If you are heading east from Tashkent, Kokand (Qo’Qon in Uzbek) is worth a stop. The Kokand khanate was an important political force in the early 19th century, and after the Russian conquest in the second half of that century, the cotton boom made some people very rich. That history still lives on in the cityscape of Kokand today.
For people who have seen enough old buildings, the ride from Tashkent offers a number of stops that invite you to explore different sides of Uzbekistan: mountain peaks approaching 4000m, ghost towns, avant-garde art of questionable provenance and everyday village life.
Known in ancient times as Khavakend, Kokand blossomed in the 19th century when it became the capital of the Kokand Khanate, which encompassed territory from Southern Kazakhstan and Tashkent all the way to Chinese Turkestan. In the middle of the century, Arminius Vambery estimated its circumference 6 times as large as Khiva, 3 times that of Bukhara, and 4 times that of Teheran.
With the arrival of Russian forces, the political dominance of Kokand slowly came to an end, and cotton production was ramped up to the extent that by the 1920s the city came to be known as “Cottonopolis.” The saying went that Andijan made insurrections while Kokand made money.
But that was only half of the story. Under the leadership of the Jadid Mustafa Chokai an important governance experiment known as the Turkestan Autonomy took place here in 1917. As a progressive, democratic, Muslim-majority alternative to the Soviet idea, it was seen as a threat by the Bolsheviks and eventually brutally put down.
Resistance against the new Soviet rule continued for a few more years, with guerrilla attacks carried out by basmachi fighters hiding out in the mountains surrounding the Ferghana Valley. But Kokand’s role as a political force had played out, and Khujand, Fergana and Tashkent rose in importance.
Things to see and do
Khudayar Khan Palace
It’s an impressive building dressed up with majolica, carved wooden pillars and painted ceilings. The attention to detail covering such a big space is dazzling, especially if you keep in mind that only 20 rooms remain of the original 114.
No exciting idea has been put forth to use this enormous space, so for now the space is held by yet another regional history museum. The exhibits are of some interest but it’s mainly the interiors that steal the show. A guided tour is cheap and it helps a lot with getting the place to come alive in your imagination.
The Friday mosque is another testament to the skill of Kokand’s wood carvers, with 98 wooden pillars supporting a summer mosque that surrounds the smaller winter mosque. The sum is 99, the number of names given to Allah in the Quran. The mosque has mostly been shut since independence.
The nearby Kamil Kos madrasa (Gmaps) has changed purpose often: most recently, it was a tourist information centre. Mostly, it is a hangout for local women.
Narbuta-Bey / Dasturkhanchi madrasa / Royal cemetery
The Narbuta-Bey madrasa (Gmaps) was built by Bukharan architects, something that will be obvious the moment you set sight on it. It is in use for male students. Female tourists can have a peek into life at the Dasturkhanchi madrasa (Gmaps), which caters to girls aged 15 to 20.
Behind Narbuta-Bey lies the royal cemetery, where the elegant Modari Khan mausoleum holds the remains of the royal family who did not survive the victory of the emir of Bukhara in 1842. Nodira, wife of the Khan, was especially hated by the emir for her large role in public affairs. She is still revered as one of Uzbekistan’s most important poets and got her own grave next to that of her sons in Soviet times.
Hamza is a letter in the Arabic alphabet, and it became the moniker for the poet Hakimzade Niyazi. As a Jadid and later an ardent supporter of the Communist revolution, he fought against local traditions he thought backward, and instead promoted fact-based education and women’s rights.
He became one of the leading lights of the early Soviet literary scene, participating in language reforms and writing both moralistic plays and folk songs. He was stoned to death by conservative men in Shohimardon.
The theater (Gmaps) only has very occasional performances, but the building itself is a gem. The Soviet-era museum about Hamza has turned into a museum extolling the virtues of Babur, Tamerlan and the astronomer Al-Ferghani. Not a must-see.
Russian new town
Kokand has retained some great examples of colonial architecture, showing off the wealth the cotton industry was generating at a time when entrepreneurial Armenians, Baltic Germans and Bukharan Jews were attracted to Kokand to build their fortunes.
Impressive buildings are the city hall, the cotton bank and the telegraph office on the corner of Turon and Istiqlol streets. Continuing on Istiqlol street are 3 villas that once belonged to German-speaking businessmen. Diagonally across from these stands the Literature museum, housed in another former bank building.
In the street parallel (corner of Mavarounnahr and Aminov streets) you find what remains of the Yusupov Palace. The mega-rich Saint-Petersburg princes had this palace built for the potential visit of the Tsar. Much like the Kagan Palace in Bukhara, no tsar ever stayed.
Between Kokand and Tashkent
For people who have seen enough old buildings, the ride from Tashkent offers a number of stops that invite you to explore different sides of Uzbekistan. Mountain freshness and village life in Chadak, hiking opportunities in the Chatkal range, an abandoned uranium mine in Yangiobod, stolen art and ghost town misery in Angren.
All is revealed in the destinations around Tashkent guide.
The Uchkuprik taxi stand east of town (Gmaps) has shared taxis going all over the Ferghana Valley; they fill up fast and form a competitive alternative to the train, which is more comfortable but, at a similar price and speed, is less flexible in terms of schedule.
Shared taxis to Tashkent (4h – 5$) give you a nice look over the surroundings as you go up and over the Kamchik Pass. On the top, make sure to stop for a ball of kurd and a cup of local godzha (kefir with grains).
Reasonably priced and with excellent staff tending to your needs, the Silk Road Kokand Hotel is a good choice.
If you want to spend as little as possible: there are no hostels in Kokand, but bargaining in hotels is accepted, and there are a bunch of basic hotels that target local audiences and that aren’t available on booking platforms. We keep track of those hotels in the budget stays in Kokand forum thread.