  We even passed by a nuclear reactor, which presumably generates power for the region, if not beyond.


It seemed like an endless drive across flat land before snow capped mountain peaks appeared.  Farmland gave way to grazing land.  The sight of sheep and goats grazing soon filled our views of the landscape.  I'm so glad we came to Central Asia at this time of year because it's still early enough in the spring that we can actually see snow on the mountain tops.  Come the sweltering heat of summer and the peaqks will just be brown.


Small hamlets dotted the landscape.  Some were located alongside small streams running through the valley.


Because the Fergana Valley is both the agricultural and industrial heart of Uzbekistan, the landscape has been adulterated to support those activities.  Large trucks are a common sight on the road as are electrical power lines and even a railroad.  


If you're looking for nice mountain views, you'll have to make your way off the main road.  Or else, just learn to ignore the power lines that will pretty much intersect any view you have.


From the valley, we headed up into the mountains.  Our drive took us on a mountain pass.  The mountain scenery was beautiful though admittedly, not as spectacular was what we took in on our drive from Khujand to Dushanbe in Tajikistan; the snowy peaks that framed the Anzob Pass were far more majestic.

Nonetheless, some very high mountain peaks call the Fergana region home including several that are well over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) in elevation.  Driving through the mountains was a nice change of pace from the monotony of flat farmland.   Been there, seen enough.

Snow fall can be heavy and so the government has installed avalanche breaks to temper snowslides.  
They're a bit of an odd sight but functional.

It took took us nearly an hour to make our way across the mountains.  Here's a 45 second snippet of our ride.



Four hours after we left the hotel in Tashkent, we arrived into the city of Kokand.


It was time for lunch.  Yevgeni pulled over into a parking lot, next to a local teahouse.  There, we were introduced to our local guide, Hasan.  He would be joining us for lunch, taking us around Kokand afterwards and then riding with us to the city of Fergana where we would spend our last night in Uzbekistan.

Except for one other table of patrons, the teahouse was empty of diners.  I still haven't figured out when lunch hour is in Uzbekistan - do people traditionally early or late?  I should have asked the question....just out of sheer curiosity.

 

As with all the other Uzbek teahouses we've eaten at, the menu here was pretty much limited to what I now call the *usual* Uzbek fare.  The smell of meat being grilled over an open flame always  calls out to me.  Shashlyk, here I come!



At the same time as he was twirling skewers of beef and lamb, the grillmaster was also tending to some chickens being cooked in a wood fired, tandir style oven.  If only we had more people eating, we could have bought one of those as well.   I am greedy.



Prepping our order....okay, that's not all for us but at least a few plates are :-)

Pat and our guide, Hasan.

I was hungry by the time my plate of shashlyk was put before me.  I ate every bit of it!  After lunch, we made a quick pitstop into the small convenience store next to the restaurant.  We had plenty of snacks but you never know.  In this case, we left empty handed. 

Pretty tasty shashlyk.

Bellies full, we were ready for an afternoon filled with sightseeing in Kokand!