This is part 2 of my blog post about traveling in Uzbekistan. Click here for part 1.
The wisdom of Karimov
Islam Karimov came to power in 1990 as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he suddenly found himself the president of a new independent democracy. He has been Uzbekistan’s one and only president ever since, despite a constitutional two-term limit. Most recently, in 2015 Karimov was reelected to his fourth term with 90% of the vote (no serious opponent was permitted to run, of course).
During his quarter-century in power, Karimov has cultivated a father-of-the-nation personality cult that is on display everywhere in Uzbekistan. Sage quotations pulled from Karimov’s many speeches and writings are on written on highway billboards and museum placards, and his portrait is on display everywhere. The surprising thing is that most Uzbeks seem to support and admire their dictator. Over the course of my organized tour of the country, our guide unwittingly promulgates the Karimov legend, beginning any sentence about the state of the country with: “After independence, our president decided…” Everything from the recent growth in gold mining, to the restoration of monuments, to the construction of a new cargo airport he attributes to Karimov’s genius. When driving through Bukhara, our guide points out a shiny new tennis complex. “Our president likes to play tennis, so he built these all over the country,” he says proudly. Nearby, the enormous palace Karimov’s built for himself (“for when he visits here”, our guide explains) stands empty, surrounded by high fences and a patrolled buffer zone.
Sometimes Karimov’s genius conflicts with itself. For instance, our guide tells us of how he plans to curb the farming of cotton, a water-intensive crop, to help save the Aral Sea. Later, however, he tells us that the president has championed the cotton industry by inviting Turkish companies into Uzbekistan to modernize and operate its idling Soviet-era processing factories. In another contradiction, the president has “greatly improved education in Uzbekistan”—by cutting two years of school (the 9th grade is now the maximum) and eliminating state-sponsored overseas scholarships.
Meanwhile, the many failures of the government are evident to anyone with eyes. The roads everywhere except the capital are crumbling and full of dangerous ruts and holes, making it impossible to drive anywhere quickly. Scheduled blackouts are routine in the countryside, and the water supply is unreliable. Inflation has been around 30% for decades.
Timur the Good?
In the 14th century, Tamerlane (aka Timur the Lame) rose from humble roots in a tribe outside of Samarkand to ultimately claim and reunite the Mongol empire in Central Asia. He then went on a stunning military rampage through modern-day Iran, Iraq, and parts of Turkey and India, flooding Samarkand with unimaginable riches, and founding a dynasty that would have far-reaching influence over world history.
Fast-forward six hundred years to the newly-independent state of Uzbekistan. Given that the Soviets had defined the national boundaries of the various “Stans” (collectively known as Turkestan) more or less at random, there was little to distinguish Uzbekistan from its Central Asian neighbours. A national hero was needed, and Karimov seems to have chosen Timur.
In modern day Uzbekistan, statues and portraits of Timur are almost as common as those of Karimov. His tomb in Samarkand has been partially rebuilt, and the story of his life is the focus of any visit to the city. More compelling than the statues and monuments, however, are the myths and legends about Timur’s life that circulate like gossip, and have been coopted by the current regime into a sort of national storybook. Some are rooted in documented history, while others are no more than tourist anecdotes, but all are quite interesting. For instance, legend has is that a curse was engraved on Timur’s tomb warning against disturbing his final resting place. Ignoring the curse, Stalin ordered Timur’s skeleton be exhumed to allow anatomical measurements to be taken. The following day, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. (Stalin had a likeness of Timur’s face reconstructed from the skull measurements, giving us the familiar portrait.)
Perhaps the most enchanting story is one of Timur’s love for his primary wife, Bibi Khanum, known as The Fatal Kiss. Read my version of it below. Note that there are many versions of this story, with very different endings—this is my favourite one.
Click here to read the story of The Fatal Kiss
The great conqueror Timur had many wives, but the most beautiful, and his favourite, was the Chinese princess Bibi Khanum. Bibi Khanum was very clever, and Timur consulted her on many important matters of state. She wanted to give him a gift fit for a king, so when Timur was away on a long military campaign, Bibi Khanum invited a famous architect from Iran to build a great mosque as a surprise for her husband. Unfortunately, the architect fell deeply in love with her, and refused to complete the project unless she gave him a kiss. Day after day he would ask for a kiss, and day after day she would refuse. Worried that the mosque would not be complete by the time of Timur’s return, Bibi Khanum finally agreed to give the architect a kiss, but only on the cheek through her cupped hand. Still, the kiss filled the architect with such passion that it left a permanent red mark on his cheek. He completed the mosque as agreed.
