It was time once again to return to the Motherland. Well not my motherland but the Russians are wildly proud of this contradictory country. It had been 18 years since my last visit and like everywhere it was greatly changed. I went with my cousin Will Milne. We’ve traveled to the ends of the earth before. One memorable expedition was when he was the world’s saber gold medalist defending his masters title on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. This time he was wasn’t fencing which is good because the electrified metal suit they wear as well as the weapons would have been hard to carry on the many flights we took. The day prior to our departure we were dismayed to find that our flights had been canceled. Flying is a huge privilege and I’ve learned to not freak out if plans change because it always seems to work out. We patched together a network of jumps and soon found ourselves to Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. The border cops gave our visas the hairy eyeball including going over our photos with a magnifying glass and picking at the edges with a blade. I can’t imagine there are lot of Americans sneaking into Russia but I did sneak into Syria a few years back so maybe they are on to me (it will emerge in part two of this article that there some countries I am banned from). Finally cleared, we quickly changed some rubles and were on our way to our greatly anticipated penthouse in a wedding cake apartment built by Stalin back when he was thing.
Our pyramid of apartments was certainly impressive in the pictures and we had booked the entire top floor. At $240 a night it seemed like the deal of the century. Well the local cats think so too as they simply insist on wizzing all over the lobby and the elevators so that the place smells like a cat shelter that ran out money but not cats. The elevator itself was straight out of Eraserhead but even in a David Lynch movie the elevators are bigger and move a lot faster. Near the top floor we decanted ourselves into a second elevator; this one so small we were now in a Terry Gilliam movie. Finally, we arrived and we did indeed have the top floor only to realize that it had been recently abandoned by the building’s boilers and it wasn’t so much and apartment as a cluster of plywood rooms slapped up like a backless movie set, a movie we were now clearly in. There was the promised 10-foot-wide veranda wrapping the place but it was actually a tarpaper roof with a couple of broken chairs from a local jail and a mangled table. The entertainment system consisting of a record player with a single 33rpm of Dionne Warwick’s greatest hits. We loved the place.
Our West Coast clocks were upside down and we dizzily hit the streets looking for adventure. Our first stop was Red Square inconveniently completely closed for a week. No problem. We did go into the iconic St. Basil’s and listened to a male choir singing their hearts out in the main chapel which at 600 sq feet and 151 feet high makes for quite the acoustical treasure.
Then it was time to eat and we wandered into the Beluga Restaurant in the Hotel National. This was the hotel featured in the Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer film, Russia House. Michelle has lived in Woodside and I was hoping this fact would get us a good table but even though it was 7pm on a Friday we told there would be no wait. The grand dining room looks out on the red brick of the Kremlin and the setting sun really brought out the redness of this very red country. The Beluga was encrusted with crystal goblets, fine china, gilded walls, gilded waiters and enough chandeliers to blind an Eskimo.
There were some pretty fancy folks there and Will wondered in a whisper if there was a dress code. Then we spotted a fellow wearing a tee-shirt with words in English too foul to recite here but one of the words stared with F and the other word was YOU. “So, no dress code then?” The menu was vast. Two pages of caviar alone. Once dish caught my attention. It was Kumlanuts (I put this through translate and it is the same word in English) with moose lips and nettles. I inquired of the waiter, “Are the moose lips fresh or frozen?” He looked pained and said icily they only serve the very freshest moose lips. I passed on the lips but Will ordered herring on toast with some sort of apple paste topped with potato chips. He professed to love it. He also had some spectacular caviar stuffed eggs that were a wonder to behold. We had sturgeon and king crab as well as all sorts of bizarre and fantastic dishes. At the table next to us they were drinking last-day-on-earth levels of vodka in typical Russian fashion. They really do looooove vodka. The Michelin Guide does not recognize Russian restaurants which is nuts because Moscow has some of the best restaurants in the world. Beluga I give 3 out of 3 stars…and the bill, including tip, was $60.
Well satisfied, we walked back in the chill of the long spring evening. It doesn’t get dark in May until after 10. The shops stay open late and we found ourselves in toy store so large it could be a Costco. It occupied a granite-clad city block and looked more like the home of a major bank than a toy store. We were the only ones in this store which could easy have accommodated a couple thousand people.
