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Over the ten days we spent crossing the Karakalpak desert we discovered a world of modern-day nomads who, like us, don’t own much more than they can carry - but are happy to share everything with their Guests.
The people of the Ustyurt plateau - welcome to Central Asia
Homes are practically empty inside, with colourful carpets and mats lining walls and floors constituting the only "furniture," and sometimes a low table to sit by. Low consumption isn’t a difficult choice when everything must be brought in by truck along interminable and very bumpy roads. Those living in the desert are there either for work or because they were born there. Shift workers in the gas, oil and road-building industries usually spend 15 days in work camps in the desert, and go home to rest for another 15. For the permanent desert-dwellers who farm camels in scarcely scattered villages or run road-side "shayhanas" (guest-houses), the Usyurt desert’s unbearably hot summers and minus-20 winters are the only reality. Both the part- and full-time inhabitants of the desert welcomed us with open arms, in line with nomadic traditions of hospitability - which make sense in a place where it has always been difficult to survive without helping each other... A team of road-builders welcomed us on our first night in the desert, sharing their food, water and "shubat" (frothy camel-milk drink) with us. Timidly approaching their camp of porta-cabins to ask for directions, we heard the question we would soon get used to: "chay budyesh?" - "will you have tea?" Soon we were sitting with the road-workers (dorozhniki) drinking tea, eating soup and rice with meat for dinner, answering their questions: where from? going where? how old? husband and wife? you have a new president in France? what was wrong with the old one? We washed under a tap from a water-truck, slept in the roadside camp, and were back on the road the next morning with two bottles of "shubat," not having dared to even offer to pay - they would have been offended. In the days that followed, we got used to cars stopping to ask us similar questions - but also giving us water and sharing their food with us. The best incident was probably the ice-cold peach juice offered by the driver of a passing truck, whose driver slowed down just enough to tell us: "take it, it’s cold!" You don’t say no to that in 40 degree heat. Over the next ten nights we only paid for a room twice, and spent the rest sleeping by shayhanas, invited into people’s homes or camping in the desert. Cycling really does bring you closer to real people - with the great distances of the desert and no car to take you across them to a hotel, you have no choice but to share the local people’s lifestyle and facilities (or often lack of them...). The toilet is a hole in the ground, drinking water is brought in by truck, and the best you’ll get to wash off the sweat, salt and dust covering your skin is a small bucket or basin. Ten days in the desert is not a lot - but enough to get pulled in by its trans-like beauty, as well as getting a feel for how difficult living there can be. What really made our journey through the desert a series of pleasant surprises was its people, with their gifts of watermelons, tea and shubat, opening their homes to us and offering us all the help we needed. Welcome to Central Asia...