Dancing in the Desert

The leap from dictatorship to dance fest destination is not one made by many countries, but last weekend Uzbekistan reinvented its image by staging a bold electronic music festival that sent techno beats pumping out across a desert that was once a sea.

Hundreds of ravers piled into the town of Moynaq to party to music mixed by DJs from Berlin, Moscow, and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as well as the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

Such an event would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, when the Central Asian state had a reputation not as a magnet for fun-seekers but as one of the globe’s most ruthless and repressive police states. As the music boomed out and strobe lights beamed across the crowds of revelers, the festival seemed like an emblem of the changing times.

The whole thing was made possible by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president who came to power two years ago following the death of strongman Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for a quarter of a century.

Mirziyoyev has embarked on an ambitious reform program often nicknamed the “Uzbek Spring” that—while stopping short of allowing political opposition—has seen him liberate some political prisoners, loosen the restraints on the media and civil society, open Uzbekistan up to more foreign travelers, liberalize the formerly basket-case economy, and now welcome a mass of hedonistic ravers.

Joanna Lillis

Joanna Lillis is a Kazakhstan-based journalist reporting on Central Asia for outlets including The Economist, The Guardian and the Eurasianet website. Prior to settling in Kazakhstan in 2005, she lived in Russia and Uzbekistan between 1995 and 2005, and worked for BBC Monitoring, the BBC World Service’s global media tracking service.

Mirziyoyev has embarked on an ambitious reform program often nicknamed the “Uzbek Spring”

The techno extravaganza grabbed attention as much for its quirky location as for its statement about the new Uzbekistan. It was staged 800 miles from Tashkent in the northwestern region of Karakalpakstan, in the town of Moynaq, a move that transformed the town from a byword for environmental disaster into the latest hip destination for adventurous merrymakers in one fell swoop.

Entrance to Moynaq

The zany idea of holding a music festival at Moynaq’s former harbor—overlooking a “graveyard of ships,” where the rusting hulls of one-time fishing vessels lie beached on the dried-out bed of what used to be the Aral Sea—was the brainchild of Otabek Suleimanov, a Tashkent-based lawyer by day and a DJ known as KEBATO by night.

His first thought was to take his turntables to Moynaq and mix music “in solitude and tranquility,” but he later had the bright idea of staging a full-blown festival. The suggestion received the enthusiastic backing of the local and national governments and was personally approved by Abdulla Aripov, the prime minister.

Organizer Otabek Suleimanov

The main goal is to raise awareness about the Aral Sea, which has shrunk over the last six decades to a tenth of the size it was in the 1960s, as a result of feckless agricultural policies devised by central planners when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union.

After the waters of Central Asia’s two main waterways—the Syr Darya and Amu Darya—were redirected to irrigate thirsty cottonfields, the sea began to shrink, leaving towns like Moynaq stranded miles inland in a toxic environment polluted by pesticides. The situation has sparked a public health calamity as well as an environmental one.

Suleimanov explained that he wanted to “not only raise awareness, but also bring people to that spot so they can see that with their own eyes and say: Look, the situation is actually worse than they describe in articles and books.”

The festival’s cataclysmic inspiration is reflected in its name: Stihia, a Russian word that roughly translates as “the elements” but has connotations of an unstoppable force of nature.

Although the revelers came chiefly to let their hair down, many had also taken on board the environmental message. One young man, nicknamed “Uncle Chill,” wore an oxygen mask as a graphic warning about climate change depriving the planet of fresh air.

Around 500 ravers made the trip to Moynaq (two hours’ drive from the nearest airport, in the city of Nukus) and townspeople turned out in their thousands to enjoy a cultural event of a type never before witnessed there—or indeed anywhere in Uzbekistan. Teenage girls added color with their traditional Karakalpak dresses in bright green and scarlet, and white-bearded aksakals (elders) sporting velvet skullcaps looked on with amazement as the party kicked off.

Girls in Karakalpak dresses

Most of the visitors were from Uzbekistan, but some had come from further afield, including a few Western backpackers passing through to ogle at the oddity of the vanished sea.

There were also hipsters from nearby countries including Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, where the northern portion of the Aral lies. The sea split into two in the 1980s as the waters disappeared.

Selfies by art installations

On the Kazakh side, a dam has brought the waters flowing back, but the chances of reversing the decline of the southern, Uzbek section are slim: it has bisected again into a western and eastern part, and in years when the water flow is weak, the eastern part dries up completely.

A music festival alone will certainly not be enough to save the sea—but for the party-goers swigging Qarataw vodka (a much-loved brand made in Karakalpakstan) as they danced on the sand and leapt over bonfires to ward off the desert chill, the positive vibes that Stihia was sending out were just as significant as the environmental message.

Lone raver

Suleimanov hopes to turn Stihia into an annual event modelled on the Burning Man festival in the US, which draws ravers to the deserts of Nevada in late summer every year.

After the music finished in the early hours of the morning, the adventurous fun-lovers who had made the trip to Moynaq to attend the first-ever Central Asian desert rave retreated to the former seabed to chill in this iconic location, hoping that Suleimanov’s dream will come true.

All photos by
Joanna Lillis


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