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.

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