The Fergana Valley Uzbekistan: a backpackers travel guide
The Fergana valley in Uzbekistan still receives few tourists. It is one of those off the beaten path places to visit in Uzbekistan where you still feel like an explorer. A place where you stumble upon ancient mosques and madrassahs and you are the only tourist in sight. However, as the center of traditional handicrafts, like pottery and silk, it has a lot of potential.
The Fergana valley in Uzbekistan might lack the Islamic masterpieces from Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, but it has the friendliest people and the most colourful bazaars. For many Uzbeks, this part of the country is authentic Uzbekistan, whatever that might mean.
After my visit to the Fergana valley, I can imagine it means a kind of nostalgy of what the rest of Uzbekistan was like. How it was before souvenir shops took over or modernization destroyed the old neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods were tight communities called mahallah’s, but many forcefully dissapeared in the name of development.
In the Fergana valley, the towns are still a network of traditional mahallah’s. However, walking through the streets of these communities I also felt that the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan has its own unique culture that is quite different from the rest of Uzbekistan. More conservative, more religious, but also more curious and more welcoming.
There is nothing spectacular to see in the Fergana valley. However, if you truly want to understand Uzbekistan and its relationships with its neighbours, a visit to this region is a must.
A short history of the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan
If the Fergana valley rings a bell it is probably because it was in the news. Either for ethnic conflicts, the presence of radical Islam or the Andijon massacre. Everyone in Uzbekistan remembers Andijon for the protests in 2005 and the military crackdown that killed 700 people.
This shows the complex relationship of the vallley with Uzbekistan. Despite it’s problems, it is also an extremely important part of the country. It’s Uzbekistans agricultural heartland and the most industrious province. A lot of things come from the Fergana valley. The white Chevrolets in Tashkent, the melons in the bazaar, the Ikat silks in the fashion stores and the colourful ceramics in the souvenir shops
The Fergana Valley has always been important for the region, because of its pleasant climate and fertile soil. For centuries the valley attracted people that wanted to escape the harsh climate from the mountains. The result was a multicultural landscape with mixed Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik communities.
People often blame Stalin for Fergana’s problems. It was Stalin who drew the borders and gave a large part to the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. The question remains though whether this was a conscious divide and rule policy or mere ignorance. Either way, it was so complex, that no matter how Stalin drew the lines, there were bound to be people who found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side.
It was only when the Soviet Union fell apart that ethnic unrest surfaced. The latest issues were the ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. After that a certain stability arose. Tensions are still there, but nobody wants to break the peaceful status quo. Uzbekistan still has the largest piece of the pie, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also own a small part.
Is the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan safe?
With such a history you might wonder whether it is safe to travel to the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan.
My short answer is yes. The Fergana valley also has a long history of peaceful co-existence, tolerance and hospitality. I travelled for a week in the region using public transport and I had a very positive experience. There were no problems and people were very friendly and helpful.
Solo female travel in the Fergana valley
For solo female travellers it is good to keep in mind the more conservative nature of the Fergana Valley. It is perfectly safe to travel as a woman in this region, but dress modestly.
People are not used to see women traveling alone and you might get some curious questions what you are doing in the Fergana valley and why you are traveling without your family.
How to get to the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan
The train is the best way to travel to the Fergana Valley. The daily Ozbekistan leaves from Tashkent at 08:07 AM. It follows the route to Kokand, Margilon and Andijon (4-5 hours). From Andijon it returns to Tashkent at 16:00 PM. Read more about train travel in Uzbekistan.
There are also shared taxi’s from Tashkent’s Severnij Vokzal or Qoylok bazaar to destinations in the Fergana Valley (5-6 hours)
From Tajikistan it is easy to travel between Khujand and Kokand and from Kyrgyzstan it is easy to travel between Osh and Andijon.
Places to visit in the Fergana Valley Uzbekistan
The Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan is not that big and it is easy to base yourself in one city and make day trips from there. Many choose Fargona, because it has a central location. Personally I prefered the more scenic Margilon that is only 20 minutes away from Fargona
Fergana City (Fargona)
Fergana city is the capital of the Fergana valley and has all the facilities a traveller needs. There are excellent restaurants, several good hotels and it’s also a transport hub with frequent connections to Margilon, Rishton, Andijon and Kokand.
However, Fergana city is a relatively new town and besides the central park there is not that much to see. It is also not as scenic as the other towns in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan.
Where to eat in Fergana: Traktir Ostrov, Palma cafe
Things to do in Fergana city: Central park, bazaar
To explore the Fergana valley I choose to base myself in Margilan rather than Fergana city. While Fargona felt new and shiny, Margilan had character. The traditional town with its small back alleys gave me a good insight in mahallah life in the Fergana Valley.
Most people come here to see the Yodgorlik silk factory. The free tour shows the whole process of how the silk is made and how the ikat patterns are designed. This alone makes Margilon worth a visit, but there is more to Margilon. The colourful Kumtepa bazaar was one of the most vibrant markets I visited in Uzbekistan and there are some interesting madrassah’s and mosques.