Our penthouse-boiler rooms were adjacent to the zoo so when in Rome go to the Moscow Zoo. It was a bit third worldy with a few skinny Siberian tigers and, disturbingly, several bald eagles. Hey, that’s our national bird. They should focus on bears…I’m calling the White House! And speaking of which we saw lots of Putin hero worship all over town as well as a good many pictures of Putin and Trump together with Trump next to Putin but reduced in size like the way Egyptian art always has the pharaoh supersized. Anyway, at the zoo there is huge elephant house for the three confused looking elephants. It was weirdly four stories high inside.
In the shops there are the ubiquitous nesting dolls with Trump and his family; Clinton and his girlfriends and generally a confabulation of every bad taste you can imagine. The rule is – unpack a nesting doll and it gets worse the deeper you go. They have Castro, Hussein, Gadhafi, Mao and Hitler for instance. Looks terrific on the mantel. In our shopping centers we feature iphones. In theirs they sell tragic wooden dolls.
The traffic is Los Angeles bad and made more troubling by the fact that you can’t turn left in Moscow. Really. You sometimes have to go up to a mile in the opposite direction from your destination and wind through the streets. The subway is the right way to go. The stations were built to double as bomb shelters so the escalators are among the longest in the world. Each station is festooned with Soviet art including monumental bronze sculptures of the righteous workers and soldiers. The USSR may be gone but Russians still love the power of the brand like South Carolina tobacco farmers waving Confederate flags on Jeff Davis’ birthday.
Will trolled the internets and found a spunky guide who took us to the Moscow underworld. In the 1950s Stalin built a vast secret bunker from which to launch WW3. This was 18 stories underground right in the heart of the city where 6,000 workers prepared for the end of times. Our guide said her mother went to school across the street from the building that was atop the bunker and the locals never knew what went on there. The actual building is a fake. The structure is basically solid concrete with the real entrances blocks away concealed by the subway. We went through blast doors and down endless stairs and emerged in a huge tunnel complex. There were just four on the tour. At one point we entered a small theater and saw a long, largely accurate film about the trajectory of the Cold War complete with lots of pictures of bombs exploding.
In the tunnels we were told to take all the pictures we wanted to except for one area which apparently still held state secrets. These secrets consisted of 1950s era vacuum tube radios and oozing acid batteries dripping on the shelves. One vast chamber housed the command center where Will and I were instructed to sit at the pair of consoles, put on military hats and input the launch codes and then enact a launch, ominously turning the pair of keys in unison and pushing the launch buttons. Then a large screen lit up with a film of American ICBMs popping out of the wheat fields from the movie Day After Tomorrow. Funny(ish), disturbing and just plain bizarre. Almost no one tours these tunnels so they rent the place out for Halloween zombie raves. Nothing like a bunch of drunk Russians dressed as zombies pretending it to be the end of civilization. I told you Russia is terrific.
That night we teamed up with a young couple who were the friends of friends and went to the restaurant Bar 60. It’s at the top of the tallest building in Moscow and is surrounded by several equally tall and weird, like China-weird, architecture. Again no reservation, window seat, sun setting over the city. Our new friends included a fellow who swept his hands broadly across the city and said that Stalin was the father of modern Russia. He actually got misty-eyed when he brought up the infamous scoundrel. Our new comrade was a building contractor and he was very frank about how the corruption works in the trades. He said the payoffs run from 5% to 75% of the cost of the job and if they take so much you get thin on the job they let you do substandard work. It does not work like that here. His girlfriend was a law student and both had lived abroad. Like so many they were puzzled to hear that our current president has serious issues.
We then went off to the White Rabbit Restaurant. Again with a spectacular view and we dived deep into more Russian food. None of the four of us were drinkers but at the White Rabbit they specialize in elaborate fruit smoothies and we drank several carafes of passion fruit, starfruit and all sorts impossible to identify flavors. Then, schooners of caviar, of course and Will ordered a bowl of rabbit tongues in cream. Then there was crab, fish, filet mignon and, in all, another superb experience lounging on sumptuous couches with a million tiny lights flickering all over the ceiling. That bill was maybe a $100 U.S. each.
