The Disappearing Sea

The Aral Sea was once a body of water teeming with marinelife and filled with fishing boats bobbing and hauling in their catch. Moynaq, the main fishing port, is still perched on the edge of this sea that has now disappeared. As a result, Moynaq is a near ghost town. As for the spectacle awaiting us after an eight hour drive, it was incredible.

Listed long ago as one of the largest lakes in the word at 68,000 kms squared, the Aral Sea is now a desert. Leaving the car we walk to where the port once was and look down the 500 metre drop into the dry wasteland. A row of rusted fishing boats remain on the sea bed floor, forlorn and vulnerable in the face of this human-made disaster. It is the worst kind of spectacle. A surreal and wild scene , it’s as if Fellini just left the set. We climb down into the desert and clamber over the rusty hulks which have been graffitied with hearts and initials of local youngsters since the 1970’s. Sea shells are still visable under scraggy bushes, souveneers of a time long gone.

From the early 1970s silly Soviet irrigation projects, largely for the growing of cotton, sucked the sea dry. There is now only 5% of sea left and the 100,000 people who’s lives depended on this sea life are near destitute. To see a human-made natural disaster chills you to the bone even more than a naural disaster does. You have to wonder what kind of government would allow this to happen. Was the money worth it? At the site there are huge photographs documenting the shrinking lake over the years and a board ‘explaning’ this phenomenon politely avoids the truth.

In a tiny museum in the abandoned heart of town, a stern lady opens it up for us with a key, we find log books filled with black and white photos of the busy workers who once canned fish, piling them up for export.

Disintergrating taxidermied birds and animals stare at us with pleading eyes. Old fishing ropes hang with out purpose on the wall. Beautiful paintings depicting the sea life and the thriving community are now nostalgic pieces of evidence of what once was. Just like so many unexplained things in this strange country Uzbekistan we feel we are being looked at with suspicion and are soon ushered out once again, the door locked behind us.

Our train trip to Tashkent takes 2 days and there is not a dull moment on our carriage. Paloma and I read, draw and annoy the other passengers with Play School songs and laughter. She bolts up and down the compartment singing and telling everyone her name. An Uzbek grannie takes us under her wing and offers us some greasy Plov for dinner, giving us her dirty teacups to drink from.

Back in our lovely Tashkent guest house Gulnara, we repack our bags and reflect on this adventure. It has been wonderful but I am relieved when the wheels of the airoplane hit the tarmac in India, a place we truly feel we belong in.

Khiva to Ayaz-Kala

‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is filling my mind and heart with wonderful images as the music of Jimi Hendrix accompanies us into the desert after our lovely stay in the immaculately preserved old city of Khiva. Ben literally had to drag me away from here after I didn’t want to leave the Tosh-Hovli Palace and it’s tile and gaunch work. To enter the palace one has to duck through a beautifully hand-carved wooden door and walk through a dark passage way. Coming into the light again one is stunned by the many rooms either side of a courtyard, each with an open front and covered from wall to floor with individually hand-painted tiles. Each of the rooms is decorated completley differently. The celing is propped-up with a gigantic intricately-carved wooden column, not unlike the forest of colums one can walk through in the Jama Masjid. They are bulbous at the base and rise heavenward to a fine tapered end.

As Uzbekistan is not high on many tourists’ travel lists (apart from the French, for whom Uzbekistan oddly seems at the top) the travellers we have met have been the most intersting people we have spent time with anywhere in a long while. From the Frenchman Bastian traveling overland from Paris to Thailand, Jonas the Norweigan bloke trekking throughout Central Asia and Ray the vulcanologist from Spain and his partner Stephanie, a dutch chef, on a 12 month adventure across the world, all with inspiring tales to tell. Our paths keep crossing along the way and we trade tips and tricks on working out the quirk that Uzbekistan is.

