In the town outside Nukus, we thought we had found relief from our gastronomic nightmare in what appeared to be a glamorous temple to food. In the full glory and grime of a day's desert cycling, we pulled up outside an asked if any food was possible. We were vigorously repulsed by waiters and other guests alike, as we pointed repeatedly to the restaurant sign outside. A desperate housewife in a long floral dress drew up in a car outside, and came over brandishing her english like a spear, explaining it was a wedding place. She gave us directions to another cafe, that was actually a restaurant, that would give us dinner but pointedly told us with a sneer at our lycra 'not at all like this' though. We were sent packing for another feast of sloppy noodles and grizzled meat.
The surprising highlight of our stay in the barren and remote city of Nukus was the Art Museum. The collection had been formed privately by the Muscovite artist Igor Savitsky during the 50's and 60's. He had journeyed to desolate and isolated Karakalpakstan on a Soviet anthropology expedition, falen in love wit the place and it's freedoms of remoteness, and had seen it's potential as a haven for divergent Soviet art. The state had mandated the artistic style of social realism, the 'happy clappy' scenes of agricultural idyll and industrial success are now lampooned in most circles as basic propaganda. Therefore Savitsky became known as 'the garbage-man' and 'the widow's friend', at significant personal danger he scurried around the Soviets smuggling and collecting art from attics and gulags alike (a few of the paintings are on rough hessien sacks - stemming from the lack of fine canvas in labour camps).
In the museums early days, amongst the humidity inducing buckets on the floor and handful of $10 a month employees, he was reported to have said that some day people from London and Paris would come there to visit: his expectations were exceeded recently after the collection made star visiting appearances in galleries in the two cities. The Uzbek state realised the diamond in the rough in 2003, and opened a new multi-million building to house the collection. The gallery has now been called the Soviet Louvre and is an impossibly precious collection of cubist, futurist, and impressionist pieces from across the Iron curtain, the brothers and sisters of these works from the 'other world of the 20th century' would have been destroyed or hidden in censorship. In sum as with Tbilisi's puppets, if you ever find yourself in Uzbekistan's armpit (Nukus - Karakpalstan), go.
Between Nukus and the silk road treasure of Bukhara, we were expecting 600 km of saddle sores, gristle feasts, and wretchedly smelly tents. But on the first night of the leg in the town of Beyruni, we came up trumps. On sitting down, the sharply dressed young man on the dinner table opposite motioned to me, and through his google translate explained that he had informed the waiter that our bill was to be paid by him at a later date, and we were to enjoy his treat and the finest of his country's food. The man's name was Max, his mind was even sharper than his clothes, he explained he worked in cyber security and monitoring the dark web for the Uzbekistan government. When he found out we were planning to camp outside the town, he offered to pay for a hotel, we declined not wanting to impose on the hospitality any further. He the said we could stay with him, we agreed to this mediated offer. At the end of the dinner, he led us down the road to his house, gang of friends in tow - one even Facebook live-streaming our unlikely procession. We ended up outside the town's hotel, he told us he had phoned ahead and booked and paid for our rooms already, they would go empty otherwise. Embarrassed by his kindly cunning, and spluttering profuse thanks, we settled in to a non-inflatable wooden bed, surrounded by solid walls, and free from the smell of Rob's putrid feet.
Over dinner, under strict questioning from us, Max revealed he was the eldest son of a Beyruni dynasty, the ancient chiefs of the area before Soviet occupation. On later reflection, it felt that this was a major source of his unbound hospitality: just perhaps as the 'town's prince' he was welcoming a foreign embassy from a distant country. He would have fit as a chieftain's heir: he clearly commanded the respect of his peers, he excelled in this test of diplomacy, and suffered none of the exoticism that we can cause on occasion.