It would be hard to say which restaurant was best. The Pushkin is from the 19th century and the staff of perhaps 80 serve about 200 customers. The historic interior is lite as if by candlelight and the female staff was dressed in gowns with the men in velvet suits. The menu was huge, extreme and it was hard to pick between the swan livers with truffle cream sauce and the calves’ ears in choke cherry sauce. The place is decked out like a library and there was a woman playing the flute along with the harp player. One touch I liked was the purse stool. Gotta get one of these. We accepted the use a quill pens and ink wells to write a postcards home. It took 4 weeks to get the cards delivered.
Something that puzzled us was how the folks we met in hotels, restaurants and at the sites would start speaking to us in English before we said anything. We thought it was the way were dressed but that wasn’t it. Finally, we asked a woman and she said that we carried ourselves like Americans. What’s this? She said we smiled and made eye contact as we entered and had a ‘looseness’ that is not Russian. It’s true that the Russians aren’t big on wiggling about loosely. Not a lot of twerking. I found them less grim than I remembered them but bubble, they do not. There’s even a Russian proverb that translates, roughly, to “Laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity.” One study reported that Russians think unreasonable amounts of smiling make one look untrustworthy. They are often amazed when they come to America that perfect strangers smile at them for no reason. They are quick to scowl at you if you sit on the wrong place on a wall or take a picture of their pet without permission. Years ago in the subway I was standing on the platform and a woman was sweeping the pavement. As she approached me she simply smacked me with the broom to move. Some things do remain charmingly the same like when you arrive at the airport and see the wreckage of a great many large aircraft crashed on either side of the runway as you attempt a landing.
One of my goals was to return to Gorky Park where I had such a great time with two of my sons nearly two decades earlier. There we discovered a great haunted house with the façade of Mt. Rushmore. The lads and I got in these little creaky cars that lurched along an unreliable looking track. As we entered a mechanical monkey suddenly came out of nowhere swinging a coconut on a serious chain at Rowan’s head. The boy deftly ducked out of the way. As we passed through a droop of filthy wet plastic drapes we got smeared with sticky black gunk. Then the crazed monkey landed a solid hit on the head of kid behind us. He cried the whole way through (this is a widely used technique in Russia meant to give a kid ‘something to cry about’). The first room was pretty spooky. It consisted of sizzling wires and foul dripping black water and smelling of burn…oh I get it this room has actually burned and they simply hadn’t cleaned it up. The rest of the ride consisted of half broken ghouls languidly stabbing one another and pretending to eat each other’s brains. In all – excellent!
Next to this was a truly legendary ride. It was a spaceship and once we were in the seats they cranked up a hokey completely irrelevant video of the Mir Space Station. Then a kid came through and sprayed us all with a fire extinguisher (he should have been in the haunted house where he could have been useful). He covered everyone with unpleasant white powder which was supposed to represent an exploding outer space bakery or something. We were now coated in sticky black ashes and phosphate powder. Ugh!
I mentioned to the Russian sitting next to me that this was the most expensive ride ever built. It cost 3.5 billion dollars and this in the 80s. He just harrumphed and ignored me. But it was true. This was a real spaceship called the Buran. It was a copy of our space shuttle and it made two unmanned orbits and was then sold to the highest bidder, a broken down amusement park. The park also featured an angry old lady with a monkey, this one real. We happened to glance her way and she screamed at us for not paying her for the privilege of looking.
All this magnificence is gone and has been replaced with grass, flowers – with coffee kiosks and young lovers canoodling in the park benches. Russia, you broke my heart.
Like any city they play lots of recorded music but in Moscow the music was downright strange. In Gorky Park they piped in soft Christian rock in English. I say soft but with hardcore soul-saving lyrics. In a taxi we grooved to Bob Marley and in restaurants we heard Cajun alligator huntin’ music followed by Billy Holiday and Leonard Cohen.
Near the park Will and I spotted the longest line of people we had ever seen. It seems that some bone fragments of St. Nicholas were visiting from Bari, Italy and people stood in line for over ten hours to march past these nibblets. Nicholas, who died in 343, never visited Russia but he has become the Russian Orthodox Church’s most popular saint. He’s credited with miracles and with preventing catastrophes in Russia. Well, he’s doing a piss-poor job in my opinion.
