The In-Transit Report

Central Asia Part Three: Western Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan  Tosh Hauli Palace Khiva 9

For anyone that knows about the history of region, Uzbekistan’s impressive cities are synonymous with the Silk Road, and for good reason. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are the gems of Central Asia’s trading trail, and worth every minute of the time spent in them. 

I did Uzbekistan in two stages. After the Pamir Highway, I ended in Kyrgyzstan and then went through three cities in Uzbekistan to meet my Turkmen tour. The tour ended at the Turkmen/Uzbek border near Nukus, in the far west, so I backtracked from there.

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in post-Soviet Central Asia, and has a mix of ethnic groups including the Uzbek majority, some Tajiks, Russians, and Karakalpaks, amongst others. Interestingly, it’s also doubly landlocked: landlocked by landlocked countries.

Like neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan was once conquered by the Turks and thus its language is Turkic. In the south it borders Tajikistan and a small part of Afghanistan, so there are large Tajik populations in that region. The government is one of the most repressive in the region and the world, but for travelling purposes it wasn’t very noticeable, especially after having traveled through Turkmenistan!

In the west, I arrived from Turkmenistan back to Uzbekistan at Nukus, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. This small city in the middle of the desert is mainly known for two things: an art museum, and as a base for getting to the Aral Sea.

The museum, The Savitsky Collection (also known as the Nukus Museum of Art), is famous for its massive collective of banned Soviet-era artwork. The museum’s founder and curator, Igor Savitsky (pictured), went out of his way to collect Russian avant-garde works that were banned by Stalin’s Soviet Union, along with many other items relating to Karakalpak culture. I and the Brit I’d been on the Turkmen tour with spent some time wandering around with occasional commentary on the various pieces.

The pieces were definitely interesting, but mostly because I knew they had been banned; I’m not a knowledgeable critic of art, but I can appreciate the historical importance of it. Some of it was downright bizarre, and a number of works could be viewed as critical to the regime of the time.

Since we’d just come over from Turkmenistan, the three of us took it easy for a few days and enjoyed the freedom that we didn’t really have in Turkmenistan, and the friendly openness of the people. I stayed at a nice hotel, which was run by a Canadian Uzbek family and which had a big party on Canada day. They even had a variety of vegetarian food options on the menu. Though expensive for Uzbekistan, it was well worth it. We ate good dinners, watched some World Cup games, and planned how to get out to the Aral Sea, finally settling on renting a nice car with air conditioning and driver. In the end we also gained a fourth person last-minute to split the cost, and after a few days of doing almost nothing in Nukus, were happy to be going on a small adventure.

Uzbekistan  Aral Sea 117

Formerly the source of a prosperous fishing industry, the Aral Sea has lost most of its native fish population due to the increase of salt concentration in the remaining water. This has led to the economic decline of towns like Moynaq, which is now many kilometres away from the sea that used to be at its edge. In Moynaq now you can see the “ship graveyard” (pictured), a collection of rusted ships that were abandoned, leaving a depressing, but photogenic, reminder of the tragedy.The Aral Sea has a tragic history and is a truly strange place to consider a tourist attraction. Soviet irrigation projects diverted the rivers that fed this once-large lake, and it’s been shrinking since the 1960’s, with devastating consequences. It is now less than 10% of its original size. No, that’s not a typo.

Uzbekistan  Aral Sea 43

Political difficulties have hampered the success of the attempted Aral Sea Basin Program, set up in 1994 with the goal of stabilising and rehabilitating the Aral Sea region. The Aral Sea is shared between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and while the Uzbek government has been less than passionate about restoring the sea, Kazakhstan embarked on several projects to improve the situation. They actually succeeded in replenishing some of the North Aral sea, while Uzbekistan’s part keeps shrinking.

Our tour was basically a long drive through wasteland that used to be the sea, with scenes of the dead riverbed below, and a stop at a small lake which is still a source of fish. At the end of day one, we reached the shore of the current sea, with a bizarrely muddy “beach”. My three companions swam in the sea, but I decided to spend the time taking pictures instead (like the picture above, of someone’s flip flops). Later we set up camp up the hill, had a nice dinner, and attempted to sleep through the whistling wind. It was actually cold, a refreshing change from the oppressive heat of Central Asia.

Uzbekistan  Aral Sea 3

Day two’s highlight was Moynaq and the Ship Graveyard, which is actually one of many, but it the easiest to get to and most notable. The other attraction was a small museum about Moynaq’s fishing village history, with a film tracing the history of the Aral Sea’s demise. From there, we drove back through the wasteland to Nukus.

Uzbekistan  Kalta Minor Minaret Khiva 3Our next stop was Khiva, a small town further east with an enclosed old city brimming to the top with beautiful mosques and medrassahs (educational institutions). This was the first big Silk Road site for my companions, and actually wound up being my favourite of the three cities. The old city, called Itchan Kala, is in its entirely a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is well worth the distinction. It’s surrounded by brick walls 10 metres high (30 ft), and contains a dizzying array of beautiful things to see, some around 600 years old. Most distinctive is the unfinished minaret, Kalta Minor, pictured.

Uzbekistan  Djuma Mosque Khiva 15

While full of things to see, Itchan Kala is actually pretty small and if you have an entire day to spare, you can see pretty much everything without too much stress. Out of all the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, it also is the best set up for tourists: you buy one ticket, which grants you access inside almost all of Khiva’s attractions.

Islamic architecture in this region has its own distinctive features, particularly the detailed blue and white tile-work. Images of blue mosaics on the domes of mosques decorate the covers of Central Asian guidebooks, and any postcard you might get from someone travelling the area. Although I know much of the sites in the area have been restored, they are no less impressive.

Mosques in general have always attracted me, but here they have some incredibly design elements, and details that are unmatchable. The wooden carved pillars are a favourite of mine; I can only admire the craftsmanship and hard labor that must have gone into making them.

Khiva’s Djuma Mosque (Friday Mosque, pictured) was amazing to walk into: a serene room of carved pillars, some obviously much older than others, with several skylights letting the sun illuminate the trees planted underneath. It’s a place you could really imagine praying or meditating in, and luckily I did get some time alone before the tour groups descended.

Walking around Khiva was like walking through history, if you just pretended not to see modern clothes, cellphones, and the occasional car, not to mention gaping tourists with cameras. Luckily, late June was the end of tourist season, so the only people left were locals, backpackers, and some stragglers. Oftentimes I found myself alone in the expansive interiors of mosques, medrassahs, and sometimes palaces like Tosh Hauli, pictured below. Not a bad place to live, for sure. Thick walls made natural air conditioning, and the colour scheme can’t be beat.

Uzbekistan  Tosh Hauli Palace Khiva 22Arriving in Khiva, I had to be budget-conscious and couldn’t stay at the nicer hotel that the others had taken a room in, so instead I found a dorm bed at the cheaper hostel. There, I met plenty of backpackers that I’d inevitably meet again later, as the Central Asian backpacker trail guarantees. Still, I popped over to the other place for a beer with some great company on the rooftop terrace that overlooked Khiva, while the sun went down.

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