Monthly Archives: September 2012

September 6, 2012, Day 27 – Nukus, Uzbekistan

Thursday, September 6, 2012 – Nukus, Uzbekistan

We attended a lecture at our hotel concerning the water situation of the Aral Sea. The main river in Turkmenistan was called Amu Darya, previously named the Oxus River. (This river has had many names throughout the centuries depending on who occupied the area). Many ancient settlements along this river had been abandoned because the river’s course changed every century or so and villages ended up with no water.

There was a theory that a 3rd river, which previously fed the Aral Sea, had changed course and may now feed into the Caspian Sea. This lack of water from the 3rd river was one of the many reasons the Aral Sea’s depth decreased. But of course the main reason the Aral Sea was disappearing was because of all the water diverted by channels or canals from the Amu Darya River, which decreased the amount of water fed into the Aral Sea each year.

Today most of the people in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan) lived in irrigated areas and the water being supplied to them was from the Amu Darya River. Without this water their land would convert back to a desert. The Aral Sea, which was once a huge lake fed by three rivers was now divided into two smaller lakes (Big and Small Aral Seas) and fed by two rivers the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Syr Darya. The 3rd river, which had now dried up or had been diverted to the Caspian Sea, came from the Ural Mountains in Russia.

100 cubic kilometers of water that was once fed into the Aral Sea every year has now been lost. Originally the Aral Sea was shallow; approximately 100 feet deep but it was a productive sea that supplied a lucrative fishery for surrounding areas. There were so many different species of fish that they actually used the less popular species as firewood during their winters.

Today the Aral Sea was dying, not only was it disappearing but the salt content had increased to such a high amount that all fish and sea life that previously lived in the sea had died, just like the Dead Sea. We were told by our lecturer, that the Dead Sea had 200 grams of salt per liter; whereas, the Pacific Ocean had less than 40 grams of salt per liter. The big Aral Sea (or lake) had approximately 120 grams of salt per liter and the dammed up small Aral Lake in the north had 14 grams of salt per liter. The smaller Aral was being managed by people trying to get natural water from small streams to feed into it and apparently some fish were starting to come back. The big Aral was not managed other than when the water level of the small Aral increased too much they would let some of the water out of the dam into the bigger Aral Sea portion. Even with this help the Aral Sea was shrivelling each year.

The reasons the Aral Sea was disappearing were complicated. The most obvious being the artificial diversion of water from the Amu Darya River by canals used for irrigating the desert to allow for cotton and other agriculture farming in Central Asia. Most specifically for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who used 70% of the water diverted from this river.

As if the canals weren’t bad enough, there were other problems with their canal system and one was the inefficiency of the water used from the canals. The canals leaked and the method used to irrigate the fields was by flooding, not spraying or using a drip system. There was no incentive for the farmers to be more efficient because their water was free. They were told what to grow and their only customer was their government. There was no reason for the farmer to be innovative. Why take a risk when everything was dictated?

The flooding method for irrigation was a problem because the excess water was drained back into the canals (or river), which fed the farms lower down the system. This excess water returned to the canals, was not filtered and would include salt, fertilizers and other pollutions from the higher-up farms. The upstream farmers had no respect for their downstream brothers and they put anything into the water without consideration of other people using the water.

Another organic reason for water was not being fed into the Aral Sea was the natural silt accumulation coming down from the mountains each year. The silt plugged up and diverted the flow of water from the two rivers. One ancient name for the Amu Darya River actually translated into ‘crazy’; because its flow would change direction and leave villages dry, forcing them to move elsewhere.

Another major problem was that previously, in ancient times, this whole desert area was once covered by another sea, which had disappeared long ago. But the ancient sea had left it’s mark with layers of salt below the surface of the desert and when the government started irrigating to plant crops, the water brought this salt back up to the surface and prevented plants from growing. Today, there were huge areas of the desert where nothing could grow. This situation was called Secondary Salination. It was also another reason many villagers had to move away to start over again in another location. If you could not grow food or have water to drink you had no choice but to move away to survive.

