About Uzbekistan

07 March 2018

Surkhandarya region is located in the southern part of Uzbekistan, this is a special, wonderful land with a wide variety of landscapes. Thanks to a favorable geographical location the civilization in these places flourished since ancient times and numerous historical changes have left a unique touch to local cities.

The town of Baysun is only a couple of hours away from Termez. It lies in the foothills of the Gissar range and represents an amazing and original world even within Uzbekistan. The town is very secluded and remote from the hectic life of the bigger cities. Here, one can literally feel the breath of antiquity. There are numerous ancient monuments of history and culture on the streets of Baysun, and people genuinely treasure the traditions of their ancestors - legends, songs, crafts, language and customs that have become a cultural heritage of Uzbekistan.

The everyday life of Baysun residents strikes tourists with its special color, it is studied by many historians and ethnographers. Houses here are decorated with locally carpets called suzane, national costumes are decorated with unusual ornaments that are embroidered by hand. To serve the tables they also use locally produced and painted dishes.

Local people carefully preserved the folklore traditions in its original form passing them from generation to generation. Weddings, funerals, births and celebrations are accompanied by original and vivid rituals that exist only in this area. Here, any important event in the life of people is accompanied by a complex ritual songs and dances. The Muslim mentality, which displaced from the minds of Uzbeks many pagan traditions, did not affect the local residents that much and who still perform make-it-rain ritual, picking-up mountain tulips celebration and many other rituals.

The value of Baysun's traditions is so great that this region was listed by UNESCO in 2001 in "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", which included only 19 cultural and historical areas around the world.

Not far from Baysun is the Surkhan Reserve, which is aimed to preserve the diversity of the region's fauna and flora. Here, tourists can touch the real fossils left by dinosaurs that lived in this area millions of years ago. Neolithic and Mesolithic drawings of ancient people are found in the local rocks.

Climbing the mountains, tourists can visit Teshik-Tash cave, which is known all over the world thanks to the remains of a Neanderthal child found here in 1938, the reconstruction of which is one of the most recognizable images of an ancient man in the world. For a long time, it was believed that the remains belonged to the boy, but later studies discovered new facts - in fact, the skeleton belongs to the girl 8-10 years old. The animal bones found nearby suggest that it was not just a burial, but a real funeral ritual. According to the reconstruction by Russian anthropologist M. A. Gerasimov, a sculptural portrait was created, which is kept in the Termez Museum.

Nearby is the cave of Amir Temur, but research works are not possible at the moment because of the constantly crumbling rock. Legends say that the saber of one of the greatest commanders of Uzbekistan is buried in this cave.

The mountain ranges around Baysun are a real storehouse of stories and legends. One of them is also related with the cave, which is called Zarautsay. As the rumor says, here are hidden the treasures of the famous navigator and traveler Marco Polo. He was going to save them from robbers who attacked his caravan while following the Silk Road. So far treasures were not found, but the researchers discovered ancient writings on the walls, dated from various periods - from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age.

Another legend is about saint Omonkhona spring that is visited by pilgrims from all over Uzbekistan to drink its soul-cleansing water, which has medicinal properties. The water of the source heals indeed, since it is mineralized naturally and cures diseases of the liver and kidneys.

Baysun is the beautiful mountainous wild land, the lost world of medieval villages and titanic landscapes. In fact, this is a whole country, where it would be worth spending a few days and will undoubtedly leave one of the strongest impressions of Central Asia.

Tourists usually get here from Qarshi and one of the ways to travel is by railway that was opened in 2009 after many years of construction as a bypass of Turkmenistan. The railway was built in rather difficult terrain conditions, through the gorges and mountain passes, and now two passenger trains run here from Tashkent to Termez and Sariosiyo on the border with Tajikistan.

The locals have completely different faces, and on those faces, one can see the Afghan pride:

From the town with the same name to Baysun station is 15 kilometers, and the town itself is rather unattractive. The only thing for which it makes sense to go here is the Baysun Mountains - but this zone is highly sensitive due to proximity of Afghanistan, and to go there one will need to register with the police and get a pass in the district center. Do not confuse this with the standard police registration that is required within the 3-day period at the place of residence, as this is a totally different procedure to obtain a permit for travelling in this area, and without such permit you may be detained. In Baysun you can find the car back to Darband (the penultimate railway station before Baysun), and there to look for the local that will drive you up the canyon. And while we drive along the mountains (2-3 photos below), I will tell you more about Baysun, whose name translates as "the tribe of the single-minded."

