A city called Nukus

Nukus was my first halt in Uzbekistan. The 6th largest city of the country, it is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region within Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan covers a third of the area of Uzbekistan, which includes a major portion of the Ustyurt Plateau, and the Kyzyl-Kum Desert. The Amu Darya river is the lifeline of the region and flows through the city of Nukus.

Nukus is not known for its tourist attractions, but there was a reason I visited this city. More about that at the end of the post. It is located about 1000 km northwest of Tashkent, or a two-and-a half-hour journey by air from there by a propeller-driven plane, like the one in the photograph below.

Hukus, Tashkent Domestic Airport, Propeller PlaneHukus, Tashkent Domestic Airport, Propeller PlaneWhen I saw the propeller-driven planes waiting on the tarmac of the Tashkent Domestic Airport, I got all excited as I had never flown in one. But 5 minutes into flying, I was reaching for ear plugs for they were incredibly noisy. It didn’t help that my window overlooked one of the propellers.

Once the initial excitement of the propeller plane had worn off, the flight was uneventful and monotonous, just like the landscape on ground below. Apart from a road or two or a cluster of dwellings, I didn’t see anything to break the sandy ground below.

Nukus itself arrived rather suddenly and if I didn’t feel the plane descending, I wouldn’t have known that we had arrived. It is only later that I found out that the city is quite spread out and away from the airport, and one of the reasons why I didn’t see anything from the air.

When I landed at the rather small and quaint Nukus Airport on that September morning, I had been travelling (or waiting for a connecting flight) for almost 20 hours, and sleep deprived for even longer. It had been a long journey from humid Mumbai, to hot Delhi to cold Tashkent to dry and arid Nukus. I should have been sleepy and tired, but thanks to the numerous cups of coffee and excitement at finally being in Uzbekistan, I was not only awake, but also alert and ready to explore. :)

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Dear Uzbekistan

Many, many years ago there was once a quiet, little girl who was happiest among books, especially picture books. She hadn’t yet learned to read, and would always be asking her family members to explain what she was ‘reading’.

One day, her father came home with a stack of magazines. The little girl went through them all, one by one. She was particularly mesmerised by the cover of one of the magazines. It had a picture of a blue dome against an even bluer sky, and she liked it so much that she wanted to see the dome for real.

Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Samarqand, Blue ribbed domeShe went up to her father and told him of her intention. Her father looked at the magazine cover and said, “This is in a place called Samarqand. You want to go to there?”

The girl nodded.

“It’s quite far from here. Why don’t you wait till you are grown up?”

“Okay,” said the little girl. “I will go to Samarqand when I grow up.”

The years went by. The little girl grew up, the magazine got misplaced, her father passed away, but the blue dome of Samarqand and her dream of seeing it was not forgotten. Friends and family, who knew of this, would often ask when she was visiting Samarqand. Her answer always was, “I don’t know when. All I know is that one day I will.”

That day came four decades after she had first declared her intention to visit Samarqand. Last month, the now not-so-little girl made that trip to Samarqand and other places in Uzbekistan. There was a touch of the unreal when her plane landed in Tashkent and she couldn’t help but wonder if she was part of a dream. The fresh, cold air that hit her when she exited the aircraft convinced her that this was no dream, but the real thing ! :)

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Summer of 1992

1992 was a very important year for me. A turning point, you could say. I can’t pinpoint to a particular moment or event for there were many that made the year so memorable. But two of them were really special and, interestingly (or maybe not !) both involved travel. It was not the kind of travel I do today; rather, it was travel for the purpose of study as part requirement of the Master’s programme in Geology I was pursuing at that time.

In May 1992, I arrived in Bhuj (in Kachchh district region of Gujarat) with AK, a classmate, to undertake a 15-day field trip for our Master’s dissertation in Geology. Though both of us were based in Bhuj, we had separate sites of field work (about 15 km away) and our field work was individual. We had a common faculty guide, who was to join us in Bhuj after about 10 days. This would have given us time to finish the bulk of our field work and present our preliminary findings to him.

