About Uzbekistan

Denau & Jarkurgan
13 March 2018

From the mountains of Baysun shown in the previous part, we will descend to the land of Chaganian, as the plain part of Surkhandarya was called in ancient times.

The road to Denau runs almost parallel to the road to Baysun, slowly deviating to the east, and at the exit from Termez we passed the turn to Hairaton - an Afghan village beyond the Amu Darya just after the legendary Friendship Bridge, built in 1981-85 to connect with Afghanistan and with Soviet troops stationed there during the war. In 1996-2002, while the Taliban ruled on that side of the river, the bridge was closed, but now it is operating and was even upgraded to allow railway connection with Mazar-e Sharif. Taking pictures of the bridge is not recommended as security guards can detain you and ask to delete the forbidden pictures from the camera. They say that sometimes even in Termez itself, the police can check not just the documents but also the photos on the camera searching if there any images of the bridges were taken.

A little further from the turn to Hairaton we cross Surkhandarya river itself - unlike Kashkadarya, this is quite a full-fledged river, about 2/3 of the Moscow-river in full water. Its ancient name is Chaganrud, and the region it flows through is called Chaganiya, the right-bank part of ancient Bactria.

Fertile fields remind that Bactria is the birthplace of wheat, whilst the women who hoe the land in bright dresses that Surkhandarya is a very poor and very patriarchal region.

These fields are bordered with the desert, oases are stretched like long ribbons along the rivers and roads accordingly. Sometimes the "Afghan wind" blows from the other side of Amu Darya, bringing dusty storms. And at every step you will find the traces of ancient settlements and fortifications from tiny ones, like a burial mound, to huge ones, like a spoil heaps in the mine:

Around 30 kilometers from Termez stands the town of Jarkurgan (pop. 20,000) near a huge cotton factory. There is not much information available about this town, that received its town status only in 1973, before that it was urban type village. By the beginning of XX century it was a small kishlak that started growing only in 1930s after a railway line was built here. The town is rather plain and mainly built of Soviet style 5 storey buildings.

There is not much to look at here apart from the one thing at the furthest corner of the town that makes it worth to make a detour - the Jarkurgan minaret of pre-Mongolian construction:

I wrote about pre-Mongolian Central Asia more than once - for the region the invasion of the Mongols was even more terrible than for the Russian lands, and only a handful of stone buildings survived since those times (hundreds of clay settlements, especially in Khorezm, do not count): in Kazakhstan - the mausoleums in Taraz, its surroundings and the village of Turbat; in Kyrgyzstan - the Burana minaret and again the mausoleums of Talas and Uzgen; in Uzbekistan - as many as 4 buildings in Bukhara, as much in Navoi with the nearest neighborhoods and the similar lonely minaret in Vabkent, also something in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. However, they cannot be confused with anything because of a completely different decor - without tiles and mosaics, but with elaborate patterns of figured bricks and terracotta, possibly painted in warm colors. Almost all pre-Mongolian architecture that survived was built under the Karakhanid empire, the first Turkic-Muslim state of these lands; a couple of buildings were left by Samanids – the previous rulers, also Muslims, though this time not Turks, but Persians. Well, the Jarkurgan minaret is not like the others, it is a monument of the Seljuk empire, at the peak of its power stretching from Kashgar to the Bosporus, from the Aral Sea to Oman, considerably surpassing even the empire of Tamerlane, it was the forerunner of the Ottoman Empire, reborn from its small fragment. But this was much later, meantime the minaret in Jarkurgan was built in 1109 by the warlike sultan Ahmad Sanjar, who passionately but unsuccessfully fought to keep his empire from collapsing. 

Its height is now 21 meters, but it narrows very slowly, from 5 to 4 meters, and most likely once it had a double height, consisting from a pair of sections. The ribbed walls (16 edges) immediately resemble the famous Qutb Minar in Delhi, but the homeland of such a construction is considered to be the Afghan Ghazni, firstly the center of Ghaznavids empire, and then the succeeding Gurid empire, that had a border with Seljuks along the Amu Darya. In the inscriptions on the minaret the architect Ali ibn Muhammad from Serakhs in the south of Turkmenistan is immortalized, so this architecture is rather special and was adapted in north and south by historical winds from the mysterious depths of Afghanistan.