Out side the taxi window the desert stretches unbroken to the horizon. Then suddenly out of nowhere the ancient Ayaz-Kala fort (4-2nd Century BC) is immense and crumbling before our eyes. We race up the dirt path and survey the ruins of what was once obviously a thriving city. One can still see the foundations of the streets and houses all made from mud-packed earthe and hay, blowing away with the desert wind. Ben, the keen amateur archeologist starts an illegal dig in the wall but comes up with nothing. It doesn’t look as if it has ever been touched.

It could be the psychedelic music we are listening to, or the fact that we are under the middday sun, but everything is kind of surreal here. Or maybe it is just the deliciously fresh desert air. After driving for three hours in this barren landscape we are glad to reach our yurt not far from Ayaz-Kala Fort. Set up on a hill over looking the nothingness and with a lone camel sitting near the door we feel we are home. Paloma is ecstatic and is practically jumping on the camel for a ride. Ben and Paloma mount the bad-tempered camel and disappear over a dune. They come back a while later with Paloma excitedly telling me ‘It was a baddy camel, he went up and down and up and down all bumpy over the desert!’ Ben tells me the camel stood up and sat and stood up again, over and over, then refused to move in the middle or nowhere. If you’ve ever been on a camel you will know that lurching feeling of almost catapulting off each time the camel gets up.

Inside the yurt the softest beds have been laid out on the floor. There are thick layers of handmade felt surrounding the outside of the yurt and beautiful horse hair ropes are decorating the bamboo structure. A feast of chicken soup and fresh vegetables, salad, bread and meat has been laid out for us, and the Uzbek tea which accompanies every meal. Gayrat (yes, indeed) our driver joins us and we demolish the food in no time. It is the best we have eaten our whole trip.

We are told we must see ‘the lake’ and we trek through the dunes and the thorny bushes for an hour to find the fabled lake. On our way I spot a turtle running across a dune. Whoever said turtles are slow has never met one. On arrival ‘the lake’ is more like a stagnant pond. We head back with Paloma trailing through the dust like a little nomad.

As twilight falls we sit outside our yurt watching the stars come out. Our favourite star, the first star we now call our Paloma Star is buring bright. The moon is full but not yet up and as the darkness descends the milky way lights up as only it can to it’s full glory with not one city light to diminish its glow. We watch shooting stars glide across the sky, satelites blink from afar. Our al fresco dinner becomes lively with a bottle of Uzbek vodak which is lovely and sweet. Then the turbaned Uzbek ladies with gold teeth glinting in the firelight bring more delicious food to our low table.

A huge bonfire is lit and some local musicians who have walked hours from some distant village are sitting on stools. A traditional Uzberk dancer is spinning round the fire. Her movements are eccentric and like nothing I have seen before. The few people who are staying here are all up and dancing round the bonfire with Paloma. She loves it and we dance for hours.

Fun Park Without Screams

One of our many obsessions when we travel is to find magicians, circuses and old fun parks. In 2001 I performed my ‘Knife Dance’ on stage to an audience of more than a thousand people at Jadugar Samrat Shankar’s magic show in Amritsar, India. He had a troupe of teenage gogo girls and boys who danced, acted, were sawed in half and did whatever else was required of them. The art direction was amazing and in an interview later he told us he designed all the costumes, sets and back drops. They were of the surreal kind with huge eyes spinning into space, strange melting clocks and lots of geometric patterns. When I queried him as to his inspirations and if he had heard of Dali he said ‘No’. A highlight of the show for me was being taken up on stage, being hypnotized and then floating up into the air. Ben questioned me for days as to how it was done, but I had been under Shankars spell and had no idea!

We haven’t found any magic shows in Uzbekistan, but we have found another quirk. The Fun Parks. We have frequented every single colourful, ramshackle and broken down Fun Park from Tashkent to Khiva. The best of them are in the capital, Tashkent. After spying one outside the car window Paloma is now constantly asking to be taken to ‘The Park’. I must admit her patience has been amazing; a two and a bit year old being dragged from Mosque to museum, medrassa to market, middle of nowhere to mad cities by us for two months. Now it is her turn for some fun.

