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.

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.

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.