Ferghana valley might be the widest valley in the world. A huge area surrounded by great mountains, sliced into portions of three countries (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) by only-God-knows-how-it-works border lines. I am always interested in visiting Ferghana Valley and experience the life here.
Ferghana is said to have the purest Uzbek culture. The people of Andijan is said to speak the purest form of Uzbek language. Ferghana (Fergana, Farghona) is also a hotbed in Uzbekistan. The radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan forced Karimov to send troops to secure the area (thus sacrificing some of the civilians) and even force the smaller neighboring countries to support Uzbekistan’s government move against the militants. Karimov actions not only gained protest worldwide (remember demonstration in front of Uzbek embassy in Jakarta) but also difficult times with other Central Asian republics.
The people of Ferghana is said to be religious, much more compared to other parts of Uzbekistan. But this also result cynical jokes from other parts of the country. The term ‘Namangani’ or ‘Namanganlik’, literally means ‘someone from Namangan’, now have extended meaning of ‘to be gay’. It is said that men of Namangan are fascinated of homosexual sex. Interestingly, the leader of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU, Harakatul Islami Uzbekistan), is also from Namangan and entitled Juma Namangani. Pakistan has Peshawar, Afghanistan has Kandahar, and Uzbekistan has Namangan. Peshawar, Kandahar, and Namangan are all known for strong religious Islamic movements. Peshawar is the home of Pakistani Pashtuns with their tribal belts, Kandahar is the heartland of the Pashtun where Taliban was born, and Namangan has Juma Namangani and his IMU. Three of them also gained popularity to be ‘homosexual cities’. Whether Namangan indeed deserves its title, I have no way to attest (yet).
This time I go to Ferghana, a town which is the business center of the whole valley. A friend of mine, Temur Mirzaev, an Uzbek student from Fergana who got scholarship to study Indonesian language in Indonesia, helped me a lot in this visit to the valley. First he took me to the bus station in Qo’ilok Bazaar and then bargained for me the cheapest transport. I took a Damaz, a public transport which can take up to 8 passengers. The road to Ferghana passes through high passes. Therefore traveling in big bus is dangerous, banned by the government. The high passes and tunnel through the mountains are taken as alternative way to connect Tashkent to the valley. The previous road passed through Tajikistan, now an independent country, and requests Uzbek passport holders to have transit visa. The break-away of USSR resulted new republics that have to be independent each other but they are sewn together by the Soviet system. Stalin drew the border of the countries in the way that is so bizarre, but clever, that the republics had to rely each other and independent movement thus pressed down. The mountain road through passes from Tashkent to Ferghana to avoid the better road through Tajikistan is one of the examples.
Temur phones me several time to assure that I arrived safely in Ferghana. But traveling with Damas is indeed very slow and he was surprised to know that after 5 hours of journey I have just arrived in Kokand (Qoqon), the first city in Ferghana valley.
His name is Halimjon Permatov, 26 years old, a 191-cm-tall Uzbek man speaks nothing but Uzbek language. He is the proof of what Temur told me about hospitality of people from Ferghana valley. He just knows me from the Damaz. He sits next to me in the car. And he offers me stay in his house. His house is in Mindon, not far from Temur’s village in Gulshan.
The Damaz stops in Altaryik, and it’s still another 60 km to Ferghana town. There are buses that cost 700 Sum per person. Halimjon pays everything for me. Arrive in Ferghana, he goes to bazaar and buys some trousers. He even offers me to get new clothes. To be honest, I start to suspect his sudden hospitality.
He also treats me for lunch, a fried noodle in Ferghana bazaar. He pays for the taxi to go to Mindon, and we arrive in Mindon almost dark. Before going home, he, now in new blue jeans he just bought from the bazaar, goes first to a barber shop. He first shaves his head clean. Then he let me shave my little moustaches. He pays for all.
Then we walk through long alley from the main street. Houses in Mindon are covered by high walls, but most of the doors are kept open. Not far from here is the Kyrgyzstan border. But I see no Kyrgyz here. There are many old men with white beards (aksakal, ak=white, sakal=beard) in black coat and traditional cap walking through the alley, exchanging greetings with Halimjon. It seems that everybody knows Halimjon. I know very little Uzbek language, makes me so difficult to guess what they were saying.
Halimjon takes me to his house, about 1 km from the main street. It is a large house, with garden, but very simple. Halimjon, when he was in the car, told me that his wife was pregnant. But I see a slim woman in the house with three children. The house is very simple, with a wooden podium and samovar (heater with chimney, also to boil water and to cook). Not until two minutes he distributes cheese snack to his children, talks something with his wife, then he immediately drags me out.
“We go to apartment, in Ferghana,” says him.
“Whose apartment?” I ask.
