Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Uzbekistan is the country that just keeps on giving. Just in the past week i've seen ships in deserts, mosquitos on hotel bath towels, ruined cars on roads and museums in mosques.

I took a 22 hour train to Nukus which is in the west of the country in an autonomous region called The Republic of Karakalpakstan (what a name!) and befriended a few people on the train. Two old women kept feeding me tea and plov (a national rice dish) and two men were enthralled with both my Russian phrasebook and my ipod which they wanted to buy from me - until i told them the price. I also have a small travel book full of useful pictures that serves as a kind of international phrasebook. It has pictures of all the essentials for traveling (food, stuff in hotels, beer, condoms) and the two guys who were arguing over my ipod spent ages looking at a page full of seafood. Uzbekistan is double land-locked. A land-locked country surrounded by other countries that are also landlocked. Pictures of squid, crab and lobster looked alien to the men of Karakalpakstan. And i was reliably informed that The Pouges are better than The Killers who are better than The Beatles. Who knew?

The Republic of Karakalpakstan (sorry, it's addictive to say it) is completely linked with deperation and destitution. Nukus is a perfect example of a central Asian hole full of people who look as if they know they're living in the arse end of nowhere. I stayed in a hotel that had three bed dorms and shared a room with a small, stocky, bald middle aged man from Tashkent. He spoke no English but thanks to a combination of my Russian phrasebook, the hotel bar and his mobile phone we got on really well. His name was Islam and he phoned his English teacher daughter to translate some things for me that weren't in the phrasebook. Apparently Islam's son was in prison in Nukus and he was in the region to try and secure his release. We drank quite a lot.

That night we both got murdered by mosquitos. The next night we decided we should kill as many insects as possible before sleeping. Which is why i was stood on a bed swatting the air with a guide book whilst a man called Islam, wearing only trousers and vest, slapped another wall with a bath towel in a vain attempt to kill mosquitos in a hotel room in The Republic of Karakalpakstan.

But Karakalpakstan is home to two much more famous and interesting stories. One inspiring, the other depressing. Nukus houses The Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum which was set up thanks to Igor Savitsky. He was an Uzbek artist at the start of the 20th century. Soviet Russia decreed that artists had to stop painting pictures that were abstract or depicted images that didn't conform to the new fantastical Stalinst ideals of the USSR. Any artist who didn't follow the new rules found themselves in Siberia or a gulag. Igor Savitsky collected and smuggled the art from Russia to his home and kept the forbidden paitings and drawings hidden in Uzbekistan for decades as a kind of Schindler for Russian modern art. Now there's a museum in Nukus with 30,000 pieces of art from the 1920s and 1930s that the world was never supposed to see. Of course, only a fraction of them are on display at any time but the story is as wonderful as the art is amazing and a few hours gazing at Russian art from the 1920s almost made Nukus a bearable place. Almost.

The other story linked with Karakalpakstan is The Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is a perfect text book example of humans fucking the world up for the sake of money. I went north from Nukus in a taxi and then a minivan to Moynaq. Moynaq was a fishing town in the 1950s and 1960s and sat on the shore of the worlds fourth largest lake, The Aral Sea. Now, the Aral is over a hundred kilometres away to the north. It gets smaller every year. Eventually it will disappear all together. This isn't an accident. This isn't a natural occurrence.

Russia wanted to increase cotton production within the USSR in the 1960s and decided the rivers that ran into the Aral Sea were a perfect freshwater supply, damned up the rivers and dug diversion channels into fields to irrigate the land. The result was that lots of cotton was produced (Uzbekistan is still the worlds second biggest producer of it) but the Aral Sea was left to wither away. Between the 1960s and 90s the water fell by a height of 16m. In those thirty years some shore lines saw the water recede by 80km. I stood on what was once the Aral Sea next to fishing boats that had been left to rust and decay and tried to do the maths. 80km in 30 years. About two and half or three kilometres a year. About 7m a day. You could probably stand in Nukus forty years ago and be able to see the water receding from the shore before your eyes. Worse was to come. After the fishing industry collapsed the reduction of the water meant less rain and more dust. This killed plant and animal life and caused huge health problems for the people. The weather changed to extremes causing summers to be desert hot and the winters Arctic cold. The whole area is depressing. Everybody who lives in Moynaq wants to leave and i didn't feel particularly comfortable wandering around taking pictures of stuff.

But i did wander around. I saw the old fishing boats that have been parked together conveniently for tourists. I met Ahmet, a nineteen year old who said he enjoyed walking among the old boats so he could meet foreigners and practice his English. He said he'd never seen the sea and that his parents would speak about it as if it was a mythical place or a dream. I walked back to the bus stop along the dusty streets being part harassed by a school kid who simply kept shouting the word "dollar" at me. At the bus stop i was surprised to meet some happy people. Three men were swigging beer and laughing, joking and calling for me to join them while i waited 30 minutes for the bus to leave. They chatted and giggled about money, women, football and Guinness. It wasn't until the 30 minutes passed that i realised why they were so happy. One of them was the bus driver, the two others worked on the large bus collecting fares. They were leaving Moynaq. Why wouldn't they be happy?

After Nukus i got a shared taxi to Khiva which is an old small walled city that has been rebuilt and destroyed a few times and was once home to a slave market on the Silk Road. It's now home to hot sunshine, sand coloured buildings, mud brick homes, old wrinkly people saying "Salam" and skipping kids shouting "Hello". And French people. Middle aged or just plain old French people on tour groups are everywhere in Khiva gawping at the massive mosques, medrasses and minarets that have have been turned into museums and furnished with market stalls hawking crap.

Cars in Uzbekistan are different. They're either Daewoos (the crazy Koreans built a factory in Tashkent) or Ladas (they just don't die) and all of them have some kind of defect. Normally it's nothing too serious - a crack across a windscreen that looks like somebody threw a stone at it, gear fitted the wrong way, steering wheels that aren't aligned correctly with the steering of the car, speedometers that have a needle that just jumps around as if trying to guess the speed to the vehicle.

The car i was in today between Urgench and Bukhara sped through the desert landscape at a hair raising speed but i have no idea exactly how fast as nothing on the dashboard worked apart from the radio. As far as the car was concerned we didn't have any fuel and our speed remained constant at 0km/h. I was on the back seat sandwiched between the sizable frames of Jalal and his friend who only communicated through the power of grunt. Jalal was a friendly guy though. He kept offering me cigarettes, asking me how much a prostitute costs in England (he didn't quite understand how i didn't know) and falling asleep on my shoulder. At one point he called the driver to pull over in the middle of the scrub shrubby desert. We got out and walked over to a spot where a small commemorative stone had been placed with words and dates inscribed on it. There were mangled bits of car strewn around and you could make out bits of body work or engine. I looked at the date on the engraved stone - 10 September 2009. One of Jalal's friends had died in a car crash. We all jumped back in the car and drove at an unknown but stupidly excessive speed through bumpy rough desert roads in car with only one seat belt which the driver only used when we went through a check point. Uzbeks are instinctively friendly and linguistic chameleons (Uzbek, Kazakh, Russian, English, Karakalpak, Turkish, no problem) but from now on i'm getting the train.

Bukhara is the holiest city in central Asia and keeps a steady population of French tour groups but i've only really just got here and i've probably written too much. Then again, Uzbekistan is probably giving me too much. Thanks for reading.

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