The minaret belonged to the Friday mosque of the city, but stood apart from it: for the pre-Mongolian Central Asia such giant lonely minarets were a usual thing, they served the role of the "beacons of Islam", calling the whole city to pray: originally the Jarkurgan tower was slightly lower than Bukhara’s Kalyan, but much slenderer than it. The minaret is now not only chopped off, but also slightly bent - deviation from the axis reaches 2 meters. However, you can climb up to the top, though it is quite difficult and even scary in a completely dark staircase, but nothing interesting can be seen from above due to absence of an interesting panorama. 

In the irrigation ditch a chigir turns around simply for the beauty:

In the building on the other side of the minaret square there is a museum with splinters of great empires and some miserable Soviet art depicting Happy Uzbekistan:

We leave Jarkurgan and driving further. If in Vabkent the detour to the minaret takes only five minutes, here one will have to make extra 20 km to see Jarkurgan minaret. Below are the photos taken further on the way to Denau - all the scenes of the amazing Surkhandarya:

The next stop is after another 30 km near the village of Navbahor just at the entrance to Kumkurgan - the so-called Iskander bridge:

Unlike Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, whose names cause only a deep fear, Alexander of Macedon was genuinely loved here. In pre-Petrine Russia, he was known as an ancient Orthodox crusader, a crusher of unorthodox, while for the Moslems Iskander Zulkarnayn was more like a carrier of a high civilization, which he planted with fire and sword, but justly. And probably, be such a bridge somewhere near Samarkand - it would be called Tamerlan's bridge, but in Bactria Tamerlan is a stranger and destroyer, so here it is Iskander’s bridge. In fact, everything is more prosaic - like the Nicholas bridge in Qarshi, it was built in the 16th century by Bukharan Abdullah Khan II, who was renewing the road infrastructure of his possessions with the scope of modern China. This Surkhandarya Bridge is more modest than the one in Kashkadarya (Qarshi), but it is completely authentic, untouched by the engineers of the White Tsar:

The name Kumkurgan translates as the Sand Fortress, and even before entering this small town (pop. 13,000) from the road you can see the most grandiose settlement in all of Central Asia stretching for kilometers:

In fact, this is not a site of an ancient town, but a long "tongue" of an uncultivated desert, perhaps simply sands that were brought here over the centuries by the "Afghan winds". Right before these hills the railway forks in two - the line to the left was open in 2009 and bypasses Turkmenistan, the line to the left was built in distant the 1920s and takes to Denau and Dushanbe. Each line has 2 trains in total: Tashkent-Termez, Tashkent-Sariosiyo (this is on the border beyond Denau) and Moscow-Dushanbe through Turkmenistan. It's not easy to get through the city - the highway actually crosses the bazaar, where crowdy all the time and somebody always wants to jump under the wheels.

Here is another grandiose and this time man-made site to the right of the highway, for some reason separated from it by a wide irrigation ditch, reminding a moat. It is Dalverzin Tepe, the northern outpost of the Kushan Empire, a Buddhist state of the scale of Rome. Founded in the 3rd century this city survived its metropolis, was emptied in the 7th century and not left its original name.

Around that time, in the 7th century, Chaturanga game developed in India, which is commonly theorized to be the common ancestor of the board games. And what is most interesting that in Dalvarzintep in addition to all the frescoes, statuettes of Buddha, ornaments with combination of Hellenistic art and the bestial style of nomads, the oldest chess pieces (that is, chaturanga pieces) were found - the elephant and ivory bull, which are now kept in the museum of Termez:

Mock-ups of fortresses, houses, cities and temples, reconstruction of ancient settlements can be found in that museum. Top left is Jarkutan, or Sapallitepa – perhaps the oldest city of Uzbekistan, which stood more than 3000 years ago. Below is Kampyrtepa, also ancient trading city on Oxus (Amu Darya) located 30 km above Termez: on the left - a general view, on the right - the house of the local rich man. The top right is a mock-up of Balaliktepa, the last Buddhist temple of Bactria built in 6-7 centuries.

