Monday, July 21, 2003

Uzbekistan - The saddest place on Earth

The title is how the Lonely Planet described Karakalpakstan (a stan maybe other stans haven't heard of). It is a "republic" inside Uzbekistan and we flew to its capital, Nukus, over arid landscapes in a Soviet-era propeller plane whose engine drone was deafening and reminded me of being in a 1970's James bond movie.

This is the site of one of the world's biggest ecological disaster, the draining of the Aral Sea. We felt a bit perverse, like going to look at a bloody accident. We mentioned to locals where we were heading, and a certain horrified look crosses their faces, even more so when we confirm we are not doctors or journalists.

Hotter summers, colder winters, the Earth coughing up salt, the people suffering high infant mortality, deformity, throat cancer and Médecins Sans Frontières seems to be focusing on TB. The MSF were kind enough to let us stay in their house in Moynaq, a town that used to be a thriving fishing port. We stumble out of the bus in the searing heat to a half ghost town; we really look like freaks. However, as what is proving usual with the Uzbeks, we are treated with utmost hospitality and fed continuously.

We walked out the next morning to the Grave Yard of the Ships. Rusting skeletons of fishing boats sink into the sand dunes. The shore is over 40kms, yes, that is 40kms from where it was. I wonder at what point did everyone give up? The sound of the wind is strangely like the sea. A little old lady stops us and Jim deciphers some of her Russian: "the weather is screwed, the ecology is screwed" and, tapping her head, someone is crazy. We weren't sure if that was the Russians for doing this or us for coming. Probably both, she was pissed off either way.

A local killing time in the rusting hull of a beached ship where the Aral Sea used to be. Photo courtesy of Jim.

Back in Nukus, we visited the world class art museum and bought some great stuff. That night a hooker tried to kick our door in. You can find anything in this desert. We have been happy with how things have worked out, chance meetings with locals and long term expats who point us in good directions.

We didn't see any tourists until we hit Khiva and now Bukhara. It is strange to think these impressive cities of highly decorated minarets, ancient mosques and medressas (religious schools) are not world famous. But, the middle aged French seem to have worked it out; they are here by the bus load.

Looking out over Khiva

The people are fabulous and even where they are used to tourists, there is none of the intense hassle - you can look at a carpet and actually leave the shop. One guy even gave us a carpet to sit on and then totally disappeared. We couldn't even find him to give the carpet back. The reverse psychology worked, what the hell was in his shop that he didn't need to drag us kicking and screaming in!

The kids are a laugh; still after lollies but give up pretty easy. We had fun teaching them English (I would get in trouble from Jim if he caught me teaching them to say "gudday"). We even nearly ended up invited to a wedding. The hospitably is overboard. Bloody hell, we are in their wedding photos! Jim sweating, me a usual grot standing next to the suited groom and the very demur bride in garish white (she isn't allowed to look up or happy for about two days).

Jim and a gorgeous little boy we fell in love with in Bukhara

Some of the beer is undrinkable (Afro travellers, recall to your nostrils the vomit-like aroma of shake-shake) and some French we met spat out the wine, but the food is plentiful with fresh fruit and veges. The music is very scary: mostly western pop, boy band medleys, and even a Russian cover of Kylie still in English for some odd reason. Girls fashion ranges from conservative sun dresses to Russian hooker style.

Right, now I am just going on.

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