Outback Experience in Uzbekistan
I pick up the radio hand piece in our Nissan to speak to Maurice and Anne in their car: ‘I have an idea for my next blog,’ I say. ‘It goes like this: two testosterone charged males in their mid 60s race across the desert, dust billowing behind, in an effort to outrun the driver of the guide’s car. Two rows of telegraph poles mark the edges of their desert vegetation-strewn race track.’ ‘Power poles’ says Anne. At that point the guide’s driver picks up the challenge and passes Maurice and Martin to take what he considers his rightful place at the head of the cavalcade.
We have taken a three day side trip to the Aral Sea. It has proven very interesting, made more so by the politics and personalities in the guide car, whose occupants number four – a guide, his wife, a driver and the driver’s helper; we had expected just two, the guide and driver. The day before, we had gone to the market with the guide to buy food for the trip for the six we thought were coming. Once on the trip, the driver seems to think he is in charge instead of the guide (the English speaker), and the guide’s young wife insists on doing all the cooking for all 8 of us with no help from Anne and I; and we remain unclear of the purpose of the driver’s helper, as he does no driving on the trip. However, in spite of a few stresses and strains, the expedition is a great experience.
The first day we go from Nukus up to Moynaq, which until the 1960s was a prosperous little fishing and holiday town on the shores of the Aral Sea. Today the sea has receded 150 kilometres north, and Moynaq is no longer a fishing village, with the silent witness of its ships’ graveyard a poignant symbol of its former status. For nearly a century, particularly under Soviet governance, the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers have been syphoned off to irrigate the cotton industry and other agriculture, resulting in a decreasing flow of water into the sea, so that today no river water actually reaches the Aral Sea at all.
It is probably the world’s greatest ecological tragedy, robbing people of their livelihood and turning millions of hectares into a toxic wasteland. That said, I was surprised that Moynaq looked as clean and cheerful as it did in the bright May sunshine, yard fences painted white, their gates blue, and children playing noisily and care free in the streets. Tom Bissett in his book about the Aral Sea, which I had read, had given a very sombre picture of life there, strengthened by a description, I remember, of a sad pot plant refusing to grow in the ‘guest house’ where he stayed – a symbol of the death that had come to the town.
The term ‘guest house’ really means a private home that takes in visitors. Our guest house belongs to a family of 7 who have moved out for us, and into an adjacent smaller building. One pit toilet outside and one basin of running water inside, no furniture and rolled-out mats for beds, but lovely carpets on the walls and floors, and luxurious curtains on some to the windows. Different priorities, I think. Trees in the yard are planted each in a six inch depression so that the water given to them would get to the roots. The rest of the yard is bare dirt as hard as concrete. We eat very well - afternoon tea, dinner and breakfast are all provided. In the evening we walk the dark streets to the abandoned airport, a relic of Soviet days.
The following day we drive up to the Aral Sea, a journey of over 300 kilometres, as we have first to return south to the main road before going north to the shores of the sea. There is no formed road, but a choice of wheel tracks across the desert to chart, the guide car generally going first. Slow, bumpy, dusty dirt tracks, fanning out across the desert. Don’t have an image of endless rolling sand dunes but rather a very flat plateau sparsely covered with desert vegetation about 6-12 inches high, over which it is easy to drive, if rather slowly.
Martin and I take our shoes off and paddle in the Aral Sea, then we camp for the night close by, in three small two-man tents, not quite long enough for Martin and Maurice to stretch out, with thin mats under our sleeping bags. Surprisingly we sleep quite well, waking up with the sun about 5.40am. The drivers sleep in their car. Though the starlit night ends fine and clear, morning brings a shower of rain, throwing our Uzbek companions into real concern. If the rain continues, our vehicles may not get up the steep escarpment above the sea shore; with no gravel on the track, it can very quickly become a quagmire and we could stranded for days! We break camp, drive up to the plateau and have breakfast. From there we backtrack for several hours and then go west across the desert (where the race mentioned above takes place) to the town of Jaslyk on the main road north.
The plan is to camp again near Jaslyk, but rain again threatens, and it is decided to drive further north to the town of Karakalpakstan and find a ‘guest house’ for the night. So again it is a hard floor and a pit toilet. So here you have four Kiwis beyond their middle years, living it up in the outback of Uzbekistan!