About Uzbekistan

Katta Langar
02 February 2018
Katta Langar

In numerous previous parts about Uzbekistan we traveled only through the plains - but in the background almost invariably loomed mountains protruding into the steppe for hundreds of kilometers. This (except in the vicinity of Tashkent) is not Tien Shan or even Pamir, but Gissar-Alai, a giant mountain chain that crosses Central Asia from Kyrgyzstan to Turkmenistan. Its ridges separate Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya from the rest of the country and from each other, so the most mountainous part of Uzbekistan is precisely the South. By themselves the Uzbek mountains are not the same as the Kyrgyz mountains - they were habitable long ago and are therefore interesting not only for nature, but also for the semi-medieval landscape and patriarchal way of kishlaks, archaic labor, legends and secrets behind each stone. So, from let’s go up from the Shakhrisabz that we covered in the previous part to Langar Gorge, where there is a very honored ancient mausoleum and active salt mines in which people work in dusty darkness with a bede and a drill.

Langar occupies a special place among the sights of Uzbekistan and can be characterized as the "wide known in narrow circles" - there are no crowds of tourists, but anyone who wants to see this country in non-trivial way tries to get here. The gorge is long, one can spend here one or two days, and if you try very hard you can even reach the nearby gorge with Timur's Cave, where according to legend he gathered troops to march on Samarkand.

The best place to organize a tour to Langar is Shakhrisabz where you can arrange a driver & a guide or even take a bus to local kishlaks. Driving south along the Qarshi highway you will reach the village of Kyzyltepa (Red Hill) about 30 km from Shakhrisabz – there is a turn left, marked by a crowd of people and cars: here you can change a bus or take a local taxi that will take you to the mountain villages up to Langar. 

But taxi is rather cheap in this country and if there are couple of you travelling together the shared cost is rather low. Almost immediately after the turn you will pass a small reservoir of the Langar River, along the valley of which lies the road to Langar settlement:

And then the world is changing – houses and people, the earth and air are becoming different with each kilometer, as if you are going not to the mountains, but straight to the past:

The same Langar river is in a natural corridor. Here you can learn how the mountainous Uzbek kishlak looks like, these small mountain villages, so different from the settlements of the plains, go one after another.

This impressive canyon is not too far outside Langar.


After a small pass, or more correctly, after a detour of small canyon, opens a view to Langar village under the picturesque mountain Kurek (2280m). On the right is clearly visible the dome of the mausoleum on the semicircular hill:

Langar, which means "pier" or "anchor" is not a rare name in Uzbekistan, and most often refers to villages that grew up near the Mazars (shrines). Langar is rather philosophical concept, and is not limited by a direct translation: this is the shelter, and the last hope, and a place where God sometimes descends. The names of those who are resting in langar mazars pale into insignificance over time, being replaced by the title of Langar-Ata, and this gives rise to an astonishing confusion. Somewhere they write that there are even Langars in Central Asia, but this, as you understand, is a very magical number and therefore very conditional. There is a Langar in Tajikistan, and in Samarkand, and in the mahallas of Tashkent, and even another Langar in Kashkadarya with a very a beautiful White Mosque stands about the same distance from Shakhrisabz, but in other mountains. But the most revered and famous of them is still this one, that is sometimes called even Katta-Langar (Great Pier):

The fence surrounds the entire hill on which stands the mazar. At the gate we were met by an old man in a white turban - this headdress, usual in the photographs of Prokudin-Gorsky, is very rare in modern Uzbekistan.

