....that's what they call cotton in Uzbekistan. The country's most valuable export, it brings in money but exacts a harsh price.
A thirsty crop, it requires copious amounts of water during the growing season. The rivers that once watered the Valley no longer flow so freely, the Aral Sea far to the north-west of the Fergana Valley is a lesson to the whole world about the dangers of unbridled irrigation.
A hungry crop, it requires fertilizers to boost its growth and bring the cotton bolls to bursting point before the rains and chills of winter set in.
A pest-prone crop, it requires large amounts of pesticides to keep the bugs at bay - chemicals that pollute the soil and flow into the waterways.
And when it's grown and ready for picking, the work is back-breaking and takes all the labour possible to gather in the bolls. Until this year, children were part of that labour force. Protests from countries averse to the practice were studiously ignored or prevaricated upon. The official word is that beginning in 2009 child labour would no longer be used.
It's a sensitive issue - we were told it was forbidden to photograph both the workers in the field and the police-escorted convoys we saw bringing the pickers back into town at the end of the day. Our drivers turned a blind eye to the quickly shot-off snaps we took from our transport, but none of them would slow down anwhere to help us get a better shot and when we found ourselves in the middle of a covoy, after dark and on a back road to avoid the police checkpoints on the highway (events had conspired to make us very late getting away to Samarkand and tourist buses must be off the highway by nightfall) some of the boys and girls who waved to us from the buses we passed can only have been 12 or 13.
A picnic by the canal
The Syr Darya, one of the two great rivers of Central Asia, runs right through the Fergana Valley. 2,220km long, it begins with the confluence of two rivers, the Naryn and Kara Darya, that flow out of the Tien Shan mountains. 70 other tributary rivers flow into the Syr Darya as it makes its way through the Valley and on through Kazakhstan to the northern shore of the Aral Sea. Too shallow for navigation, for centuries, this mighty river system watered the Valley, creating the largest and most fertile oasis is all Central Asia.
Melons and mulberries flourished. The mulberries fed the worms whose cocoons produced the silk that was spun and woven into shimmering rainbows that brought traders to the caravanserais that grew into cities where the melons that grew in the countryside around were packed into ice to be transported along with the bales of silk and all the other treasures of east and west that passed through the bazaars of the Valley. The cycle of life revolved around the seasons, the mosque and the chaikhana.
The 20th century brought unimaginable changes to this centuries-old pattern. The men in Moscow decreed that the Fergana would become the power-house of the new economy of Central Asia. Artisan workshops that had been maintained by the same family for generations were closed and huge factories built. Vast areas of land were given over to growing cotton.
Irrigation has always been a part of the agricultural pattern in the oases of Central Asia but these new practices required more water than had ever been taken out of the rivers before. The canals constructed to do this were bigger, deeper and longer than any that had been built in the Valley. The last to be built, in 1939, the Great Fergana Canal, 270 kms long, was built in just 45 days, almost entirely by hand by an estimated 180,000 unpaid workers.
Sitting by the canal in a chaikhana picnic booth, the milky green water flowing fast just on the other side of the path, a lovely shady spot on a warm autumn day, peaceful, quiet, it was all but impossible to imagine what the scene would have been 70 years ago when the canal was being built. Some of the old men enjoying their tea in the sunshine outside the chaikhana may well have actually witnessed it.
I found it very touching, that obviously the girls at the looms were allowed to decorate their working place with some pictures. So even though this big hall with this old looms did not look like a museum but like a working place with a personal touch.
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Everywhere there space and time enough for a cup of tea. Uzbekistan people like their tea and like to have a break and a talk to friends and strangers. Even in the middle of the dark and noisy silk factory there was this little table with an ready teapot just waiting for the workers.
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