Marmots scurry to safety. Horses look on warily from a distance. The bleating of goats announces the arrival of 2 camels, the bony kings of nowhere. Riding on top of them, it’s the bony editor of Caravanistan, getting into the groove.
It’s amazing what a camel can eat. From up top, you see their heads moving to the most unlikely roadside snacks. Spiky, thistly plants that should only be approached wearing gloves, disappear effortlessly into their mouth. Little chewy trees. It leaves you to wonder what exactly it might look like inside there.
Our camels, who remain nameless, are well-behaved, though. Well-groomed, pleasantly smelling tourist camels sporting a hipster cut with trimmed sides, furry top. We move through the Kyzylkum desert spanning Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at a steady pace. It’s April, and it’s undoubtedly hot. There is of course, a lot of sand. But the landscape is not a monotonous Sahara. There are large swathes of green, munched on by goats and sheep. The deep red of fields of poppies transfers a mood of spring onto the low hills. We pass a lot of twisted, dried saxaul trees, whose silver leaves glisten. In the background stands the granite-grey cockscomb of the Nurata mountains.
There’s fauna too. Cute tiny turtles, lizards, snakes and millions of marmots hurry out of the way on approach (well, not the turtles). Overhead, eagles soar, pointing the way towards a picnic spot at Aidarkul, a large manmade lake that has become an important refuge for waterfowl, and one of the top birding spots in Uzbekistan.
Damir, our guide, is a friendly man of few words. Although we are in Uzbekistan, he is an ethnic Kazakh, and although we can converse in his native language, he remains a man of few words. When we visit his village, Dongelik, it becomes clear it’s not just him. The place feels like a ghost town, once prosperous, but now swallowed up by sand dunes. Trees are growing inexplicably in a garden of desert sand. 2 kids wave, but when we come closer than 50 meters, they run away. From adults, we don’t get as much as a nod (we do get some water). Perhaps we are the ghosts.
We return to our yurt camp, tired from the heat, our backsides sore. On my way to the shower I greet the hoopoe who is feeding his chick in a nest cleverly tucked under the sanitation block. A little owl sitting on the water tank hoots back. As the departure of the sun paints the sky into successive layers of cherry blossom pink, crimson and fire engine red, ocean blue and ultimately, starry black, I begin to think about this article, and I write down my impressions.
Riding a camel through the desert of Uzbekistan is not for the faint of heart. It’s never entirely comfortable, and the heat is a factor to consider. But it does allow for a way to discover the desert landscape not possible in any other way, when just staying in a yurt camp or driving through the desert. It’s the kind of slow travel I like to recommend.
Do’s and don’ts:
- Do cover up.
- Don’t expect your butt not to hurt at the end of the day.