Everyone knows that the eastern half of Central Asia is the kingdom of the great mountains, and The Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary even calls them the highest on the planet: "Heavenly Mountains" of Tien Shan, "The Roof of the World " Pamir ... but there is another mountain system woven from a multitude of scattered ranges - Gissaro-Alai, stretching for almost a thousand kilometers from Kyrgyzstan to Turkmenistan, crossing all the Central Asian countries (except Kazakhstan) and linking not only the Pamir and Tien Shan, but also the Turkmen Kopet Dag. The highest nodes of Gissaro-Alai - the Fan Mountains and Matcha in the north of Tajikistan are equal in height with Caucasus, but its core is the 4-kilometer Gissar range, which continues in Turkmenistan as the "Lofty Mountains" of Kugitangtau. So, the Yakkabag range with Langar underpins Gissar from the side of Kashkadarya, whilst Baysuntau from Surkhandarya, and both of them hanging over the ancient Sogdiana and Bactria are noteworthy not only by nature, but by people who reside here.

The appearance of Gissar on both sides is very typical - not sharp peaks, but steep slopes and flat tops, and despite the formidable appearance of these miraculous castles, their height is rarely more than 3 kilometers. Baysun is also called the "father of the caves" - these mountains in the literal sense of the word are dotted with them, and mostly they are not labyrinths of galleries, but shallow grottoes.

Behind the nearby ridges, a snow-covered mountain of amazing shape sticks out over the entire Surkhandarya - the locals call it Sangardak, but this is the name of the nearest river. In fact, this is Khoja Gur-Gur-Ata (3720m), the main peak of Baysun, and here is the post about the ascension to its crest - it looks absolutely fantastic at close range.

But like natural winds, historical storms also regularly cling to the mountains. The pagans first lived at the foot of Baysuntau from time immemorial, later the Zoroastrians of the Bactra, who for thousands of years became Muslim Tajiks, mixing with alien peoples layer by layer over the centuries. From the South the history brought the Greeks of Alexander of Macedon, who turned to Buddhism soon and dissolved in India, and Arabs who planted Islam with fire and sword; from the north came (except for one-off raids) Tokhari - the most eastern of the Indo-European, who lived then in Xinjiang; Ephthalites, or "white Huns" - ancestors of Pashtuns; Mongolians who reigned at some point in the north (Chagatay ulus), and in the south (the kingdom of Khulagu in Iran), the Turks ... From each of these peoples there was something left - whether a small nomadic tribe, fairy tales or legends, motifs of folk patterns, forms of dwellings and machine tools. In the 16th century, Kungrats came here - the descendants of a powerful Mongolian tribe who settled throughout Central Asia and mixed into each of its Turkic peoples. The Uzbek Kungrats lived in Khorezm (and even ruled it from the 18th century to 1917) and here, and although they were not directly related to one another, they knew about each other – that’s how spread among Turks the legend of the "land of single-minded people", that is, the honest, sincere and just people, lost in the mountains somewhere "beyond Bukhara" in the homeland of the epic hero Alpamysh.

The Kungrats and Tajiks live in Baysun very closely, and they differ from each other less than from the tribesmen from the outside world - any authority in these mountains remained distant and conditional, and everything new that the conquerors brought here over centuries did not displace the old traditions, but laid over it. They say that the last local idol of the god of pre-Zoroastrian times from the archa (plane tree) of 32-meter height was destroyed by a shepherd in the 1930s, not for an idea, but for the sake of the wood. In the villages of Baysun the traditional way of life is still preserved - the type of grazing has not changed, the land is still treated with a wooden plow, hand mills and spinning wheels, water mills, butter mills, forges with furs are widely used, the products are preserved as in olden times in ceramic pots or in caves, wooden utensils are used, etc. Since the times of the Kushan Empire, the smelting of metals has developed in the region (boilers for melting have been preserved in the vicinity of the village of Tuda [by the way, near the town). Pottery is still widely popular as a craft, as well as production of leather items for clothing, shoes, harness, and various household items. Beautiful and lightweight Baysun carpets and embroidery were in great demand in the bazaars from Termez to Bukhara - hence, there are many interesting things to see ...

The lost country was divided into 4 regions - at the foot of the mountains more Tajik Baysun and Saarob, higher up more Kungrad Machay and Kurgancha. We are still in Little Baysun:

I think it is clear from the above that if you dare to visit these places you will need at least a week, to walk and ride through the mountains, to explore the daily life of villages, to communicate with people, to visit local houses. There are many sights in Baysun, but they are scattered over tens of kilometers of broken mountain roads, and there are places where only a donkey or a horse can reach. Exploring the region on your own is rather unrealistic, and not because locals do not speak English. Many of the them speak Russian well (Uzbeks and Tajiks who live here need to understand each other somehow), but still it's not easy to find something here as every village has their own name for nearby attractions and even knowing that something is nearby you can still fail to locate it, just because you cannot agree with local people in the terminology.

