Uzbekistan – the People

Wed, Sep 13: ​Osh • drive to Ferghana , Uzbekistan
Thu, Sep 14​: Ferghana  • Margilan • Rishtan • Ferghana
Fri, Sep 15​: Ferghana • Kokand • train to Tashkent
Sat, Sep 16​: Tashkent


Map from Central Asia, Lonely Planet p. 140

What is it about a border? Is the line on a map a barrier like mountains or deserts or waters that stop humans, language, and even pollination from movement, from communication? With Internet, a line between countries has the possibility of minimizing differences. Although the Internet (as well as genetic engineering) has the ability to make humans the same, it hasn’t happened yet and , in my opinion, that is a good thing. If everyone in the world shopped at the same stores,  ate the same food, talked about the same things, lived in the same style house, and looked alike, a traveller would become extinct.

Crossing the border from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and entering the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan, history says that Stalin divided this area, land of the Uzbeks, into two countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to keep the tribe from uniting against the Soviets. This tactic succeeded and encouraged regional disunity. From the Kyrgyzstan side of the border to the Uzbekistan side, these people share the same history, religion as well as a similar Turkic language, yet, I understood that when crossing the border, there would be a change in the character of people and this notation was not wrong.

One of the first things my Uzbek guide, Abdu, said was to list the Uzbekistan’s  natural resources and agricultural products, adding that there is a population of  32 million. He said, “Uzbekistan’s greatest resource is its people.” I was soon to find out the truth in his statement.  From the first meeting of Uzbek people, my introduction was that of an inquisitive, outgoing, and confident people.

After crossing the border, we stopped at a Farmer’s Market in Ferghana . People smiled easily and asking questions, wanting to practice their English or say, ‘welcome to Uzbekistan’. I met Malika who sells wedding bread and soon we were discussing possibilities to marry off my sons! One of the first question is always about my age.  Malika revealed that she was two years older than I so we had a good laugh about who looked younger. Other ladies gave out free samples of what they were selling like the sunflower seed lady; Mohabad from Toslaq village who sells handmade Do’ppi hats and who dreamt of going to Mecca insisted that I return home with her so she could cook plov(the national Uzbek dish made of rice, vegetables and meat) for me. Over and over I met confident, outgoing women inviting me into their lives.

Then to visit al-Farghani Gardens, formerly Lenin Gardens, and the al-Farghani statue. The astronomer, mathematician, and geographer, Abu al‐Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani (798-865) born in the Ferghana Valley. He also has a statue at Roda Island in Cairo (see :AlFraganus ). One of al-Farghani’s many contributions was a unique device “Nilometer” – the construction of water level in the Nile.


The Ferghana Valley, surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountain Range and watered by tributaries of the Syr Darya River, is the most fertile part of Central Asia.  Alexander the Great In the valley c. 329 BC.  Traders from China came this way as they created the trade route in the 1st century BC.  The whole valley became a rich oasis, with irrigated fields producing grains, fruits, silk, cotton, nuts and vegetables, and supporting horses, cattle, sheep and camels.  There is evidence that Buddhism made its way here from China before the advent of Islam in the 8th century CE.

Ferghana Valley extends into modern-day Kyrgyzstan and is where the Han emperor, Wu Ti sent his army to bring Fergana horses into China ( c.113BCE) one of its early imports from Central Asia. The horses were most desirable and Emperor Wu Ti named the renamed the horse, ‘Heavenly Horses’. He sent an army of 40,000 men in 104 BCE 5,000 km to Ferghana, but they were defeated. Another army of 60,000 men was sent in 103 BCE and they managed to negotiate the acquisition of 3,000 horses. The Chinese attributed to horses magical powers second to dragons. Ferghana horses had size, stamina, and a muscle structure particular to them which decreased a bulge on each front topside of the rib cage over which a rider could camp his legs, hang on to and street by doing away with the need for reins, thereby freeing his arms for shooting arrows from his bow.


Gansu Flying Horse in Lanzhou

The Han dynasty bronze statuette Gansu Flying Horse is most likely a depiction of this breed. In Osh, there is rock art carved high ona rocky gorge that is thought to be a depiction of the Ferghana  horses.DSC_0912

These horses played an important a role in China’s expansion and came to be seen as status symbols for rich men and officials. A good example of this is that horses are buried with the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an.


Terra Cotta Warriors with their horses in Xi’an

The need for horses became so intrinsic a part of Chinese life over the centuries that China went on trading for them along the Silk Road, paying with bales of silk cloth. The West acquired a taste for the luxurious silk and was no less a passion than the Chinese’s desire for horses.

In Margilian, I visit a silk workshop, Yodgorlik Silk Factory,  to observe the process of silk-making, and learn more about the traditional ikat and khanatlas or “king of satin’’ pattern distinctive to Uzbek silk fabrics. (For silk process in Syria, read: Queen of Fabrics-Silk). Silkworms are raised here on mulberry leaves (the only leaf a silkworm feeds upon) and the cocoons are unraveled to yield the raw material.