In the 7th century the center of this region shifted higher to the Gissar valley, to the city of Chaganian near the present Denau, which became the center of Chaganian land for the next centuries, probably before the arrival of the Mongols. The local rulers were called chagan-hudats or hidevy, who enjoyed relative freedom and maintained only nominal relations with the capitals of various empires - Tokharian, Turkic, Arab, Samanid – to whom they obeyed quite arbitrarily, for example, sending to Afrosiab not tribute and hostages, but embassies with miraculous gifts like "a camel bird" (ostrich). The heyday of Chaganian reached under the Samanids, when the region was under the rule of vassal, but semi-independent Mukhtajid dynasty. The successor of Chaganian is the current Denau, which meets travelers with unexpectedly beautiful entry stelae:

Denau (pop. 104,000) is by size slightly less than Termez, and in the post-Soviet period it doubled in number of residents, apparently, due to Uzbeks leaving from neighboring Tajikistan: now there are equal number of Tajiks and Uzbeks in the town. 

There are even moto rickshaws!

Aksakals wear hats like a turban:

And the mosque is not of Central Asian type, but mostly reminding of a Muslim-captured church somewhere in the Holy Land:

And here the cinema "Shark" ("East") built in recognizable Stalinist style – diminished by the 20th century to the size of the small village Denau grown up again with the launch of the railway and returned its town status in 1958:

Surprisingly, there is a real arboretum in Denau, grown from a selection station that studied the prospects of plant growing in the unusual for the Soviet Union climate of Surkhandarya: only here in the whole of the USSR sugar cane was grown and even rum was produced!

But the center of Denau is the largest market in Surkhandarya region, to which it owes its peculiarity and color - Tajik people and residents of remote mountain villages come here to trade.

The most interesting trade is near the madrasah. Here for example they sell kurut (salty dried cheese sticks) and a strange drink, which the saleswoman said was popular among Tajiks - ayran with small pieces of vegetables:

Or black and white mulberries, which are abundant in May in Denau and the surrounding areas. Sugary, very sweet, but in general a delicious berry, though leaving hands in red-blue colour:

And look at the swarthy faces of the saleswomen of the mulberries – could it be the members of small parya community that is close to extinction? Parya is small nation, the most unusual branch of Central Asian gypsies. Like the familiar Lyuli and lesser known communities like sagutarosh or chistony, they came a long time ago from India, but instead of wandering like other gypsies they are the only ones who settled in the new land and became mountain farmers, and also kept (unlike other tribesmen that switched to Persian language) Indian language. Their villages are very difficult to access, and most Paryas live in kishlaks in Tajikistan, with some in Uzbekistan only in the northeastern corner of the Surkhandarya region bordering Tajikistan. There are about 2,500 speakers worldwide. With numbers so low, the language is categorized as severely endangered. This means it is mainly spoken by older generations, it is understood by younger generations, but they don't really use it at all.

Denau is also considered to be the capital of the Sagutarosh - the gypsy caste of woodcarvers, who speak Persian, like the Lyuli.

In the midst of the bazaar is the Said Atalik madrasah of the 16th century, and it is very impressive in size - 65 x 45 meters, equaling in size Samarkand madrassas of Registan or Khiva madrasah of Muhammad Amin, the largest in Central Asia. But here it stands lonely, forgotten and not known to many:

The gate, of course, is not so old, but on the ceilings of cells are slightly different patterns and shapes than in all other ancient Uzbek cities.

Inside the courtyard is not tidy, the place seems to be totally neglected and desolated.

Leaving Denau and passing a check-point with formalities like at the border control. Denau is the border town with Tajikistan when entering into the west of the country for Dushanbe and the Pamir Highway, and transiting between the two countries is the most likely reason you'll find yourself here. Denau is set between a rock and a hard place. With the magnificent snow-dusted Hissar Mountains to the north, Chulbair Range to the west and turbulent Tajik border to the east, Denau and the traditional rural kishlaks surrounding it constitute one of the farthest-flung and most untouched mountain cul-de-sacs of the Uzbek republic.