On the slopes of the Langar Hill there are several cemeteries, including such small kurgans typical for Kashkadarya:

The path led us to the top "from the back door". The mausoleum, built at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, is unpresentable from the outside - but notice its spire of four balls. This is not an adornment: each of them means a certain level of approach to God: the Shari'ah ("the law", or rather its knowledge and observance is the destiny of every orthodox believer), Tarikat (the "path" to God, which the person chooses himself - the destiny of the Sufi disciple-Murid ), the maarifat ("knowledge", which is found along this path - is the destiny of the Sufi wise men) and hakikat ("truth," a complete fusion with the divine, like Buddhist Enlightenment). Local people as well as all guidebooks say about Langar that there are only two mazars of the "IV level" in the world - the second one in the Turkish Konya on the grave of Jalaladdin Rumi, the founder of the famous Order of the Whirling Dervishes who came to Asia Minor from the Afghan Balkh. In fact, all this is rather arbitrary: there was no single system, and the Sufi sages determined the symbolism of their constructions themselves, proceeding from their ideas.

Langar was the abode of now almost disappeared, but once seemingly flourished Ishqiyya tariqat (Sufi order), that was preaching comprehending the God by mind. The fact is that the Muslim Central Asia is primarily the Sufi orders with a bias towards "Turkic people's Islam" and Buddhism, primarily Bukhara’s Naqshbandi. Ishqiyya order, however, was a newcomer, born in Arabia of the 8th century around Baba Ishka of Mecca, who was considered the keeper of the Qur'an of Usman, the original of the "first edition" of the holy book of Muslims collected in the 640s by one of the companions of the Prophet. Now several manuscripts claim the role of this script, one of which is in Tashkent and was brought there in the 15th century by Tamerlane from his campaigns in the Middle East. Apparently, at that time the followers of Ishqiyya came to Central Asia and firstly settled in the Nurata Mountains near Samarkand. There, the young Mohammed Sadyk learned from the old Sufi, and according to legend, one day the water in the jug for washing, which he brought to his teacher, spontaneously boiled, and the teacher, seeing such a miracle, only said that two wise men in one place is like two housewives in the same kitchen, so he advised his disciple to mount on a white camel and ride to the place where the camel stops. The camel, however, took Sadyk not to the desert, but to the mountains, where they presumably even do not know how to walk, and as a result got stuck on top of this hill. The monastery, which Muhammad Sadyk left, shortly after was devastated by cholera ... it was all in 1472.

Meantime Sadyk, nicknamed Langar-Ata, gathered a new community, that lived seclusively in the mountains away from the worldly bustle - it is believed that 360 of his followers have been buried there, to whom belong the carved gravestones around the mausoleum. The mausoleum turned out to be quite beautiful inside, and strange figures on the walls are also letters from one of the ancient fonts. But most interesting here are headstones with fine carving of steles - under the dome of the mausoleum are buried Mohammed Sadyk himself, his father and son, one of the daughters of Tamerlane, who joined this community, and mysterious king of Yemen, who in the old age renounced the throne and departed to the most remote abode of Ishqiyya, whose member he apparently was.

It is rather hard to say whether all of this true or not. In the end, from the local point of view this is how all happened, and the legend as a kind of shadow of history also has a right to exist. Anyway, Langar is extremely honorable in Uzbekistan - for example, at the entrance is a group of pilgrims from Surkhandarya in bright Afghan clothes:


View from the hill of the mausoleum to the village. Note that the left half of the village is built of yellow clay, and the right one is made of red clay, this happens often in these mountains. A large building on the cape is a mosque, and on the right in the lowland you can see the gate of the mazar facing the village, not the road, with wide staircase taking you up:

Both the red and yellow halves of the kishlak are equally medieval. Grown into the ground, or rather grown up from the ground, houses with weeds on the roofs, among which are new roofs sticking out like a sore thumb... In Langar, around half of such old houses in villages, and in Baisun even the majority.

To match the houses are the people. The old man in boots and a robe, which turned out to be just a beggar:

In the ravine under the mosque is the bazaar, where they sell souvenirs, kurt (salty dried cheese balls) and some roots to pilgrims:

The mosque on the hill was built in 1516-20, during Sadyk's lifetime. The mausoleum is clearly visible on the other side of the ravine against the background of the green mountains:


Pay attention to the "twisted" Cotton pillar - according to legend, builders did not have enough wood and Mohammed Sadyk tied it from cotton, which became wood. 

