Moynaq, Uzbekistan

The Republic of Karakalpakstan isn’t its own country, and of the various large subtractions and additions of territories to Uzbekistan done by the Soviet regime, this one is a bit of an odd fit. Karakalpaks look and sound far more like Kazakhs (that is, more Mongoloid) than Uzbeks, yet they belong to neither group — and even then, they only make up a third of the population of the republic, dwarfed by the number of Uzbeks and even maybe Kazakhs. And even if you consider the entire population of Karakalpakstan, regardless of ethnicity, it only forms 3% of Uzbekistan’s population, yet nearly half of its land mass.

Their own distinct culture, formerly nomadic, is on display at the Karakalpakstan Museum in the republican capital of Nukus, where Alexa, Cesar, and I stayed for both nights we were in the area. Again, their yurts, jewellery, and dress suggest relations far closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks. More interestingly though, this museum used to be named after the late Igor Savitsky, who moved here from Russia and amassed a collection of banned works during the Soviet era, when paintings of anything *but* realism, people with full bellies, and a “celebratory” mood were not allowed. At over 90,000 pieces, his is the second-largest Soviet art collection in the world (and sadly only a tiny fraction of which was on display) outside of Russia, and while seeing some abstract paintings drawn in cubist or surrealist styles might not sound so interesting, reading about the state of mind of the painters brought it into context. One painting of a dumpling, sadly not displayed, was rendered so plump and juicy… because the artist had been stuck in a gulag, so hungry that he painted what he wanted to eat. While I couldn’t take any pictures inside, it was well worth the visit, and I wish I had opted for a guide to hear more stories.

But what brings me to this area is what’s killed a primary mainstay of Karakalpak culture, their tradition of fishing. The town of Moynaq, 200 km north of Nukus, used to be a port city on the shores of the Aral Sea. It’s now 300 km from the water: the sea is disappearing. You’d have to scroll pretty far north on the map above just to find it!
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 Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva is perhaps Uzbekistan’s best-preserved city, the final capital of the former Khorezm kingdom (now just a province and a fraction of its former size), and what used to be the setting of the largest slave market in Central Asia. None of that is visible now in its old town, the Ichon-Qala, a pristine, museum-like place that reaches that uncanny valley of “so cleaned up it doesn’t really look real”, at least to me. It’s still incredibly beautiful, but amongst the medressas and mosques and old town houses transformed to souvenir shops, large tour groups snapping away, and an odd emptiness in the streets, I have to admit that it left me a little cold. (Not to mention it was actually below freezing, for my first time in this entire year of travelling! Perhaps that’s why the streets are empty.)

Having seen enough mosques and medressas and museums (which are often haphazardly translated anyway), I opted to forgo the admission tickets (save for one) and just wander around within and around the old city walls, peering/sneaking into whatever places I could, and climbing up the city walls (rather than pay for the watchtower or minarets) for an overhead look.
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 Boysun and Termiz, Uzbekistan

Finding myself with extra time in Uzbekistan, and having also tired of Tashkent (in which I made a third stay, due to bureaucracy), I took a train to Termiz, again just on the edge of the Afghanistan border, fence visible and 60 km from the major city of Mazar-i-Sharif. (Nope, still not crossing.) Its former history as the southern limit of Soviet control does mean that there’s a large ethnic Russian population, which was a bit of a surprise.

But to be honest, it really just felt like a time-killer, and checking out the sites felt more draining than rewarding. While a perfectly fine and normal city, Termiz isn’t really a place worth going out of your way for. On top of that, travel fatigue is a thing, and having been on the road for quite some time now, I felt unmotivated and lethargic, and also pretty tired of the “prescribed” checkbox-ticking tourist trail in Uzbekistan. Remembering a throwaway suggestion from another traveller, I decided to just head to Boysun, with no info other than it being a pleasant town I might be able to kill a few more days in.

That turned out to be a serendipitous choice, as I couldn’t have predicted the wonderful experience I had, seeing a whole different side of Uzbekistan! But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Termiz may have been a bit dry on spectacle, but that’s not to say there’s nothing of interest.
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 Samarkand and Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Let’s just cut to the chase here — Samarkand and Bukhara are home to some of the most awe-inspiring sites of Central Asia and the Silk Road. No place epitomises and evokes the bygone era as much as Uzbekistan’s historical circuit.

At one point, this was pretty much the centre of Asia, if not the world. Founded in the 600s BC by the Sogdians, Samarkand was taken by Alexander the Great in the 300s BC, then a litany of other empires of Turkic, Mongol, and Persian origins until Genghis Khan crushed everyone in the 1200s. Most of the preserved buildings so celebrated now comes down from the Timurid empire of the 1300s-1500s, founded by Amir Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame due to battle injuries. They fell into disrepair when the Uzbek Shaybanids moved their capital to Bukhara, but when Russia took over in the 1800s, the city began to see life again and eventual archaeological restoration.

Timur brought with him a wave of religion and culture, despite being a ruthless warlord. Sparing the lives of artists, architects, and craftspeople, he had the capital built up in a never-ending state of construction, doing so with Islamic symbols and a promotion of the religion to legitimise his own rule.
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 Tashkent and Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

For a country with so much outsider interest, home to what was once the largest, most advanced civilisation in the world, Uzbekistan seems oddly insular, with two contrasting narratives on its reputation. On one hand, this country is known for its Silk Road history, and with that comes the beautiful crafts of ceramics, fabrics and silk (obviously), both still produced to mastery in the Fergana Valley. There’s also the vast blue mosques that bring about massive tourism to the country’s west, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

On the other hand, this is the country that makes headlines for an autocratic leader who passed away just one month ago, a Harvard-educated corrupt businesswoman/popstar daughter who he put under house arrest (which she is still under) several years ago, the use of torture with rumoured tactics such as boiling opponents alive, massacreing over 500 peacefully protesting citizens in the Fergana Valley in 2005, and modern slavery in the form of forcing citizens young and old to work in cotton fields for next to nothing. Not so much in the headlines but in everyday reality is that the currency is inflating severely, with a black market exchange running twice as high as the bank rate, and the highest bill available (5000 som) still less than US$1 black market, causing everyone to carry and use giant stacks of money on a regular basis. Also, while not terribly intrusive, inconveniences abound — police checks, registering at every place you stay at as a foreigner, surveillance measures seemingly designed to project a sense of danger and government protection, like getting out of a share taxi outside of a gas station or crossing a bridge on foot or having to remove headphones in a car or draw down the curtains in a train when going through a tunnel. The first assumption upon visiting would be some sort of dystopia of fearful, unhappy citizens.

Hardly. Instead, it’s obvious when walking around that Uzbekistan is the second-richest Stan in Central Asia. People openly bring up the topic of so-far-only president Islam Karimov’s death and the tears they shed (well, everywhere but the Fergana Valley). And at least tangentially, people allude gratefully to the actions he’s taken to keep the country stable, fracturing hardline Islamic terrorism, and their newfound prosperity. I’m constantly being welcomed to Uzbekistan and asked how I like the country. The populace is quite educated, and it seems many more here speak English — good English! — than in the other Stans. And sure, while music and its accompanying videos are almostly universally in the form of singers standing in front of the country’s famous sites, looking around as if there for the first time, or singing about the sights in front of a backdrop of the flag, you get the sense that while probably state-controlled, it comes from a genuine sentiment. Whether or not they know of the wrongs, there is much they clearly feel is being done right, and they’re proud of their country.
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