Because of the changes in global weather their glacial melt from the mountains had been decreasing each year as well. This lack of ice melt further reduced the water flow to the rivers. Turkmenistan controlled the water canals from the Amu Darya River and Uzbekistan was vulnerable to their control. They must keep a good relationship with their neighbor, Turkmenistan, to keep their water supply. The agricultural industry consisted of mostly cotton and rice but included wheat, corn, sunflowers, melons and vegetables. This industry was too big and supported the livelihood for most of the villagers in Uzbekistan, so to stop the canal system was out of the question.

We all suggested different ways to help the disappearance of the Aral Sea and every suggestion was shot down by our lecturer. The most frequent answer was “that would cost too much money”. It will be interesting to watch the fate of the Aral Sea. Our speaker said that during Soviet occupation the Soviets said, “that the Aral Sea must die like a soldier in war”. They understood that the Aral Sea would not survive when they diverted the water from the Amu Darya and they did not care. Our lecturer believed the Aral Sea had already died but had not disappeared. He hoped that a solution would come up in the near future to turn the situation around! My guess was that the Aral Sea was dead, the fishing villagers had already moved away and these two countries had a bigger problem, how to keep the water in their two rivers flowing. They should make their canal system more efficient and solve their river water problems because this water was keeping their people and their countries alive. I am really sorry the Aral Sea was disappearing but why flog a dead horse when there were bigger issues in the forefront?

One such problem was with another neighbouring country, Tajikistan. The Soviets had planned to make a dam using the Syr Darya River. This would stop the river flow for 15 years until they filled up their dammed area. There has been talk of continuing with this project. Uzbekistan did not want this project to continue because it would stop their water flow for 15 years! How would they survive?  And if they did build this dam and collect the water, what would happen if there was ever an earthquake (which was possible).  The foundation of the dam could be damaged (another possibility due to the fact that the foundation was built 50 years ago), the water would flood the villages in the different areas causing a great deal of damage to all countries involved. This has been an interesting debate between the Central Asian countries.

Later in the day we took a bus ride outside of Nukus. Vlad drove us to (Moynoq) Muynak, a fishing village that was previously located on the shores of the Aral (Orol) Sea. Today, this town was 200 kilometers away from the Aral Sea because it was drying up. As explained above, the main reason the Aral Sea was disappearing was because water had been diverted from the Amu Darya River by canals used to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Amu Darya river fed into the Aral Sea and irrigation for cotton fields had been diverted from this river preventing it from putting all of it’s water into the Sea.

We had a new guide today, named Mirigul, which meant mercy flower. When we started off driving to Moynoq the traffic was really slow as there was a caravan of little vans and larger buses taking pickers to the cotton fields. They even had a police escort. The vans were filled up with pickers with their sleeping bags and supplies piled up on the roof of the vans. The pickers did not go home, they stayed for a week, up to two months away from home to pick all of the cotton. They were billeted out and slept in villager’s homes. Our driver Vlad, managed to skirt around a bunch of vans but the police drove up and made us go to the back of the line again. Rats!

The smaller vans used in this caravan were called Marshrutka by the locals and were normally used in a shuttle bus service from A to B. You could get off anywhere but not tell the driver where to go. These vans were everywhere in Uzbekistan and usually packed full of people. They were very small Korean Daewoo vans. The transport service was cheaper than a taxi and faster than a bus. They were Korean models manufactured in Uzbekistan and recently GM purchased this plant. We heard on the local news that GM was coming out with a new model and people in Uzbekistan were lining up to place their orders for this car. The government must have hired all these buses and vans to bring pickers out to the cotton farms.

This time of year was called the cotton campaign and everyone had to pitch in to pick the cotton, whether you liked it or not. Cotton was picked by hand and it had to be picked when it was ready, before their rain season arrived in late October. University students were required to pick cotton as well as government workers and anyone else the farmers could find. They actually sprayed the cotton plants to make them turn brown and dry up. This made the cotton buds open up all at the same time and much easier to pick the cotton. When the cotton was all picked the villagers cut the cotton plants down and took them home to be used as firewood for their Tandoor clay ovens where they made their daily bread. The seeds in the cotton was separated out and squeezed at the cotton ginny to make cottonseed oil used for cooking. Other than a small amount kept for subsequent seeding, the remaining seeds were fed to the cows. Cotton was a crop where everything was used up each year and the fields had to be rotated with something different like grain or corn for the next crop before cotton could be planted there again. In Uzbekistan 6 million tons of cotton was picked each year. And pickers were required to pick 50 kilos per day.