Natural dyes to produce stunning pieces using traditional Uzbek ikat design.Ikat is the name for textiles produced using a special method of dyeing the threads before they are woven.  Uzbek ikat patterns often have blurred or “cloudy” edges caused by this method.

Ceramics Master’s Workshop, Rustum Usmanov,  in Rishtan
The village of Rishtan is famous for its ceramics. There is evidence of earthenware in the foothills of the Alai Range dating back one thousand years. Pottery became prominent in this region due to the unusual amount and excellent quality of locally accessible raw materials – red clay and pigments made of minerals and mountain grasses. Modern Rishtan ceramics are characterized by elaborate floral and geometric designs in bright blue and green hues painted on a creamy white background.DSC_0084

Kokand was first mentioned by Arab travelers in the 10th century as an oasis town on the trade route between India and China. ( The Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, now mainly in  Xinjiang Autonomous Province in China stretched to the Kokand Kingdom.) Kokand was known throughout history as a prosperous trading and religious center during the 19th century, it was the centerpiece of a powerful khanate stretching from the Fergana Valley to the southern Kazakh steppes.


Palace of Khudayar-Khan in Kokand
The Palace of Khudayar Khan was built between 1863-1873. At the time of its construction it was one of the most luxurious palaces in Central Asia

Lunch with a Knife and Sword Master, The Art of Knife Making:

Hasan Umarov , Tel+998 (73) 5437521; +998 (91)1416889; email:

DSC_0225Khasan Umarov is third generation knife and sword blacksmith. His father was known as a great knife craftsman in the Fergana Valley. DSC_0218Khasen follows in his father’s footsteps and crafts hand-forges knives, daggers and swords by combining hard and soft stainless steel with tungsten carbide to control strength and flexibility of each blade depending on its use. Khasen has participated in the International Folk Art at Santa Fe.

In Uzbek culture the knife is considered a sacred object and has a protective function as well as a practical one. Khasen’s blades come in different sizes with bone, horn, or mother of pearl inlaid handles. His signature is found only on his favourite knives.

Of course, I cannot forget the scrumptious lunch that Khasen’s wife prepared…plov, the Uzbekistan national dish.


Boarding the train in the late afternoon, it would take almost 5 hours to reach Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. After leaving the fertil plains of the Ferghana valley, the land is increasingly dry and treeles as the train ascends towards a mountainous region,near the border of Tajikistan (another border by pen, the Tajik border extends almost 200 kilometers between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Passing through the canyon, the train pulls to the Kamchik Pass at 2270 meters, a tunnel through a part of the Chatkal mountain range, a spur of the Tien Shan mountains, gets us to the other side just as the sun is setting.

Although it doesn’t look it today, Tashkent is one of the oldest cities in Uzbekistan. Rock paintings in the Chatkal Mountains about 50 miles away show that humans have been here since perhaps 2000 BC. In the 2nd century BC the town was known as Ming Uryuk. A major caravan crossroads, it was taken by the Arabs in 751 and by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Tamerlane feasted here in the 14th century and the Shaibanid khans in the 15th and 16th. The Russian Empire arrived in 1865, and Uzbekistan was not an autonomous country again until 1991.

Tashkent lost much of its architectural history in a huge earthquake in 1966, and although it is an old city, most of it has been built since then. Today, the city has wide tree-lined boulevards, oversized 20th century Soviet buildings and reconstructed traces of the old city with mud-walled houses, narrow winding lanes, mosques and madrassahs.

Abul Kasim Madrassah
Visit the Abul Kasim Madrassah, where each tiny student cell has been transformed into a different craft workshop. Here you can observe craftspeople painting their brilliant lacquer boxes, woodcarvers fabricating elaborate stands for the Koran, and painters working on miniatures. Outside of the madrasah I meet a group to women who came to Tashkent for the day from a neighbouring village of To’yteppa. One lady, Oyzoda, meaning the moon, stops to chat. I learn that she is my age, 68, and is a retired nurse and lives in a one story house. DSC_0257

Oldest Quran
The Uthman Quran, considered by Sunni Muslims to be the oldest Quran in the world, is safeguarded in the library of the Tillya Sheikh Mosque in the Muy Muborok Madrassah. Written on calfskin some time after the death of Prophet Mohammed, the manuscript is believed to have been compiled in Medina by Uthman, the third caliph of Islam. Only a third of the manuscript remains, about 250 large pages bound into a huge book. It has been inscribed onto the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Photographs were not allowed but here is a description:


Shahid Memorial Complex
The Shahid Memorial Complex honors the innocent martyrs (shahid) who were killed during Stalin’s purges in 1938. The blue-domed rotunda and cooling fountain that mark their graves are set in the midst of a green area with a canal running through it.DSC_0353

