Posts Tagged ‘Kyzylkum desert’

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Off the Silk Road

October 27, 2008

            26/10/08, Samarkand

            We have spent the last three days off the Silk Road tourist stretch. After Iran and Turkmenistan, whose precarious politics have not yet made them popular tourist destinations, the proliferation of mass tourism in Uzbekistan took me by surprise. The towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, each with its own claim to some civilizational greatness over the past millennium, are seeped in bed and breakfasts, tour buses and shop after stall after sidewalk of Uzbek women selling their coloured embroidered wares. Retired Europeans seem to be the pick of the moment, with French leading in terms of numbers.

 

            The combination of these tour groups with the recurring architecture of the Silk Road cities, which started to become tedious in that it is very similar to the mosques and madrassas of Iran, lead us to splurge over our $25-a-day budget in order to take a trip out to a nature reserve north of Samarkand. On the way there, we spent a night in a yurt camp in the Kyzylkum Desert near Lake Airdakul. Sure enough, we were joined in the camp by a group of about 20 retired French people, who filled the tranquil air with inquisitions as to the location of each other’s flashlights and an amusing, vodka-induced rendition of ‘Champs Elysees’. Yet this was to be expected, as our own presence there was equally explained by a penchant for the ‘roughing it’ type of tourism offered by yurts and camel treks that no doubt attracted them in the first place.

 

            On the other hand, the most amazing aspects of staying at the yurt camp were what raw, remote nature had to offer: a sunset so electric and vivid that it had me thinking that the whole planet was on the verge of bursting into flames; a night sky so brimming full and vibrating of stars that I could imagine the universe expanding; a sunrise so sublime and unassuming that it made me contemplate the insignificance of humans in that face of such simple majesty that has existed for eons before us, and will continue long after all of us loud, parasitic, digital camera-weilding, adventure-seeking travellers have faded into dust…

 

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            The next day, we ventured up to the small village of Sentap in the Nuratau mountains, which sit . On the way, our driver stopped on the desert road and motioned towards some men working in the scrub. ‘Gold’, he said in English.  We got out of the car and walked over to them. There were two: one was manning a small, hand-held shovel, scraping rocks and gravel onto a grill-lined trough on an incline, while the other poured bucket after bucket of dirty grey water over the stones. The stones would run down the rough and out the other end, while small flecks of glinting material would stick in the grill. Behind them was a huge mound of gravel that had already been sifted through. Not far away was a hole that had been dug 10 metres into the ground. From the bottom, our driver explained, they had dug 200 metres horizontally and pulled out all the gravel in that tunnel, which would then get sifted through as they were currently doing.

 

            They said that hey sifted through some 30 buckets of gravel a day, which yielded about 2 grammes of gold, and that they received $28 per gramme. Which meant that they made $28 each a day, but only during the last phase of the extraction process, which was the shortest and least physically challenging. Factoring in the length and effort of the entire process compared to the income, the Uzbek gold mining industry came across as a harsh livelihood.

 

            Back on the road, we headed towards Sentap. Originally, we had been seeking the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve, and we are still unsure as to whether or not this village was actually part of the reserve. Regardless, it proved to be a charming place, situated on the banks of a small river, where it seemed that humans were far outnumbered by farm animals. The dusty, meandering road and the walnut groves on either side of it were the realm of cows, sheep, donkeys, goats and turkeys. Here and there, big fluffy dogs with their ears snipped curled up in patches of sunlight, straining for the warmth.

 

            We were able to stay in the guesthouse of a lovely family spanning 3 generations, who we were fortunately able to have some minor communication with due to the fact that the village, like Bukhara, Samarkand, and much of southern Uzbekistan, is ethnically Tajik, and that Tajik differs from all the other Central Asian language in that it is almost 80% Farsi. The ‘boss’ of the house Shoddiboy and his younger brother Umid also spoke some French, because most of the visitors they received were French (ah, gotta give it to the French for their undying search for adventure…)

 

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            On the second day, Umid took us on a 21km hike through the mountains, up to a lake 1000 metres higher than the guesthouse. the beginning of the walk was easy, following the river up along wide paths, under the bright yellow and orange leaves that still remained in the brisk end of autumn. About 6km in, we started to climb steeply, increasing our altitude by 400m in about a kilometre. Arriving at the top, we had spectacular panoramic views of the mountains as they sank quickly into the desert and completely disapppeared into flat yellow sands, with Lake Airdakul glowing sapphire on the horizon. The remainder of the way to the lake was much easier, along the light inclinations of the plateau atop the gorge we had just suffered up.

 

            The lake itself was quite disappointing: muddy, shrunken and shallow. An oversized duck pond more than a lake. We huddled next to a pile of rocks, the only minor protection from the harsh wind that swept the plateau, and ate a meager lunch of boiled potatoes, tinned corn and hard bread with our icy fingers, although our fare was more than Umid’s, who refused the potatoes and corn and only picked at some bread and an apple.

