Now the ignorance was on me.  After all the “Uz-what’s” I had heard from people when asking about my destination, I read with astonishment in my guidebook that I was in “Karal-what”?  Karalkalpakstan!  Never heard of it.  But here it is:  An autonomous republic within Uzbekistan with Nukus as its capital.  But if this is it, that says it all.  The guidebook goes on to describe it as “a grim, spiritless city of bitter pleasures”!  Wow… That’s where I am.  I have not found the bitter pleasures yet, but I get the grim and spiritless.  Everything looks either dusty, unfinished, and abandoned, or uniform, overdone and pretentious.

I am here for one reason only:  To check out the Savitsky Collection of art which was brought to my attention by a dear friend who keeps up on these cultural matters much better than I do.  But that collection could hardly take a whole day.  So I decided to hire a taxi driver and explore some of the surrounding sights first.  To communicate that was an endeavor by itself.  Doesn’t anyone speak English in this town?!  I know this is an arrogant request and I know there are hardly any foreign tourists here, but there are a few and these hotels could do so much better, if at least one person per shift could communicate…  I finally got hold of a young taxi driver, drew him maps with site names, $ question marks, and a time line.  And with the help of two security officers, one maid, and two desk clerks we worked out a deal, I think.

First stop today was an ancient cemetery and holy site:  Mizdarkhan.  A few thousand graves sprawl over a hilltop in an otherwise flat countryside.  They range from the 11th to the 20th century and hold from holy Islamic saints to insignificant and forgotten Russians.  Since no information was available, and barely anything was marked, I took the site in as a whole rather than trying to figure out the historical significance of individual graves.  It was an impressive, crumbling ensemble.   Upon entry the gatekeeper sits down with visitors like me and recites an Islamic prayer, hands cupped in front of him.  He expects you to follow his ritual and so I did.  I am not sure what he was praying for, but I am sure it was all good and for the benefit of the deceased.  A donation is expected for the service.

The second stop was a 150 year old ghost town.  I really am not sure why I wanted to see it, but aside from the art museum it was one of the few other things listed in the vicinity:  Ishan Kala.  If you are ever around, don’t bother going there.   After I have seen much older desert ghost towns in Syria and Iran, this one really was not worth it.  But it has a certain doom-and-gloom feel to it to walk around still clearly defined old living quarters which were abandoned and left to their own devices about 150 years ago.  Why?  Natural disasters?  Economic changes?  Disease?  I may never know.

By this time of the day, my jet-leg is still trying to get the better of me and I think that I can not possibly stay up for another hour.  But there is always No-Doze – if you have never tried it, it’s the best and keeps you going when you can’t have loads of coffee to keep you upright.

The afternoon was reserved for the Savitsky Museum.  Little did I know – my guidebook certainly did make no mention of it – it closed for lunch until 2 PM.  I could have taken a nap!  Instead, I roamed the nearby amusement park and marveled at half a century outdated carousels, a squeaky Ferris wheel, and a rusty roller coaster which barely rose 10 feet off the ground.  But the kids seemed to have fun nonetheless.

As I went to the museum at opening, my arrival coincided with that of two snobbish Swiss lesbians who agreed to share a tour guide with me.  After one personal question, I got the message – they had no interest in talking to me whatsoever.   Their loss.  My time was much better spent listening to the very informative, English-speaking head of the education department who took us on an exhausting 2.5 hour tour never tiring to answer questions, always full of more information when prompted.  That is quite the collection there!  The basic idea is this:  Savitsky, himself an artist ended up in Karakalpak (even after practicing, I have a hard time getting this out smoothly) and inspired by the light and the local arts, decided to start a museum dedicated to giving local artists a voice.  As things tightened up in the former Soviet Union – after a brief artistic period of experimentation and unprecedented artistic freedom Socialist Realism became the prescribed norm, Savitsky shifted to “rescuing” the “hidden” art many artists in the main centers (not just Karakalpak) still produced.  He amassed over 80,000 works of art ranging from sketches, to prints, to drawings and paintings; hundreds of works of any given artist.  The best part of this is that he used state funds to purchase all of this!  Nobody cared about what he was doing in the backwaters of the Karkalpakian desert.  Nukus – who would ever come there to check up on him?! OK, there were the artistic committees he had to pass with every purchase.  But in the case of too well-known dissidents, he temporarily would label certain pieces as “artist unknown”.  Or in other cases he would fabricate elaborate interpretations of a piece which to some of the more party-lined committee apparatchiks would look suspicious.  He had a standing in the community.  He had a vision and he got away with it.  Hail to people like him!

For a lot of money one can usually purchase a photo license to take up to 50 pictures.  For two days (today and tomorrow) there is absolutely no photography in the museum as they were setting up for an event which involved an international conference at which the daughter of the governor is expected.  They actually rolled out a carpet for her today.   My luck!  I had to smuggle my little camera in and was able to snatch at least one shot of the Savitsky room.  Darn.  Perhaps, you can find some pictures online?

But just imagine:  For a moment I had contemplated to go to the museum tomorrow.  I would have stood in front of closed doors!  I would have had a fit – after all this money spent on this otherwise really time-consuming and useless detour not to be able to see what I came for.  Just the thought of it makes me shiver.  Thanks, Ganesh, for directing me to go there today.  I can always count on you.

After the same $1 dumpling soup which I already had yesterday and after writing this blog and working on the photos, the day has progressed way past my bed-time.   Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. I am just checking in and reading about the last 4 days.

    This museum sounds really interesting.

    food: My father remembers drinking fermented mare’s milk in Uzbekistan. Probably like yogurt or kefir. Look for it, and let us know.

  2. I looked Nukus up on the Internet and it said that because of wind borne salt and pestisides from the dry Aral Sea bed, the city is being turned into a wasteland with high rates of respiratory disease, cancer, birth defects and other deformities. (Kind of reminded me of the TS Eliot poem The Wasteland…a really wonderful and descriptive work and a great read while someone is in Nukus!!) But the Museum gets really high marks…Igor did a real service to art/culture when he managed to evade Stalin and his gulags.
    Bitter pleasures indeed. (Is No-Doze in that category…lol?)
    You’re getting me a bit worried about your dietary situation…I hope you eat more than one bowl of soup a day!!! Now I am laughing out loud!!!
    What an incredible journey you are on…like to the ends of the Earth.