Sandstorms at nomad camps remind travellers of the fragility of life in the arid Kyzylkum Desert.
Sandstorms at nomad camps remind travellers of the fragility of life in the arid Kyzylkum Desert. Jim Eagles

Uzbekistan: Kyzylkum Desert crossing

SUDDENLY, right before our eyes, a willywilly - a whirlwind of sand - blew up behind the nomad camp and swirled its way over the top of the yurt where the family lived.

Fortunately there was no one home as the only occupant, a boy of about 10, came over to say hello as we got out of our bus.

The poor old donkey tied in front of the yurt could only hunker down and wait for the whirling sand to move on. But the flock of black astrakhan sheep took off over the low sandhills through the sparse covering of bushes.

We were busy taking photos of all the excitement until the willywilly headed for us, prompting swift evasive action.

Luckily it changed course at the last minute and swirled across the road about 20m away. But we still copped a blast of hot air and a brief sandblasting. All I could do was shut my eyes and hide my camera under my shirt.

It was a minor demonstration of just how unfriendly the great, empty, hot - on this mild spring day it was about 35C in the shade and more than 40C in the sun - Kyzylkum Desert could be.

We were driving 415km across this wasteland from the ancient town of Khiva to the equally ancient Bukhara, a journey that crossed a million potholes and lasted nine hours with a few stops to stretch legs and go through police checkpoints.

Centuries ago, when this route was an important part of the Silk Road, it would have taken about 12 days with caravans forced to zigzag from oasis to oasis. There are traces of that time, mainly in the form of large, flat mounds of stone where there would have stood caravanserai, where traders might have rested, or small forts to protect against bandits.

It's not hard to see what a terrible journey this must have been. Even today few people can survive the harsh conditions.

From time to time we passed nomad camps and flocks of sheep. And occasionally there were roadside cafes, the modern equivalent of the caravanserai, most of which Ramil, our guide, indicated were not safe for our sensitive Western stomachs.

We did eventually stop at one - which must have had a good reputation because three busloads of tourists also lunched there - but even so most people ate boxed lunches brought from a "clean kitchen" in Khiva. Some of us also had tasty mutton kebabs - "which will be safe because of the heat of the flame" - and we wiped the rim of our bowls with hand sanitiser before drinking tea from them.

Our cautious guide warned that "the toilets here are frightful" and recommended using the bushes across the road.

No one got sick but there were plenty of reminders of the fragility of life in the form of roadside memorials and several large, Muslim cemeteries. One had a small corner devoted to Russian Orthodox Christians.

There wasn't much sign of wildlife, just a few fat desert rodents and quick brown lizards, but we did see a large, evil-looking buzzard feeding on a monitor lizard on the road edge.

But the harshness of the desert was broken occasionally by small patches of green, mostly thanks to some ancient oasis, but also because of reservoir lakes and canals built during the Soviet era to provide water for crops like cotton - an environmentally disastrous scheme which contributed to the drying up of the once rich Aral Sea.

Early in our journey we passed through another patch of green fed by the historic Oxus River, now called the Amu Darya, a hugely important water source for this arid region and the everlasting border between the Persian and Turkic worlds.

That's still the case today, with Ramil warning us to stay out of view of checkpoint guards if we had to take photos.

I did take photos, a bit nervously, but the soldiers just smiled and waved as we passed by, as we followed in the footsteps of countless armies from those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the Russians retreating from Afghanistan in 1989.

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