Bored in Kelburn library before an exam in 2014, former Salient co-editors Molly McCarthy and Ollie Neas scanned a map for places they knew nothing about. They opened their web browser and typed in “Turkmenistan.” One year later, they found themselves in unusual territory, responding to friends’ queries that were less “Can you send me a postcard?” and more “Does that country even exist?” West of China, they had crossed into Central Asia, a part of the world which falls through the cracks of east and west, where sky-shattering mountain ranges rise from punishing deserts, and where tough-man dictators cling on to power in the face of a deep, mystic Islam. Although the hub of global trade for centuries as the core of the Silk Road, Molly and Ollie found a region hidden on the fringes of global dramas, one still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. And beyond the ‘Stans they found Iran, a country of many faces, now opening up to the world after decades in isolation. These are the photos from that journey, a long way from Kelburn library.
ARAL SEA, UZBEKISTAN
The town of Moynaq is in the middle of nowhere, but it hasn’t always been. Until the 1960s it was a bustling port town at the edge of the Aral Sea, the vast landlocked body of water that straddles Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But then, in a bid to make Uzbekistan the cotton hub of the Soviet Union, the Aral’s two main tributaries were diverted to the arid plains in the country’s centre. It was a success: the plains were irrigated and the cotton yield became bountiful. But as the Uzbek apparatchiks declared victory, in Moynaq, the tide was turning. The waters began filling with pesticides, the catch dwindled, and one of humanity’s greatest environmental disasters began. 50 years on, the Aral Sea is all but gone, receded beyond the horizon, and Moynaq is a near ghost town. All that remained when we visited were the rusting hulks of fishing boats, scattered like tombstones across the parched seabed.
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The weirdness of Uzbekistan started as soon as we crossed the border, when we handed $60.00 to a man who gave us a plastic bag full of cash. We hadn’t been ripped off. In Uzbekistan inflation is so bad that this is how banking is done. Then we started to hear the stories. Of labourers ordered to glue harvested cotton back onto cotton trees to impress passing politicians. Of doctors prescribing random medicines just to get them out of their cabinets before their expiry. Of border guards obsessed by pornography. Everywhere we had a sense that things were only just hanging together—everywhere except the country’s many bazaars. There, despite the pervasive post-communist absurdity, Uzbek society flourishes and salesman boast personalities as large as the carpets they tout.
A figure stands on the sand-dunes in the heart of the Dasht-e Kavir, one of the two huge deserts that dominate Iran. During the days of the Silk Road, caravans of camels bearing silks and gemstones traveled through these shifting sands, but today the only traffic is the occasional salt truck.
The ruined city of Persepolis was once the seat of power for an empire that was the largest the world had ever seen, stretching from the Balkans through to India. Western history remembers the Achaemenids for freeing the Jews of Babylon and as sworn enemy of Athens and Sparta, but to Iranians, names like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes are not just footnotes of history, but fathers of a civilisation that lives on in Iran today.
When locals describe Esfahan, Iran’s third biggest city, they often resort to a proverb: “Esfahan nesf-e jahan”—Esfahan is half the world. Stumbling upon the Naqsh-e Jahan, the world’s second largest square after China’s Tiananmen, after weaving our way through a labyrinthine bazaar, we found it hard to disagree with the locals. In the evening, with the sun setting on the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (pictured here) it felt as if half the world’s population was right there with us. Fountains leapt, families picniced and young Iranians approached, asking us to pose for Instagram—the only social media that Iran doesn’t ban.