Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #15 – from Nukus to Urgench
Staying in Nukus: Karakalpaks, learning about Soviet avant-garde and going to the ballet
Our first Uzbek host was in fact a Karakalpak, an ethnic group that live in the north-west of Uzbekistan, and it was at Alliyar’s house in the suburbs of Nukus where we would spend our first few days in the new country. Alliyar was a nice guy who, like many Karakalpaks had some very strange believes but all of them inoffensive. He worked for Hyundai as an
engineer which required him to live outside of Nukus on weekdays while returning to his family home every weekend. His family were extremely welcoming, plying us with as much food and tea as we could consume, but the spartan conditions at his house were a little trying at times. Especially, given just how cold it was and the outside toilet was a hole in the floor squared off with sheets. There is nothing comfortable about having a poo with icy cold air swirling around your bum, I can assure you.
Nukus, like the toilet situation, is not pretty. Post-industrial, covered in salt from the Aral Sea catastrophe and lacking in sites and charm. The word desolate is perhaps a little strong but there is a pervasive crumbling, feeling of ex-Soviet grey that hangs over the place. My abiding memory of the place was a public toilet (why all my impressions revolve around toilets here is perhaps indictive of either the place or my state of mind at the time) where the toilets were separated by low slung walls with no doors and four men were all taking a shit, staring out, dragging on cigarettes.
The one attraction it does have is the Savitsky Museum, a Mecca for fans of Soviet Avant-Garde which was established in 1966. The collection is the legacy of the Russian painter, archeologist and collector, Igor Savitsky, who first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950 and fell in love with the place. In spite of the inherent risks of collecting art that was deemed by the authorities as un-Soviet (namely not of the Socialist Realism school), Savitsky’s passion for avant-garde painting motivated him to track down all manner of works by outlawed artists. He only got away with it because of the remoteness of Nukus, which was a closed city in Soviet times.
Not being massive art buffs, we must admit that the significance of the pieces passed us by a little and personally I found the story of the collection’s inception to be much more interesting that the art itself.
Nukus also saw a first for us, we went to the ballet. I know, I know, cultured people like us had never been to the ballet before? Shocking! Seriously though, we must say that we enjoyed it immensely and it was much more engrossing than I thought it would. OK, it wasn’t the Bolshoi and it was strewn with tiny errors but I have nothing but respect for those souls who transported us away from the grim for a little over an hour. Check out a little sneaky video of the piece below:
Hitchhiking to Urgench: howling winds and successful lifts
It was good to be back in a country in which we could hitchhike again and it was with renewed spirit that we hit the road, thumbs outstretched.
We positioned ourselves on the edge of town with the aid of a taxi driver who took us further than the amount we were willing to pay. The first thing to say is how cold it was. It was biting, so cold that we lost the feeling in our fingers almost immediately, with winds howling and salt blowing, the very image of depression. The salt and the sand in the surrounding desert blew so hard that it was hard to walk in a straight line and only the weight of our luggage kept our feet on the ground.
We were scared that we would have to spend a long time in these conditions, so it was with great joy that the first car we stopped was heading to our next destination, Urgench. Two brothers, who had been driving all the way from St.Petersburg, where they lived and worked as barmen, in order to sell their car for a healthy profit in Uzbekistan. On route we observed the barrenness of Karakalpakstan and honestly, it felt good to move away from the region where it felt all hope had died.
After a brief stop at a mosque so they could pray we were very nearly in Urgench. We did get stopped by a police checkpoint and went through what was to be a regular occurrence in the country. Passports thumbed through, details taken and sent on our way but no drama of much description.
written by: Jon