When Timur returned and learned of the kiss, he flew into a rage, had the architect executed, and ordered that his wife be thrown from its high minaret as punishment for her infidelity. When he gazed upon her beautiful face and the magnificent mosque she had constructed, however, he was unable to carry out the sentence, and instead ordered that she leave his empire forever, taking with her only her most valuable possessions. After careful consideration, she told Timur that she wished to bring only a single possession, it being of more value to her than all the riches of the kingdom combined: Timur himself. Upon hearing his wife’s expression of true love, his heart softened and he forgave his wife. However, he ordered that all women must henceforth veil their faces so as not to tempt men with their beauty.
The tragedy of the Aral Sea
Before the Soviet Union introduced large-scale cotton farming to the region, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world. It supported a vibrant fishery, and provided much-needed humidity and rainfall to the surrounded area. Cotton is a thirsty crop, however, and by the turn of the millennium the sea’s volume had shrunk cataclysmically by 80%. Intensive irrigation projects drew an ever-increasing supply of water from the once-mighty Amu-Darya (Oxus) and Syr-Darya rivers, eventually reducing their flow so much that they often didn’t reach the Aral at all. As of 2015, the Aral Sea covers only 30% of its former surface area, with the new southern shoreline a full 250 km from its original position—and it’s still shrinking.
I observe the consequences of planting cotton, rice, and other water-intensive crops first hand as we drive across Uzbekistan. The mighty Amu-Darya (i.e. Oxus) River was reputedly 1200 m wide when Alexander the Great famously ferried his army across it. Now, they could easily swim it, or maybe even wade. For hundreds of kilometers, the dry fragile grassland next to the road is dusted with a white frost of salt. Everyone seems to have a different story of its origin. Some say that the drought caused the salt to rise up out of the ground; others say that it blew in from the endless salt flats of the former Aral seabed. Everyone agrees that it’s a man-made tragedy.
It’s too late to save the Aral Sea. Experts say that it would require a complete moratorium on cotton production to reverse its decline, an economic impossibility in a region that now depends on it almost exclusively due to decades of misguided government policy. So the Aral Sea will continue to shrink, and the desert will continue to advance. Nobody knows what Uzbekistan will do then.
And the “Most Unexpected Place to Find a World-Class Art Museum Award” goes to…
Nukus is the dilapidated capital of the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic in western Uzbekistan. It used to service the Aral Sea economy, but that source of employment has dried up. It also used to host the Red Army’s chemical weapons laboratory and testing ground, but that’s gone too. What Nukus does have, however, is one of the greatest collections of dissident Soviet art in the world.
That’s right—in this backwater of backwaters, connected to the outside world only by occasional trains and crumbling roads, is the incredible Savitsky Museum, which houses a Louvre-class collection of avant-garde Soviet art. Mr. Savitsky collected from all over the former Soviet Union, focusing on pieces that specifically contravened the approved Socialist Realist style. Some of the pieces were even created from within the gulag. The most famous piece in the collection is Yevgeny Lysenko’s painting of a blue bull, entitled Fascism Is Advancing. The Soviet government forced Lysenko into a mental hospital for it.
At one point the Savitsky Museum was so underfunded that the volunteer attendants adjusted the humidity of the rooms by placing pans of water on the floor. Some recent donations have brought proper climate control equipment (thanks Nescafé!), but it still looks more like a small-town community center than a top-flight museum. Many paintings simply lean against the wall on the floor. Little pieces of cardboard identifying the works hang from the wall on butcher’s string. Things should get better soon though; a new museum is presently under construction. But where are they going to find new visitors?
A yurt is not for yoga
My tour of Uzbekistan finishes off in the remote western desert near Nukus. Every hilltop in the sandy hinterland is crowned with the shattered remains of a fiefdom that existed here long before Alexander invaded 2300 years ago. The mud brick halls and arches have mostly melted away into mounds of earth. Empty liquor bottles left by partying teenagers collect in the low places between the sunken walls that used to be the chambers of kings.
We spend the night in a small yurt camp near Ayaz Qala, an ancient fortress that’s name is an untranslatable phrase that roughly means “fortress of the soft pleasant breeze that blows continuously across the desert.” During our cross-legged dinner in the yurt, we are poured glass after glass of bileous vodka named “Black Mountain”, so named because of the dark-faced range visible on the horizon. Things get out of hand when I announce that I will entertain the group by singing the Canadian national anthem while standing on my head—a one-man talent show.
Early the next morning, I hike up the hill to Ayaz Qala. As the sun rises over the desert, I crouch in the long shadows of the crumbling fortress and look towards my next destination. Turkmenistan, one of the least-visited countries in the world, lies just to the west.