A recurring theme of this trip has been the ebb and flow between civilization and the natural world. Walking from Bukhara to Nukus really solidified this theme. In this section, we left the ancient city Bukhara to slowly immerse ourselves into the Qizil-Kum—Red Sands—and, reemerging on the other side, found yet another ancient and thriving city, Khiva. This section finished just north of Khiva in the industrial city of Nukus, and although this section was mainly desert, we found many oases that helped foster a deeper connection to this part of the world.
This section wasn’t totally unique, though. We started in a very usual way, by adding two days of rest and work before leaving. Some habits die hard. During these two days, we re-filmed interviews for our Kyrgyz video project, Timb and I celebrated Paul’s birthday by baking egg tarts, and we went to see the Imam at the mosque in the center of old town. Timb met the Imam and his wife back in 2015 and wanted to bring them the photo they took together back then. The Imam and his wife host many travelers and have a box of pictures they’ve taken with people over the years. For Timb to return and add an old, and a new, photo to their collection was a touching experience that made this a day well spent.
We filmed on our way out of Bukhara and found the summer palace at the edge of the city. Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa, or the Summer Palace of the Kings of Bukhara, was under renovation but still admitted us to take a tour with an English-speaking guide. The exuberance and extravagance of kings is stunning. The courtyards and dormant rose gardens were filled with worker’s scaffolding for restoration work. But still, the elaborately detailed paintings that wrapped the walls of waiting chambers, just so guests had a way to spend their time while the king took their’s, was truly impressive. a testament to the luxuriant life of royalty was the pre-electric refrigerators that were made of glass and had ice blocks brought in to chill milks, alcohols, and deserts. Lavish is a word that gets close to describing fortunes like this--and to think this was a few hundred years ago!
History hasn’t been a great passion of mine, but parts of this trip like this leave me awestruck as to where we have come from and the things we have made possible. With that in mind, we left the Bukhara city limits and started the age-old crossing that would lead us across the Qizil-Kum.
As we left the urban sprawl of Bukhara behind we made our way through the rural farmland, bouncing from one village to another. Every major city has these satellite-villages orbiting their periphery. One night while eating some of the best sheshlik (meat skewers, like shish-kabob) and honey cake, a girl named Nodira joined us to practice her English, which was quite good already. This was her family's restaurant and soon we were all hanging out and talking about where we've been and what we were doing walking. Nodira told us she studies hard and helps her family with the restaurant, and longs to attend university in England or the US. On the topic of geography, we challenged each other to draw our countries with all their states. We drew our maps while eating honey cake. Like many desserts in Central Asia, honey cake is layered and it tastes like carrot cake and sweet, thick cream with a zing of honey flavor. Before the night ended, we exchanged contact info and have been sending messages back and forth ever since. It’s getting very difficult to keep everyone straight at this point; we’ve accumulated a bewildering amount of contacts from throughout the walk, but we’re trying.
The roads here are not great, but they’re not horrible, either. However, despite the onslaught of other travelers warning us about Uzbek road quality, we’ve found the roads here to be quite a pleasant change of pace compared to Kyrgyzstan. Here, in the fringes of farmland, there are mysterious settlements, like satellites orbiting the edge of civilization. When we ask, “where are we?” They respond cheerfully, “Bukhara, of course!” As if it were an obvious fact they’ve never had to answer before. This is when we remind ourselves that Bukhara is only about a 40-minute drive away. The roads, though, are in various states of dis/repair. Road work here is very unsystematic and has had us questioning the apparent lack of organization. In reflection, this trip has also revealed that foreigners frequently point out locals doing things "wrong". Anyway, management and perspective aside, there are pockets of road that are left untouched, not for their superior quality, of course, but left out nonetheless.
On one of these sections I noticed my trailer skewed to one side and found both bolts on the left side sheared off. What’s the deal?! Bad luck with bolts, I guess. I looked it over and surmised that it would be able to continue as is. That night, when we caught up with Paul, I replaced the broken bolts with new ones the best I could. The old ones had sheared off inside the threads and I could only twist the new ones in so far. So now I had bolts half in and half out with compression from the velcro straps. Man, what a hodge-podge. Well, steady as she goes.
