11th October 2018
Every bump in the road jars right through us and our heads are banged continuously against the headrests. We are on the way back from an overnight stay in a wild camp overlooking the Aral Sea. It is an eerie and desolate place with a strange unidentifiable attraction. The beach is crusted with salt and crunchy underfoot. A fishy decaying smell lingers in the air. Black mud squelches along the tide line. An innocuous pontoon with a straw roof gives the beach an almost Caribbean feeling.
Yesterday on the same bumpy 4 x 4 journey we stopped at a town called Moynaq. In the museum are paintings poignantly depicting the place as it was - a thriving fishing town with a busy canning factory. Now the rusted hulks of the fishing vessels are run aground on the left over sand. In the 1960s the Soviet Union, diverted two of the rivers that flow into the Aral Sea for irrigation purposes. The lake which was once the fourth largest lake in the world, may eventually dwindle away to nothing.
The day after the trip to the Aral sea, we travel across the desert. Our yurt camp for the night is perched on top of a hill alongside a desert castle. We stop to take photos of both from the road side. We are enthusiastically hugged on arrival by the matriarch of the camp. Our yurts allocated, we look across the valley and pose for photos on the swing with a view. A braying and snorting accompanies the herd of camels coming back from their day in the desert; we watch them jostle and scuffle into their night pen. Our evening meal is served on a raised platform. We sit crossed legged, the low table lit up by our head torches hanging from the ceiling. At Ayaz-Kala, the ancient fort complex the next day, we see our yurt camp below, and the spikey desiccated desert trees spread out across the valley.
Khiva is a fabulous walled city and my first glimpse of the stunning architecture of Uzbekistan. In particular the half finished minaret with its turquoise, orange and blue diamond checked pattern. It dominates the town and makes a useful marker for orientating yourself, particularly as our hotel is the madrassa that is attached to it. It is an old Islamic school with rooms on two floors surrounding a peaceful courtyard. I am able to sit on the balcony of my bathroom, look across at the tiled buildings and watch the world go by. I love it! Our tour of Khiva takes us through beautifully decorated palaces, harems and mosques. Weaving in and out of each area, we follow a maze like route through the town, with each palace room more fascinating than the one before. That night we watch the sun go down over the city from the vantage point of a tower on the walls.
The view of the Registan in Samarkand lit up at night, almost takes my breath away. These are the buildings that I’ve read about, seen pictures of. The lights pick out the blue of the domed roofs and illuminate the tiled patterns. The buildings are almost mesmerizing - it's hard to look away, to leave. The next day, we see the Registan in the daylight. The atmosphere is different, but the buildings no less impressive. The mosaic tigers are ready to pounce from the facade of one of the buildings. The sparkling gold and blue of one of the decorated ceilings is almost overwhelming. Everywhere the arches and minarets are adorned with multiple specks and patterns of colour. It is an amazing place.
It has been a fabulous trip of contrasts. From vanishing seas and crumbling desert fortresses, walled cities and mosaic clad buildings, and magnificent mausoleums and impressive palaces. All of these surrounded by a rich and intriguing history. I would love to come back.