 

            Eager to begin walking again to fight off the cold, we started off on a different return route and encountered a stunning sight: five wild horses emerging from a distant hilltop, galloping in our direction. Four had milk-chocolate coats, while the fifth shone pearl white. As they approached, they varied their pace but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. They came within a couple hundred metres of us and stopped for a few seconds, as we fumbled with our cameras like the imagophiles we have come to be. Then, they altered their direction and galloped past us. The grace of their flowing manes and the rhythm of their hooves against the hard ground held us in rapture for the entirety of their passing. At one point, Caro noticed that one of them had a rope attached to it, which led us to question how wild they really were. Yet despite the somewhat shaming reminder of the presence of humans in their lives, the majesty of their movements still hinted at an image of absolute freedom, that notion for which they have come to symbolise. 

 

            The descent was more grueling than the climb, for the alternate path was no more than a goat trail over the tops of the mountains and along slippery scree slopes on the side of the peaks. For a second time, we were rewarded for the difficulty of the route when we passed underneath a rock face that housed eagles nests. Three, five, eight, twelve, as we walked the number of great birds that we saw circling above us in the sky just kept increasing. With J’s binoculars, we were able to gain excellent views of the pristine white down of their underbellies, and distinguish the shapes of the thick brown feathers at either end of their outstretched wings. They glided with such ease, mastering the heights of the gorges below. I felt humbled, embarrassed at the limitations and aches in my own limbs as I plodded along so disorientated and earth-bound beneath them… All the effort we have to go through, I thought, to get one single glimpse of these beings whose innate strength and beauty shame the human condition.

 

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            The following morning, while tucking into rice and pumpkin for breakfast, the sounds of music being blasted through great speakers nearby and flocks of villagers walking in its direction aroused our interest. A party for a new baby, Umid told us. Requesting our unhappy driver that he wait another hour before taking us to Samarkand, we ventured off towards the music.

 

            In a field not far away, hundreds of green plastic chairs and tables had been set out in two separate sections, one for men and one for women. The majority of the 1,500 villagers were there, all decked out in their finest attire: the men in grey suits or black jackets, often accompanied by some traditional hat or other; the teenage boys in logo-embedded tracksuit jumpers which ranged from Adidas to Arsenal; the older women with their hair tied in wildly colourful scarves, wearing ankle-length dresses and waistcoats in brightly patterned, sequined and sparkling materials; the young girls in solid synthetic dresses with shiny black shoes. 

 

            A stream of people was entering the festivities from the house closest to the field,  every person carrying a bowl of soup with bits of meat and veg poking out in each hand. Every table was crowded with bottles of fizzy drinks and vodka, plates of various cold cuts and pieces of meat, round loaves of bread, and bowls of peanuts, almonds and individually-wrapped sweets. At the front of the layout, two amplifiers were set on a deafening volume, blasting out the voice of a man who stood with a microphone, singing against pre-recorded music. Behind him sat the table d’honneur, the family of the newborn.

 

            The six of us wandering in in our fleeces, hats and scarves was obviously an amusing sight to many of the children. We were welcomed by a man who seemed to be of some sort of authority, and he pulled up chairs for us at one of the tables with the men. Fearing I would be forced into a vodka shot at 10:30 in the morning, I managed to slip off in order to go back tot he house and collect something to offer as a present to the baby: a scarf I had gotten in Khiva and a pair of knitted socks Caro had from Bukhara. Returning 10 minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed when Di said that she had not managed to escape the obligatory celebrational vodka.

 

            I was not let off completely though, for as i offered our small gifts to grandmother who held the bundle centre-of-attention in her arms, I was pulled by another granny, the hostess of our gueshouse, into the space between the tables that was obviously the dancefloor. Imitating as best i could her movements, I pranced about for a couple of minutes to the amusement of the many gathered around, and then made a pink-faced exit towards my friends stood laughing from the sides.

 

            I would have liked to stay for longer ( think that after a few vodkas, the dancing would have been a lot easier), but our impatient driver awaited. i was grateful nonetheless for having been able to witness the celebration, however briefly. The aspect that fascinated me the most about it was that it was not only an open invitation for everyone in the village, but so many people were participating in making the event happen and run its course. I thought of how many women there would have been slaving away in several different kitchens in order to produce enough food for the hundreds gathered. I thought about how we saw big present packages wrapped in cellophane filled with dolls and clothes for the baby, and how that would also have required a pooling of resources. I thought of the beeline of people carrying bowls of soup to the guests. All this made me realise that everyone was making a tangible contribution to the event.

 

            I concluded that the dynamic of the celebration was very different from the way that we have large-scale parties in Europe. There, festivities are an industry: one rents a space, one hires caterers, waiters, photographers, entertainers… Whereas in Sentap, I think that the only person who might have been receiving a fee was the singer. Everybody else was just assuming their part of the responsibility that accompanies the festivity.

 

            These were the ethics of community that have been largely lost in the way we celebrate in urban centres around the world, where solidarity is replaced with convenience. I think that in the first major shindig I have in my life, I will take inspiration from that village party in the mountains of Uzbekistan instead of bowing to the weight of my own social conventions; not as an appropriation of some romanticised exotic, rural purity, but as a reclaiming of a set of communal values that, in many places, I feel have been forgotten.