About Uzbekistan

Qashqadaryo and Surxondaryo regions
02 February 2018

Qashqadaryo and Surxondaryo regions (old spelling Kashkadarya) and (old spelling Surkhandarya) are the southern part of Uzbekistan, which starts at the Takhta-Karach pass located about fifty kilometers from Samarkand. The easiest way to get there is to take a shared taxi in direction to Shakhrisabz which depart from Registan. The road is in good condition, ahead is Zerafshan Range with Urgut and the cave of David on its northern slopes.

A monument to someone ancient at the exit from the city. The most interesting monuments of this road are the Jam Obelisks, reminiscent of the tragic Jam campaign of the Russian army in 1878: it was contemplated as a demonstration of strength to the British, the possibility of an invasion from the north to India, but the British never took this threat seriously. An epidemic of cholera started among soldiers sent march to the border, that mowed half of the detachment and left a few mass graves marked by these very obelisks on the road. It seems that only one obelisk in Sarykul village, 60 kilometers from Samarkand, has survived to our days.

 A low pass through the hilly ridge, but in front of Zerafshan ridge there are several villages and Karatepe reservoir:


These hills were nicknamed the Demon Plateau for the numerous rocks of unusual shapes, the most famous of which is Shaitan-Zhiga, which means the Devil's Helmet, stands aside from the road closer to Urgut. But there is something interesting here as well, including a stone-heart, seeing off those who travel to the South.

Wandering around you can see other rocks, such as a stone wave:

Drivers of shared taxis, taking tourists make a stop here practically without requests

The road slowly and very smoothly rises from Samarkand to the pass Takhta-Karacha (1788m), that makes it even more surprising at some point to understand that you are already high in the mountains, and descent to other side is more picturesque as the road winds along a steep serpentine:

Fan mountains are seen on the left, ‘growing’ to the west into the Zerafshan ridge. They are already located in Tajikistan and are very popular with tourists because of their unique combination of height and accessibility, there are even peaks over 5000 m among them:

Descent from Takhta-Karacha pass.

Ahead is Qashqadaryo steppe, beyond which is seen 4-kilometer Baysuntau Range which separates Qashqadaryofrom Surxondaryo, the ancient Sogdiana from an even older Bactria. Both the Baysun and Zerafshan ranges are the spurs of Gissar, and Qashqadaryo is actually the valley of the river of the same name, wedging in between them. This is a peculiarity of the south - both its regions are named after the rivers that fall into the Amu Darya, although logically they could be named respectively Qarshi and Termez regions. But the mountains on three sides of the Qashqadaryo certainly benefit - it is not a desert, but a fertile steppe, the granary of Maveranakhr, the region that has become the richest and most influential part of the Bukhara emirate with the decline of trade routes.

That’s how the Uzbek South begins. Not far from here is Shakhrisabz, the ancient Kesh, that was included into UNESCO fund even earlier than Samarkand itself.

In the corner of the two ridges, Zerafshan and Gissar, there lived special people - Barlas, the descendants of 4000 Mongols, whom Genghis Khan sent to protect his son Chagatai in the ulus granted him, stretching from the Amu Darya to the Altai. Over time, the guards remained out of work, switched to the Turkic language and settled in the mountains. In 1336 Timur was born among them: as Corsican Napoleon or Georgian Dzhugashvili the ruler of the world's destinies was from a small but very proud people who managed to use the same capabilities to manage a huge country. Barlas are among 92 Uzbek tribes and there are around several tens of thousands of them. Qashqadaryo Highlanders are really different in appearance and one can easily come across a Mongoloid people here.

Another hero of these places was Muqanna - "Hashim from Merv, a veiled dyer", who organized an anti-Muslim insurrection in 775-85 that started with Merv, spread to Samarkand and ended up in these foothills. He created a strange religion which was a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism (mazdakism) with Sufi Islam, including the idea of ​​the transmigration of souls, including God himself, embodied in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophets. Borges's Muqanna has even more sophisticated world: his original god casts 9 shadows, each of which in turn casts its own shadows, and those of their own and so on ad infinitum, all things are only the many-folded shadows of the original incomprehensible God, with each reflection more and more distant from him. Of course, all this was reinforced by social ideas about universal equality, so Muqanna was followed by many poor and oppressed people. The followers of Muqanna were called "people in white robes," and the newly-born prophet wore a veil, claiming that everyone who saw him would be blinded by his unearthly beauty. In fact, according to the rumors, he suffered some terrible skin disease, but nobody managed to learn the truth – sieged with his remaining supporters in the mountain fortress, Muqanna committed self-immolation, and the sect of "people in white clothes" melted away without a trace in the following years.

