Our question was still unanswered the next morning, and we went to the market to buy a present for our host, known only as ‘mama’ (I asked her name, but ‘mama’ was all I was going to get!). We emerged half an hour later with a new tablecloth and a melon. When we arrived home, however, it emerged that we were paying guests, leading to a round of negotiations in which we tried to find a fair price. It was a strange experience, the line between being a guest and a customer blurred. On the one hand, Mama had taken us under her wing, helping us to find a hotel, and when that failed, offering us her house. On the other hand, it was not clear that we were going to pay, never mind how much, and we would have behaved differently had we known we were paying guests. Nick in particular was annoyed, while I was more inclined to see it as a cultural misunderstanding. No doubt the truth lay somewhere between the two.
The rest of the day was rather listless, as we cycled out of town towards Nukus, stopping for a few hours in a truckers chayxana to catch up on some reading. We cycled a little further down the road, before pulling over and setting up camp as the weather turned colder. Out of town, the night was crystal clear – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way so bright!
The weather had turned, and the morning was cold. We cycled into Nukus, crossing the river Amu Darya, known to the Greeks as the Oxus. The delta, which together with the Syr Darya – or Jaxartes – irrigated most of lowland Uzbekistan, is a flourish of green among the steppe, and has been populated for thousands of years.
Having arrived in Nukus, we headed straight for the Savitsky Art Museum, a collection of fine and applied arts gathered under Soviet rule by Igor Savitsky, an ethnologist with an interest in modernist art. He preserved some great work, particularly from the 1920s an 1930s, when the advent of Soviet rule permitted artists to experiment with representational art, forbidden by Islam. The collection was subsequently curated by Marinika Babanazarova, the current director, whom I was lucky enough to meet at a conference in Cambridge. Having promised to say hello on my way past, we headed to her office for tea, traditional Karakalpak sweets, and exchanged stories of running a museum in Uzbekistan, and cycling the Silk Road! This was followed by a tour of the museum by our accomplished guide Aysultan (so thorough that it took three and a half hours!) I can’t possibly do justice to the collection here – I’ll do it another time, when I have a moment – but can definitely advise to watch a superb documentary about the museum called ‘Desert of Forbidden Art’, which tells how Savitsky rescued much of this ‘subversive’ art by hiding it in Central Asia, far from the eyes of Moscow. And to google U. Tansykbaev’s ‘Crimson Autumn’, and A. Nicolaev’s ‘Road of Life.’ They’re remarkable.