Day 15 – Ferganistan

Thursday 11 September

The Fergana Valley is supposed to be the most outwardly Islamic area pretty much in the whole of Central Asia. I have to say though I’ve not seen a lot of evidence of this. It’s true that every town I passed through yesterday to get here had a mosque in the centre of it, but the same was true of the trip to/from Song-Kol in Kyrgyzstan, a country about as Islamic as Britain is Christian.
My understanding is that this is partly because the Soviets very much restricted religions in general, whilst more recent Uzbek governments have been concerned by Islamic groups wanting more power and influence in the region and have clamped down specifically on Muslim activities – so for example mosques are not even allowed to play the ‘call to prayer’, and the mosques themselves are state-run and therefore state-controlled.
Back in the late 1990s there was a small Islamic uprising, centred on the Fergana Valley, that enacted car-bombs and kidnappings, but they were virtually eliminated in the post ‘Sep-11th’ period (*), as both the Uzbek government internally, and the Americans in Afghanistan, took action against them. This mutual ‘enemy’ is partly why Uzbekistan never seems to feature in the western press as one of those corrupt authoritarian regimes with a bad Human Rights record that the Western Powers criticise. The only ‘blip’ in this otherwise cosy arrangement was when, in nearby Andijon in 2005, a peaceful demonstration was dispersed using bullets, causing the deaths of several hundred people, and the West said ‘yeh, that may have been a little too excessive’. Normal relations took a couple of years to return to normal.

I have seen a lot of the city of Fergana today, mostly accidentally. It really doesn’t help when roads don’t have signs on them and buildings don’t have numbers on them. Or, indeed, anything at all to let you know what it is. It also doesn’t help when your map seems to have the wrong streets on them, and when all the listed points on said map are either closed, or not quite in the right place.
One of the facets of Uzbekistan is a requirement for foreigners to register with the local police. The only place I’ve so far been to this year with this is Transnistria; Kazakhstan requires registration if you stay more than five days, and I was only there four. It’s a hangover from Communist days – most ex-communist states have abolished the requirement (at least for citizens of countries deemed ‘valuable’ – I think Kyrgyzstan still requires it for those nationalities who still need a visa, but that doesn’t affect many people really), and others (eg Serbia) still have it in theory but they don’t seem to check. Uzbekistan is, however, very strict on these matters. When you stay in a hotel, the hotel registers you automatically, but homestays are much more of a manual process.
I haven’t registered yet; I need to do so within three days of entering the country. The reason I didn’t register today is because I couldn’t find the place to register. It’s listed on my map, but eventually finding what I presumed to be the correct road (which took a lot of effort), the buildings in the right place appear to be a café, two shops, a large restaurant, an entryway into the back of the large restaurant, and a public toilet. I need to check to see if it’s moved.

Breakfast today was some laghman from a café whose patron came over to me in the street as I was consulting my map and suggested to me that I wanted some food in his café. His English was broken, but his style was not. He later sat next to me while I was eating and insinuated that I could spend the night there as his sister was ‘very nice’. His sister, serving behind the counter, glared and tutted at him amusingly.

I was planning to out of the city for a small trip today, either to the aforementioned Andijon (but having passed it on the way from the border, I knew it would take about an hour and a half), or to the much nearer Margilon, famous for silk production, but in the event I’d been walking around so much, and the heat was intense – even some of the tar on the roads was beginning to melt – that I decided not to overdo it, and headed back to the guesthouse for some afternoon resting in the cooler air.
I did go out again in the evening, for a dodgy shashlik and lukewarm tea that cost in total around 50p, and another bottle of water.

Not heard yet from the person I’m supposed to be going to the Aral Sea with. I need to really sort something out in the next day, as I need to know when and how to get from Tashkent to Nukus – the train takes 22 hours and the plane might be expensive.

(*) – the timing of this blog entry is, would you believe, completely coincidental. But definitely serendipitous.

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