The Russian Orthodox Church has a real grip on the people in Russia these days. In the last 30 years the people polled have gone from 17% to 77% religious (though who knows how reliable such a pole could be). One Russian dissident said, “This craving for a miracle, craving for a cure, is becoming pervasive as the country’s disillusioned people have started pinning their hopes for a better future to a blind faith in the supernatural instead of on the ideal of a democratic government.” Putin claims to be a believer and came to smooch the relics. There is a vigorous church-supported anti-abortion movement in a country where a few years back that was the primary form of birth control. And church doctrine is taught in the public schools. “Hey, isn’t that unconstitutional?… Oh, riiiight.
Of course going to Gum the gigantic shopping center at Red Square, is a must. Last time I was there it was largely empty. There were a few forlorn shops selling off-brand jogging clothes and stinking of cat toilet. Now it looks the Beverly Center and the Gucci is real. Russia is not doing well economically but Gum is doing fine.
Moscow and St. Petersburg look prosperous enough but there is a good deal of despair for the future and the present ain’t so great either. There are protests against corruption and of course the band, Pussy Riot, but the dissidents are not armed so what can they really do?
Many have hooked their wagon to Putin and it is said that his approval is in the mid 80% so there is no real possibly for any change soon (again who would tell a pollster they don’t like the man?). Putin’s picture is ubiquitous and people seem to appreciate his superman macho image what with the hang gliding, tiger wrestling and crypt kissing. Well, at least he doesn’t wear a 4 foot Scotch taped together red tie and sport a blond swirl of pubic-like cotton candy hair some leaders display.
Our time in Russia was at an end and so we left this city of caviar and contrasts and headed for our next stop, Uzbekistan.
We’re in the capital city of Tashkent. A clean, modern-ish place, not crowded, not much traffic, came in on a new Dreamliner with not crashed planes littering the sides of the runway like in Russia. A pleasant contrast from Moscow. The customs at the airport didn’t seem concerned we were there to make trouble like they made us feel coming into Russia. But when entering Uzbekistan they do seem very pretty concerned about your money and you’re required to declare all of it and the guidebook said accuracy is very important. They don’t look kindly on poor bookkeeping. OK, whatever. We had it to the penny so we were golden.
We found our driver with the Young Pioneer Tours sign and were off. During the trip across town the driver only asked two questions, “exchange money?” Yes, I said, as this had been prearranged earlier by the tour company. This particular taxi driver is a regular for YPT and he provides the black market exchange rate as opposed to the official rate. The other question he asked was “300 hundred?” I said yes, we were each getting 300 USD worth of Uzbek money. So as we’re driving to the hotel in a taxi driven by a taxi driver/ black market money man Will asks me to check the price of Bitcoin. I had dipped into some ‘coin’ and it was on a rampage. When we started the trip it was around $2100 and three days later it was 2641. From the airport to the hotel it went up another 150 or so. An odd – old currency meets new currency scenario. As we reached our destination we got out and grabbed our bags from the trunk. As we’re doing this the driver discretely hands us each a package about the size of three bricks wrapped in a thin black grocery bag. We thought, how nice, a cake or some sort of present, but it was the money. $300 US turns out to be about five pounds of Uzbek money and that’s in 1,000 and 5,000 denominations. Humm, money by the bag.
We ended up touring nearly all of Uzbekistan as a fallback to our planned trip to Turkmenistan. I had decided I wanted to find one of the least acceptable places and on everyone’s top ten list of worst places in the world is the Gates of Hell, also called the Darvaza gas crater. This is a gigantic cavity in the desert caused by a natural gas drilling fiasco. Some 50 years ago the drillers hit a pressurized deposit and it was way too much flow to cap so they thought they might just burn it off. Someone literally tossed a match at it and it exploded and it is still a raging inferno. So my cousin Will and I signed up and then Kevin Kelly said he’d come and he brought Tim Ferriss.
