Thursday, July 21, 2016

Khiva Dance Festival

It’s a surprise to no one when we blow a tire on the drive from Nukus to Khiva. We’re in a share taxi after a long day driving off road in the desert near the Aral Sea and our driver has been driving primarily in the oncoming lane at far too high speeds given the condition of the road.

We laugh (what else to do?) and figuratively kick the tires. It’s not a comfort to see zero tread and sizable cracks in each of the other (as yet) intact tires. We point these out to the driver; he shrugs unconcerned and, blown tire replaced, we tear off at the same speed as before.

We’re driving at dusk, past donkey carts loaded with green hay, past solitary women waiting on the side of the road to hail a ride, and we drive past rivers, lifebloods in this arid climate. At each river without fail I see boys and men, young and old, swimming, bathing, and splashing about. In the oppressive heat that lingers well into the evening, it’s easy to imagine this as the joyful end to a long, hot day.

Khiva at night
Khiva at dusk
As we near Khiva and neighboring Urgench, the landscape changes from agrarian with small, one-room baked mud huts to rows of suburb-like new houses and broad, smoothly paved avenues.

Khiva itself is something from Disney’s Epcot—all baked mud traditional buildings, the inner city surrounded entirely by formidable turreted fortress walls. And every few hundred meters the small tan buildings are peppered with cerulean and azure tiled minarets or square-shaped madrassas, lined with classrooms and centred with trees and garden-filled courtyards.

We’d read that some people find the extensive restoration and the spotlessly clean inner city of Khiva bland and overly manufactured. And I might have agreed, except that our visit coincided with the Khiva Dance Festival.

The unfinished minaret in the middle of the old city

As such, the small city was flooded with local tourists and singers and dancers from all over Uzbekistan. Like us, many of them were seeing Khiva for the first time, photographing the preserved buildings and poking their heads into myriad little museums.

On our first morning, we entered the inner city to the singing and dancing of two different brightly dressed troupes, many of whom seemed lost in the music they were singing and caught up in the frenzy of their own joyful dancing. We found ourselves outnumbered by Uzbek tourists, holding up their smartphones to record the dancing around them. Many of them came from small towns or provinces and seemed as interested in us and they were in the sights around them.

We happily posed for dozens and dozens of photos, though I felt aware of shabbily I was dressed; many of the domestic tourists came dressed in coloful finery and the dancers, decked in exuberant traditional costumes, also asked to take photos with us. We obliged, exchanging smiles and a few shared words of English, Uzbek, and Russian.

I take a photo of some Uzbek tourists shortly before they ask Flounder and I to join them in their group photo
Another group of Uzbek tourists pose for photos with us
Young students approached us, including a girl from Nukus whose face, already bright and smiling, lit up even more when we told her where we were from. She confided in rapid, excited English that she wanted to go to the US to study. I sincerely hope she gets the chance, as her enthusiasm and radiance would only benefit any place she chose to visit. We chatted for a few more minutes and as we parted she told us a phrase we would hear many times that day, even from Uzbeks who spoke almost no other English.

With a glowing and wide smile she said, ‘You are welcome to Uzbekistan!’

More photos of dancers and singers at the Khiva Dance Festival:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Swimming in the Aral Sea

‘You weren’t worried about swimming in the Aral Sea?’ our fellow travelers, a group of three from Poland, asked us.

Wading through the muck

At first I thought they referred to the knee-deep stinky sludge we waded through to get to swimmable, clear and buoyant water.

‘It wasn’t that bad,’ I told them. ‘Besides, when else will we get a chance to swim in the Aral Sea?’

‘Not much longer,’ Anya said. ‘This part of the sea will be gone in three years.’

You can see the sludge along the shore

The Polish group, especially Anya, knew more about the sea than I (not a notable accomplishment given my tendency to wing it, i.e. avoid research) and even more than Flounder, an accomplished and relentless researcher.

I soon realized that, far from referring to unpleasant muck, the group was concerned about toxic chemicals in the water. During soviet times, an island in the Aral Sea had been used to test anthrax and other chemical weapons. Now, with the rapid and unprecedented shrinking of the sea, that island is gone. What’s more, with evaporation, the toxic chemicals have surely concentrated. No one knows how much, as the government is not keen to allow testing nor to bring more publicity to what is often called one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time.

Swimming in the Aral Sea is a bit like swimming in the Dead Sea in Jordan and Israel. Even Flounder, who finds floating difficult, could sit back in the water as if relaxing in a recliner. See, along with (theoretical) toxicity, salinity has concentrated and will continue to do so until what’s left of the Uzbek Aral Sea is gone.

