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Shakhimardan

Should you ever find yourself travelling in the famous Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, you are well advised to take time for a side trip to Shakhimardan, the Uzbek enclave beyond the Kyrgyz border. Whomever you may ask about Shakhimardan, few have ever been there but for Uzeks, Shakhimardan is the equivalent of Shangrila and is also referred to as the Switzerland of Uzbekistan. At an altitude of over 1,500m and surrounded by most picturesque mountains, Shakhimardan offers the ultimate contrast to the oasis cities of the steppes and deserts. A summer paradise.

A BIT OF HISTORY
The name Shakhimardan, King of Men, refers to Hazrat AN, son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed and the fourth caliph of Islam. Local elderly people will tell you many stories and legends about their lovely village. One of them, the most popular, says that AN, approaching death, instructed seven graves to be dug in different parts of the world. His body was lifted on a camel and after a few meters it multiplied into seven camels, each bearing holy remains. According to the legend, three of the camels stopped on the territory of modern Uzbekistan: in Khiva, Nurata and Shakhimardan, thus turning each into a place of religious pilgrimage. Shakhimardan is also known as the native village of Hamza, the renowned Uzbek poet and dramatist. The mountain ranges that form the valleys natural borders have long protected and isolated the village. So far few foreigners have been to this land so you are most unlikely to encounter others on your day trip.
For some years now, there have been disputes between the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over this enclave. In 2004, deputies of the Kyrgyz parliament advised the government to claim Shakhimardan from Uzbekistan. However, the enclave remains an Uzbek territory, with majority Uzbek population.

Getting there and stay

The village of Shakhimardan is situated 80 km south of Ferghana on a well-maintained asphalt road. Plenty of vehicles offer shuttle services; a private taxi driver will charge about 20 US dollar equivalent for driving you there, and you will have to deal with border guards while crossing the Kyrgyz border. Do negotiate that you are let back into Uzbekistan main territory after your excursion to the enclave and assure that you are remembered by the border guards. Actually, the most convenient and save way would be for you to make arrangements with a travel agency who will take care of all formalities for afee.
After all the administrative back and forth, picturesque villages and apple gardens appear along the road. One of the villages you want to stop by is Vuadil, where you will see a maple tree of extraordinary size and beauty. The trunk of this 800 year old tree measures 27.5 m. in circumference and it is hollow. Local people, who are always delighted to see foreign visitors, will proudly tell you that Alexander the Great, during his Central Asian campaign, slept two nights in the tree trunk. On both sides of the road, you will see numerous stork nests, some with their natural inhabitants. Further, you will suddenly find yourself in the midst of typical mountain scenery, with precipitous cliffs, towering peaks covered with snow, the Alai mountain range.
Once there, don't expect to find a five, or even a two star hotel. The choice of accommodation is pretty limited, and includes mainly large state-run sanatoriums, smaller private recreation areas and residential dachas. I personally would recommend the third option - get your own cozy chalet on the foot of the slopes with clean bedrooms, kitchen and other facilities for a perfectly affordable sum. Although you can buy quality fruits,
vegetables, lamb etc at the local market, there is no developed and reliable catering infrastructure in the village, as most visitors bring their own food with them. So the best option here is to cook for yourselves.

DISCOVER THE PLACE

Shakhimardan is one of the most beautiful nature reserves in Uzbekistan. On both sides of the valley, mountain streams rush towards the plains, the Kok-su (blue water) and Ok-su (white water) that merge into one river, the Shakhimardan. It is a place of great variety with almost every type of mountain landscape: luxuriant meadows, green forests, medicinal springs, beautiful lakes. Mountains, forests and lakes provide excellent opportunities for a rest, trekking, hunting,fishing and rafting. The Alai Mountains that surround
Shakhimardan are really magical. Enjoying the scenery, breathing pure mountain air, hiking along the trails tread by the locals or just relaxing on a blanket under a tree will replening your batteries. Up here, summer temperatures rarely reach 20 degrees Celsius. The air is cool and crisp when it's blistering hot in the lower country.
If you are game for trekking, the reward is dramatic, sweeping views of snowy peaks on the one hand and the endless flatlands of the Fergaha Valley on the other. Local guides will show you the best paths to most beautiful places, and entertain you with exotic fairy tales throughout your trip. The wildlife of the mountains is extremely diverse. You will see, for example, many rodent holes with their masters slipping in and out, a great variety of trees with even greater variety of birds perched on top of each one. They are usually very cautious, and only woodpeckers on crab trees allowed me to come close enough to take a decent picture.
If you are prepared to spend at least a week out in the mountains, join a group of hunters and you will be able to combine trekking with hunting. There are families with century-long heritage of hunting traditions in Shakhimardan, and some even hunt for a living.

Although very challenging, fishing in the rivers is a most tempting activity. Provided you are lucky enough, you will catch a couple or two of trout on an average day. If this number doesn't sound very attractive to you, try fishing in lake Bordon Ko'l, which offers fascinating views at any time of the year, and a greater variety of fish and better self-esteem for amateur fishers.
And finally, if you really are after some extreme adventure, river rafting will be the highlight of your vacation! Again, there are no developed facilities and infrastructure for this type of tourism, so please ask your tour operator to arrange a rafting boat, a skilled guide and necessary equipment including two-way radio beforehand. You will not find first class amenities and restaurants on the river side, so please be prepared to having to collect firewood and cooking on campfire at night, and to the lack of many other attributes of our urban life. But this all makes it feel even more challenging and exotic, doesn't it?



Discovery Central Asia #18

Discovery Central Asia supplement #4/2005

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