The South was never part of the Russian Empire - although the Russian troops occupied the rebellious Shakhrisabz in 1868 for a short time and built a border fortress on the site of the present Termez under an agreement with the Emir, the Tsarist authorities did not interfere with the ownership of these lands and even helped Emir of Bukhara to regain control over the rebellious regions in present days Tajikistan, apparently hoping that in a couple of generations the emir will become the prince Bukharinsky in Petersburg, his emirate the Bukhara region of the Turkestan governor-general, and Qashqadaryo and Surxondaryo to be Qarshi, Shahrisabz and Gissar districts in it. Overall, the absence of Russian influence is felt here very well: a beautiful and strange hot land, on the plain by spirit rather Uzbek-Soviet whilst in the mountains not changed much from the Middle Ages.

The villages of Kashkadarya’s Langar and Surxondaryo’s Baysun would undoubtedly become one of the strongest Central Asian impressions. To add the effect the houses are built of red clay, have flat roofs and dark aivans in the middle that are typical for the entire mountainous South:

By the way, this is not a carpet on the wall of the house but Qashqadaryo suzane - the similarity of the pattern with the carpet is considered one of the characteristic features. Often, they are also embroidered with gold, both in Samarkand (on the left) and in Bukhara (on the right) technique. At the same photo, the triangular averter that were hung on the door of the house and very characteristic of Surxondaryo:

Characteristic "prickly" pattern can’t be confused with anything - here for example colorful Qashqadaryo suzane on the left surrounded by suzanes from Bukhara and Urgut:

‘Prickles’ is a distinctive feature of Qashqadaryo art, whether it be wood carving (both photos from Langar):

Or a stone carving (here as nowhere many beautiful carved tombstones):

Or even the tiles with which Qashqadaryo was once famous, when master Nesefi ("The one from Kashkadarya") built one of the best mausoleums of Shakhi-Zinda and whose glory eclipsed the one who is buried in it.

They make jewelry here too:

And pottery, which clearly shows that the region belonged to Bukhara since the ceramics of Shahrisabz reminds one of Gijduvan.

Although the art number 1 in Qashqadaryo is still embroidery, and not only suzane, but also clothing, bags and even "Qashqadaryo skullcaps", rivaling suzane for the role of the local crafts "brand". Small things are embroidered in the unique local technique called Iroki, very laborious and very dense: 

In short, Qashqadaryo is an important center of Uzbek crafts, like Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva and the Ferghana Valley. They have their own cuisine here, ranging from the local breed of sheep and to the methods of their cooking (most famous is Qashqadaryo "wedding" pilaf). Here is a stark, unglamorous cafe on the outskirts of Shakhrisabz, where Uzbeks feed Uzbeks, and therefore do it for a full due. Sheep are slaughtered during the day and the visitor himself can approach the carcass and choose a piece of meat to be cut off and cooked. They sit here at dastrahans by big companies, eat local dishes and drink vodka biting after sour suzma.

And apparently some special southern pretentiousness was always characteristic for Nasaf (the ancient name of the Qashqadaryo land) – even the ossuaries in Shakhrisabz museum are not traditional for the rest of Uzbekistan:

The ossuary is essentially a coffin, a casket, where the bones of the deceased were stored after utilization of his flesh by nature on the Towers of Silence. But most of the ossuaries, for example in Khorerm region (where they believe the Zoroastrism was first emerged) are completely unprepossessing, whilst here they are decorated as if they coming from India:

The ossuaries themselves testify that Qashkadarya is still part of Sogdiana, the religion of which, like in Khorezm, was Zoroastrianism. But at the same time, this is the bridge to Bactria, the first link of the chain from Greater Iran to Greater India.

... where from even Buddhism was brought here at some point:

But most of the Qashqadaryo region is a prosaic steppe, somewhere plowed up and somewhere just a pasture, with quite modern kishlaks and good roads. Qashqadaryo is one of the richest regions of Uzbekistan, but not so much due to the fertile soils, but because of the gas production in the vicinity of Qarshi, the echoes of the supergiant deposits in Turkmenistan.

