The next morning the boys returned with a whole herd of donkeys. The donkeys dropped down to the river to drink while the boys exchanged news with a youth working a vegetable patch with a hoe. Having had their fill the unmounted donkeys returned to the lane and continued up the gorge and out of sight, unsupervised. The boys followed at a distance. It was a cheerful, relaxed team that knew its role. The boys knew how to stack and balance the maximum possible amount of loose hay on the donkeys so that not a stalk dropped off between high meadow and byre. The donkeys knew how to carry it home and where home actually was.
After breakfast Nicola gave Shuhrat her iPhone cover. He was thrilled. Illyaz managed to hide behind his nephew, whom he had clutched to his hip, as we said goodbye. His two sisters waved to us, still looking rather bemused. During the evening we had gathered that their parents had given the three of them the house to run as a tourist home-stay and we must have been their first guests. Perhaps our eccentricity at paying to live roughish and to cross high and tricky passes had given them second thoughts.
Our route to Osh followed the river downstream. As the gorge became a valley, and the valley became more of a plain the land became less cared for and the houses that were strung along the road, looked more and more bleak. We climbed over desolate hills with fewer signs of animals or crops or the soil to sustain either. After an hour there weren’t even any raptors circling the skies. Derelict mine-heads and barely overgrown slag heaps became the only sign of beating hearts ever having been there. We passed the Tash Komur and Tash Orgon reservoirs and entered dismal, dying, depressing Tash-Komur, once one of the largest industrial towns in Soviet Central Asia. It is whimsically described as the Gateway to the Fergana Valley as it is where the mighty Naryn River meets the Kara Suu and the main highway from Osh meets that from the north. One guidebook describes it as “…..one of the low-lights of Kyrgyzstan”.
It exhaled the unrelenting gloom of better days never to be recovered. Tash Komur means “stone coal’ and was founded by the Soviets in 1943 to mine and ship the coal, that was sent to all points Soviet, initially on a purpose built railway line. To cheer the miners they also built a cigarette factory. Like everything else they abandoned it all in 1991. Since then the population has dropped by a third to just over 20,000 and the place is being deserted as fast as the remaining inhabitants sniff alternative employment elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, or Russia or Kazakhstan or anywhere. The faintest glimmer of hope is worth the move. We crossed the Naryn and joined the highway from Bishkek to Jalal-Abad and Osh. From across the murky river we could see the endless tower blocks that once housed thousands of Russians but now are semi-occupied and no longer have reliable hot water, gas or even electricity, despite the nearby hydroelectric power station.
It was cheering to enter the Fergana Valley. It wasn’t so much the excitement at being near the birthplace of Babur, the first Moghul Emperor, nor the frisson of the FCO’s twitchy warnings of sporadic gunfire and landmines, that raised the adrenalin. It was the sight of animals and people involved in rewarding lives. They probably had not much in the way of rewards but at least they had fields to till, crops worth harvesting and lives that made it worth getting out of bed. Soon we were passing heaps of onions, melons and scarlet tomatoes for sale on the road’s verge, with the famously lush fields of Fergana’s healthy crops far beyond them. For a while the fencing of the Kyrgyz/Uzbek border ran parallel with the road but the only tension we sensed was between cars and lorries riding each other off for space on the tarmac as they approached the brows of hills.
In Jalal-Abad we refreshed our stocks in a large, modern supermarket. Two uniformed men with Kalashnikovs stood either side of the plate glass doors and we were the only customers inside the impressively stocked halls. As we left the guards shouldered their guns, lit cigarettes and went inside to chat up the pretty, lone cashier. In the semi basement restaurant underneath it we were allowed to drink some of the beer we had just bought. However the waitress positioned a screen to hide our booth so that no other diners could see our drinking alcohol.
Although we were keen to hit Osh our itinerary listed Uzgen as a stop-off and so to Uzgen we were driven. Besides being the scene of terrible destruction in the 2010 riots, Uzgen is notable for three things: its Uzbek bazaar; its very own cosmonaut – Salizhan Sharipov, who spent over ten hours walking in space and was featured on a postage stamp with his ‘unibrow’and the Karakhanid Mausoleum Complex – our destination.
The Karakhanids were a Turkic dynasty that ruled Transoxiana for just over two hundred years from 999AD. Uzgen, Burana and Kashgar were their three capitals. The 11th century minaret dominates the complex at Uzgen. Although it lost its top 23 feet thanks to an earthquake in the 17th century, it gained a cupola in the early 1920s. It was the model for the Kalyan minaret in Bokhara. Now it presents 65 tapering feet of restored terracotta brickwork arranged in finely patterned contrasting bands. It was a better ‘finished’ version of the Burana tower. The stairs wind up from ground floor level and we were promised a great view from the arches in the pretty dome but it was too hot to face the climb. A few hundred yards away three attached mausoleums – to be seen on the Kyrgyz 50som note – stand solid. The central one is slightly taller and older and is believed to have contained the founder of the Karakhanid dynasty who died in 1012. Those on each side were built in the 12th century. All have carvings, inscriptions and vast ornate wooden doors. Although it was too dark to make out much detail once inside it was a relief to escape the heat. When we came out a small boy on a cycle pedaled as fast as he could along the flagstone path between the minaret and mausoleums. Had we sported whiskers they would have been brushed by his flapping tracksuit top as he sped past us to do a wheelie and return. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to impale us on his handlebars should we step out of line, more to establish that this was his playground, his territory. Possibly his father was the caretaker or mother dead-headed the dusty roses. Respect!
Osh had been on my hit list ever since I’d visited Kashgar 30 years earlier. With over 3,000 years of Silk Road history it has one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia that has been on the same site for 2,000 years. Osh translates as ‘food’ in many languages; it is on very few European travel itineraries; has no railway links and was decidedly dodgy according to the FCO.
The FCO was right to warn of ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks. In 2010 the pot, that had been on the backburner since 1990, boiled over. At least 400 people were killed and 100,000 refugees fled. There was general mayhem and looting by gangs of youths and many buildings were burned out. 90% of the 5,000 crimes were reportedly committed by Uzbeks. It seems unlikely it was that one sided. Many believe that the recently deposed Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was behind it all. To an outsider it seems pretty obvious that the apparently arbitrary delineation of boundaries created by the Soviets, if not the root cause, did nothing to help. Osh may be the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan but there are almost as many Uzbeks living there as Kyrgyz and it is only a 3 mile taxi hop to the Uzbek border. There is a palpable north/south divide in Kyrgyzstan not entirely caused by the difficulty of crossing the mountains that dissect the country. The Uzbeks are more overtly religious than the Kyrgyz and the 17th century Mosque of Rabat Abdullah Khan, attracts 1,000 devotees at a prostration. Some perceived that there was Uzbek jealousy at Kyrgyzstan’s relative democracy.
Our homestay was in a residential area behind the usual high, locked, metal gates that that opened into a paved yard and garden in the shade of a generous, old apple tree. Our rooms were on the second floor. The landing, laid out as a living room, had French windows onto a balcony from which we could observe and listen to those nearby. The backdrop of roofs and trees disappeared into the urban haze. To our left a cockerel kept his hens in order and a dog slept under the washing line. The yard behind the building to our right had been concreted, whitewashed and over-painted with Disney cartoon characters. Tiny plastic chairs and tables were arranged in families of primary colours. A kindergarten that would have sat easily in the Western world seemed quite bizarre on the Silk Road.