But the minimum sightseeing program will for sure include The Darband that not accidentally means "gate". This is the Darband canyon:

I must say that both Darband and the town of Boysun are not very impressive after Langar - yes, they are more interesting than the villages in the valleys, but still this is quite an ordinary Central Asian back-country. The nearest gas station is a little closer than to Baysun itself, and you can refuel there only with propane gas. Mobile signal works only with one operator - that is, not all the operators have come here - and I think it will become clear how remote and secluded this part of the world is.

... It is known that somewhere between Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya there is an Iron Gate gorge - the only year-round passage that supposedly Alexander of Macedon blocked by a gigantic grid from the nomadic hordes in the north, which ransacked Sogdiana from time to time. Somewhere in the mountains there are ruins of border castles and a long fortress wall along the northern border of the Kushan Empire. Frankly, some people still believe that the real Iron Gate is the pass through which the train goes, but the legend is associated with the Darband canyon, that is essentially the southern entrance to Sogdiana.

And now, under the roar of a veteran Soviet motor, we rush up the bottom of the gorge. At first the road is good and wide enough - on the one hand a formidable wall:

On the other - a staircase of quaint mountains, the underside of the wall that hangs over the plain:

But in some places the gorge narrows to the extent that its depth becomes greater than the width. I suspect that in the high water this fast and muddy river, which the locals call Turgandarya, and on the map it is marked as Machaidarya, floods the canyon from edge to edge, cutting off the mountain villages from the outside world. Asphalt, as you can see, quite quickly ended:

We did not notice how we flew past the cave of Zindan (that is, the Prison) - for sure the driver simply knew it under a different name, and we could not explain ourselves. And judging by the photos of Mr. Shore - it is very spectacular. But approximately in the middle of the gorge there is a place that can not be bypassed - the spring of Khuzhamoy-Ata, joining Machaidarya from the side with the power of the small hydropower station:

According to legend, the old man Khuzhamoy was looking for water during the great drought for his native village, and at some point Allah sent him a sign that he should come to this gorge and hit the ground three times with a stick. A cave emerged from the impact in the rock, from which the powerful spring gushed, which does not dry out even in the hottest summer, and later there turned out to be also marinka - small fishes, edible and very tasty, but with poisonous gills and caviar, in Central Asia often found in sacred sources (for example, in Bukhara's Nurata), from where it is a strictest taboo to catch them. But in Khuzhamoy-Ata, according to legend, seeing a traveler dying of hunger, they sometimes swim into the river themselves, so that he can catch and eat them. Take a note of the black streaks where people stand - this is the clotted blood of sacrificial rams:

The place here, however, is very crowded, and someone goes here on a picnic from above and from below, someone rests on the road, and on the stone by the spring old good mullah prays for all.

Above the Khuzhamoy-Ata canyon sometimes turns into a narrow gap, and the walls are inclined towards each other:

In some places, the camera, directed vertically upwards, catches both walls. If Iskander really cut off the canyon with an iron grill – that was probably here:

But sometimes the gorge again becomes wider, and the walls turn into gentle slopes. At some point we come across the bridge across the Machaidarya:

And one more canyon, taking off our path to the left, along which the loaded donkeys were constantly shuttling back and forth:

This gorge leads to a small Khuzhabiyak village, and a considerable part of it is flooded with water, which will only come down in the autumn. Hence, such an amazing transport – regular asses service, picking up passengers from cars:

Further the side gorge shrinks into a narrow street. Here you can see what it is next, but we did not reach the kishlak there.

A little further - and the Darband canyon somehow abruptly ends, giving way to the red earth of the mountain plateau. At the exit from the canyon is a barrier and a gloomy house, from which immediately got out soldiers with machine guns behind: for them it was necessary to receive a permit to pass in Baysun. But the driver somehow settled the matter with them and we drove farther.