A whole fishing industry had been closed down in the city of Moynoq and decayed fishing boats were just sitting on an isolated sandy desert today. A haunting and sad feeling surrounded this settlement as we drove through it. The town had shrunken from 60,000 to 5,000 people. The people that stayed had to be self-sustaining with their own vegetable gardens, chickens and cows. We were told that many of the husbands worked abroad and sent money home to their families for survival. There was an operating school and a small museum detailing their history; as well as, a decaying movie theatre and fish plant, both of which had closed down years ago.

We passed a soccer field where boys were practicing and stopped the bus to give away some hats but the coach called them inside a dugout. Our boys not to be discouraged decided to find the gate in their fence and talk to the coach to let him know we came as friends. They could not find an opening in the fence so they all climbed over one-way or another! They had a successful meeting and gave away the Canada hats.

Next we stopped to visit the Moynoq museum but it was closed because everyone was taken away to pick cotton and it was locked. But lucky for us one of the elder ladies had phoned somebody in the village who ran up to the museum with a key to let us inside. The village’s fish cannery had been open from 1924 to 1974. The museum showed different animals that had once lived in the area but when the Aral Sea receded, it also affected their wildlife in the area, including birds and plants surrounding the village. Everything dried up! There were paintings and photographs showing the activity of a productive fishing village that once lived here. It was very interesting and well documented.

The outside of the museum was decorated with tulip paintings. This was because tulips grew wild in their mountains and our guide told us this was where tulips originated. We thought they were discovered in Holland??

Driving to Moynoq, it actually started to sprinkle with rain. This was the first rain we had seen since we left Vancouver on August 11th. It didn’t last long a few minutes but the weather was cooler here than it ever had been. We found the rainfall ironic because we were driving to a fishing village that was now stranded with no water on the desert and it was the only rain we had since arriving in Central Asia.

Mirigul told us that this year their President decreed that there would be no divorces granted. This was the year of the family whether you liked it or not.

September 5, 2012, Day 26 – Nukus, Uzbekistan

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 – Nukus, Uzbekistan

(Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan).

Until 1924, from Turkey to the Western section of China, all of Central Asia and the Tartars from the Southern part of Russia all spoke the Turkic language.  These different ethnic people can still understand much of what each other say today as their individual languages were based on this Turkic language. Central Asia prior to 1924 was known as Turan or Turkistan.

Many different ethnic people lived in harmony within Central Asia today. Our guide, Batir, believed this harmony was helped by the Soviet occupation from 1920 until 1991. With the Soviet system all the different ethnic tribes settled down and ceased their nomadic lifestyle. They were given houses and jobs. Soviets discouraged religion, which divided the people; this brought everyone together to live in harmony plus everyone was treated equally under the Soviet system.

The Karakalpaks, who lived in an Autonomous Republic within Uzbekistan, were once a semi-nomad population that was more closely related to the Kazakhs than the Uzbeks. In 1936 Karakalpakstan became part of Uzbekistan. Many Karakalpaks had a Mongolian look with round faces and oriental eyes. At first we thought they were all Korean but Batir said no, they were more closely related to the Mongols from Genghis Khan’s era. Approximately 1.6 million people lived in this Republic; whereas, 30 million people lived in all of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan was made up of more than 40 different tribes, most speaking Turkic, Tajik (which was Persian or Farsi) and Russian. And many spoke English, German or French in addition to the three national languages above.

Even though the two languages of Turkic and Tajik were different, the traditions of these people were very similar. There was one difference in the wedding tradition for the Karakalpak people. That was kidnapping of the bride-to-be. The groom would kidnap the girl and take her away for a couple of days to his house and introduce her to his family before they announced their engagement. This was a tradition that evolved because previously if a man wanted to marry a girl whose family did not agree with the marriage or if her family asked for a dowry that he could not afford, the man would kidnap the girl.  All girls had to be virgins when they married, so to be kidnapped implied the girl was no longer a virgin and no man would want her as his bride if she had been kidnapped. Her family would lose their bargaining power and have to agree to the marriage with her kidnapper. Today the kidnapping was more of a symbolic gesture. The grooms still had to pay a dowry to the girl’s family (usually for the cost of the wedding, previously it was whatever the bride’s family could negotiate).