The night I fixed my trailer and several other nights, we slept at cafés on the side of the road, which is another theme that has persisted. We realized way back at the beginning our time in Uzbekistan that staying at cafés was as easy as asking. At this point we have come to learn that it is common for the café workers, or even truck drivers passing through, to sleep here, too, and that it wasn't just us being needy. We always ask and make sure to eat both dinner and breakfast (sometimes, although, not usually, we pay a small lodging).
Welcome to the Silk Walk, a journey from one café to another.
A side note on walking across entire biomes (even if it is from café to café), you become so tuned into the feeling of the days cycling in and out, each morning, each day as it reaches peak heat, the sky that is ever-sliding over head. Being in any one environment for long enough tunes your senses into the norms of that place, and the deviations from them. at one point we started smelling things that weren't dust, and became aware that morning dew had returned. We were getting close to water. The source was a reservoir (behind a cafe) and it made for some wicked cool hoarfrost the following morning on all the vegetation for several kilometers. Being able to sense moisture in the air or little changes in the smells of day and things like this really make me see how important observing the nature world was to our ancestors and still to this day for animals. we never would have made it as a species if we were inept observers. It’s a shame that this connection to our immediate surroundings has been more or less severed by our never-ending quest for comfort by distancing ourselves from the "wilds". One takeaway from this walk, for me, will be how I assign value to things because I've learned we truly don't need very much. Everything else is extra and adds comfort but shouldn't be put on a pedestal. Anyway, enough with the soapbox, back to the Qizil-Kum.
Although the desert was apparent and clearly present, even in areas deemed agricultural lands, the gravitational pull of society was loosening its grip, giving way to the deeply empty expanse of the Qizil-Kum, or Red Sands Desert. We couldn’t help commenting on how this was definitely desert and not gobi. China made us aware of the distinction between desert and gobi; desert requires sandy dunes and gobi is devoid of everything but little rocks, usually little, flat chips that are the only thing that doesn’t get blown away in the wind. The dunes of the Qizil-Kum aren’t large. They are small rolling mounds, anchored in place by scrubby bushes and the odd tufts of sun-bleached grasses—or maybe their color has been wind-swept and sand-blasted away. This area was aptly named; the sands have a warm hue to them. At high noon, as far as the eye can see, is a yellow, sun-baked desert of gently rolling mini-dunes covered in gray, lifeless sticks. Around sunset the ground gets washed in reds and deep oranges. The sticks and dead brush stand out black and stark against the inviting sand with its neat wind-swept waves. It was almost a shame to disturb such perfection each day when we wheeled our burdens through in search of a suitable campsite, our wheels gouging deep ruts in the shifting grains that tried to swallow up our wheels every time we lost momentum.
Just like those seemingly lifeless plants, this desert is very much alive and brimming with life that’s waiting for the conditions to be right. Every morning I emerge from my tent to find the sand neatly put back as if it were never disturbed, and it would be covered in animal tracks. Bird tracks that have a marching cadence to them, little paws that scurry from cover to cover, bigger paws that plod confidently, bug tracks that scuttle every which way, and even swishing marks that look like a tail being dragged from side to side with each step. This desert is very healthy and would be amazing to see after a rain. I bet the smells would be intoxicating and the aroma of sages and maybe even stronger mesquite would fill the air. The flowers would bloom in every color. And I bet there would be bugs and insect buzzing in a cacophonous chorus each evening as the temperature drops back to a manageable range. That is until the devastating heat from the summer sun washes over everything and pounds it back into dormancy each morning.
Eight-days into the desert, we arrived at a truck stop where we decided to have a layover day. The truck stop had a very tall tower for some unknown reason. Timb used this opportunity to explore the depths of the Red Sands on a bit of a self-discovery day. I inquired about a shower that was thankfully warm and surprisingly decent, while Paul ate as many Orion pies as he could fit into the day. Alas, it’s the simple pleasures in life. Watered, fed, rested, and our individual desires temporarily satiated, we continued on. About every 40 kilometers we passed a cement factory, every one set up exactly the same. I thought to myself there’s one thing we have gotten down to a science. This particular section of road was concrete and far better than we were expecting while we trundled through the broken outskirts of Bukhara. We figured they prioritized a new road here over ones in the cities to eliminate the breakdowns out here in no-man’s-land, but your guess is as good as ours. Still we wondered where all these bad roads were that we had been warned about. It must be our slow pace that sets us apart from other travelers and their relationship with the road.