With some words and body language, I understand that he says sleeping in apartment (kwartira) in Fergana will be much comfortable for me, I will be able to take shower and sleep well, and the second day he will take me to Shakhimardan. Shakhimardan is also an interesting place to go. It is an Uzbek territory, surrounded completely by Kyrgyzstan. Going to Shakhimardan means I have to exit Uzbekistan, enter Kyrgyzstan, exit Kyrgyzstan, then arrive in Uzbekistan (Shakhimardan). But for the trip which requires several international borders, I have to possess visas, which I don’t. Halimjon says he can take me from the backdoor, so that no guards will check my passport. I am thankful to him for this.
“Who will stay in the apartment?” I ask him again.
“Only you and me. Tomorrow morning 6 o’clock we go to Shakhimardan.”
We take a taxi back to Ferghana. I notice Halimjon pays a lot of money to serve me today. I feel very uncomfortable. In one side I force myself to believe that this is Ferghana hospitality that I have to experience. In the other side I really question the intention of Halimjon. He has such a comfortable house in Mindon, as what he has offered before, but why he takes me back to Ferghana?
We arrive in Ferghana. It is almost dark already. After several trips with different taxis and public transports, we arrive in an apartment complex. I am completely lost now. I don’t know where I am, in the middle of darkness with a complete stranger that I just know from the bus. First we go to a room. This room is full of people. It is gloomy, scary. It reminds me to prostitution house I saw in a Hong Kong movie. A middle aged woman talks with Halimjon after exchanging greetings, then Halimjon leaves the apartment immediately. He says, let’s go to another apartment. I understand nothing. I ask who the woman is. He answers, sister.
We take another taxi, to an apartment building nearby. It is also dark. We go to the second gate and at the first floor Halimjon knocks the middle house. A pregnant woman comes out.
“Halim aka…. (aka = elder brother)” greets the woman.
Halim hugs her and they talk a lot. Halim invites me to a room. I sit down, full of curiosity.
This is a small empty room with some kurpachas (mattress). There are huge posters on the wall, one is Mecca, one is a tropical beach, and the other is Chinese mountain. There is a tiny black-and-white television which the woman needs to bring an antenna in to turn on the TV. The house is full of cockroaches. It is dirty and smelly. There is no water in the toilet and it is replaced by little insects. For the first time in my life, I successfully resist of using toilet. Halim then goes out, he says to buy food. It is around 7 o’clock and I am terribly hungry.
Halimjon cooks the food with the woman. Then they come out with fried sausage and omelet, plus some bread. Who is the woman? Halim says the woman is her sister. The woman has golden teeth, common in Central Asia. She is pregnant. But I remember Halim says his wife was pregnant. Is this the one who he mentioned? But who is the woman in Mindon then? The one in Mindon is not pregnant but looks more like a wife, from the way they interact. With this woman, there is a certain distance that I don’t know how to explain. This woman in apartment gives him massage on Halim’s back.
After dinner, I lay down on the mattress and trying to sleep. Not more than 30 minutes later, three men come to the room. They are police. They show me their ID card and ask me to take all of my belongings and follow them.
What is my mistake? As I know I am not guilty, I go confidently with them. Halim also follows. It is the first time I travel in a police car. Instead of felling fascinated, I feel I was a prisoner.
In the police station I answer all of the questions, in Russian language, jovially and politely. I know I don’t commit any crime. The two policemen also jokes with me a lot, but other says that I might be a spy.
It is not first time I am suspected as a spy.
They look at my photo albums, the photos I took in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and at least they were happy that tonight was not that boring. It is indeed like a chit chat rather than interrogation in the office, but I feel so tired after the long journey. I am not so much interested with night chat with bored policemen.
I see Halim. He is sweaty. His eyes are also red and there is a slice of tears. He is scared. I don’t know what to say, I feel guilty if that is because of me he is being dragged to police station. But what is wrong of going to private apartment to have dinner?
Later the policemen tell me, the pregnant woman is a prostitute. The house is indeed a prostitute house. That is why the reason the interrogation talks so much about sex. I told them earlier I am not interested in sex as it’s not allowed in the religion. They laughed. But then they told me the true story. The prostitute woman was caught of stealing and has been punished in jail. She was just released but she is still under object of police control. That is why the police know when I, a foreigner, enter the house.
The whole interrogation in the police station takes 2 hours and I am completely exhausted after. It is foggy, cold, and dark night in Ferghana.
Now my attention turns to Halim. I find this man is full of lies, but still he tries to help me. I am really confused about him. When we leave the police station, the policemen tell him to take care of me. Halim takes a taxi and brings me to hotel as now it’s impossible to return back to the prostitute’s house. He pays for the taxi, he pays for the hotel. It cost 2000 Sum for him but 6200 sum for me as I am charged foreigner price by the hotel administrator. He pays everything, which now makes me more suspicious on him.
It was cold night in the hotel as the blanket was thin and the heater doesn’t work. I hold my new camera tightly when sleeping. The next morning Halim still offers me to take me around, but I manage to let him leave me. He asks me to give him some money, about 5000 Sum, for him being able to return home. He has finished almost all of his money because of me.
I give him the money. He leaves.
I start to relieve myself from the shock.