In a guest house in Samarkand we met Ben from Young Pioneer Travels, a travel agency that specializes in budget trips to North Korea and strange former Soviet places in general. He told us about the solar furnace north of Tashkent and a few weeks later, coming from the small town of Parkent, we see a huge and rather indefinable building on one of the foothills of the Chimgan mountains: A somehow pyramid-shaped tower in metallic white and yellow – a type of building we would otherwise associate with a weird religious cult, but we are in Uzbekistan and that's clearly out of the question.
A donkey is grazing outside the gate to the compound next to an old Lada Zhiguli. The sign at the gate reads "Institute of Material Sciences, Physics – Sun". After being briefly introduced to one of the head scientists we are allowed to enter the compound without any further controls. There are some concrete office blocks, lawns and flowers, and behind them that strangely shaped tower.
Opposite the tower, on the north side of the area and stretching up onto the hill, we notice dozens of large mirrors. Mirrors the size of small houses, each of them consisting of hundreds of individual smaller mirrors, we see now. And the tower, seen from this side, also consists of mirrors forming a giant concave mirror.
Mirzo, who shows us around, is a scientist and an expert on solar physics. He speaks quite good English and occasionally leads foreign tourists through the facility.
The field of mirrors on the north side, called heliostats, are moved according to the sun so that they always reflect all the sunlight that hits them into the enormous concave mirror, which in turn concentrates the light in its focal spot 18 m away and about 5 stories above ground. Another, smaller tower stands right there – in that small room in the centre of the whole facility, the sunlight from about 2000 m2 is gathered – and that in a place where the sunlight falling on your head for a few hours is enough to make it spin. On sunny days, that bundled sunbeam produces temperatures well over 3000°C in the furnace installed in the smaller central tower.
This is enough to melt some materials such as aluminium oxide, explains Mirzo, which are then used to produce some special ceramics, or for endurance tests of high-tech materials.
The Solar Furnace in Parkent is one of only two such facilities worldwide, the other one standing in Southern France. This Uzbek Solar Furnace was built in the 1980s, in the spot with the most sunlight and the clearest air in the whole Soviet Union (says Mirzo). It was intended as a showcase high-tech institute, fitted with fancy futuristic art pieces and chandeliers in the office block and staffed by experts trained in the best universities in Moscow.
And then, only a few years later, the Soviet Union fell apart and the newly independent Uzbekistan was left with a scientific institution rather out of its league. Since then, the solar furnace is maintained and used for scientific work, but it's not profitable and showing it off to tourists on overcast days is a way to make ends meet. At the end of the tour, Mirzo shows us a normal sized, modern solar panel: Now they can at least produce some of the electricity they need for the building and the grounds – the solar furnaces produces only heat.
How to visit the Solar Furnace in Parkent
To visit the premises you need a special permission by the scientists. Entrance fee ist around 5$ per person plus around 100 000 Som (around 15 €) per group. You would need a Russian speaker to organize this. To get there you could take a bus to Parkent town and take a taxi for the last 8 km to the Solar furnace. Walking back to Parkent through the countryside would also be a possibility.