We knew we were ending the long stretch of in-between lands when we started to find those satellite establishments floating at the edge of the habitable world. At one point, we found ourselves with an amazing and unexpected view that looked out over the Amu-Darya, or Amu River. The Amu River is a very important river that sources from the Pamirs just north of the Himalayas and creates the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Not too long ago it flowed all the way to the Aral Sea. (So yeah, it’s kind of a big deal in the region.) It was here that we knew we were entering the Uzbek state of Khorezm, home of the Gamburger, oh and the ancient city of Khiva, too. After a couple of truck stops we came to the town of Miskin and were pleasantly surprised by an off the map hotel that was very nice and cheap, an almost-too-good-to-be-true kind of situation. But it was, it was real! We took a half day just to stay here instead of pass it by! It worked out great for us to store our stuff there while we hitched a ride to Khiva to see the sites. The ride we hitched to get to Khiva deserves its own short story, but I will try to hit the high points. Our driver really proved he was a local by taking the most obscure route possible. The roads were some of the worst I’ve ever experienced, so much so that we spent a good deal of the time driving on the side of the road or weaving between the other cars that were meandering the road as well in search of the flattest parts to drive on. Then we came to the Amu River that did not have a bridge. Oh no! Instead of a bridge they had a series of barges that were not the same height nor were they lined up straight end-to-end. The barges themselves were rusted through in many spots and the way they were connect was a pile of broken pallets filled with dirt and straw to make the difference in height. The funny thing was that it was tolled for the maintenance of this thoroughfare route! It was busy, too. On almost every barge we passed another car going the other way. It was such a relief to arrive safely in Khiva. I don’t usually get car-sick, but Uzbek drivers, or maybe its the roads, make me focus very hard to not blow chunks.
Khiva is another Kingdom of Old with a city wall that is still intact about a quarter or maybe a third of the way around the city, the rest of it is being rebuilt. There are two walls, in fact, an inner around historic old town, and an outer that is almost completely gone. Khiva had a reputation for being one of the last kingdoms in the region to end their slave trade. As it was a vital part of almost every old-world civilization that successfully established and developed itself into a kingdom or an empire. Back in the day, however, Khiva was renown for its architectural prowess of amazingly tall minarets, some as tall as 60-meters and are still standing today!, and its multitude of madrases and mosques, a devotion to Islam that influenced empires in Iran, Afghanistan, and throughout Mongol civilizations across Central Asia. Khiva is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and famed tourist destination that boasts a lively old-town with active mosques and vendors peddling everything from traditional clothing, jewelry, hats, and home decor to the knik-knaks that tourists love. You can climb to the top of a minaret for a small fee but for free you can walk around the city wall. The skyline of domes, square madrasas, minarets, and silhouetted zipper of crenelations running along the top of the wall is beautiful to see. The clamor of the city winding down for the evening began to sound more like a murmur. I watched the sunset though this skyline as I listened to the city calm itself for sleep and I thought, this has been happening just this way, everyday, for hundreds of years, and here this city sits. And probably will for a long time to come since we’ve mostly made it past the age where we raze cities to the ground,… mostly.
We left Khiva and stopped in Urgench, the region capital, to do some grocery shopping and to find a new pair of shoes to replace my current pair that had been literally falling apart and giving me an uneven lumpiness under the balls of my feet. I called it a success when I found what seemed to be the only pair of “real” shoes in the entire market. I must have spent a half-hour sifting through shoes that were pure plastic, some with a design to make them look meshy and vented but up close they were just sheets of plastic glued to each other. Ugh, things like this fill our world today and are the epitome of cheap.
