Sure enough when we emerged from the hotel five white taxis were lined up with numbers on them – our convoy. We were three to a car.
We travelled with Richard which was great fun. The cars were immaculate and had seat belts! In fact all the cars we saw on the streets looked pristine – as if a bump could require you to be off the road. The town was squeaky clean – no litter and even dust looked as if it would be out of place. It all almost sparkled in the sunlight. We passed a large football or sports stadium and lots of large commercial buildings. This was a thriving place.
We drove out of Fergana and saw the occasional horse and cart. Cotton fields abounded, some with pickers out at work. I desperately need a cotton picking photograph but we were advised not to take photographs out of the windows of the car.
After about an hour and a half we came to Kokand City. Kokand in its hey day had been an important trading city and the Khan of the once large emirate built his palace here. Having said this, three years after it was built in around 1860 the Russians came and destroyed the girl bit, the Harem. The Khanate must have been huge bordering China on one side and almost Turkey on the other. The mosaics and tiled domes of the palace shone in the
late morning sunlight as we walked towards it through immaculate gardens and the white pillars of a gateway.
Up close the colourful tessori in amazing patterns became clear. Khudayarkhans Palace even in its refurbished state was quite something.
It cost 50,000 Uzbeckistan Som to get in. Keith had changed money and 3,000 Som equals one American dollar. We changed $100 and did not know what to do with the great blocks of money we received in exchange. The people count it amazingly quickly – probably because they have to. The young cashier at the palace had a large abacas on her desk……
We had a local guide who told us all about the palace, interpreted by Rustom (spelling?) the Uzbeck guide who is travelling with us. It was a very detailed commentary but certainly put the whole moving feast of Central Asian boundaries in context.
We had not gone far beyond Kokand on our journey when there was a major checkpoint. Machine gun toting soldiers with black balaclavas revealing only their eyes stood and watched as we were made to leave the cars and stand in the blazing sun while our passports were taken to a booth for checking. All around us were cars being searched and people being interrogated, about what we did not know. After about twenty minutes we were told to get back into the cars and go. This we did with some alacrity.
Lunch was taken on shaded day beds in a fairly formal garden with lots of water and wooden bridges. It was very pleasant with a welcome breeze from swaying birch trees which were in evidence for the first time.
Moving on again, we eventually came to the Namangen pass itself – a high point from which you can look down on the switchback road below as it tacked down into the distant valley. Our convoy stopped for us to take in the view and photographs were allowed. At this point things started to really speed up, or so it seemed. Although I could not see the speedometer from where I was sitting, I was conscious we were travelling at quite a pace. As we neared the floor of the valley, the pace seemed to be increased. Lane discipline is very lax and because of roadworks it was often down to a single lane in each direction. There was a lot of military presence on the road.
The outskirts of Tashkent (or Toshkent as they spell it) arrive long before the centre with the usual commercial and industrial areas of any modern city. The city centre has broad highways through it in the typical Russian style and has been modernised as a result of the damage caused by the bad earthquake which took place here some years ago.
Our final lap to our hotel was made even more anxious by the fact that our cars were running out of petrol. Petrol is in short supply in Uzbeckistan and we arrived at the hotel with many of the cars on empty. However we had made it and as we pulled up outside it was good to see that Penelope had made it too. There she was parked in the narrow road outside the hotel.