Uzbekistan gets a bad rap for its repressive government and dysfunctional economy. But the landscape can still take one’s breath away, as Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima found during his first visit to the Central Asian nation.
Kuwajima, who lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is no stranger to Central Asia. But his recent trip to Uzbekistan turned many of his expectations on their head. Some of his impressions about the trip follow:
“I traveled to Uzbekistan for the first time this spring. Starting in the country’s west, in Karakalpakstan, I spent 10 days traveling east, overland with public transportation, randomly photographing people and landscapes.
“Karakalpakstan is home to minority Karakalpaks, who resemble ethnic Kazakhs in appearance and have a closely related language. Located on the dry steppe, the autonomous republic is considered the poorest part of the country and sends a lot of young people to Kazakhstan and Russia as migrant workers.
“Sometimes routine chores are difficult there. Because of Uzbekistan’s plethora of natural gas, many cars run on gas, but there are shortages nonetheless: On the way from Nukus to Moynaq (once a thriving port town on the now-desiccated Aral Sea), the driver stopped at one of the few working filling stations. Twenty to 30 cars stood in line and we had to wait about 45 minutes.
“Wherever I went, people asked me into their homes, sometimes insistently, always with the best intentions. A Karakalpak driver invited me into his cement-block apartment building in Nukus, where he treated me to plov his wife had cooked and the local vodka, “Karatau,” which he considered among the best (I held my feelings close, not to offend my host).
“I moved toward Ellikqala District, at the eastern edge of the autonomous republic, where the ethnic Uzbek population increases considerably. Around Ellikqala, there are several old fortresses.
“Passing through Urgench, which looks like a city built for Soviet workers, I headed to the ancient Silk Road town of Khiva. The central neighborhood, where hundreds of people still live, feels like a museum.
“There, several locals greeted me in Japanese, which never happens in other parts of Central Asia, as locals usually think I'm Chinese, Korean, Kazakh or Kyrgyz. In fact, I saw quite a few tourists from Japan, more than I’d seen elsewhere in Central Asia. There were Europeans as well.
“Khiva was a good place for casual street photography, and I was surprised, given all the horrible things I’d heard about them, that the police didn’t present any problems at all.”
Ikuru Kuwajima is a freelance photojournalist based in Almaty.