And although from the decoration of the ceilings there were only rare spots of peeling paint left, the carving itself is intact, the unique "prickly" style of Kashkadarya:


According to legend the Koran of Usman was kept here for some time – most likely in the 18th century, when the Persian Nadir Shah captured the plain and Samarkand fell into decay. It is only known that after all the Russians took the holy book to the Hermitage from Samarkand (and it was returned under the Soviets to Tashkent). Another legend says that here was also stored the robe of the Prophet, that later was taken to Afghanistan and became one of the symbols of the power of Mullah Omar - leader of the notorious Taliban. The current relic of the mosque is only a chest, where they were allegedly kept. But even without the relics the silent and ancient mosque impresses with its prayerful authenticity:

The current relic of the mosque is only a chest

Here and there they write that in Langar live real Arabs – that might be true to some extent as there are Arabs in Central Asia indeed, especially in Tajikistan, the descendants of those who moved here from time immemorial as clergy and ubiquitous merchants. However, high in the mountains the type of people living is completely different - here they are more like Mongols, and I venture to assume that these are real Barlas, the descendants of the Chagatai’s Mongolian guard, of which Tamerlane himself was. The robe and skullcap in this part of the world is a daily clothes very characteristic of rural Central Asia:

However, do not think that all look here like living 2 centuries ago, there are quite lot of quite modern youth:

Asphalt ends after Langar and a dirt road winds into the mountains. We pass the village of Urtadar, where we will return in the evening. A watermill with a horizontal wheel under a clay building is feeding with water the irrigation ditch - in Central Asia they are usually arranged like this:

We go around a small canyon. The car goes hard and slow on a dirt and windy road, but the surrounding mountains look impressive from a detour.

On the other side is a rock with a high grotto. Between it and the slope in the foreground is the canyon of the Langar River, which we also bypass:

Further are just the images of mountains, or rather human settlements in mountains:

This, of course, are not houses, but pens for cattle:

The river Langar here is small, fast and muddy like any mountainous river:

The final destination up the canyon was the tiny village of Kon, which in translation means Mine:

The name is not accidental - a red lifeless slope is dotted with holes, in one of which suddenly appeared Uzbek with a bucket:

They mine salt here for sale. Although all this is illegal, the saltminers were delighted to see the guests and immediately began telling us about their work and they gave us a couple of kilograms of salt, which I did not know then where to put it. They say that in bazaars this salt is valued much more than the salt from the store. They mine around two tons here daily:

But the main thing is how it is mined:

A hand drill, a sledgehammer and a miner’s pick - that's all the tools that have not changed since the Middle Ages. Here, as one can understand by pure clothes - also not a miner, but our driver.


There are two holes like the one on the photo above, and I asked the keeper (or rather underboss – he is the one with the bucket), whether there are deeper mines deeper where the sun is not visible?

-There used to be before... but it collapsed. Four people were trapped, the Ministry of Emergency Situations came but  they did not find them. They still lie there, the poor.

-Terrible ... And none left since then??

"There is one more," the caretaker added reluctantly. "Go inside the hole under that rock."

On slippery clay, I began to descend under a low ceiling. From the first meters in the dark it became hard to breathe - a small dust like the one that waves above and around big cement plants hit the nose. Ahead was heard the frequent knocking of metal against the stone, and my flashlight was just enough to light under my feet. After the invisible turn in the darkness there was a light of someone else's lamp, behind him another, more and more. I made a flash with my camera and saw six people in the hall, which they hollowed out in reddish stones with their own hands.

In fact, there is a thick darkness, only the headlights snatch pieces of walls from the darkness. I made the shot off my hands with ISO exposure, the eyes do not even see this:

One of the miners gave me a pick and showed how to use it. I started hammering at one point, at first neatly, and then faster and harder, and to my face flew salty dust, stuffing the eyes and mouth. I worked for around five minutes and that was enough to understand that not everyone will stand the whole day of such work (and they work here for more than 8 hours). 

Courtesy to varandej

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