**Note, the internet has been INCREDIBLY fickle and poor in Uzbekistan so I was only able to upload two photos over the course of 24 hours of attempts. I apologize. Just envision a flat, brown desert almost completely devoid of any life and you’re going to be pretty close.**
Well friends, I’m back in the “real” Uzbekistan after a lively few days in the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan makes up the western ~30% of the country and is the poorest province (made more so by the recent environmental disasters – we’ll get to that in a minute). Karakalpak means “black hat” so this region is called “black hat land.” I certainly hope no one ever wants to mix up their headwear. Anyway, Karakalpaks have their own language, which has far more in common with Kazakh and Kyrgiz than it does with Uzbek, so much so that many in the region can’t even understand Uzbek. In school, they can take classes in Russian or Karakalpak with English as a second language or Uzbek as a second language. Oh and there are some Tajiks in town who only speak Tajik. Also all of the praying is in Arabic. It’s all very confusing.
Karakalpakstan is home to a couple of interesting things for tourists all based out of the very uninteresting provincial capital of Nukus, a dusty, flat city of cement buildings arranged on a grid with the obligatory large, central Soviet park. I arrived in Nukus by shared taxi from Urgench. For those unfamiliar with shared taxis, this is a popular means of transport in large swaths of the world that are poorly connected by bus or train. Basically, drivers of large cars (sedans or station wagons) gather in a dusty parking lot somewhere and wait for people to show up and fill their car. My previous experiences were all in Morocco and West Africa, where no car was considered full until there were at least 4 people in the backseat, three across the front with someone straddling the shifter in the middle, someone sitting on a windowsill with their legs dangling into the back, at least one person on the roof, and something toxic in the trunk. So imagine my surprise and glee when the car left with only 3 paying passengers and no one loaded a gasoline barrel into the trunk. Unimaginable joy!
After arrival in Nukus, I visited the Savitsky museum (Nukus museum of art), which was founded by Igor Savitsky, a Ukranian archeologist and art lover. Savitsky saved a number of “banned” works from destruction by Soviet censors, and hid those along with local art in this desert outpost. The museum is huge and has one of the largest collections of Russian art outside of Moscow. It is also well organized and mercifully free from weird mannequins and displays that say things like “the people of Karakalpakstan eat eggs” with a corresponding tray of fake plastic eggs. As though no one has ever seen an egg before. Why thank you, government of Uzbekistan, for setting up this weird museum inside of a historical monument and showing me an egg. Sorry. I’m was just so thrilled to have visited a normal museum. Well, normal may still be a bit of a stretch. The Savitsky museum also has a robust collection of commissioned Soviet art, all of which was truly remarkable in its dreary glumness. There were so many paintings of factories and farmers and smoke stacks and desolate, gray cities. Also, these gems:
Aside from haunting Soviet paintings, the other reason tourists visit Nukus is to witness the deaths throes of the Aral Sea. I had booked a two day tour to the Aral Sea leaving the following morning, so I attended an evening presentation by the director for the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea, Yusup Kamalov. Kamalov has worked on water issues and renewable energy in Uzbekistan for years and was honest and passionate in a way that was remarkable in a repressive post-soviet country. He was also quite jolly for someone who is devoting his life to a hopeless cause (I’m not being dramatic – the government of Uzbekistan officially gave up on saving the Aral Sea 5 years ago).
Kamalov was a short man with a pleasant, round face who showed up to the talk right on time but then spent 15 minutes trying to figure out the password on his ancient laptop that his son had recently “updated” to a 10-year-old version of Windows. Once the password issue was sorted, he pulled up a PowerPoint with 26 slides and then talked in free form fashion for 1.5 hours, with the PowerPoint that caused the technology kerfuffle remaining completely unused.
The Aral Sea was the 4th largest lake in the world (greater than 26,000 sq miles of surface area) and home to a bustling fishing industry before the Soviets decided to expand agriculture in the deserts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan during the 1950s and 1960s. Needing water for irrigation, they used the same engineering prowess and attention to detail that brought us Chernobyl and built an enormous network of shoddy, unlined, leaky canals (>100,000km of canals in total) throughout the central Asian deserts, rerouting the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers away from the Aral Sea. The sea promptly started to dry up, the fishing villages ground to a halt with their boats rusting in the sand, and salty dust from the dry sea bed started to blow over the country in ever more frequent dust storms.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Aral Sea had shrunk but could still have been saved. Instead, the five new countries of Central Asia installed the same Soviet aparatchiks who caused this mess in the first place to positions on their agriculture and water committees and promptly started to blame each other for the loss of the sea. Turkmenistan, which has the gigantic free-flowing Karakum canal from the Amu Darya pouring tons of water into empty desert, has taken the most bizarrely aggressive view. Their citizens are not even allowed to call the Karakum a ‘canal’ and have to refer to it as a river because, the government claims, the Amu Darya river was theirs and was “stolen” and rerouted to the Aral Sea by greedy Russians years before. This is, of course, not true. The river naturally changed course over hundreds of years. But their view is that the water dumping uselessly into the desert is their God-given right.
