THE FERGANA VALLEY SPREADS over Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan as well as Uzbekistan, and has played a vital role in the merchant trade and historical conquest of the silk roads, joining two legendary cities, Kashgar and Samarkand.
Civilizations pre-date Alexander, who made conquests in 4th century BC. Other visitors, armed or otherwise, include Chinese, Bactrian, Sogdian, Persian, Parthian, Russian, Jews, Romani, Mongols. Founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur, great-grandson of Timur, hailed from the region. The historical monuments are not on the scale and splendour of cities further west, but the bazaars of Fergana are hard to beat. Throw in some warm and welcoming towns folk, the freshest fruit, good eating, and more, and Fergana is one great place to visit.
Fergana is a city, a region and valley, surrounded mainly by Kyrgyzstan, but also Tajikistan. Apparently every taxi headed there stops to buy bread on the way.
And fruit, which the region produces mega loads of. Our taxi passengers bought shopping bags of peaches for 20c. I'll never eat a better peach.
The city of Fergana looks like it wants to be Dubai, with modern parks and hotels, fountains with sound and light shows, and a good choice of traditional and modern eateries. It's a central choice for transport and has big bazaars too.
Other smaller cities and towns are more traditional, less developed, and probably more interesting.
The whole region is warm and welcoming, people happy to have a chat, and happy to be photographed.
The small town of Rishton has a 1,300 year history of pottery and ceramic making, and produces the finest works in Uzbekistan.
We visited the workshop of master potter Rustam Usmanov, who was exhibiting his works in New York. Apprentices serve for many years under his watchful eye.
It will take many, many days to finish this piece. The works coming out of this studio are truly excquisite. My wife lugged some plates around for two months!
A short ride from Fergana city, Margilon boasts one of the biggest and best bazaars (once or) twice a week.
Trucks, Ladas, wagons, stalls, chaikhana, customers and goods spill out onto the streets around the bazaar.
Kumtepa Bazaar as it is known, has fabrics and footwear, dairy, fruit, black market money changers, butchers, and probably candle stick makers.
Almost everybody wants their photo taken, from the youngsters to the veterans.
Across the region, "kurt" cheese or curd balls are sold as long-lasting snacks. Here, the raw ingredients for sale.
There, a man obviously proud of his grapes.
A culter uses peddle power to sharpen knives.
Not sure what the gent is pointing out, but its probably not the fruit.
An odd variety of carrots, probably not available back home, even as an "heirloom."
Nuts and dried fruits like sultanas and raisans are another silk road standby.
While those fabrics might look out of place back home, those smiles are just killers.
Kumtepa Bazaar covers both sides of a busy road, with the "wet market" on one side, dry goods on the other, and kebabs and drinks and cobblers and a mosque and chaos all over the place.
One of the last stops on a lamb's journey.
Margilon is worth the good part of a day, and thankfully is served by chaikhana and kebab shops and more.
Probably a long way from top-dog at the chaikhana, the tea making duties are too important for a beginner.
Ayran is a yoghurt like drink, common from Mongolia to Istanbul, but in Fergana it fermented and served with pieces of fruit.
Throughout Fergana, you're more likely to be takig pics of people at their request, than to be declined.
Old men, young ladies, old ladies or lads, all seem happy to oblige.
Fergana also has historic places, like in Kokand, the Narbutabey Mosque and Madrasah. Built under Khan Narbuta in 1799, it was the city's only madrasah to function under the Soviets.
Khudayar Khan was the last ruler of Kokand, his rule one of high taxes, legal dysfunction and frequent executions. His highly decorated Palace, covering 4 acres was completed in 1871. The Russians deposed him in 1875.
The city of Andijon has a very recent history of brutality, in the post-Soviet era. Despite this, we found the staunchly conservative place more friendly and welcoming than anywhere else.
From the outside, Andijon's Jome Mosque looks like a neglected warehouse or shearing shed, but inside reveals its true beauty.
The low, wide hall has a richly decorated ceiling. The 1890 mosque and minaret survived the 1902 earthquake. Enjoy the view.
All the cities in Fergana we saw had big, bustling bazaars. These old ducks are in Rishton Bazaar, a smaller but equally interesting market not far from the ceramic workshop.
Another smile from the heart, warming up some mediocre samosas in Rishton.
And you can't have a bazaar in Uzbekistan without melons.
And tea. Watermelon and tea, and a topchan (day bed) under the trees or on a verandah.
While the famous cities further west along the silk roads grab all the headlines, Fergana has so much going for it.
And if it gets too hot, just pop a cabbage leaf on your head.