I’m writing this in a deckchair, watching the sun rise over a beach. I’d like to say ‘beside the seaside’, but the coast is actually 130 miles north of here, because this is what was once the Aral Sea.
Fifty years ago the Uzbekistan town of Moynaq was home to nearly 1,000 fishermen, whose catches ran to several million tonnes of pike, bream, roach and sturgeon a year. Then the Soviet government decided to use the Amu Darya river the ancient Oxus flowing down from the Pamirs to irrigate the Kyzylkum Desert to grow cotton. The works were truly massive: they took so much water that the Amu Darya, once one of Asia’s greatest rivers, now just peters out in the desert. Deprived of its main water source, the Aral Sea has shrunk to less than a sixth its original size. Worse still, what’s left of it is 1,000 times more salty nothing can survive in it. Moynaq today is a moribund place, a forgotten victim of the world’s worst ever man-made ecological disaster. Rusty fishing boats lie beached on the old shoreline. The sand is studded with seashells. The town sign has a big fish on it. But the sea and its fish are gone.
I’ve been travelling for more than a month now, and as everyone predicted I’ve been bowled over by the kindness of people in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Starting in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, I made the most of the late spring and went up into the Azerbaijan Caucasus, where shepherds were driving sheep, goats and cattle, often thousands at a time, up to their mountain pastures. The Caucasus come alive in June. Birds, animals, insects and people are feverishly taking advantage of the warmth, and you never know who you’re going to meet around the corner.
And what a contrast to arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, a European city on the brink of Central Asia. Half-close your eyes in the Old Town, and you could almost be in Paris or Prague. A hundred years ago Baku was the world’s very first oil boom city, and it has lots of exquisite art nouveau mansions from those days. Now it’s booming again. Today’s oil barons prefer shiny modern to classical styles, but some of their high-rise monsters have quirky touches such as giant curly finials or colonnades on the roof. The results vary from quaint to comical.
I loved Baku. I got to know it quite well as I waited for a boat across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. I loved how traffic is almost completely banned from the Old Town (Damascus take note). I loved the corner shops everywhere. And I loved the way Baku families turn out on summer evenings, as they do in the Mediterranean, to stroll among the squares and fountains or chat with neighbours on their balconies.
Before leaving Azerbaijan I made an excursion to Pirallahi Island where the first oil discoveries were made in 1873. Amazingly some of the wells are still going, and amid the century-old scrap metal detritus I found nodding donkeys quietly pumping away against the cobalt blue of the Caspian Sea.
I crossed the Caspian on the Mercury, a cargo ship ferrying railway wagons between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The 16-hour crossing was followed by four hours making my way through Turkmen customs and immigration, a first taste of what is possibly the world’s second most paranoid state, after North Korea. It was now 2am so I camped in a convenient gully by the railway tracks. A train rumbled by in the night but luckily no one spotted me.
Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, is a city of gigantic and tasteless marble palaces built to glorify the megalomaniac one-time leader ‘Turkmenbashi’ Niyazov. Ordinary citizens have been pushed out to the suburbs, where luckily Turkmen culture still thrives in the bazaars. Sadly the Tolkuchka outdoor market, world-famous for camels and carpets, has been swept away in the modernising frenzy. But in the east of the country I was to find both camels and an ancient city surviving happily together at Merv.
In its 12th-century heyday, Merv vied with Damascus and Baghdad for the title of greatest city in the Islamic world. But this golden age came to a brutal stop in 1221 when Genghis Khan’s son Tolui levelled the city and butchered every one of its 300,000 people. Today the desert has reclaimed the mud-brick palaces and houses, but by a little stream which was once the main water supply I disturbed some of its modern inhabitants humped and four-legged grazing contentedly on the riverside sagebrush.
On midsummer’s day I reached Uzbekistan and legendary Bukhara, a chance not only to explore Central Asia’s holiest city but also to have a break from travelling. With daytime temperatures touching 43° Celsius, this was quite a relief.
To survive the summer furnace, Bukhara folk tend to do things in the early morning or evening, so it was at 6.30 am that I found myself invited to a christening feast. I was walking in the eastern part of the Old Town when I heard the unmistakable sound of trumpets and drums. Following my ears, I eventually came to a house where a hundred or so friends and relatives had gathered to welcome a new arrival into the family. The trumpeters formed an arch through which the mother carried the baby aloft; then everyone followed them into a courtyard where tables of food were waiting. They insisted I join them, and guess what, there happened to be one space free. It was a pretty boisterous celebration for so early in the day. The musicians entertained us as we tucked into pastries, fruit, and in pride of place a huge pot of Uzbekistan’s national dish, plov. This variation of the better known Afghan and Pakistani pilau consists of richly buttered rice, mixed with mutton and mutton fat and topped with diced carrot, spices and sultanas. More chloresterol than a British fried breakfast. Wiping the grease from my lips, I thanked the mother and father, deposited a donation into the discreetly proffered bag, kissed the baby and joined the departing throng. By 7.30 it was all over.
Then it was on to Khiva, where some of the world’s best carpets are woven by the 55 women of the Khiva Silk Workshops. After the Chinese monopoly on silk was broken in the 13th century, farms around Khiva started cultivating silkworms, and today Uzbekistan exports raw silk to many parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as producing its own much sought-after Khiva and Bukhara carpets. Using dyes such as indigo and walnut husks and following patterns copied from Khiva’s intricately carved doors and pillars, three weavers working together can turn out about four carpets a year. Each will fetch several thousand pounds.
From here I’ll be following the route taken by the Victorian explorer-politician Lord Curzon at the height of the ‘Great Game’ first along the Trans-Caspian Railway to Samarkand, then into the Tajik and Afghan Pamirs to see, among other things, why in 1891 this bleak and unmapped region brought Britain and Tsarist Russia to the very brink of war.