Friday, May 9, 2008

Way over yonder

We finally tear ourselves away from Tashkent, and I tear my back in the process, thus requiring enforced rest and sympathy for almost three days. Unfortunately we have only reached Ferghana, in the valley of the same name, and end up in an old Soviet-era hotel that obviously hasn't been maintained since the day it was built. The bathroom has been plumbed by a madman and the room creaks and groans and sighs like some of the old men in the park. Mind you, we have a room with a view of the mountains in the distance. Gayle goes out on our first night to look for a natural remedy for my bad back but incredibly cannot find any vodka.

The Ferghana Valley is the part of Uzbekistan that produces the most - agriculturally and industrially. It is surrounded by big mountain ranges and consists of the interlocking fingers of Kyrghyzstan,Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Have a look at a map. In some parts there are 'pockets' of a country stuck in the middle of a neighbouring one. It's a mess. The valley is supposed to be more traditional and conservative, with a greater Islamic influence, but we cannot see it. After the Andijon massacre in 2005, the Uzbeks banned the call to prayer here.

Once I'm back on my feet and Gayle has tired of tasting all the different ice-cream that Ferghana has to offer, we head East and cross into Kyrghyzstan at Osh. It's a surprise to us, because Osh is quite a scruffy ill-kept town, and yet we thought Kyrghyzstan would be wealthier - apparently Uzbeks come here to work because the pay is better. The people look noticeably different in their facial features, less Turkic and more Mongol perhaps? (The Kyrghyz people originate from Siberia.) Old men are wearing traditional tall white felt hats. We check out the hustle of the bazaar and try the food but move on the next day, eager to get into the countryside and happy to keep the taxi-drivers of Central Asia in gold teeth.

We arrive in Arslanbob, a small village of Uzbeks, famed for its walnut groves. It sits on a river overlooked by a wall of mountains streaked in snow, and it is so green and so refreshing for our eyes. They have developed a network of community-based tourism organisations in Kyrghyzstan where locals provide services to tourists. Here in Arslanbob we can get food and accomodation in the house of a local family. We meet Evi from Austria here and go for a long walk up to a waterfall in the afternoon. The villagers are friendly and the place is very quiet and peaceful. We are fed huge quantities of food. It's perfect. After tea there is nothing to do but curl up in bed and sleep. The next day we take a walk through the walnut forest - the largest in the world. In September each year about 1,500 tonnes of nuts are harvested here. Our guidebook tells us that the walnuts originated in Malaysia, so we can only assume they travelled here over the old Silk Road. Anyway, the walking is lovely and shady and green. After what has felt like three months in the desert we are so relieved and excited about being in the mountains again. Mmm. Green.

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