And behind the red pass one loses the sense of reality of what is happening – the world so different and so red expects there:

This is the Machay - the "capital" of one of the four "provinces" of Baysun, a mountain village where the Kungrats live. In fact, it is rather two villages - the lower Past-Machay and the upper Yukary-Machay. In Past-Machay I noticed an abandoned clay building by the road:

And the driver explained that this is a former mosque:

A new mosque is also there - a "booth" with a blue dome on the pass that divides the Lower and Upper Machay:

The panorama of the Upper Machay - though it is a remote back-country, the kishlak is huge with more than a thousand inhabitants:

In the courtyard of someone's estate with a glazed aivan (such houses are typical of all Gissar villages) colorful Baysun embroidery is dried:

Near the other house is a wooden chigir:

But now due to the season the irrigation ditches are empty, and you can often come across donkeys carrying water canisters at this time of the year:

But one should not think that that everything here is absolutely archaic, there are also new houses (including a renovated college in Lower Machay, here it's just a store), and city-dressed people:

Near Machay is the cave Teshik-Tash, where in 1938 a large Neanderthal site was found with a unique burial of a girl with five pairs of Siberian ibex horn cores. The horn cores were found around the perimeter of the grave surrounding the cranial remains. This has led a number of researchers to believe the child was ritually buried. But despite for all historical value of the place it is quite unprepossessing for non-specialist. Also, there is a very picturesque grotto of Amir Timur with a wide flat ceiling above the village. But asking local people about "Timur cave" they direct to a cave in Kashkadarya that is 50 kilometers away, which means that this grotto is called here somehow else. Most likely the grotto is part of the Teshik-Tash cave, which has several exits, and what is most importantly it is visible from the kishlak:

At the foot is very strange mosque, more like a complex of Buddhist pagodas - but you can see both the crescent and the pole of the pir (shrine) next to it: a strange combination of several religions mixed in this architectural object.

Local people:

But what makes the residents of these mountains related is a sense of dignity, and by the way, unlike in the "civilized" plain women in the "medieval" mountains are not afraid of the camera:

They say that the ancient genres of folklore, and traditional music with improvised instruments are still alive here, as well as sorcery tellers. Pomor villages of Mezen, Nenets camps in the tundra, mountain jailoo of Kyrgyzstan, old-fashioned Siberia - everywhere I am amazed at the otherness of life, which I touched only with the tip of the little finger, and I feel even some shame that I came to gaze at someone else's ordinary life. A different routine - this is more interesting than all patented wonders of the world...

But it is time to go back

Again we fly through the Darband canyon with its dust of a broken road and the spray of a mountain river:

Driving over Baysun 

And another 30 kilometers beyond Baysun, until the pyramids from the bottles of mineral water appear on the road:

.... As already mentioned, 4 regions of Boysun have many interesting sightseeing. For example, the Kyzyl Canyon as in Utah (for the sake of justice, I saw similar landscapes in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, for example), a thousand-year-old plane tree with a door and room near Sairob, "gravity anomaly" in Sangardak (most likely this optical illusion, though still very interesting - the water flows and things roll up the slope), and a lot of things about which there is practically no information in the Internet, except for cursory references in handbooks and monographs, such as the border Kushan Wall, the Greco-Macedonian fortress Kurganzol, the Kushan Fortress Paenkurgan, high-mountainous and therefore especially authentic villages of Kurgancha, Dehibolo, Yakkatol, Gummatak, Duoba, and maybe something that no one else but local people knows about. We chose the most beautiful (Darband canyon) from all this splendor and the most accessible - Omonkhana, to which the picturesque road runs from the pyramids of mineral water:

According to legend, once Alexander the Great left heavily wounded warriors who could not go further, in a quiet ravine near the spring in order to let them die peacefully. But returning from the conquered Sogdiana with a rich booty, including Alama - the captive daughter of the rebellious Spitamen, and Bess, the usurper, who killed King Darius III without letting Iskander take him captive, and for which he was condemned to a terrible death on the same place ... so, on the way back, Alexander of Macedon found that his soldiers survived and recovered - the spring, now known as Omonkhana ("Wellness"), turned out to be healing and making miracles. Now here is a sanatorium, and the flocks of the people traveling here to drink the miraculous water do not diminish:

Pavilions and yurts as symbols of Tadjik farmers and nomadic Kungrates:

The wood carving of the sheds ... Of course, in these remote regions their own school of carving developed, and if in Kashkadarya both suzane and carving is in "prickly" style, in Boysun the local style can be characterized as ‘fabulous’:

Including Omonkhana itself, occupying a shallow but very wonderful gorge with deep cornices in sheer walls. The crowd by the water source. The water of "Omonkhana" (the one that is sold in bottles by the road) turned out to be delicious, invigorating and rather unusual - I cannot remember the mineral water with the similar taste.

Trestle-beds in the natural aivan:

Hoses lead to the shower rooms:

And the gorge leads somewhere further:

Such is the Baysun region, where, having seen ALMOST NOTHING, you leave with the feeling that you have seen a lot ...

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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!

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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.

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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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