Day 22 – Transoxiana

Thursday 18 September 2014

I have mentioned it before, but this is Transoxiana, the land beyond the Oxus river that often felt like a ‘boundary’ between worlds. The Oxus river itself, now the Amu Darya, flows from the mountains in the South of Tajikistan, forms part of the boundary with Afghanistan, then enters Turkmenistan before turning back North into Uzbekistan and, originally, the Aral Sea (it now kind of dissipates in the deserts North of Nukus). Traditionally, not many Western explorers reached this part of the world; indeed until recently, it was rare to find a European who’d seen it – even Robert Byron, noted travel author and obsessive of Islamic architecture, never made it.

It seems only apt therefore that my arrival at the side of the river came via a roundabout route along a badly-marked trail over some grass-covered sand dunes; we would have simply walked along the main road and looked at it from the top of a bridge, but we weren’t allowed to – we were stopped and questioned by an Uzbek policemen who told us not to. Interestingly it was this same policeman who told us to walk down the road opposite and venture across the sand instead. So, in effect ‘I’m not allowed to let you take pictures but if you go where I can’t see you, I can’t stop you’. Sometimes, you gotta love flexible bureaucracy.
(I’ll concede the only reason he stopped us in the first place is cos he saw me taking a picture of the ‘Amu Darya’ sign at the start of the bridge…)

Due to the Soviet irrigation projects of the previous century, there’s not left of the river – the small sand dunes we walked over would have been under the water at some point – so it’s no longer as mighty as the name brings to mind, but its history still makes it a significant waterway that we both wanted to see., and worth the 4km trek through industrial/commercial Nukus to reach it.

Somewhere along the way, incidentally, I seem to have picked up a foot injury that makes it sore to bend the toes on my right foot – it’s a pain on the top of the foot, as if I’ve banged it somehow, but I’ve no recollection of doing that. This, plus Marta being the only person I’ve come across who walks quicker than I do, meant that by the time we got back to the hotel, I could barely walk.

Ah, the hotel – we got a double room with two single beds in it; a very odd-shaped room as my bed was in a small narrow section next to the bathroom almost as if they thought ‘oh we’ve got this space, what shall we do with it – I know, let’s stick a bed in it’. The room, well to be honest the whole hotel, has seen far better days, with peeling wallpaper, grotty furnishings, a bathroom with stains so entrenched they’d become part of the colour scheme, and the water pressure varied from low to non-existent, which caused confusion at one point as the taps suddenly came on without warning or reason (it’s hard to know whether a tap is on or off when no water comes out).
We paid the local currency equivalent of US$11 each; the actual price for foreigners if you pay in US$ is 15, as they convert money at the official rate whereas our som was converted at black market rate. Despite all the guidebook suggestions, this is actually the first time I’ve noticed paying in som was that advantageous.

Nukus’ other main attraction is an art gallery – the Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum. What makes this place unusual is that it’s the brainchild of an artist and archaeologist in the 1950s who started to ‘collect’ artwork both locally and later from across the Soviet Union, which the authorities deemed ‘politically unwelcome’ (much of it Avant-Garde). Since Nukus was a considerable distance from … anywhere, and since at the time the government wasn’t as ‘hard-line’ as in Stalin’s day, he was pretty much left to his own devices.
The museum’s on three levels, tho the ground floor is simply the ticket booth and the café. There’s no real pattern to the layout, and there are little alcove-rooms everywhere that are easy to miss. Apart from the paintings, there’s some sculpture, and also a display on local Karakalpak culture (including clothing and yurt design). Surprisingly for a museum in the back of beyond, most things were labelled in English.

We got to Nukus around 12.30pm, much earlier than we expected; we left the Aral Sea camp around 6.30am, just after sunrise – and on a flat plain, sunrise is quite impressive, not just for the advancing light but also because you can see the sun physically appear at the horizon – something you very rarely get to see in a city environment – and were in Moynaq just over two hours later. We drove back along the sea bed, as opposed to over the tops of the cliffs that we’d driven along on the way there – presumably then we only did that for the views.

I think I slept surprisingly well, and didn’t notice any invading mice.

As an aside, today is one of the biggest and most important political day in the UK since the 1997 election – it’s the Scottish Independence referendum – and I’m missing it completely. Feels very odd to be so far removed from something so major, happening at home.

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