You can see how much is gone in just three years

To get here, to the western, deepest edge of the rapidly shrinking sea, we took a caravan of two SUVs on a smooth road that turned into a pothole-filled road that turned into dusty tracks through low shrubs populated by twittering birds escaping the heat of the desert sun. As we drove we approached a broad expansive plateau—the Ustyurt plateau, a tectonic plate that was thrust upwards about 150 meters, causing the Caspian Sea to separate from the Aral Sea.

We drove onto the steppe, on dirty, dusty tracks cutting, crossing, forking, branching, and rejoining across miles and miles and miles.

The plateau

For hours we saw no one and the landscape, flat and sage green, changed little save for the hastening birds and the occasional glimpse of glimmering grey-blue water in the distance beyond and below the plateau.

Flounder near the edge of the Ustyurt plateau

The first structure we passed, and indeed the first sign of human life aside from tire tracks, was a cluster of ancient-looking low buildings and a smattering of graves. The buildings, our driver told us in a staccato of Russian, Uzbek, and English, had been a fish cannery only 70 years ago and the graves were occupied by Poles and Russians who had worked and died in this desolate place, once a soviet gulag.

Graves, our fellow travellers, and our SUVs

We descended further down the plateau and saw a hulking army green truck parked near a smoky fire. Next to a concrete archway attached to nothing was a row of cots upon which slept a few men, shaded from the brutal sun by a thin cloth draped over them. They were fisherman (balıkçılar in Turkish and Uzbek, our driver confirmed) who slept during the day and fished at night. They came to this remote spot, once near the Aral Sea, now near a small isolated lake, for ten days at a time before returning to the nearest town, some hours away.

The next signs of life we passed were two trailers, one belonging to an Uzbek petrol company and the other belonging to Malaysia-based Petronas. An economic upside (and yes, I know that’s a contentious and complicated statement) to the devastation of the Aral Sea mismanagement was the discovery of gas- and oil-rich deposits beneath the now arid land. The economy, once dependent on the sea, is now dependent on oil, though the profits seem spirited away with precious little money staying in the depressed region.

When at last we reached the western shore of the Aral Sea, flat and shining, the sun setting behind us, an American in our caravan who had just finished his military service looked out and declared, ‘The soviets really fucked that up, didn’t they?’

No one responded. The question seemed rhetorical after all, but I wondered if anyone else was thinking what I was: Will not some future generation, looking at the environmental wreckage of pollution and climate change we're enacting, ask rhetorically, ‘We really fucked that up, didn’t we?’

A ship sits where the shore of the Aral Sea once was

We camped that night near the western shore of the sea, under a clear sky and an umbrella of stars.

As we sat around a dinner of plov, salad, bread, and french fries, the Polish friends asked us if we weren’t worried about swimming in the Aral Sea.

No, I wasn’t worried about swimming in the rapidly disappearing sea. But the trip through a swiftly altered and devastated landscape, caused by human choices, left me worried about a lot of things.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Royalty, luxury, and a day without modern amenities in the far west of Uzbekistan

Royalty in the western frontier

‘Is this what royalty feels like?’ Flounder asks me as we sit alone in a spacious restaurant, being served a three-course vegetarian meal by an unassuming but solicitous waiter. ‘Eating alone in a large dining room, our every need waited on?’

Arrival in dusty Nukus
We’re sitting in our hotel restaurant in Nukus, Uzbekistan, enjoying a complimentary dinner in exchange for an oversight on the hotel’s side, but feeling quite awkward in the otherwise empty room.

‘Is anyone else staying here?’ I ask rhetorically, but Flounder confirms the presence of another couple, including an intriguing description of a woman in a bowler hat and striped scarf. I lose the plot for a minute and wander down this train of thought: Who is this girl? Where is she from? I should meet her, right?

Back to the meal: our responsive waiter pokes his head from the kitchen door, sees we’re still eating, then disappears. We sit long after finishing our meal (a little heavy on the cabbage and potatoes, but filling) waiting for him, but eventually decide to awkwardly leave. Not before I, over-friendly American that I am, open the kitchen door and call out ‘thank you!’ to anyone who can hear.

As far as I can tell, the takeaway from this experience is that being royalty is just plain awkward. Clearly I need more practice ignoring the presence, feelings, and opinions of others.

Landscape near Nukus


Our opulent hotel (by far the most expensive of our eight-week trip through Central Asia) seemed slightly less opulent when we learned from the receptionist that we wouldn’t have power from 6:00 a.m. the next morning – the day I had planned to catch up on writing and maybe map out the next few days of travel. But now, with no fan, no air con, no internet…

‘I advise you to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to shower,' the receptionist said.

…and apparently no water, what would we do?

‘And when will the electricity be back?’ I asked.