Karakalpakstan had it’s own flag, it’s own constitution and it’s own emblem but the head of their parliament was appointed by the President of Uzbekistan. The Karakalpaks voted for who they wanted for the President of Uzbekistan not for their leader who was appointed. There were 14 different regions within Karakalpakstan.

Our first stop was at the most amazing art museum founded by Igor Savitiski, an archeologist and artist. Svitiski spent his adult life in Uzbekistan. He came to this area as an archeologist then went on to become an oil painter and eventually a collector of art, saving Soviet artist’s work from being destroyed. Even on his deathbed he was making deals and buying art to add to his collection. What was so amazing about his art collection was that he collected art during Soviet times and hid it here in Uzbekistan away from the KGB who at the time was destroying artwork that did not promote “The Soviet Way”. There is a documentary called “Desert of Forbidden Art” that tells his story.

The Savitiski collection of art was the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Igor Savitiski managed to save 40,000 paintings from being destroyed, making approximately 20 trips to Moscow to collect this art. The Soviets banned art museums and actually jailed artists for any representations put on canvas that did not conform to the Soviet dogma.

One artist, named Lisenko, painted an abstract bull and the KGB said he was making fun of the Soviets by painting this bull so he was jailed. He tried to escape, got caught and was put in a mental institution where he spent several years before disappearing.

Another artist Kurzin, was falsely accused of trying to murder Stalin, and sent to a Gulag for 10 years. His only crime was not conforming to the Soviet style of painting. When he was released he was exiled from Moscow where his family lived. He was very malnourished upon his release and the first two paintings he painted were of food (he had probably been dreaming of food while in prison). They were on display in the museum.  When he tried to go visit his family in Moscow, he got caught and was sent back to another Gulag for three years, where he died. These types of stories went on and on as we walked through the museum.

One interesting tidbit we learned was about swings. There was a tradition of Central Asian women swinging on swings to become fertile (I guess the swing shook up the female’s egg system).  They believed by swinging it would be easier for the women to get pregnant.

At the beginning of the 1920’s to the 1930’s the Uzbek women fought for their independence by rebelling and refusing to wear their traditional dress.  Previous to the Soviet occupation women wore a traditional dress code with a cloak over their head. (In Turkmenistan this cloak was worn for wedding ceremonies. In Uzbekistan it was worn when a women went outside of her home). It had ornamental non-functioning sleeves tied to the back of the cloak. The cloak was worn overtop of their long dresses and headscarves. Married women had the sleeves tied or sewn together at the back; whereas, single women had the sleeves loose. As a status symbol the married women would sew tassels on their sleeves for every child they had. The more tassels the better.  Their faces were covered with horsehair netting that went over their scarf and under the cloak. They could see out but others could not see in. Much like our modern blind systems used to keep the sun out of our homes but allowing us to see outside! This cloak and veil was an additional 10 pounds of clothing over their long dresses. The summer weather was 45 degrees C. in Central Asia.

Struggling for independence, Uzbek women wanted to be more like the Russian women and rebelled by burning their cloaks and face coverings.  Some husbands, brothers and fathers actually killed their wives and daughters for this rebellious act. Today, Uzbek women wore modern clothing rather than traditional clothing.  Although there were plenty of women in traditional tunic dresses with matching britches (their word for pants) in the smaller cities and villages. We did not see one woman wearing the cloak over her head or with her face covered. One exception was the wedding ceremony where the bride wore the traditional cloak during the marriage ceremony, then changed into her white wedding dress for the reception. Then the bride wore traditional clothing for 40 days after her marriage, including lots of makeup to always look good while getting to know her new family.  The bride always moved into the groom’s home and lived with his family. Sometimes if they could afford it they would move into their own home at a later date but the youngest son and his would stay with his parents and eventually inherit their home.

Another interesting item that women previously wore, were pierced noses. Large hooped rings holding beads or jewels. The ring went right down to their lips. Lots of additional jewelry was worn as well. Today the heavy jewelry was still worn but no pierced noses.

