When I read back my post on how I didn't make it to Nukus, who would have thought I would get another chance to go! I finally made it to the west of Uzbekistan because my colleague Dilnora convinced our boss that I should accompany her to a monitoring conference as part of my internship. I wasn't quite sure what my role and function would be, but I was content enough that I was finally able to explore Uzbekistan a little bit more. I am usually not too scared of flying but flying with a centuries old Soviet propellor plane named Ilyushin really set my nerves on edge - probably the most turbulent, hottest, and bumpiest flight of my life.
Nukus is the capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic which covers the western end of Uzbekistan and makes up 36% of the country. Despite its large dimensions, the ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea and its disastrous consequences such as wind-borne salt and pesticides from the dried sea bed destroying and polluting fields and crops, has left it as one of the poorest regions in Uzbekistan. Nukus is only about an 4hour drive away from the sea bed, but the increased salinity is omnipresent due to visible salt on the roads and in the air, so that your skin feels irritated as if you've just bathed in the sea after one day of being outside. For those of you who don't know about the Aral Sea, I can highly recommend this arte documentary, where a guy travels around Karakalpakstan on a motorbike and interviews former Aral Sea fishers (fishery used to be the main source of income in the area and part of the people's culture and identity) who now find themselves unemployed and often suffering from one of the many diseases the ecological catastrophe has brought with it (e.g. respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis, anaemia, malnutrition).
|The Aral Sea in 1989 and 2008 (Picture taken from Wikipedia)|
The Karakalpak State Museum of Art is one of Nukus's main attractions (and possibly, its only attraction) and one of the reasons why I wanted to go in the first place. Its isolated location enabled Savitsky - a Russian fascinated by the area's folk art, ancient history and Central Asian fine arts who also attended archeological and ethnographic expeditions in the area - to install a museum showing a large collection of Russian avant garde by artists which were forbidden by the Soviet regime. Remote Nukus was a safe haven for these banned pieces of art. Over the years, Savitsky acquired over 90,000 paintings and sculptures - many of them obviously can't even be exhibited. The museum is huge - almost too big - to see it all in one visit, but it records and represents a fascinating period in history... in Nukus of all places! I absolutely loved it and wish I had had more time to explore it in more detail.
As I got to Nukus, it turned out that my co-workers had forgotten to inform the conference's organiser that I would attend, so that I wasn't registered and, therefore, couldn't join all the events (Uzbekistan is very strict when you are foreigner and you need an authorization for all sorts of things). It was somewhat frustrating in the first days but then the hotel's owner announced that she would make a daytrip to the qalas because she wanted to take pictures for her new website, so she hired a professional photographer. I decided to join her to share costs and couldn't have made a better decision.
We left the hotel at 5am, not only because it got pretty hot during the day but also to get the best possible lighting conditions for the pictures. I don't want to make you feel as if you are reading a guide book on Karakalpakstan, so I will refrain from going into detail about the qalas' history, but if you are interested, this is a very good website. Just to give you a few ideas: Qalas are ancient ruins, some of which were first surveyed and partly excavated in the 1930s by archeologist Sergey Tolstov. Their purposes are manifold, including fortified refuges and garrisons, fortresses and temples built sometime between 600 BC and 200 AD. They are located in the middle of the endlessness of the barren desert and even though there isn't too much left of some of them, I found them way more impressive and authentic than any of the numerous mausoleums or medressas in Samarkand and Bukhara. And even though you could say that about all old buildings in Europe, I found the idea striking that someone had put a particular stone or brick on a particular spot - in an area so remote and far away from everything else - and almost 2000 years later, I am touching it in the exact same place. These places got me thinking that even though transience is omnipresent in life, life and the memory of past generations are inherent in these old murals and the landscape surrounding them. Even animals still make use of these places and make them alive, and I found myself looking into the wall's holes to watch baby birds waiting for their mothers to return to them with food.
Please find below a selection of some of my pictures, as well as pictures taken by very talented photographer Azamat Matkarimov to give you an impression of my day of visiting the qalas, walking in the desert, snake hunting, plov eating, animal watching, getting a sunburn, being stunned by the desert's endlessness and having one of the best days of my life.
|Jampik qala in the early morning hours|
|The Bukhara deer in the nature reservation|
|A yurt camp near Ayaz Qala. Yurts were portable houses/tents traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.|
|Inside the yurt: playing the dutar, a musical instrument typical for Central Asia with only two strings|
|A poisonous snake got into our yurt. The yurt owner caught it and put it into a bottle...with the intention to cook and eat it later.|
|The crew during our lunch break :)|
|"Just think how someone put this little stone here at this particular spot, and almost 2000 years later, I am finding it in the exact same position"|