Courage Monument
Tashkent is built in a seismically active area, and has suffered from earthquakes all during its history. In April 1966, at 4:23am, a 7.5 quake destroyed the homes of 300,000 people, hitting the older sections of the city hardest. The Courage Monument was built near the dividing line between the old town and Tashkent’s newer section to honor the workers from all over the Soviet Union who came to Tashkent to help rebuild the city.DSC_0233

A rare opportunity availed itself when I was asked if I would like to attend the premier opera/ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Tashkent of  Khamsa, by Alisher Navoi. ‘Alisher Navai (1441 – 1501), also known as Nizām-al-Din ʿAlisher Herawī was a Turkic poet, writer, politician, linguist, mystic, and painter. He spoke Persian, Arabic and  Chagatai (a lost language) and wrote much of the poetry in Chagatai. Some say he was the founder of Uzbek language and literature more likely his writings developed the language much like Shakespeare did for the English language.  His plays have universal qualities as he writes of different peoples, different historical eras, religions and traditions. For example in the play Khamsa, his characters are from diverse backgrounds: one character is Chinese, another Arab, another Armenian, Persian, and Greek. His themes are are of freedom, love, and happiness


Bolshoi Theater in Tashkent

There are two statues of Alisher Navai that I have come across in my travels. One outside the Osh Market in Kyrgyzstan and one in small village, Urgut, Uzbekistan.

Khamsa – the common title of the five dastans by Nava’i that were written in 1483–85. With this work Nava’i established a precedent for quality literature in Chagatay. The five dastans included in Nava’i’s Khamsa are:

Hayrat ul-Abror (Wonders of Good People) – 64 chapters, 3,988 verses long; written in 1483;
Farhad wa Shirin (Farhad and Shirin) – 59 chapters, 5,782 verses long; written in 1484;
Layli wa Majnun (Layli and Majnun) – 36 chapters, 3,622 verses long; written in 1484;
Sab’ai Sayyor (Seven Travelers) – 37 chapters, 8,008 verses long; written in 1485;
Saddi Iskandari (Alexander’s Wall) – 83 chapters, 7,215 verse long; written in 1485.- Wikipedia’i

At the Bolshoi Theatre:IMG_4391IMG_4388

Many thanks to Abdu Samadov who introduced, encouraged, and translated. Through Abdu’s openness and enthusiasm for his country, I had the opportunity to meet many interesting Uzbeks. Besides being a super guide, he is also an accomplished doira player.


Abdu Samadov

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.

10 thoughts on “Uzbekistan – the People

  1. Lesley,
    I especially like the photos of the silk-making and remembered the smell that accompanies the process. Along with all the fascinating information, you provide is your ability to connect with the people you encounter in your travels. I love the photo of you and Oyzoda and her clothing.
    One question I have is about the plov. I think I can identify most of the ingredients but what kind of meat is used?
    So enjoying your posts,

    • Dear Karen, In this plov, beef was used but I understand that lamb is also used. The sweet peppers are filled with an egg mixture and cooked underneath the rice. I don’t know how it can be done without destroying the peppers. Anyway, it was delicious and I ate too much, as usual! L.

  2. What a first class traveller you are! Now that you have realised your dream of touring China, how do you imagine Marco Polo who travelled to China by horse?

  3. I moved by your opinion that “if everyone in the world shopped at the same stores, ate the same food, talked about the same things, lived in the same style house, and looked alike, a traveller would become extinct”. Though you have not mentioned your reasons for pronouncing such opinion, but it appears impossible to eradicate otherness in the world. Science and technology cannot bridge the gap that divide the world from different perspective of human life. In fact, the genetic engineering and internet you have mentioned, as the mediator of human differences, are themselves a marker of difference (otherness). There is no way people will the same, and no any techno- science can help in realising that nightmare because God says, in the scripture, “O mankind! We have created you from male and female, and made you into nations and tribes/races, so that you may know one another….” (Qur’an, Chapter 49: Verse 13). I think what God has created deliberately for a purpose cannot be change by technology or science. However, travel is the source of all civilisations, and God commanded prophets to travel so that they learnt skills and gathered experiences of what they did not know. Therefore, the world will never be one and the same, and travel will never come to extinction. These are my opinion. Enjoy every bit of your journey, and I look forward to seeing you back to Nigeria soon.

    • Dear Mustafa, Thank you for this in-depth discussion about diversity and travel. I am truely do wish that people retain their diversity and we all travel to know one another , keeping our uniqueness but in appreciation of others. L.

  4. This is out of the box , however, you may wish to look up/at today’s Harvard University’s Harvard Gazette on -line newspaper, 3/’15/2018 titled Re Significations….Installation examining African Bodies in European Art…

    • Dear Craig.
      I looked up your suggestion…wish I could see the exhibition. I am most interested in cross-cultural experiences and the concept of belonging. Thanks, L.

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