We viewed art showing the daily life of the population during Soviet times; picking cotton, camel caravans, turbaned men, women in scarves cooking food on fires or in tandoor ovens and beautiful still-lifes on tapestries and embroidery. One painting showed political prisoners from a Gulag going to work at a chemical factory with black smoke pouring out the chimney. The only type of painting that was okay during Soviet times was the glorification of the Soviet way of life. Communist flags, smiling and dancing people, no hardships (or reality) whatsoever. Any painting outside that box was banned and the artists were imprisoned or exiled.

One of the artists was an icon painter for the Christian Orthodox churches in Russia. When moving to Uzbekistan he converted to Islam and became a Muslim.

The museum also displayed beautiful porcelain animal figurines. All made by hand, no casting with molds was used. Another section of the museum had copies of original statues that were displayed elsewhere around the world. From Iran, Egypt, Greece and France.  These copies were very beautiful. There was a scene of John the Baptist and beside it would be a Buddhist head. An Egyptian head was beside a sculpture of Roman bathers etc.

After visiting the museum we stopped for coffee and tried their original cookie called chukchuk.  It was really good, much like a rice crispy square only it was held together with honey and instead of rice crispies and it was made up of crispy noodles.

The main religion of Central Asia (until the 8th Century when the Arabs conquered and introduced Islamic religion) was Zoroastrian, fire worshipers. And in the southern part of Central Asia was Buddhism because of India’s influence. The Arabs destroyed all the Buddhist and Zoroastrian temples because they believed there was only one god and it was bad to worship idols or anything but Allah. This Arab occupation resulted in the majority of the people living in “Stan” countries today being Muslim.

A unique belief of the Zoroastrians concerned their burials. They believed in nature, earth, wind, water and fire; all elements needed for life on earth. Fire was their most honored god and they believed by circling a fire 3 times it purified them. Some of their ceremonies had them jumping through fire. When a Zoroastrian died they believed in returning the flesh to nature.  The museum showed many examples of Ossuaries, which held the bones of their loved ones.  After a death, the body was taken to a Tower of Silence by their priest and laid in the center of the temple.  A Tower of Silence was a huge building/temple built on top of a hill with no roof.  The body was laid to rest in the tower and a few months later the priest returned to collect the bones because the birds and animals would have eaten the flesh.  These bones were kept in an Ossuary placed in a niche in the corner of a room in the Zoroastrian’s homes. The Ossuary box was a decorated clay box and came in many different shapes. It could be a horse or camel shape or square, etc.

For dinner we went to a Karakalpak family home. Of course when we walked into the house we all removed our shoes because their rooms had hand made carpets on the floors.  A new tradition we learned was the washing of hands.  A woman walked around to each of us with a silver bowl, a silver urn with a spout (looked like a tall tea pot) and a towel. Inside the bowl was a lid with holes.  She would pour water over our hands holding the bowl below. The used water would settle into the bowl going through the holes. She poured water over our hands 3 times; then passed us the towel to dry them.

The family was very friendly.  Only women were at home to cook and serve us. There were two grandmothers and three adult women with lots of children. The baby got passed around to all of the women, who hugged and kissed it. It was hard to know who the actual mother was.  I thought it was a lovely way to raise a child. This house was happy and full of love.  Both grandmothers were widows and both had large families. One had eleven children and eleven grand children, she was a tiny little woman, and hard to believe she had 11 children! I do not know who lived in the home but probably one or two of the families, as it was a very large house.

This family must have worked all day to cook us dinner. They served tomato salad, potato salad, tandoor bread, samosa, fruit, nuts, cookies, chocolates, fish and turkey. For entertainment we had a private concert with two musicians dressed traditionally and playing traditional instruments.  One musician played a Kauz, a stringed instrument played with a bow, from 6th century BC and he did throat singing. This is very hard to describe, I first heard it in Mongolia, the throat singer, (always a man), vibrates his throat while he sings. It sounds something like a bagpipe’s hum with singing on top. Throat singing is very difficult to do and has a very unusual sound. A primitive sound, which makes you feel like chanting and skipping around the room. The second musician played a dutar, a two stringed instrument played like a guitar. He also sang but did not throat sing.

After dinner we took Polaroid photos for the children, which they loved.  One little boy kept coming up to me and I asked if he wanted another photo and he nodded yes. I brought up my camera and he immediately did a back flip for me to take a picture of. Then his cousin, not to be out done, did the splits for me to take a photo of. Too funny.  We had a lovely time with an exceptionally nice Karakalpak family.

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