And the "beautiful mountain wild region" of Surxondaryo looks quite different, just cross the Baysun Range by overnight train. On the other side of the mountains is frighteningly clean air, the mobile signal is available only in towns, and cars drive on propane gas only: if in Khorezm gasoline is twice as expensive as the national average, in Surxondaryo they simply do not have it at all. On the roads every few dozens of kilometers are checkpoints with mandatory check of documents - but the queues are rare, because there are few cars in principle on the roads. Surxondaryo is a narrow offshoot of Uzbekistan between three very precarious states - Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

However, as such, Surxondaryo is preceded by Baysun - the land on the southern slopes of the eponymous ridge with the most beautiful mountains in Uzbekistan and the most colorful life of villages that have not changed much since the Middle Ages - up to the fact that some can only be reached by horseback, and at the entrances to the narrow gorges from mountain roads a regular ‘donkey service’ is awaiting passengers. Baysun is famous for embroidery all over Uzbekistan, first of all for its suzane and skullcaps with an amazingly rich color and rings of floral ornaments, based on Zoroastrian symbols of the Gissar nomads who vanished in time. Boysun suzane are quite rare (if there are few people here then even less masters among them), and that’s why they are very valued - here, for example, the one on the left was shot in Urgut, and the one on the right in Khiva (which is obvious because of the black hats):

Behind the Baysun mountains lies the Gissar Valley - one of the three great valleys of Central Asia, which remains in the shadow of the Fergana and Chuy valleys only because it is very far away. The mountains surround it from the north, and it opens to the south, separated from Afghanistan only by Amu Darya, on which stands Termez. Roads running from Termez form a nearly oblique triangle - one leads to Baysun and further to "mainland" Uzbekistan, the other - to Denau, from where it's easy to reach Dushanbe. The next three shots are from the Baysun road. According to official data, the Surxondaryo region has most Tajiks in Uzbekistan - 12% of the population, or 250 thousand people, and unlike Samarkand and Bukhara (where Tajik speakers are denoted in the census as "Iranian-speaking Uzbeks"), the local Tajiks live mainly in villages: Surxondaryo shares Gissar Valley with the south-west of Tajikistan, where Dushanbe, Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube are located and 2/3 of the population live. Surxondaryo itself seems (but seems very persistently) scarce with people - in fact, it has a population of more than two million people.

A sacred stone near the road, worth making a small zigzag to watch it. There are generally a lot of strange places here - from the ancient plane trees (as in Urgut) and the sacred marinas (as in Nurata) to the mysterious "gravity anomaly" in the mountains.

The low ridge serves as a kind of border between Baysun and Surxondaryo, and by analogy with the Tamerlane Gates of Jizzakh this place could well be called, say, Iskander Gate.

Clay ruins of something on the outskirts of Termez. There would be many "tepas" in this region both in better and poorer condition. 

And although the plain Surxondaryo is a prosaic field of oases, a feeling of "another world" never leaves you. In the north it is separated from the rest of Uzbekistan by inaccessible mountains, and from Afghanistan is separated only by Amu Darya. The whole of Uzbekistan knows about Surxondaryo that it is unbearably hot there, even though Tashkent itself has always served as a standard of heat. In fact, it is not only hot here, but there is also a high humidity - it is already subtropics and what impresses from the first minutes is the unusual light and unfamiliar taste of the air. 

The view of endless fields is deceptive - they stretch along the rivers, and if the roads pass through oases, the railway sometimes goes through a real sandy desert, reminding of Kyzyl Kum. Virgin sands are visible beyond the Amu Darya on the Afghan side, going to the horizon, and the sign of the South in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is the "Afghan" or "Afghan wind", bringing here dust storms. They say that in Termez they are so fierce that you cannot see the other side of the street. 

And pay attention - no panoramic photo without tepe! The concentration of the history in Surxondaryo is striking even after the rest of Central Asia, probably as Western Europe after the East. Here you have reached the edge of Oecumene in the primordial sense of the word - the "civilized world" of antiquity:

The following pictures are from the Termez museum.

If everything shown in previous posts about Uzbekistan was Sogdiana and Khorezm, then Surxondaryo is a completely different historical area: the legendary Bactria stretching across Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan from the Pamirs to the Hindu Kush. It is considered the ancestral home of wheat, and the Greeks made legends about fertile lands between the Amu and Indus, even Strabo wrote that in Bactria "the grain is larger than our ears of wheat." The first to comes was Alexander the Great, who defeated Achaemenid Iran and reached the Syr Darya, and from one of the best Persian provinces Bactria became one of the best provinces of Greece. It was a kind of Hellenic America: although its first settlers flew back to the Mediterranean at their own peril and risk, some remained settled in a foreign land, and since they were the most stubborn, brave and entrepreneurial of the sons of Hellas, it was Bactria that turned out to be the most Hellenized among the lands conquered by Iskander. In 255 BC it fell from the Seleucid Empire with its center in Babylon, ruled by the descendants of the Macedonian commander Seleucus I and the Samarkand princess Alama, and became the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Its capital Bactra, now known as Balkh, is very close - the province of the same name with a center in the larger Mazar-i-Sharif begins behind the Amu Darya and Uzbeks even build a railway there.

