Abolition of the visa regime between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan revived the Shahimardan enclave (photo)
Photo by Ferghana.Ru. Lake Kurban-Kul photos are available in Gallery-II
Lake Kurban-Kul is once again within reach of pilgrims and tourists from Uzbekistan, after a decade-long break caused by natural cataclysms and political upheavals. The lake in question is Hazrat Ali's shrine and one of the most amazing sites in the Ferghana Valley. It is located not far from the small Uzbek enclave of Shahimardan, a famous resort during the Soviet era that all but became a no-entry zone in the 1990s.
Catastrophic flood on the Shahimardansai river caused by a sudden shift of glaciers in summer 1998 killed dozens and ruined the resort's infrastructure. Mudslide destroyed numerous sanatoriums, summer camps, and cottages. Afraid that the tragedy may occur again, the authorities closed whatever was left of the spa zone. Shocked by the cataclysm, residents of Uzbekistan began avoiding their once favorite vacation spot.
In the wake of the mudslide: this is where pioneer camp Orlyonok once stood. November 2005. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
Consisting of two Uzbek settlements of Shahimardan and Yordan surrounded by the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, the enclave found itself in an even worse trouble in 1999 when armed gunmen of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were making it to the Ferghana Valley across the mountain passes. One of their detachments, the one approaching Shahimardan from the Pamir, was stopped cold in Batken by Kyrgyz special forces. Other gangs, however, succeeded in crossing the borders of Uzbekistan. The Uzbek authorities responded by setting up minefields in the mountains along the border and restricting access to the enclave.
Ferghana.Ru expedition visited Shahimardan in autumn 2004 and found the once popular resorts abandoned and deserted [see materials of Ferghana Valley Enclaves, a special Ferghana.Ru project]. The locals had once depended on tourism and relied on warm season (May to September) to earn enough to last them through the rest of the year. After these notorious developments, however, one needed special passes to visit the enclave located only 42 kilometers south of Ferghana. Residents of the Ferghana region needed one-time-only authorization and residents of the rest of Uzbekistan had to apply to the Kyrgyz Embassy in Tashkent for visas to cross the border. Even the visas, however, did not guarantee passage because both countries regularly imposed all sorts of bans, quarantines, and other restrictions. The shores of Lake Kurban-Kul looked primevally desolate then. Peasants in Yordan complained that they could not even take crops (potatoes) to Ferghana bazaars to sell them or trade for grain.
Lake Kurban-Kul five kilometers from Shahimardan. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
Changes for the better began in spring 2007 when Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan ratified a bilateral accord permitting their citizens visa-free travel to the other country for up to two months. The situation on the border more or less regulated these days, getting into the enclave remains a chore all the same. Traveller has to pass the customs control zone at the checkpoint in the settlement of Vuadil first where Uzbek customs officials demand thorough declarations from everyone even including the locals. Suspicious border guards size up absolutely everyone. Whenever the guest is from afar (say, from Tashkent or Samarkand), they ask endless questions on his or her steady job, purpose of the visit, etc., and scrutinize passports checking them against databases.
Tourists from Russia, CIS countries, or Europe are never permitted to cross the border in Vuadil. They are inevitably re-routed to the checkpoint Dustlik on the border between the Andijan and Osh regions. It makes the trip to Shahimardan 200 kilometers longer. Travel agencies in the Ferghana Valley usually solve the problem in Ferghana in advance. Contacts in security structures enable them to arrange transit passage for tourist groups or visiting VIPs with special escort or by the green corridor.
Problems encountered in Kyrgyzstan, beginning at the checkpoint in Pulgon, are economic in nature rather than administrative. More affable than their Uzbek counterparts, Kyrgyz customs officials and border guards do not really care about visitors' personae or intentions. It is their financial capacities and potential cooperativeness the Kyrgyzes are interested in. Hence attentive visual examination. Every now and then, they even dispense with preliminaries and openly ask visitor to grease a palm ("as much as you think you can afford") and become nasty only if turned down.
Travelling circus in Shahimardan. 2007. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
The road across the Kadamjai district of Kyrgyzstan is only 10 or so kilometers long. There are several police checkpoints on the road. Local cabbies advise visitors to include the inevitable bribes right into the fare. When travellers agree, all negotiations with the police are handled by cabbies themselves. A cab ride from Ferghana to Shahimardan costs 2,500 sums or $2 a local and 10,000 sums or $8 a tourist. (It was much more expensive barely a year ago.)
The "thaw" on the border" has had an invigorating effect on the small enclave located on the road to Lake Kurban-Kul (pilgrims) and Dugoba resort (tourists). There is a bazaar near the coach terminal in Shahimardan and an earthen podium nearby where barnstormers traditional for Uzbek provinces perform. Athletes juggle bobs and try to lift an auto, a young clown proudly displays the tricks he trained his pet varan to perform.
Pamir-Alai - Asian Switzerland. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
The locals say that those residing on the Shahimardansai banks are permitted to lodge travellers for the night again. Several small privately-owned hotels were opened. Resorts and spas open. All in all, however, life in the enclave sandwiched into a foreign country remains hard. There are practically no pastures for cattle, small fields are located on steep slopes. There is the territory of another country all around and its residents, who are not exactly rolling in dough either, keep it for themselves.
As a matter of fact, border problems are rooted in the 1920s when the administrative borders were drawn between the republics of the USSR and when it never occurred to anybody that they would drift apart and become sovereign states one day. These days, partnership within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Organization of Eurasian Economic Cooperation, and CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization compels the authorities of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to seek compromises in the name of mutually beneficial neighborliness.
Boats on Lake Kurban-Kul. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
A ride from Shahimardan to Lake Kurban-Kul takes but ten minutes or so. Traveller must cross the border with Kyrgyzstan again to approach the holy site, but servicemen at the checkpoint set up in the area merely maintain public order and never bother visitors. The holiday center nearby, once popular but all but abandoned afterwards, has been restored. It is crowded again, and getting a cottage or even a room in summer there is nearly impossible.
The cable way carries tourists across the chasms and to the summit of the natural dam.
Lake Kurban-Kul did not exist in Hazrat Ali's days (residents of Shahimardan call themselves his descendants, by the way). It was formed only 200 years ago when rocks dislodged by an earth tremor dammed a river. The azure mirror in the chalice formed by cliffs generates a feeling of mystical ecstasy so strong that legend couldn't help connecting this wonder with supernatural forces. The travellers who reach the blessed lakeshore encounter a bearded sheikh who prays for them and purifies them with a piece of cake.
Launches, boats, and hydrocycles crossing the lake are something new. Actually, there were some launches here in the Soviet period when the fare was only 0.5 rubles. All the rest is really new. When pilgrims started coming to Kurban-Kul again, the locals hoisted some boats and hydrocycles to the lake to provide transportation across it for the pilgrims who were compelled to trek along the shores in the past. This makeshift lake flotilla even includes something like a water bus - a Don-class boat for twenty passengers with an awning to hide from the scorching sun under.
Foreign tourists are still somewhat of a rarity, and the prices are tolerable for the locals - 500 Uzbek sums or $0.4. Crossing Kurban-Kul is a bit risky. Water in the lake is so called that not even an experienced swimmer will last more than two minutes of immersion should a boat overturn. Fortunately for them, pilgrims can rely on Hazrat Ali and skill of local boatmen. Swimming in the sacred lake is of course out of the question but drinking its water is permitted.