I was quite excited as this was to be my first solo field trip — in the previous field trips I had been part of a larger group of classmates. Having a geological hammer, compass, and topographical map all to myself made me feel quite important. Not to mention grown-up and empowered as well ! :P

Bhuj, Smainarayan Talav, Mandvi Road, Geology field work, Summer of 1992, Sudha Ganapathi

First day of field work in May 1992. Just look at how delighted I am !

The first day of field work was exhilarating and as perfect as a young geologist like me could hope for — excellent rock exposures, variety in rock structures and textures, fossils, some intriguing geological puzzles… It was also very distracting, but I soon settled down and within the next day or two established a field work routine.

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The stepwell at Lohargal

One place that everyone I spoke to in Shekhawati said I must visit was Lohargal. And all gave different reasons for visiting it.

It is our hill station, said one. You get the best pickles in the world there, said another. It is a holy place and a dip in the tank will remove your sins, said the third person. There is an ancient sun temple there, said the fourth. The mention of the sun temple got me intrigued. Then another person said, “There’s a stepwell at Lohargal. If you’re interested in history, you must go there.” The stepwell was the clincher to visit Lohargal.

That’s how on my return journey to Jaipur from Nawalgarh, at the end of my Shekhawati trip, I took a detour to visit the stepwell at Lohargal. It was an hour’s drive from Nawalgarh through steady rain, narrow roads skirting the Aravali ranges, and some beautiful scenery.

When we arrived at the stepwell, which is on the road, the rain had lessened to a light drizzle.

Lohagal stepwell, Chetan Das ki Bawri, Travel, Rajasthan, Shekhawati

The stepwell. At the far end is the well and the well shaft and beyond that are the Aravali mountains

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Messages on the wall: The graffiti of Nawalgarh

When I arrived in Nawalgarh, the first work of ‘art’ I noticed was not its famed frescoes or even its grand havelis — it was a piece of graffiti.

I was looking out of the window of the car I was travelling in, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fresco, when the car suddenly braked to let a cow pass. That’s when I saw the graffiti — a yellow rectangular patch with blue lettering on a cracked and patched surface. It was the contrast of the freshness of the graffiti against a dull and old surface that attracted me and I took a picture of it for that reason. The words (for those who can’t read the Devanagari script or understand Hindi) can be roughly translated to:

Even if it means losing your life, don’t give in to anything improper or immoral.

Graffiti, Nawalgarh, New Art, Morals, Gayatri Shaktipeeth

As the car moved ahead, I dismissed the graffiti as a one-off and resumed my search for the frescoes. Little did I know at that time that along with the frescoes and the havelis, I would be seeing other graffiti all over Nawalgarh.

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The Shekhawati trip planner

In case it wasn’t apparent in the last few posts, I had a blast conceptualising and writing the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati“. The series is done for now (at least till I visit Shekhawati again in the future). I do have a couple of more posts on Shekhawati to be written, but those can wait. For now, at least. :)

The response to the series has been surprisingly good. I expected interest, yes, considering that this series is quite detailed, but not so much as generally people are not that interested in art. In fact, one of my friends had asked on seeing my initial photos, “Didn’t you get tired of seeing the painted havelis all the time?” No, I didn’t get tired of them; if anything, I wanted to see more of them.

And that’s what the response on the blog and shares across social media also seemed to indicate. In fact, for the first time since I started blogging, I have received so many emails and messages asking for details with regard to my trip plan, where I stayed, the itinerary, how I travelled, was it safe, etc., that it has been gratifying.

Slowly, very slowly, the idea of writing a trip planner as a blog post grew. But it was easier thought than actually written ! I struggled to put a draft together under the conventional heads of where I stayed, how I travelled, what I did, etc. One read later, the draft was trashed. It was that bad. That’s when I considered writing the Shekhawati trip planner in a Q&A format — a trip planner based on the questions I got asked in the mails and messages and my answers to them. Club Mahindra, Nawalgarh, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan, trip PlannerThe more I thought about the Q&A format, the more I liked it. It took a while to get written though, and after some tweaking and editing, presenting and sharing my very first trip planner.

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