From our little oasis hotel in Miskin, we kept on trucking and made it to the next town in a single day. This town was called Turtkul, which we jokingly called it CakeLake due to its similarities in the local language. The next town, another day away, was Beruniy and it had a hotel that looked brand-spanking new. The guy that came to unlock it bartered with us for a price and then showed each to our own very-fancy rooms, which we didn’t know that’s what we were bartering for. Definitely worth it. Almost left us feeling bad that we bartered him down to a cheaper rate, this place was great. It had hot water, but he told us if we wanted Wifi, we’d have to pay the bill to get it turned on. Here in Beruniy, we found a lavash restaurant and a cake shop. The lavash was a sign that we were truly returning to civilization. On our way back, we caught the lady locking up and she gladly opened back up since we were in earlier to peruse on our way to dinner. Timb chatted with the lady while we ate our cakes. She was wonderful to talk to, Timb said, and I agreed just by listening to them. Most people don’t understand when Timb asks, “how do I say…” But she knew what Timb was getting at as they discussed the dialect differences between Uzbek and the region of Karakalpakistan that we had just cross into—Karakalpaks being Kazakh people in Uzbekistan and making up their own state in the western-most region of Uzbekistan. She and Timb joked about the ‘Y’ sounds changing to ‘J’ sounds and she thought it sounded ridiculous.
As we left Beruniy, we plunged back into the Qizil-Kum. The towns of Miskin, Turtkul, and Beruniy, even though they were all a day apart from each other, were closer tied to Khiva and the regional capital of Urgench than it was to Nukus. Nukus was still a few days walk away, and a lot happened in a such a short time. The day before Timb’s birthday, we met Nadir, who promptly invited us to stay at his place. Nadir took over his father’s business as a stone crusher, mainly for roads, cement plants, and construction material. Nadir’s operation wasn’t large but it wasn’t small either. He had hills of different sized rocks surrounding the crushing/separating apparatus. His on-site home and housing for his workers was an arrangement of shipping containers stacked and welded together with the insides fabricated to have all the comforts of home. Which was exactly the way every house in Uzbekistan felt to us, far nicer on the inside than the outside made it seem. He hosted us in a new building up on a little hill that was still under construction and would soon be the worker’s accommodations along with a cafeteria, which currently was one of the shipping containers in the arrangement. He spoke English very well with a hint of a Boston accent. That night, over plov and vodka, Nadir told us all about his life, family, and dreams. He lived in Boston with his wife and two boys for a couple of years (yeahs) while they tried to make a pizzeria business pan out. His boys grew up learning English as their first language and he and his wife had a third child, whose passport is American, an interesting thing for him now living back in Uzbekistan. Now, Nadir’s wife and children live in Tashkent, the capital, where there are better schools and work opportunities Than out here in western Uzbekistan. The night drew on as we talked and talked, relishing the ease of conversation that bridged the gap between cultures, even though it was apparent Nadir’s time overseas had given him more of a western perspective than most Uzbeks we’ve met on the road. In this way, we also got to see a local’s perspective on his own culture after having American influences for a few years; very interesting to hear a reflection of one’s own culture.
The next day was Timb’s birthday and we decided to take Nadir up on his offer of sticking around to see the explosion at his quarry—exactly where you want to be after a night of drinking, right? The day was mixed between us getting the tour of the whole operation including the demolition site and quarry tucked into the edge of the Sultan Babur Mountains—known for their marble and gold deposits—dining with the workers, and relaxing in the room we were given. Some of the workers commented that we were the first foreigners they had ever seen. They also told us they were very happy to work for Nadir because he took care of them through higher pay and better benefits that they could ask for at other places. Nadir is trying to entrepreneur a work-away program that brings English teachers to his stone plant for the benefit of the workers and to his home village just down the road to benefit from this otherwise nonexistent gateway to the greater world outside Uzbekistan. Out here away from the bigger cities it is almost impossible to find the opportunities to get a leg up in this world and Nadir wants to do what he can to change that.
On the road again, we rounded the corner of the Sultan Babur Mountains to face another straight stretch that went out of sight into the distance. Somewhere up ahead was Nukus, the end of the crossing. It was strange to feel the depth of the desert wash away when we found ourselves around other people and their homes. It felt like we were somewhere, and the ever-present road kept us from feeling true separation from the established world. But the moment we passed the last building in every town, or in this case, when we put the only land feature behind us, it was a harsh reminder of our remoteness. And I was feeling it. The long stretches and empty days. Monotony blending the days together. So much so that when we saw a bump on the horizon, it was far more interesting than if we had been traveling more quickly.