And so we indulge her every whim and in every Uzbek city we stop in we find the parks and go on almost every ride offered. Most rides cost just 500 cym which is equal to about 30 cents. We are like millionaires and carry around wads of cash. In Tashkent, the park was set out around a lake on which one can peddle a pastel-painted boat and eat ice cream.

There was a pirate ship flying straight up and into the sky with no slow build up. My thrill-seeker friend Gypsy would have loved it. And we saw the biggest jumping castle quite possibly in the world. Cartoon characters were painted with sinister looking eyes and happy smiles and looked all the more strange staring out from the sides of abandoned merry go rounds overgrown with weeds. All of this is accompanied by Uzbek techno music blaring from speakers serenading young lovers holding hands and eating puffs of pink fairy floss on benches in tree-lined avenues.

We are apprehensive about some of the rusty Soviet-era attractions, some even held together by rope and paint alone. But that doesn’t stop us from risking all going on them. My favourite is the Ferris Wheel, of course. Here, one has to hop on the constantly moving and creaking wheel, throwing your child on first, then jumping on yourself and hoping not to fall out. The sides of the steel baskets are usually open, the security chain without a catch and the seats broken. Ferris wheels are normally so safe and dull, says Ben. But in Uzbekistan they’re frightening.

We love how a Ferris Wheel takes us up over the park, showing us the trees below with big shaggy nests in their branches and hundreds of black birds circling. In Tashkent the snow-capped mountains are also a spectacular part of the view. While in Bukhara we see billowing black smoke fires and a thick industrial haze lingering over the countryside. In Khiva the Ferris Wheel stands alone in an abandoned field, so old we are hanging on for dear life while precariously gazing out and over the mud-walled old city at the blue minaret’s domes.

Paloma can spot all her favourite rides now. We know she is a dare devil, but we never imagined to this extent. In the Bukhara fun park she comes across a harmless-looking ride. But only her parents were fooled. In Uzbekistan, a country of so many rules and regulations, why are they forgotten in their fun parks? There is no mininum age for even the scariest of rides. So this one started off like most, in a slow spin, but before long the axis tilted at a crazy angle and we started to undulate as we rose higher and higher to almost vertical. Ben and I were screaming our heads off, I felt like throwing up. But Paloma just spun round and round at enormous speed, quietly smiling to herself.

When we eventually got off, a crowd had gathered down below to watch us stagger away. It is odd, but here in the Uzbek funparks no one screams on the scary rides. Even the teenagers and children are purse-lipped. All one hears are the motors of the rides churning, but no screams or shouts of laughter. On the other hand, I am very good at screaming. After collapsing on a park bench I hear Paloma start jumping up and down. ‘Can we go again Dad, PLEASE!!! Again!!!’ I look on as Ben, himself unsteady, braves the hideous ride again.

Fabled Cities

Samarkand. Even the sound of the name conjures up all sorts of wonderful imaginings in me. Standing in the main square of the Registan among the enormous stunning medrassas (schools of Islamic learning) is truly breathtaking.

They are some of the oldest on earth, and the Ulugbek Medressa is thought to be the largest and most important centre of mathematics and astronomy in the world during the 15th Century. Glowing in the late afternoon light, the facades and minarets of an enormous tiled mosque to the right of this medrassa, are azure and yellow.

After escaping any sickness in India, we are surprised to be briefly struck by gastro in Uzbekistan. The result of this ends up all over me, thanks to Paloma, as we sweat it out in an old Russian train from Samarkand to Bukhara. When enquiring as to why the air con wasn’t on despite the 30-degree heat inside the carriage and locked windows, we are simply told ‘It is turned on in May’. Rules and regulations govern the peoples of this country to the point of incomprehensibility. There are policemen on every corner, even when the streets are practically deserted. No wonder people here seem slow to smile. These are simple reminders to never take for granted even the smallest freedoms we have in Australia.

