October 24, 2012
They usually begin in the middle of the night, those sharp stomach pains that awaken you from a peaceful slumber. If you’re on the road long enough, in a foreign country with unfamiliar foods, you’re eventually bound to be afflicted with some sort of intestinal problem. Was it the afternoon ice cream snack, the colorful carrot salad at lunch, or the strange Uzbek version of pigs in a blanket served at dinner? I’ve had my fair share of sickness while traveling, the worst being in Paris and Brussels (the French speakers have it out for me, I guess) and I tend to just spend the entire day in bed when that happens. That wouldn’t be an option this time, however.
We were headed to Nukus that morning, a little over 100 miles away from Khiva. With my stomach rumbling fiercely, I skipped breakfast and spent the three hour bus ride alternately popping capsules of Immodium and Pepto. (Want the secret to quickly losing weight? Food poisoning). While our bus rolled through the Uzbek desert, we watched “The Desert of Forbidden Art”, a documentary about Igor Savitsky and his efforts to stash Russian avant-garde art in the backwater town of Nukus, away from the watchful eyes of the Soviets. The 40,000 (!) pieces of artwork he did save are now housed at the Nukus Museum of Art. Visiting this museum was the main reason we were traveling to Nukus.
Unlike the Silk Road cities we had visited over the past week, Nukus is relatively modern, having only been founded in 1932. It is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan that is home to the Karakalpak people (although they are quickly being outnumbered by Uzbeks moving to the republic). Aside from the art museum, there is not much for a traveler to see in Nukus. There are no grand mosques or mausoleums, nor is there a quaint old town; the city is entirely Soviet in construction, with the typical wide avenues, tree lined streets, and pre-fabricated apartment buildings.
We arrived at the museum shortly afternoon and were treated to a beautiful lunch spread, which, I unfortunately had to skip in favor of drinking Coke. I rarely drink Coke in the U.S., but when I’m sick abroad it is the first thing I turn to. It’s a nice taste of home, and the syrup always seems to calm my stomach.
We toured the museum for several hours. The artwork on display in this large building is only a small percentage of the collection, with the rest kept in storage rooms. Looking at some of these paintings, one could only wonder how the Soviet authorities could have possibly considered them anti-socialist (but then I guess if a piece of art wasn’t of the socialist realism school, then it was immediately suspect). It was hard to imagine that Stavitsky, a Russian painter and archaeologist, had managed to amass one of the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world (second only to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg); one can only marvel at his dedication to his fellow artists and perseverance in saving their art for future generations.