The problem was that Kevin and I were ultimately denied entry. Turkmenistan is very prickly about the few tourists they let in. I could see why the turned me down. I had recently made some unflattering remarks about the Robert Mugabe the dictator of Zimbabwe who turned a prosperous county into a smoking ruin. Ridiculing tin pot despots is a sideline of mine, so I get it. Kevin figured they thought he was too chummy with China though he certainly doesn’t write in a hostile or sardonic fashion about anybody. Will was approved as was Tim. We found out later that they looked Tim up and he was dismissed as “just a body builder and bodybuilders are dumb” hence not a threat to them in spite of his many millions of followers. (I should lift more weights!) Well, we were all in Uzbekistan together for a few days so we sallied forth to see the sites.
We didn’t dally in Tashkent but we were there long enough to see that the young folks gather in the public parks in the early evening and they were dressed like your average American. I thought the country was going to be pretty button down Islamic but the young women were wearing tee-shirts and the couples were holding hands. Women are not covered up and the city looks fairly progressive, especially for one over 2,700 years old.
The next day we drove to Samarkand. Here is the place that the Silk Roads converged for millennia and the influences of a multitude of cultures are still evident. I have been to many countries in the Middle East and thought Uzbekistan was like them to some extent. Uzbekistan is actually in Central Asia and people are a handsome amalgamation of many ethnicities from Mongolia to Turkey. There they speak Uzbek and Russian. This country is one of several which were divided by the Russians and later administered by the Soviets. In places like this where the borders are drawn as straight lines you can bet there is a colonial influence chopping things up for their own convenience. As a result, Uzbeks see themselves as having more than one culture and in fact one of their regions far to the west is semi-autonomous.
Our guide, Ben, was from Australia and has lived in Central Asia for many years We also had a local guide and a driver as well as a German traveler, Anita and another American, Doug who was the most unlikely guy. His stories were odd and at first barely believable but it emerged that he is an LA policeman who works two weeks on and two off. Then he treks to remote parts of the world with just a small bag and a pack of cigarettes. He has climbed Mt. Everest twice and isn’t even a mountaineer. Doug said anyone can climb it if you mind “a bit of discomfort.” He’s been to Chernobyl of course and was on his way to Jonestown in Guiana after Turkmenistan. He had hit a roadblock finding someone to take him to the site of the town were hundreds committed suicide and were murdered. I happen to know the grandson of the president of that country and he helped him get hooked up, Doug sent pictures of drinking Kool-Aid in Jim Jones’ pickup truck. After that he was off to Papua New Guinea to hang out with the head hunters.
The Uzbek people are a true delight. They tap their hearts in greeting and their kindness and welcoming attitude is everywhere apparent. Young people repeatedly asked us to pose with them for selfies and the country has zero feeling of risk as one might experience in Mexico, South Africa, or East LA. Quite the opposite. We went to small towns and into markets where Americans are never visit and the people were glad to see us even in a wedding dress store where were clearly not going to be clients. Some sample wedding dressings had been left to the cruel mercy of the elements in front of the store so they were frayed and ruined being kept together with hot glue and nails (better to elope).
In one marketplace I saw a sight that made me chuckle. A woman had a store displaying women’s clothes and the manikins were so old they were cracked and punched full of holes. Ten feet away was a manikin store with nice fresh manikins. I thought to introduce them but just passed on by.
One thing that is different from where I live is the love of gold teeth. Many folks sport a few gold crowns or a full set and they are quite proud to display them. They actually look quite cool. If you think it’s strange, consider the crazy tattoos you see in San Francisco.
For me the absolute highlight of the trip was what had been billed as small diversion down a nondescript alley, through an unmarked door to see an Uzbek fashion show. It didn’t sound all that interesting but it was one of most electrifying performances I have ever witnessed.
Our guide had arranged that we assemble in a small atelier with clothes on racks and wall decorations covering every surface. With no introduction or preamble a lilting melody began to play and through a curtain came a young woman who looked every bit like the bust of Nefertiti but with bright blue eyes and she was wearing an outfit I could never have imagined. She was followed by another and yet another and over the next 20 minutes or so young women came forth and performed evocative pantomimes in clothing undreamt of in this universe. Here we could see influences from Mongolia, China, Africa, the Islamic world, Russia and beyond.
