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October 22, 2002

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The Fergana Valley claims to be the most dangerous place in Central Asia. The Uzbek government calls this a den of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. We're not experts at 'dens of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists,' but this one seems safe, relaxed, and full of smiling, curious people. Walking the flat, shaded streets of Kokand, we see that the Fegana Uzbeks look much more like Turks than Mongolians, although influences of both ethnicities show in the faces. The men wear a square cap and the women wear colorful felt dresses - the fashion demands as much chaotic color as possible. From Kokand we joined a shared-taxi with 4 other passengers for the five hour journey over the mountains to Tashkent. Our driver doesn't have AC or a radio, but he has a radar detector, which indicates how many police lurk at every bend in the road. Checkpoints are common. It's like a border crossing at the entrance to every village, town, and oblast (state) border along the way.
The best part of the trip is the bond that seems to develop between passengers in our shared-taxi. We're like a tour group that buys small things for each other like cookies, bread, tea, and these awful, salty tasting cheese balls that look like white chocolate. They're not! Bite into one of those things and choke it down to avoid offending the person that offered one to you.
In the mountains the people stack hay higher than houses and store it on their rooftops.
Kokand's skyline - plumbing and minarets
Feel rich in Uzbekistan, every transaction involves a wad of penny-value notes.