At independence, Uzbekistan, like all of these countries, became a democracy in name if not in spirit. Its citizens still cannot own any land, including the farms. The government divides up land for farmers and sets the prices for crops so farmers can never really turn a significant profit. Water is “free” so farmers take the easiest possible option, which is to flood irrigate everything. Driving through Karakalpakstan means alternating between bleak, bone dry desert and bright green cotton fields, many soaking in inches of standing water. It’s like if someone tried to create an oasis in Nevada and stole the Colorado river to do it. Oh, wait…
In addition to draining the Aral Sea to grow more cotton for the Soviet machine, the USSR also tested biological weapons on an island in the Aral Sea and tested chemical weapons (including the infamous Novichok) in the Karakum desert of Karakalpakstan. Now that the sea is essentially gone, the waste from the biological weapons test site is mixed into the dust of the seabed, blowing across the province. The combination of these residues and the dried up river that barely reaches the province and is heavily laden with garbage and waste when it does has made the food supply in Karakalpakstan ONE HUNDRED times more laden with persistent organic pollutants than other regions of the country. Kamalov finished up this uplifting presentation by telling us how, despite how dire this sounds, he’s optimistic because, as he said with a robust chuckle, “if Armageddon comes, I know Karakalpaks will survive it because we have already lived through it once.”
Kamalov has transitioned from trying to save the sea to fighting for clean water for Karakalpakstan and fighting to change the culture of water waste that has prevailed since soviet times. He knows the sea is gone. Natural gas deposits were found along he dry seabed, so its imminent death is a booming cash cow for the state.
I visited the tiny remaining sliver of the Aral Sea on an overnight trip from Nukus the following day. After driving through hours of flood irrigated cotton fields, we reached the desert and, shortly thereafter, the supposedly abandoned fishing town of Moynaq, which is now 150km from the sea shore. Except Moynaq wasn’t abandoned. Construction was EVERYWHERE. Every street was lined with stacks of cement blocks and piles of rebar. Girls in floral dresses walked down dusty streets giggling and eating ice cream cones. Men mixed concrete and stacked bricks and stopped traffic to move equipment. I thought that this was a town that “died” when the Aral Sea retreated – reasonably so, since its industry was fishing and you can’t catch fish on sand. I asked what was going on and was told with MUCH excitement that the new president decided not to abandon Karakalpakstan to the dust storms and toxins and instead started a project to invest in these ramshackle towns. Moynaq is getting an airport and a big hotel and a casino! So, I asked, what are people going to do here for work? “Construction.” “Yes, well, once all of the building has been completed, what will people do then?” Long pause and then “Tourism?”. Just to be clear, Uzbekistan is dumping a TON of money into building up a town that has no water and no industry or resources or jobs in the hopes that tourists will come to see… what? Their “museum” – a single, inadequately air conditioned room with some mannequins wearing local clothes and stuffed dead animals? Their new casino in this blighted, isolated desert outpost? The completely dead Aral Sea with no water at all? By the time the airport is finished, the sea will be almost assuredly be gone.
Moynaq IS home to at least one popular attraction, the cemetery of ships. When the Aral Sea receded, fishermen abandoned their ships and left them to rust and settle in the sand. My understanding was that there were thousands of decaying ships scattered through the Aralkum desert (new desert formed on the desiccated lake bed) by the city, ready to explore. But oh no, alas, that type of natural degradation process would fly in the face of Uzbekistan’s need to adhere to Soviet standards of organization and control. Instead of rusting hulks scattered atmospherically in the deep sand, some ships had been “gathered”, placed in a row, and encircled with a cement walkway. Just as nature intended.
After visiting the cemetery of ships, we loaded back into the Land Rover and went off road, through the dried bed of the Aral Sea. It took HOURS to get from Moynaq, where fishing boats bobbed in the harbor just 30 years ago, to the sea shore today. It was heartbreakingly dry. Bone dry. Brittle. Just sun baked, blistered ground with rare tufts of wiry grass as far as I cold see in any direction. Eventually we climbed out of the sea bed and onto the Ustyurt plateau, overlooking the former basin. The cliffs were rather pretty, lined with mineral deposits and worn by centuries of water. We finally reached the sea shore at about 7 PM. Only 10% of the Aral Sea remains, most of that in Kazakhstan (which is doing a commendable job saving the northern portion, mostly by building a dam to cut it off from the southern portion). The Uzbek sea is tiny, sometimes receding by 10-12 meters in a single day. The shore is muddy, a black, thick, sucking mud that pulls off shoes and emtombs them in its depths. The remaining sea is now 10x more saline than it was before, on par with the Dead Sea. Nothing lives in it except brine shrimp. Because I was there, and because I’ll never get to again, I swam in the Aral Sea. The salt made it nearly impossible, as my legs bobbed around like buoys over my head. It was smelly and muddy and sad.
We camped in yurts by the dying sea and left the following morning, banging back down single track dirt roads with clouds of noxious dust rolling into every crack in the seams of the car. I had to hold a Kleenex over my nose to breathe. We stopped at another village along the way, Kubla Ustyurt, whose existence was foretold by piles of trash scattered with increasing frequency along the rutted dirt track. Kubla Ustyurt exists to service natural gas lines and looks like a truly foresaken place to live – not a single tree or drop of water for miles. We also stopped at ruined 14th century caravanserais and nomad burial grounds and fortresses, all of which existed along the banks of this formerly bountiful sea.
We wound up back in Nukus in the evening and I left the following morning, taking a tortuous route through the desert back to Khiva, stopping at various Zoroastrian hilltop fortresses and burial grounds, all very atmospheric with red mud crumbling into the hillsides.
Sorry if this was a bit heavy. Don’t worry. I plan to dedicate my next post to the museums of Uzbekistan, which are without a doubt the most ridiculous delusions a tourism ministry could concoct. I am in Khiva right now, which is just chock-full of “museums” and little else. I wasn’t going to go to them, because I knew what to expect. But then this morning I woke up and just thought, “what the hell?” I’m here. I might as well see what the Uzbek government wants to show me. So I went. To ELEVEN fake museums. And took photos. Get ready. It’s a real show.