And then, poof, they were gone. The designer and woman who runs the operation is Romanenko Valentina Nikolaevna and she produces these performances with cloth she and her daughters dye and then make into clothes on the premises. This is truly couture of the desert.
This exposure to Uzbek fashion made me look deeply at the women’s clothing and I discovered that no two women are dressed alike. Valentina is a world class clothing designer and the fact that she is unknown in the west is to me is quite stunning. I am investigating the possibility of bringing her and her troupe to San Francisco. I have a short reel describing the project.
In Samarkand there is a great mosque with a madras (school of Islam). It has been restored and is now a museum and the ground floor is used for shops. One of the shops housed one of the country’s most versatile musicians. His shop was filled with local instruments. Most were strings and percussion and he performed on about 10 of them for us. Like the fabric performance this was a pocket theater production not meant to sell anything beyond a cd or two. Later that evening we went to a winery and experienced a wide range of local wine. After than we found an amazing restaurant where to enter we had to dance though the middle of a wedding party.
The big hero in Usbek is Tamburlaine a 15th century Turkic unifier of the country. We found his tomb which was as one might expect, not as interesting as Daniel’s tomb. This is Daniel as in – in the lion’s den – from The Old Testament. It seems Daniel got crossways with King Darius and was tossed into a sure-kill pit of lions only to walk out cool as buttermilk in the morning. In those days famous people’s bones were worth keeping so having the honor of having them was a big deal. For example, Alexander the Great was on display in a crystal crypt in Alexandria for at least 300 years. Anyway, Samarkand got Dan’s body and it was interred in a crypt. Somehow the notion got about that his corpse would continue to grow about an inch a year – forever. This required repeated lengthening of the tomb and the sarcophagus – all of which is now over 50 feet long. The fact is, though, that after 2,500 years Dan should be 450 feet long but the building came to a halt at a cliff edge and they revised the figures. Below the precipice is a sacred spring that sprung up the day he was interred (so it is said). People come to leave money and wash in the holy water to insure good fortune. We tried it and have done pretty well since so… There are six other tombs of Daniel throughout Asia which shows that it really is a growth industry in every respect.
We then went to a small archeological museum. They were really glad to see us as we were the only visitors of the day. The place was ruled over by a stern Russian woman who directed her assistant to sell us tickets which were actually electronic card keys we had to implant in a slot and turn a knob to unlock a turnstile. We thought his was a fairly complex procedure to see a room full of disintegrating bones and a handful of smashed pots. As we traipsed through the galleries we were followed by team of attendants pushing huge hotel lobby-like chairs in case we wanted to linger. We trotted through as fast as was decent, the chairs chasing us all the way. Just as we were making a run for the exit we were told we had to see the movie which was an actual 16 mm film on a huge afternoon-eating reel. We were then asked that contribute a few bucks to the guy who was poised to go buy some diesel to power the generator to run the projector. Doug faked a heart attack and we hustled to our van, the Russian woman running after us with the fuel can – the chairs following not far behind.
Next stop: Bukura where there was a kaleidoscopic spice festival. That night some of us went to a bathhouse in the heart of the old city (actually it’s all pretty old) The place was at least a 13th century and probably older. We sweated and splashed around in the caverns of the vast complex. The place was in great shape and the baths were insanely hot followed by buckets of cold water. We ran around naked in this traditional mens only sanctuary and we thought we were the only ones there until we saw some western women walking by as we dipped back into the shadows. Obviously not so strictly Muslin and we were there during Ramadan. There is little evidence of religiosity.
In the morning we pushed on to the city of Khiva, passing through the gates set in fragile walls of dried mud that would have had trouble repelling a pillager attacking with a bucket of water. Still, it looked great. We visited the spot where al-Khwarizmi founded the discipline of al-jabr. The man is credited with inventing algebra (al-jabar) and also the notion of algorithms. I know what you’re thinking. Someone invented algebra?” Yes, also someone invented calculus and other mathematical fields. Or did they? There is a debate over the issue of “is math invented” There are folks of both sides of this topic. There’s a great book on the subject – Is God a Mathematician which gives a wonderful rundown on the entire history of mathematical thought. Well, who knows what’s true. It seems true that al-Khwarizmi lived and worked in Khiva at least. The Persians and later the Arabs were real math whizzes but this stopped by the 16th century. One reason was that at that time and place the printing press was suppressed which have led some to conjecture that this is why the Islamic regions didn’t participate in the Age of Enlightenment.
