Enclaves and exclaves in the Ferghana Valley divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are volatile. Violent border clashes are common because of growing populations, a lack of resources and a lack of clarity over who owns what.
Since the change of power in Uzbekistan in 2016, some progress has been made in delineating the border, opening border crossings and land swaps. At the same time, it became clear that there is still a very long way to go before this issue is resolved. In the meantime, people continue getting wounded or even killed with depressing regularity.
In the past, there were worries that you might accidentally end up in such an enclave and get into trouble with border guards. These days, that is no longer a problem. Roads have been re-routed and you won’t suddenly stumble into Uzbekistan or Tajikistan if you stay on the main road out of Osh.
More interesting these days is trying to get into these enclaves. Previously, few would consider it, since it would require several expensive multi-entry visas. But these days, a lot of travelers get to travel visa-free in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The enclaves are interesting destinations for border fanatics, conflict researchers and landscape enthusiasts.
Where are the enclaves?
Central Asia has 7 enclaves (they are also all exclaves, if you want to get technical). Tajikistan has 3 exclaves within Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan:
Uzbekistan has 4 exclaves within Kyrgyzstan:
Sarvan, Kaygarach, Qalacha and Jangyy-Ayyl are really tiny and not of particular interest. Vorukh, Sokh and Shohimardon warrant a closer look. All 3 are located in Batken province, at the edge of Kyrgyzstan’s lower jaw.
Shohimardon (we are using the Uzbek name; the Russian name Shakhimardan is still more common) is a popular resort and place of pilgrimage for locals. The surrounding mountains are picturesque and cool in summer, ideal to escape the stifling heat on the plains. If you are a sanatorium-fan like us: Shohimardon has several.
Pilgrims believe that Ali, fourth caliph and son-in-law of Muhammed himself, was buried here (everybody else believes he is buried in Najaf, Iraq). The old shrine was destroyed in the 1920s by Soviet zealots. A new shrine was built on the same place in 1993.
It should be an interesting destination for travelers. Visa restrictions have largely been lifted and the enclave does not suffer from the conflicts that burden Sokh and Vorukh. But we haven’t heard of anyone doing it so far.
We do have a forum thread on visiting Shohimardon. Chime in if you have news (latest report from October 2021: only locals are allowed in). In the meantime, you can watch a sentimental love story shot in the area in 1984: The Bride of Vodil (Russian language, no subtitles – Youtube / Odnoklassniki)
We keep updates about the situation in Vorukh in our Isfara travel guide. In short: it’s a beautiful place, but the situation is tense, and you may or may not need a permit to get in.
Together with Kokand, Sokh was one of the centres of the Basmachi uprising from 1918 to 1924. At that time Sokh was still directly connected with Uzbekistan. In 1955 Moscow annexed most of the northern section to the then Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Since then, Sokh has been an exclave within Kyrgyzstan.
We are not sure how easy or difficult it is to get into Sokh for a foreigner. The Economist says it’s not possible to go directly via Rishton, so you should try via Kyrgyzstan. No further info so far.
Fun fact: despite being a part of Uzbekistani territory and being surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, the population of Sokh is mostly ethnically Tajik.
How did these enclaves come about?
Citing from Was There a Soviet Nationality Policy?:
There is a widely held misconception, evident in respected non-scholarly publications, that the more idiosyncratic and therefore contentious borders of Central Asia’s Fergana Valley— especially the enclaves and exclaves of the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek Soviet republics dotted around the region—resulted from Stalin sitting down in front of a map of Central Asia and drawing more or less random lines to serve as the borders of the new territories within the ethno-federal structure.
To give just one recent example: ‘Stalin divided the region into different Soviet republics. The borders were drawn up rather arbitrarily without following strict ethnic lines or even the guidelines of geography. … Some of these borders were redrawn several times until 1936’. This characterisation of Stalin drawing random borders persists, even though it has been comprehensively debunked (Morrison 2017).
One aspect of this myth has been well dealt with by, for example, Hirsch (2000) who shows the carefully considered and complex process of drawing borders in the mid-1920s, involving the efforts of hundreds of ethnographers, cartographers and local representatives. Anomalies remained, for sure, either because borders could not be drawn to follow ethnic demographies closely, or for reasons of economics or communications.
More recent research has shown how these borders were redrawn much later than the Stalin years, leading to some of the greatest anomalies. Drawing on work by Bichsel (2009) and Alamanov (2010), Madeleine Reeves summarises some of these changes and documents their consequences ethnographically (Reeves 2014, pp. 82–6), as well as showing that local populations have much more awareness of the history of these borders than do many historians. The ground for border changes was laid with the collectivisation campaigns of the 1930s, specifically a 1935 decree which gave farms rights over land they had brought into agricultural use.
By the late 1940s, this had led to a number of anomalies where collective farms run by the Kyrgyz or Tajik republic authorities had extended their land onto neighbouring republics’ territory. Such anomalies were generally corrected by adjusting borders to reflect de facto land usages. A commission recommended such border changes in 1949, but further encroachments led to the convocation of subsequent commissions in 1958, 1975, 1986 and 1989. In some cases, uncultivated land was transferred from one republic to another, which had the available population to cultivate it.
Changes recommended by commissions could be ratified locally, by republic governments, or by central Soviet authorities, but the processes were haphazard, leading to continuing disagreement over where the actual republic borders, now state borders, lay. Mobility across these borders was not a problem as long as the Soviet Union existed as a single state: thus Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik authorities traded land use, built tractor stations and other enterprises on each other’s territories and struck deals over water usage with little restriction.
The impact of such deals and the uncertainties they caused were magnified significantly by the break-up of the USSR, but they were not without problems earlier. As one of Reeves’ interviewees noted, in one 1975 deal ‘the Kyrgyz people swapped 1,000 hectares of land for 450 litres of water!’ in a transfer that led to immediate and later ethnic tensions (Reeves 2014, p. 85). Although republic borders did not operate as borders in a securitised sense in the Soviet Union, they did affect the rights and privileges that members of particular nationalities enjoyed.
Such deals, whether motivated by economic and demographic rationalisation, land-grabbing tactics on the part of one republic, or graft, were carried out by officials with little regard for the fates of populations who found themselves on a different side of the border than previously. The Kyrgyz republic was particularly active in such land grabs, in some cases gaining central ratification for border changes in spite of opposition from other republics (Alamanov 2010).