The further west we go the more desolate the countryside becomes. Rural life here is evidently very hard. The earth is dry after a particularly bitter winter and many farmers are toiling under the sun to ready the fields for planting. It’s a joy finally reaching the city of Bukhara, the centre of which is free from cars and pollution. The town is small enough for us to walk everywhere and we take to the back streets for a glimpse of local life.

Relaxing under the mulberry trees by the pretty Lyabi-Hauz pool, Paloma is entertained by stray cats and crazy Scottish gents studying Islamic architecture who beg us to let them babysit her. Paloma rides on Mullah Nasruddin’s donkey as he imparts his ‘wise fool’ Sufi wisdom to her.

Bukhara is home to many beautifully preserved mosques, minaret’s and medressas, and a maze of mud-brick alleyways to get happily lost in. Dome-covered bazaars display beautiful suzanis, the hand-embroidered silk textiles that were once bride’s dowrie pieces. They are usually made by several women at a time and take months to finish depending on the size. I am quite obsessed by them, and search for the older vintage pieces. Many of the antique suzanis sourced here are sold for thousands of dollars overseas, pushing up prices here to something ridiculous. We still leave with some bargains for our collection.

The fastest and only way to get from Bukhara to Khiva is by taxi. Driven at high speeds across a road pocked with pot holes, slippery with sand drifts and nothingness stretching to the horizon on either side of you. Stocked with a few provisions, drawing books, and an ipod full of the ABC’s children’s traveling songs, we launch into the 8-hour drive. Travel is in Paloma’s blood now and she loves to look out the window with me for hours into the dusty desertscape, thrown out like a dirty table cloth before us, trying to spot a lone bird or donkey. Out on the horizon, the billowing black fires of burning crops bloom randomly against the sky.

Welcome to Kitschistan

On our Uzbekistan Airways flight from Delhi to Tashkent, with hands clenched in prayer, the lady in the aisle opposite murmurs under her breath and occasionally turns to the priest sitting on my right wearing a questioning look. He nods with closed eyes. The old Uzbek gypsy ladies continue shuffling their goods from aisle to overhead locker as we take-off. The couple in front of me have their seats in the recline position. After hellish turbulence for the duration of the flight and steep left and right banks much like a fighter jet, the plane suddenly lands without any announcement or other warning or instruction for people to return to their seats. Even Ben looks pale.

White spring blossom trees sway in the empty streets of Tashkent at six am. Gentle rain casts a grey sky over the avenues of post-Soviet housing blocks. The scene is a stark contrast to the noise, colour and vibrancy of India. But with the scent of a new land and adventure in our minds, we set off to Chorsu Bazzar in search of fox fur jackets and traditional Uzbek food.

Chorsu Bazaar is covered by a huge blue-tiled dome, the trading aisles filled with every type of nut, raisin, spice, herb and, of all things, the hugely popular cheese ball. In fact, there are aisles and aisles of cheese balls. Ladies swish about in Evita fashions of old; double breasted suits and skirts. Vendors call to us from all sides offering free samples. Handmade kitchen utensils, breadbaskets, brooms, wooden babies cradles are stacked up neatly on the ground. Everything seems to be on offer here.

Escaping the last of winter’s chill, we speed across the country in a Euro Star-style fast train towards the city of Samarkand. Rolling green hills are dotted with flocks of wooly sheep feeding on the grassy slopes. Shepherds sit on their haunches under bare trees looking on, cracking sunflower nuts between their teeth. Towards the east, snow peaked mountains followed our train.

Ben and I have long been fascinated by the ancient Silk Route, once populated by traders and travelers and conquerors  from the 6th Century until the 13th Century. To roam the roads carved across Central Asia towards China, India and Persia has always been a dream of ours. Some days I think I was born in the wrong century and the wish to venture across these desert lands in a slow caravan of camels, collecting stories and fabulous finds along the way in a traditional manner will one day be realized, although I’m aware of just how hard travel in those days truly was. We are lucky our own little family caravan can travel vast distances in the comfort of taxis, trains and planes, no matter how unsettling the latter in Uzbekistan really is. Despite these luxuries, we still insist on the occasional camel.