A rich history and a recent past covered in a tenuous calm make Ferghana the hotspot of Central Asia

Ferghana Valley has an umbilical connection with India. In 1526, a young prince from this fertile valley crossed the Pamirs and the Hindukush ranges and came through the Khyber Pass to Panipat, a dusty town in the alluvial plains of the Punjab (now in the state of Haryana). Arriving with just 12,000 loyal men and skimpy artillery, Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur, an extraordinary military genius, easily dispatched Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi’s substantial army and changed the course of Hindustan’s history forever. Babur was from Uzbek Ferghana, much to the disappointment of the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks who also share this 22,000 square kilometre valley in Central Asia. They derive comfort though, claiming some tenuous link with the Badshah. We are shown a hill-top hovel in Kyrgyz Ferghana and told Babur planned his campaigns while he stayed here!

We arrive in Uzbek Ferghana Valley after a fortnight-long, four-thousand kilometre drive through the never-ending steppes of Kazakhstan and the dazzling mountain pastures of the Kyrgyz Republic. En route, we cross the Kyrgyz Ferghana towns of Jalalabad and Osh. Osh has more than 150 Indian medical students all of whom come here attracted as much by the quality of education as by the relatively lower costs. We meet several of them and walk through the famous bazaar of Osh all filled with shoddy Chinese merchandise.

A 14-hour drive from Osh through the stunning Tien Shan and Pamir ranges brings us to Andijon, the hometown of Babur. Andijon of course, breathes Babur, thinks Babur and worships him. After all he was born here to an illustrious military clan and his father was the Governor-General of the province. He traces his lineage to Amir Timur and the non-pareil Chenghis Khan of the Golden Horde. Babur’s modest house is preserved for posterity as a museum, but that it is an afterthought is clear since none of the things he might have used, are on display. Just outside Babur’s house is a hardware market. The entrance to the house is partially hidden by tin and metal wash basins.

We saunter through the chaotic Central Asian Bazaar of Andijon. Donkey carts clog the roads even as swanky Volvo buses hoot impatiently, scattering helter-skelter, jay-walking locals. This is melon season in Ferghana and the markets are heaped high with ripe melons. They come in all colours — yellow, green, orange and brown and designs — ridged, smooth, striped. The fruit vendor tempts us with a wedge and we need no further persuasion. No wonder Babur was so nostalgic for the sweet melons of his homeland to which he never went back once he established his empire in Delhi.

Ferghana’s fecundity is legendary, but we discover its hospitality. Every house and shop is bursting with fruits – apples, walnuts, almonds, plums, peaches and persimmons. Chaikhonas – traditional tea houses have trellises laden with ripe, juicy grapes to which we help ourselves lavishly, even as the locals look on indulgently. At the Babur Foundation, there is an orchard bursting with quince, a fruit that resembles peach. They are not yet ripe, but I cannot resist the temptation to taste some.

We stay in Ferghana town and explore the surrounding areas – Marjilon, Namangan, Andijon, Rishton etc. Marjilon is famous for its silks. Ferghana silk is exquisitely fine, but it is too narrow for us to make anything out of it. So we buy scarves and stoles in pastel shades and signature patterns at tourist prices. At Rishton, we visit Rustom Usmanov the famous potter who specializes in exquisite blue and green glazed pottery. The workshop and the store are a feast for the eyes, but the stuff is expensive.

It is easy to understand why Ferghana is so popular. Most of Uzbekistan is desert, most of Kyrgyz and Tajik republics, mountainous steppes, leaving very little arable land in this part of the world. Ferghana was and still is, the food bowl of Central Asia. Today, many of the food crops have given way to cotton, and regrettably, tobacco. The fields on both sides of the road are awash with blinding white flashes of cotton flowers. But ask for cotton fabrics anywhere in the valley and all you get is a bemused smile. Almost all the cotton is exported. Ferghana has a chequered history, but throughout, the valley existed as one political entity. In the ancient era, it was a part of Transoxiana, a province of the Persian Empire, where it played an important role in the Silk Road trade from China to the Middle East and Europe. In the 13th century it came under the conquest of the Mongols and was incorporated into the Chagatai Khanate. Political boundaries shifted as Turkic groups and Islam spread into the region, but Ferghana was always administered as a single unit. In the 18th century, the Kokand Khanate was established. It included eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, and most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The penetration of Imperial Russia into Central Asia in the 19th century once again shifted political control in the region. But the Ferghana Valley remained intact even after the Russians marched into the valley in 1876 and took it over.

Khodyar Khan’s impressive fortress stands in the town of Kokand. Some of the rooms are damaged, but there is enough left intact to delight the architecture-lover. The symmetry of the lines, the juxtaposition of the carved wooden pillars and the intricately patterns on the painted roofs testify to times when art was nurtured with care. Kokand was very much an integral part of the silk route of yore.

But these days, doubly landlocked Ferghana has turned into tinderbox. Even now, a tenuous calm prevails over the entire valley. Ferghana is the hotspot of Central Asia. It is an ethnic soup with hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz and Tajik living in Uzbek Ferghana and vice-versa. Ethnic tensions, sporadic violence and in 2010 the region erupted in violence when hundreds were killed. But none of this is apparent as we drive leisurely through the towns and cross the Chak Tal ranges on our way to Tashkent.