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Ferghana--the Story

Leaving Tashkent is a straightforward process, but time-consuming as the main arteries pass by large bazaars and through police checkpoints. It was noon on Saturday and 30 C. The bazaars were in full swing with buses and taxis cutting through traffic and ignorant pedestrians playing toreador with oncoming traffic. In a diplomatic vehicle, one rarely gets stopped at checkpoints. The contents of my car cannot be searched and the police know not to ask for bribes. I think the checkpoints serve two purposes: they act as unofficial toll roads and they allow the government to monitor who is crossing and to where --like me.

Simon, a Frenchman teaching his native language in Andijon, was leaving for home at the end of June. With another three-day weekend approaching, Laurence and I decided to visit him. I would drive the 5 plus hours so we could tour the area, not just Andijon. Two Uzbek friends of Simon wanted to tag along.

Their companionship would make the trip easier: they both spoke Uzbek and had friends in Ferghana City, our first stop on the way. We had an uneventful drive. We simply listened to music, poked fun at one another's cultures and enjoyed some nice scenery around the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. (If you look at a small-scale map of Uzbekistan you can see the intricate border it shares in the East with its neighbors. Tajikistan wraps around southern Kyrgyzstan and up into Uzbekistan. There are fingerlings of land stretching into neighbors' territory: quite the mess and as a result there are numerous military outposts. These outposts are simply run down bunkers with chicken wire, staffed by armed teenagers.

The only road through this rough territory is a switchback whose curves were designed by someone unfamiliar with the phenomenon of momentum. It was impossible to drive more than 15 mph around these curves. There was not rocky debris on the road, though this area's rocky slopes are prone to avalanches: in certain parts one can see cement barricades that have fallen from the roadside above halfway down the mountain. The tunnels were almost more treacherous with dim lighting and servicemen patrolling in camouflage.

After about five hours, we finally made it to Ferghana--an industrial, large town given two pages in the Lonely Planet guide for a reason. We stopped off at a restaurant for a late lunch. As in every other restaurant in Uzbekistan, the menu consists of 10-20 types of "salads" (meat and/or vegetable mixed with mayonnaise), five types of kebab (mutton chunks, mutton ribs, beef chunks, hamburger chunks or chicken chunks), nohn (like Indian flat bread, but leavened and not as good), green tea, Nestle bottled water, and Baltika beer (Russian). We were exhausted from the drive and ate quickly.

All hotels are required to register their foreign guests. We rented a small apartment, though, as it was easier and cheaper than a hotel. In Russian training back in Virginia, one of my instructors explained to the class the culture of apartment buildings in the former-Soviet Union. In every complex there is at least one state-appointed "manager" who is officially charged with maintenance and resolving disputes. The manager is also responsible for reporting gossip to the authorities: tidbits about prostitutes, marital strife, drunkenness and unpatriotic behavior. Ferghana is such a boring little town that two Western women with two Uzbek guys got the attention of some nosey trouble-maker. But there is more going on in this region than just nosiness. There is xenophobia.

The main goal of the weekend trip was simply to get out of Tashkent and see the countryside. When you live in a country for a year or so, there is no excuse to skip the lesser-known areas and attractions. Our little group visited some mosques and madrassahs in surrounding areas that day. They were quaint--nothing like the restored buildings of Bukhara. The Ferghana Valley, while part of the Silk Road, was never razed by the Mongols like Western Uzbekistan. There just wasn't much to raze as the inhabitants focused more on the land's fecundity and less on Islam and Islamic scholarship. After having seen most of the local attractions, we met up with Simon and hired a taxi to take us to Andijon. (If you skipped the section on internal politics, you might want to go back and read it.)

The last time I took French was in 1992. I was eternally frustrated; I thought I would never be able to learn languages. Russian is my sixth foreign language. Once we climbed into the taxi, though, I became French. For the first time, I chose to misrepresent my nationality because announcing myself as a U.S. citizen, no matter how polite I might seem, could easily elicit anti-U.S. sentiment. I can't claim that I speak French, but my understanding is still there, thank goodness.

Simon invited us to his host-family's house in Andijon. They had prepared a lovely late lunch of somsa (filled pastry), fruit, nuts and the ubiquitous pot of green tea. We removed our shoes and climbed onto a traditional, summer relaxation bed of sorts: a raised platform with a railing, lined with pillows and carpets and a space in the middle for food and drink.

I never really saw much of Andijon; our ride into and out of the city did not pass by any infamous or famous attractions. We entered the city calmly, and exited in a tizzy, being driven by yet another crazy taxi driver in a tin car. We made it back to Ferghana and spent an awkward night there, before returning to Tashkent the next day. Fortunately, there was not much to the area and I have no problem with happily crossing it off of my list of things to see in Uzbekistan, knowing that I will not be going back.