The bump turned out to be a Zoroastrian Sky Burial site called Chilpik. Without thinking twice, Timb and I left the road at its closest point to the monument and we went off to explore and add a bit of adventure to our day, heck, to our week! Chilpik stood out against the horizon like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day. A massive flat-top circular mound built atop a hill amidst this flat, featureless plain. And it’s been standing there since the first century AD! It is by far the oldest human-made structure I’ve ever been in. Zoroastrianism was among the first religions of the world and believed our souls are pure and that our bodies were an impure cause of evil to contaminate the world. Thus the sky burial rite. Towers of Silence—places like Chilpik are sometimes called—are a place bodies of the deceased were brought to be cleansed by exposure to the elements… and birds of prey. The bodies were left out for sometimes up to a year before the remains were considered as pure as possible. Nothing left but white bones, that’s pretty pure, right? Not quite. From here the bones would be gathered up and placed in clay jars and buried so as not to contaminate the earth. Getting a chance to explore this rare site with no one else around was pretty incredible. Climbing around, we saw where the floor had tile and brick work still in place and other areas where it had eroded away. There was one spot that was clearly low sloping stairs, even though the erosion and softened edges of the pattern was not natural and had the same tile-like lines where some mason long ago set them into place.
The view from the top allowed us to see so much more of the same in the direction we had come from, but to the south flowed the Amu-Daria flanked by fields and farms, homes and villages. The river is clearly the life of this part of the world. We stared at it for some time, watching dust clouds billowing up off the dry islands of land poking up out of the river. Our eyes following the aqueduct channels dug into the land spreading out of sight, and at the fields in various states of harvest. Turning around to see the barrenness that we would walk across to get back to the road, it was strange to think a life can be made in such a place.
The rest of the way to Nukus was a patchwork of new roads being paved, old ones being ground up, randomly placed construction sites with a few workers and their bon-fires for heating up tar for patch work, and the cars that drove on all of it. Timb and I bounced from side to side trying to use which ever side we thought had less traffic, better surfacing, and was up wind of the dust stirred up by vehicles weaving their way between the road options. This was followed by a long stretch of desert that abruptly met the edge of Nukus. We crossed a bridge over the major train depot and were practically downtown. From there we separated and meandered our own ways to the hostel Paul had found the day before since he didn’t check out Chilpik with us, but instead continued on to scout town for us.
The final thing that ended this region was a border run to reset our visa stay for another 30 days. We took a train forward to the border of Western Kazakhstan where we would eventually be walking through. The train in Karakalpakistan was crazy. Your seat assignment didn’t seem to matter. The attendants took the first couple beds because they were bigger and so everybody’s tickets were off. People were doubling up on single cots, which was super impressive to see. And the full-blown market of people pacing the aisles selling cooked food that was still hot. Oh, and pungent dried fish—but at least the nice part about that was that when the fishy smell finally wafted away they would walk by with it again. Money exchangers casually whispering the rates, due to the slight illegality of this trade—negotiations would suddenly start and stop as officials shuffled their way by, seemingly oblivious but probably not. All that wasn’t even the craziest part. It was the people selling their homemade food (the plov was very tasty) were also serving it on real dishes! No plastic disposables! It was awesome. They served it from their custom shoulder-sling packs that kept the pot warm and held all the dishes with a clean and dirty side (I was watching to make sure). Then they just waited for you to finish and maybe asked around for others in the area, which tended to be a great selling point having the whole area filled with the mouth-watering smell of your cooking. There was more than plov, too. There was soup and somsas, sheshlik meat skewers, (ugh) and there went the fish again. The border itself was easy even with the coronavirus crack down (the guards asked us if we had it and we said no so they told us to move on).
All in all, this crossing from Bukhara to Nukus was a roller coaster of high points and wonderful experiences to mind-numbingly boring strings of days that blended together with no end in sight. Crossings all follow the same pattern of leaving a bustling city center, passing through the industrial parts that make our civilized world run but kept out of sight, to the agricultural sprawl that feed us all that slowly gives up its hold on the ages-old attempt to conquer the natural world, the barren and fierce vastness that makes up the true in-betweens, and the reverse flow of all this as you re-enter the civilized world on the other side. Where ever we went, there was always something that brightened our journey.
Hopefully we gained valuable lessons from this crossing, because the next region is the Uskyurt Plateau and is by far the biggest crossing we under-take, over a month of desolation and nothingness—well, depending on how you classify ‘nothingness’. Stay tuned!
Written by Pat