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Andijon – the Fergana Valley’s largest city of over 350,000 people and its spiritual mecca. Both culturally and linguistically Andijon is probably the country’s purest Uzbek city, and the best place to observe Uzbeks in their element. Andijan has a rich past and vibrant Uzbek culture but a troubled recent history, and consequently few foreign tourists come hero unless they're passing quickly through en route to Kyrgyzstan.
Andijan was founded sometime in the 9th century and was known in the tenth century as the village of Andugan. Andijan's steady growth ensured it the full force of Mongol destruction. It was just getting onto its feet when Genghis Khan rode through and razed it back to the ground. Yet in the late 13th century Kaydu Khan, great-grandson of Genghis Khan, saw potential in the ashes and rebuilt the town into his capital. This was a shrewd move, as the city became the lucrative gateway between Samarkand and Bukhara in the west, and Kashgar and Chinese Turkestan in the east. It remained the capital for the next three centuries, giving its name in Chagatai Turkish to the whole valley.
In 1483 Andijan's foremost son was born, one Zahiriddin Mohammed Babur, great-great- great-grandson of Tamerlane. Having lost his homeland, and Samarkand three times, Babur fought his way to India to found the Mogul empire. He recalled in his memoirs, Andijan produces much grain, fruits in abundance, excellent grapes and melons. In the melon season, they are usually given away at the beds... After Samarkand and Shakhrisabz, the fort of Andijan is the largest in Mawarannahr. It has three gates. Its citadel is on its south side. Into it water goes by nine channels; out of it, it is strange that none comes out at even a single place. Andijan has good hunting and fowling. Its pheasants grow so surprisingly fat that rumour has it four people could not finish one they were eating with its stew.
The khanate of Kokand pushed Andijan out of the limelight. Yet the Russians met stiff resistance on their first advance against the town, losing at least 50 men, until General Skobelov secured victory in January 1876. The rebel spirit resurfaced in May 1898 when Nakshbandi ishan Madali led a three-day revolt, put down after much bloodshed. The Trans Caspian Railway, harbinger of Russification and modernization, arrived in 1899, three years before an earthquake took 4,500 lives and most of the old town. The Andijan you see today is mostly of 20th-century construction: an earthquake in 1902 more or less levelled the Old Town. In the Soviet period Andijan industrialised and grew wealthy on the profits of black and white gold: oil and cotton.
Today Andijan is an industrial city and capital of Uzbekistan's most densely populated province. The growth is still based on oil and cotton: the region is the premier oil producer in the republic and the most intensive cotton farmer in the CIS, with about 75 per cent of irrigated land turned over to 'white gold'.
Architecturally there’s not much to see here – an earthquake in 1902 took care of that. Rather, it’s Andijon’s bazaars and chaikhanas, brimming with colour and life, that make a trip worthwhile. The Jahom Bazaar (daily 09.00-18.00) on Biruni is Andijan's commercial centre, and though it is open daily, it is significantly larger on Sunday and Thursday when the villagers flock into town. Head first to the fringes of the market where you'll find blacksmiths banging and clanging away in their forges, knife makers shaping and polishing steel blades, and the occasional dusty carpentry workshop. Among the craftsmen, keep your eyes peeled for the wizened old pigeon fanciers; their dove-grey birds sit twitching and cooing and watching the world with alert, beady little eyes. The people-watching here is unrivalled, and the photographic opportunities somehow sum up life on the Silk Road. In addition to fresh produce (the melons are enormous!) you can pick up spices, emroidered hats, good silks, embroidered skull caps and the traditional Fergana knives, all (so long as you haggle) without the usual tourist mark-up.
Andijonians are warm and friendly, and whatever concerns they have about their government appear not to have negatively affected their demeanour. Most travellers who pass through Andijon are on their way to or from Kyrgyzstan and don’t linger long. Make no mistake: the local police are on their guard here. Have your papers in order and take the normal precautions.
Museums, medressa, shops and the post office are clustered in the old town around the central farmers market, known as Eski (Old) Bazaar. The neighbouring bus and train stations and a few hotels are near Yaangi Bazaar in the new town, 3km to the south.
Andijan airport, ten kilometres from the Hotel Oltin Vody, launches four weekly flights to Tashkent, plus weekly departures for Bukhara and Urgench (tickets sold at airport). Two trains per week head for Tashkent, but share taxis are far quicker. To Namangan (1 hour) share taxis from Andijan cost around US$2 per person. Andijan's main bus station, close to the train station on Amir Timur St, has no services to Tashkent, but connections throughout the valley. Shared taxis to Tashkent run from the bus station and near Pushkin Park.