Meantime, the mountains are high and beautiful, and the scenery somehow not Asian at all:

But only in some places. The spirit of Asia cannot be confused with anything else.

Somewhere there is the mountain Khazret-Sultan (4643), known under the Soviets as boring Peak of the 22nd Congress of Communist Party - the highest peak of Uzbekistan on the border with Tajikistan. Not sure whether it is seen from these pictures 

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Did you know?

Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world to be ‘double landlocked’ (landlocked and totally surrounded by other landlocked countries). Liechtenstein is double landlocked by 2 countries whilst Uzbekistan is surrounded by 5!

Did you know that Uzbekistan lies in the very heart of Eurasia, the coordinates for Uzbekistan are 41.0000° N, 69.0000°

Uzbekistan is home to the Muruntan gold mine, one of the largest open pit gold mines in the world! The country has 4th largest reserves of gold in the world after South Africa, USA and Russia

Uzbekistan is the world capital of melons. They have in excess of 150 different varieties, which form a staple part of the local diet, served fresh in the summer and eaten dried through the winter.

It is Uzbek tradition that the most respected guest be seated farthest from the house’s entrance.

Tashkent’s metro features chandeliers, marble pillars and ceilings, granite, and engraved metal. It has been called one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.

The Uzbek master chef is able to cook in just one caldron enough plov to serve a thousand men.

When you are a host to someone, it is your duty to fill their cups with for the whole time they are with you.  What you must not do, however, is to fill their cup more than half-full.  If you do that as a mistake, say it is a mistake immediately.  Doing it means you want them to leave.  Wow!  Amazing, right?

To Uzbeks, respect means a whole lot.  For this reason they love it if, even as foreigners, you endeavour to add the respectful suffix opa after a woman's name; and aka after a man's.  Example: Linda-opa and David-aka.  You could also use hon and jon respectively.

Having been an historic crossroads for centuries as part of various ancient empires, Uzbekistan’s food is very eclectic. It has its roots in Iranian, Arab, Indian, Russian and Chinese cuisine.

Though identified with the Persia, the Zoroastrism probably originated in Bactria or Sogdiana. Many distinguished scholars share an opinion that Zoroastrianism had originated in the ancient Khorezm. Indeed, today in the world there were found 63 Zoroastrian monuments, including those in Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thirty-eight of them are in Uzbekistan, whereas 17 of these monuments are located in Khorezm.

One of Islam's most sacred relics - the world's oldest Koran that was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or Muslim leader, is kept in Tashkent. It was completed in the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death. 

Tashkent is the only megapolis in the world where public transport is totally comprised of Mercedes buses. And due to low urban air polution it is one of the few cities where one can still see the stars in the sky.

You would be surprised to know that modern TV was born in Tashkent. No joke! The picture of moving objects was transmitted by radio first time in the world in Tashkent on 26 of July 1928 by inventors B.P. Grabovsky and I.F. Belansky.

Uzbekistan is the only country in the world all of whose neighbours have their names ending in STAN. This is also the only country in Central Asia that borders all of the countries of this region

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Famous Islamic physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the Latin world) who was born near Bukhara was the one of the first people to advocate using women’s hair as suture material – about 1400 years ago.

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Uzbekistan was once a rum producig country. There is still a real arboretum in Denau (city near Termez on the border with Afghanistan), grown from a selection station that studied the prospects of plant growing in the unusual for the Soviet Union subtropical climate of Surkhandarya region: only here in the whole of the USSR sugar cane was grown and even rum was produced!

Uzbekistan has been ranked one of the safest countries in the world, according to a new global poll. The annual Gallup Global Law and Order asked if people felt safe walking at night and whether they had been victims of crime. The survey placed Uzbekistan 5th out of 135 countries, while the UK was 21st and the US 35th. Top five safest countries:

  • Singapore
  • Norway
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Uzbekistan
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