‘It depends on when they are finishing. Maybe as early as 6:00 p.m. but definitely by 10:00 p.m.,’ she brightened as she finished the sentence, but somehow the prospect of 16 hours without electricity in a desolate desert town didn’t make me feel any better.

The Savitsky museum was still open. We’d wanted to go there. And what was that on the map? Was that an aquapark? (Or should I say аквапарк in this former soviet town?)

‘Ooh, maybe it will be creepy and concrete and rundown!’ I said excitedly.

‘Maybe it will be full of children,’ Flounder rejoined.

‘Maybe!’ I responded with enthusiasm. ‘Let’s go and find out!’

The morning of Our Day of Living Normally, Without the Amenities of the Developed World (ODOLNWTATDW for short) arrived.

We slept as late as we could, something we had become practiced at during our 48-hour train ride from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Nukus.

We started ODOLNWTATDW with a walking tour of the town – a place truly unlike any other I’ve seen. The streets are broad, the blocks long, and the official buildings have the oversized grandeur of a much larger, much more important city. There are spacious plazas, each incomplete without a grandiose, heroically posed statue in the center.

A spacious plaza, this time with a fountain!

In fact, the place has the aplomb and irony-free spirit of a soviet-heyday town, plopped down in a dusty, wind-strewn location at the edge of anywhere, populated by kvass-drinking, cotton-farming, Uzbek-speaking, Turkic people.

As we walk, we see surprising signs of economic boom for a region desolated and devastated by the Aral Sea, let’s say, mismanagement (unprecedented economic disaster is a phrase more commonly used). New buildings, stylish condos, Chanel knockoff stores are being built.

New buildings
More new buildings

Meanwhile, the aforementioned aquapark was everything I’d hoped for – bizarre concrete mushrooms, tiled twisty slides shaped like snakes and other unidentifiable animals, decrepit structures – except it was clearly long abandoned.

Gotta love those mushrooms

The twisty slide thing!

Undeterred, we pushed on – to the central market, where despite the recent boom of small minimarkets, most citizens of Nukus still did their shopping. It was also where the marshrutkas, a system of miniscule intercity buses, and share taxis to other destinations left from.

First of all, the market was hot; most places unshaded, receiving the full brunt of the midday sun.

Second of all, who doesn’t love a market? Yellow carrots? Football-shaped cantaloupes? Tomatoes, dill, green onions, beets, parsley, peaches, and purple grapes? Yes please. Cheap plastic clips, flyswatters, and chemical hair dye of dubious origin? I’ll pass.

Precious shade in the central market

Third of all, despite being the only tourists in the place (and though we dressed modestly, we very clearly were not from around there), we were the opposite of a spectacle. Unlike in some other countries (Vietnam, I’m looking at you) where children wave, smile, and greet incessantly while adults shyly look, not wanting to stare, here in Nukus the children seemed unimpressed by us and the adults avoided my gaze. It certainly made walking through the market a relaxing and unhurried experience. As long as I kept out of everyone’s way, I could take my time and feel thoroughly unrushed and unpressured to buy anything.

Lots of these brooms for sale

Fourth of all, that heat though. I simply don’t do well in the heat. It’s the pitta dosha in me :) (Read on for a glimpse into my childhood! My family doctor was an Ayurvedic physician.)

Fifth of all, counting in Turkish and Uzbek are basically the same. Joy!

Next on ODOLNWTATDW, we visited the Savinsky museum, an impressive and important preserver of avant garde soviet art to which I surely won’t begin to do justice.

The story goes, more or less, like this: Savinsky was an refined Muscovite who, after a visit to Nukus in the 1960s, thought, ‘This backwater, middle of nowhere town would be the perfect place to preserve and hide all the illicit and illegal soviet art that is banned everywhere in the USSR. No one would think to look here!’ And he was right. It was the perfect place. So he applied for permission to start a museum of Ethnographic Art from Karakalpakstan (the region encompassing and surrounding Nukus) and used that museum as a front for his real purpose—preservation of otherwise lost soviet art.

One of the most famous works from the museum. I read, but can't confirm, that the artist was forcibly placed into a mental institution as a result of this painting.

And here I must admit that I actually enjoyed the ethnographic section—with beautiful embroidered headdresses, silk ikat robes, and a fully intact Karakalpakstan yurt—more than the scores of paintings that were the real draw of the museum. But I decided long ago to travel for love, not for the should-sees and must-sees. So I lingered by the ikat (and also by the gloriously cool air conditioning).

Fabulous ikat! Image from

So what did we learn from ODOLNWTATDW? Modern amenities are awesome? Soviet-inspired aquaparks should never shut down? I don’t know, man, not everything’s a lesson. I’m busy thinking about tomorrow—when we leave on an expedition to the Aral Sea.