In Khiva we had a legendary dinner in the cool of the evening under the towering city walls and minarets in this most ancient of cities. Kevin likes to circle around a specific topic to keep the group all together and this evening the topic was mentorship. Who are your mentors and who do you mentor? This evolved into “Imagine if every graduating high school student was given $200 worth of something, what would you give them?” There were several great suggestions. I think Will’s was the most compelling. He suggested that each student be given a $200 credit to make a grant to a charitable project using a tool like GoFundMe. GoFundMe is crowd source site that has folks contribute to charitable causes. The effect would be that a young people would be compelled to think about the broader world just as they are stepping out into it. An amazing idea!
Leaving Khiva meant our tiny band would be splitting in two with our guide, Tim, Anita and Doug going in Turkmenistan and Kevin, Will, me and a new guide moving deeper into Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is a tough place where you do not step out of line. It is wound up quite tightly. For instance, the month of January was renamed Turkmenbashi after the leader a few years back, while the month of April and the word “bread” became Gurbansoltan Eje, the name of the leader’s mother. Decrees emanating from the palace have banned, among other things, lip synching, long hair, video games, and gold teeth.
The frontier between the two countries is what you would imagine it looked like in Soviet times. Barricades, razor wire, machinegun towers. You have to enter on foot and the guards eyeball you skeptically and search you to see if you’re smuggling bombs or bibles or worse…a karaoke machine. It is no wonder that Turkmenistan is sometimes called the North Korea of Central Asia. They have plenty of money due to their vast gasworks and they use it to build huge marble government buildings and hire lots of cops. If you drive downtown with a dirty car (this in a desert country) there is a stiff fine. Smoking in public – similarly fined…hey I can get behind this. All areas of life are pretty button down and the locals are definitely not touching their hearts and making small talk.
It was sad to see our friends leave us but we had a new goal, the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is a cruel place. Once it was the 4th largest inland body of water in the world, about the size of Ireland. In the 1950s the Soviet occupiers of Uzbekistan decided that growing cotton was the very thing and they diverted the inflow. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers washed into the sands left by the receding sea. In a few decades the sea shrunk by over 90% and the chemicals made the remaining water dead sea. There had been a vigorous fishing industry with ships up to 200 feet long sustainably harvesting fish. In a few years the ships were left to rust in the sand and the villages fell into poverty or were abandoned. This combined with the toxicity of the soil makes this a desperate region. The Soviets established a biological weapons (all the hits – anthrax, the plague and smallpox) manufacturing facility on an island in the sea which now sits abandoned and accessible across a sea of sand. The region has one of the highest incidence of cancer, emphysema and other dreadful conditions of anywhere in the world. One is advised to not be out on the dry lake bed on a windy day. The region has been devastated by the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Subsequent crop failures and water shortages have compounded the decline.
The last city we visited was Nukus in the semi-autonomous region of the Karakalpakstan Republic. Many Uzbecks have never been here because this is in the ‘other country’ and they speak a different language, Karakalpak. The city looks to be relatively prosperous as the Soviets built a good many civic buildings in the 50s when it became a center for chemical weapons testing. We went to a shopping mall with escalators and make believe American restaurants like KFD and McDonnals. But it was a cheery place and the food was pretty good.
There, at the edge of the world, we found the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan built by Igor Savitsky. The State Museum houses a spectacular collection of traditional ethnic costumes and the area’s now vanished or endangered flora and fauna. The art museum is principally known for its collection of dissident Russian and Uzbek art from 1918-1935. Stalin tried his best to eliminate all non Soviet artfrom this period, and sent most of the artists to the gulag. Both Savitsky and the collection survived because the of the city’s remoteness from the Soviet authorities. Savitsaky even used Soviet government money to build the impressive museum by simply not telling the Politburo what he was up to.