Things to do in Margilon: Kumtepa bazaar, Yodgorlik Silk factory, Said Ahmad Haji madrassi, Hudoyoron Hoji mosque, Central park
How to get there: Margilon is 20 – 30 minutes by shared taxi from Fargona
Rishton is the center of pottery in Uzbekistan for more than 800 years. The local red clay is so pure that it needs no further additives. The ceramics are decorated with deep blue colours that are produced from other local natural products. You will see the end results everywhere in Rishton.
Riston remains the center of pottery production, but there are only a few true masters left that still use traditional techniques. Usmanov is one of them and he gives free tours in his workshop.
Things to do in Rishton: Usmanov Ceramic workshop
How to get there: Rishton is midway between Fargona and Kokand. By shared taxi it is one hour from either city.
Kokand was my favourite city in the Fergana Valley. A traditional town with some Islamic architecture, friendly people and great food. What else do you need?
It was the capital of the Kokand khanate in the 18th and 19th centuries and was almost as important as Bukhara in that time untill it became a Russian vassal state in 1868. The main attraction is the beautiful Kudayar Khan palace. Other things worth visiting are the Modari khan mausoleum, the juma mosque and the Norbutabiy mosque
Where to eat in Kokand: cafe Kapriz
Things to do in Kokand: Palace of Kudayar Khan, Norbutabiy mosque, Modari Khan mausoleum, Juma mosque
How to get there: Kokand is two hours by shared taxi from Fargona or one hour from Rishton.
It was a though choice whether to visit Namangan or Andijon. Both are more famous for political reasons than for its tourist attractions. I already explained about Andijon, but Namangan made it in the news for its radical islamic groups.
It was the heartland of the Wahabi Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This extreme sect from Saudi Arabia started in the local Ota Valikhon Tur mosque from where it spread its ideas in the Fergana Valley. Later Karimov banned any of these religious fundamentalist groups believing they were a threat to his regime.
Repression never really erases the root of the problem. The Ota Valikhon Tur mosque is now an art gallery, but Namangan remains one of the most conservative cities in Uzbekistan.
Namangan is an eclectic town. Along the main street there were shiny new appartments that still stand empty. It reminded me of Nukus in Karakalpakstan. But then there is also the vibrant bazaar and the small alleys of the traditional mahallah’s with old mosques and shrines.
Apparently there used to be over 600 mosques. Such glory days are clearly over, but some interesting buildings still stand strong. Don’t miss the Khoja Amin mausoleum and the Mullah Kyrgyz madrassa near the bazaar.
Things to do in Namangan: Namangan bazaar, Otavalikhon Tur mosque (now has an art gallery), Khoja Amin mausoleum, Mullah Kyrgyz madrassah, Babur park
How to get there: Namangan is one hour by shared taxi from Msargilan or 1,5 hour from Fargona.
I must be honest that I personally did not visit Andijon. Mostly, it is famous for the 2005 Andijon massacre when the government cracked down on anti government protests and killed 700 people.
If you travel from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan Andijon is the first town in the Fergana valley. It is worth a quick stop to see the Juma mosque, the Babur museum and the Jahon bazaar (Sundays and Thursdays)
Things to do in Andijon: Jahon bazaar, Juma mosque, Babur literary museum, Navoi park
How to get there: Andijon is 1.5 hours from Fargona by shared taxi.
Where to sleep in the Fergana Valley
If you prefer to stay in Margilan I can personallly recommend the scenic and professionally run Ikat house. The rooms are beautiful and they have an excellent breakfast that is included in the price. This guesthouse alone makes it worth to stay in Margilon rather than Fargona.
The Ahmadkhon hotel is probably among the strangest hotels where I have stayed. Even the taxi driver was worried he brought me to the wrong place when the address turned out to be a football field from the Ahmadkhon sports complex.
I thought there must have been a misstake, but when I called, someone already came running outside to greet me. The Ahmadkhon sports complex was also running a brand new guesthouse and I must say I was positively surprised. My room was huge and clean. The breakfast was excellent and I almost felt like a queen in the large dinner hall.
How to travel around in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan
The best way to travel around in the Fergana Valley is by shared taxi’s. They are a cheap way to get around and leave once full.
Fargona has a central location and is therefore a transport hub in the Fergana Valley. From Fargona you can find regular shared taxi’s to Margilan (30 minutes), Rishton (1 hour), Kokand (2 hours), Namangan (1,5 hours) and Andijon (1.5 hours).
Is it worth it to visit the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan
Let me be honest that the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan is not the most beautiful part of the country and the tourist attractions are rather low key, especially compared to places like Samarkand, Bukhara or Khiva.
Considering it’s importance for the region though, it makes for a fascinating visit. As an anthropologist with an interest in post Soviet countries the Fergana Valley was a must in my Uzbekistan itinerary.
But besides my academic interest, I really enjoyed the Fergana Valley. The highlights were the free tours I had at the Yodgorlik silk factory in Margilon and the Usmanov pottery workshops in Rishton. They definetly offer outstanding quality compared to the mass produced souvenirs elsewhere.
If you like off the beaten path places with rich cultural traditions and meeting friendly locals you will definetly appreciate the Fergana Valley.
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