Postcard from the Silk Road
Welcome to Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country, a one party “democracy” for the last 26 years and one of the only two double landlocked countries in the world.
It is an arid place with a state emblem that includes a cotton plant and two rivers surrounded by fertile looking land. It is an ex soviet country closely tied to Russia with a national hero that is considered a monster by its neighbours. It is an Islamic nation that uses anti-terrorism as an excuse to silence dissent. It is the home of a disappearing lake called “sea”.
This is a journey to a missing sea: it is about water, power and deceptive appearances.
Politics are an unlikely topic of conversation here and, if it happens, it will probably be with someone praising the government and making comparisons with the neighbouring countries.
“Have you seen what’s happening in Afghanistan? We are safe here.”
Criminality doesn’t seem to exist, streets are clean and theme parks are packed with families. The president Islam Karimov was in control from 1990 to 2016 and made sure to keep it this way by making opposition impossible. In 2005 hundreds of people were killed by the government troops during a demonstration that became known as the Andijan massacre: protests are now a thing of the past.
Under his rule the surge of radical Islam was also used as an excuse for a block down on freedom of speech; police and military presence in the capital city of Tashkent is constant.
But things may be changing now: It was suddenly announced that the long serving president died. Now the country is facing instability if another strong candidate doesn’t take his place soon.
In the meantime this is a land of empty spaces and unreachable government buildings.
The national poster boy
Amir Timur (Tamerlane) was born here in the 14th century and has been elevated to national hero when the government in the post-soviet days had to choose a new unifying figure for a population made of different ethnic groups. He is the Uzbekistan poster boy. From square names to imposing statues and museums he is everywhere and he is not alone: imposing structures were erected to commemorate past and current events in a nationalistic effort to give an identity to a country that for more than 200 years was under the Russian power.
Whether you are Uzbek, Tajik, Russian, Karakalpak or else: $180 is the average monthly salary in Uzbekistan. It does not make living nor leaving easy. Many Uzbeks work abroad, apparently up to 10% of the population. Most of times they move to Russia and contribute to the economy by sending money back home to their families.
This is a land of manicured lawns and dry fountains.
Water is precious in an arid landscape, but the land is unexpectedly green in Uzbekistan. Grass is manicured in the main cities, literally: men and women are cutting it leaf by leaf under the sun in front of pompous fountains or next to the Silk Road tourist attractions.
In the countryside, canals subtracting water to the nation two main rivers created a landscape of roadside cotton fields surrounded by deserts, but fountains are dry here just as they are round the corner in the main cities.
The water always lacks where it should be.
The Missing Sea
It was in the sixties that the Russian Government decided to transform Uzbekistan in a cotton heaven. Canals were built using the water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, the two main rivers of the country, and the land became green.
Cotton exports became so important that the plant made it on the state emblem. On the other hand the Aral Sea, once the fourth biggest lake in the world, is rapidly making it out of the map and with it the economy of the provincial capital Nukus, surprisingly a surreal pristine city of empty squares and buildings that cannot be photographed.
On the other hand the town of Moynak in the Karakalpakstan autonomous region is now the symbol of one of the biggest (and more overlooked) man-made environmental disasters on earth: the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Once a harbour town it now lies more than 200 km from the receding water.
What is left of the sea is toxic to animal life and the decrease in the amount of water affected the region climate giving way to temperatures similar to Siberia in the winter and scorching heat in the summers.