Dissident art in this era was anything the Soviets deemed unSoviet. This included music that was not ‘uplifting enough’ or paintings were a worker might be seen to be frowning. Even a painting of a dog might be considered subversive if it didn’t promote ‘proper’ thinking. The thinking was: if you have time to paint a dog make sure there is a man in the
background holding a gun and smiling.
Nukus felt like the very end of the world but it was now time to go beyond the end.
At the edge of the city was a massive cemetery a fitting terminus to this, the brink of civilization. We wandered among the graves and found another long sarcophagus even grander than that of ol’ Daniel, maybe a hundred feet or so. This, we were informed, was for a very long, skinny deceased giant. There were also graves popping open with coffins and bones scattered about. “Alas poor Yorick.” The stuff of nightmares for sure.
Beyond Nukus we stopped at a Zoroastrian temple, little more than a mud pile at the top of a rock. Still pretty cool. There were a group of students in their early 20s who were thrilled to be in photos with us and then up we went and then off they went. We noticed they had no car or van. About ten of them in nice cloths just walking across the desert and we were sure there wasn’t a town or transportation for miles. They chatted and laughed as they went on what to us seemed like an epic journey but to them was just a midday stroll.
The temple now behind us we continued beyond the edge of civilization. Hour after hour we drove across the featureless plain. We did find a small village huddled around an abandoned airfield where we stopped and bought some camel milk and then on again across the desert. These villagers were pipeline workers there to keep the gas flowing. It was stunningly bleak.
After a few hours we landed at the shore of a small lake. There we discovered four fishermen who lived in the collapsing remains of a Soviet era gulag. We wondered how the fishermen could make a living with the customers so far away and they showed us their ice house where they iced down the catch. Once a week a truck comes and takes the fish. In the winter the lake freezes in this high desert. They fished from homemade metal canoes and offered to take us for a ride but we had to push on to our ultimate destination – the ghost of the Aral Sea. We passed a 5th century BC Zoroastrian city ruin and finally arrived at the shore with its high concentration of carbonate and sulfuric salts. Yummy! We striped and staggered into the sticky mud in the briny shallows. Hundreds of feet from shore we were just up to our waists. Even with the mud and acid it felt great. Still a shower would be nice. It turns out that a camp had been set up for us and there was a shower. We found yurts and a camp kitchen. We gazed across the shrinking sea, through the blisteringly clear, birdless sky and played with the camp puppies.
The only industry left on the sea is a Russian camp where they harvest Sea Monkeys. I kid you not. Sea Monkeys! the only thing that can survive in this water.
We rose before dawn to witness the sun reluctantly winch itself up out of the sea to desiccate this exhausted hellscape for another day. We bade our cheerful campman goodbye and were off once more. That afternoon we found part of the fishing fleet which had been lined up near the docks. Not far from the ships was the port city town village of Muynik. It had a collapsed canneries and crumbling docks with perhaps a thousand people living alongside the sealess shore, the nearest water 75 miles away and it’s poisonous. Everywhere was collapse and decay. The remaining population scratches out a living farming cotton but even this industry is dying.
We were there on school graduation day and found ourselves in a rather nice auditorium with several hundred people and little kids on stage singing along with their teachers. It could have been anywhere in the world.
We made our way back to Nukus where we would fly to Tashkent in an hour and a half over lands we had taken a week to travel by car. We bid a sad and hasty farewell to Kevin who was on his way to give a talk in Hungary and Will and I unwound through Moscow, Helsinki, New York and finally back home.
American’s don’t go to this region as a rule but I say to bypass Uzbekistan is to miss a lot. It is not the Côte d’Azur but it is authentic and the people are very glad to see you. You can drink the water and eat the food freely so if you have been everywhere, isn’t it time to go somewhere else?
The travel company who handled our Central Asia trip is like non other. I have traveled with them before and these folks are simply amazing. First they are three times cheaper than other companies. They know the regions they work in and they take you to see the really bizarre stuff. It’s called Young Pioneer Tours. I’ve never actually toured with any other company. Their motto is “We take you to places your mother would not approve of.” They are edgy and people have been snatched off their tours and murdered so if you want a Carnival Cruise don’t call them.
I will tour with no other company.