Coins - from a museum in the Old Termez.

After that the intensity of events began to grow. The next king, Euthydemus, repulsed the invasion of the more powerful Syrian Greeks diplomatically, convincing their King Antiochus that Bactria was a natural plug of the Great Steppe, from where, in the event of its fall the hordes of terrible Massagets would burst into Oecumene. The son of Euthydemus Demetrius in 180 BC with his army crossed the Hindu Kush and did what Alexander the Great had only dreamed of - conquered India and washed his boots in the waters of the Ganges. Thus, emerged the Indo-Greek kingdom, which soon broke away from Bactria, where in the absence of the tsar the power was seized by the usurper Evkritid. Nevertheless, the cultural space remained common even when the grandson of Demetrios, the Indo-Greek king Menander turned to Buddhism and entered Indian history as Milinda "The defender of Buddhism." That’s how one of the most impressive phenomena of world history happened: Greek-Buddhism:

It is no mere chance that the ancient Greek civilization created the greatest culture in the history of mankind: it might be not entirely obvious but even in distant Asia, even in places that Strabo did not mention and that Iskander never reached, it left a deep trace. In particular, it was the Greeks who created the classic image of Buddha - a calm man in a tunic with an eternally youthful face and curly hair: before the Greeks he was portrayed as an abstract figure, for example an empty throne, and the earliest Buddha statues were made in the ancient Greek tradition, not in the jungles of Indochina or in the cold abodes of Tibet, but in the sunny Greco-Bactrian cities, built according to the Hellenistic canons, where Buddha peacefully got along with Helios or Mitra in the temples. First of all, of course, it was no longer Bactria, but Gandhara - the land beyond the Hindu Kush, but the last generations of the Bactrian Greeks were mostly Buddhists.

Nevertheless, the days of Greeks were over when hordes of wild Massagets finally came and settled in Bactria – they were Central Asian people, known to the Chinese as Yuezhi and to the Persians as Tocharians.  And how Sogdiana turned into Mavarannahr seven centuries later, same way Bactria became known as Tokharistan at the turn of the two eras. However, the cyclical nature of the world's history is very regular: the barbarians destroy cities, settle on their ruins, build cities themselves and are destroyed by new barbarians. Tocharians absorbed the Greek-Buddhist culture, by that time already infinitely far from Hellenic, they injected a fresh blood to Bactrians and Indo-Greeks, and from Tokharistan grew the empire of the Great Kushans, that was worthy of the Roman Empire by its size (up to 20% of the world's population). The Kushans were a Buddhist state, and the first centuries of the new era became the time of the highest influence of Buddhism. And although Surxondaryo, was for Kushans the Far North, yet its most vivid heritage is the ruins of Buddhist temples and the artefacts from them, some similar to Greek ones, some not so much - it's not for nothing that they say that countless conquerors easily conquered India and were absorbed by it without a trace...

But the huge Kushan Empire proved to be not very long-lived: in the 5th century, Tokharistan was captured by Hepthalites, or the white Huns - the possible ancestors of the current Pashtuns, who professed Nestorianism (they even had their own bishop) and organized  such a crusade against Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Well, then the history of Bactria-Tokharistan became more and more separated from the history of India and closer related to the history of Sogdiana and Khorezm: the invasion of the Arabs, the spread of Islam, Samanids, Seljuks, the apocalyptic invasion of Genghis Khan and gradual degradation in the not so distant centuries.

Surxondaryo is, in fact, only an echo of distant Bactria and was mainly on the edge of all these historical storms. But nevertheless, it still leaves a very strong impression.

Models of cities, fortresses, Buddhist monasteries, someone's estates, whose ruins are scattered all over Surxondaryo:

And if the land is so colorful here, just imagine what kind of people inhabit it? You would not find any other place with so many unusual types in bright oriental costumes like here. Even men wear national costumes on a daily basis - that's for example a pair of obvious Barlas in the Qashqadaryo mountains, dressed in chapans and skullcaps:

Pilgrims from Surxondaryo in Kashkadarya’s Langar. When I saw these women, the first thought was "they are from Afghanistan or what?", The second one "not, they should be from Tajikistan," but it turned out that the truth is in the middle:

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