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Techno festival puts Aral Sea on music map

Uzbekistan's new open-door policy brings partygoers to dusty former fishing town

Once a thriving fishing community, Moynaq now lies dozens of kilometers from the receding banks of the Aral Sea. (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

MOYNAQ, Uzbekistan -- When Uzbekistan began opening its doors to foreigners after years of insularity, few people in the government, or anyone else for that matter, would have expected crowds of techno fans in the deserts of Karakalpakstan.

But on Sept. 14, hundreds of revelers descended on the dusty town of Moynaq for Stihia, an electronic music festival on what were once the banks of the Aral Sea -- an event that received the unconditional blessing of the government in Tashkent.

Uzbekistan's new open-door policy, which follows a quarter of a century of near total isolationism under the late President Islam Karimov, is affecting life in the country far and wide. The policy is opening the floodgates to all things foreign, from the economy and tourism to culture and music.

In the past, a festival featuring foreign DJs in Moynaq would have been unthinkable. But the grass roots initiative received endorsement from the government of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, as well as logistical and organizational support.

"They just said: 'Don't ask for money,'" said Otabek Suleimanov, a techno enthusiast from Tashkent who came up with the idea.

A female DJ performs on stage at the Stithia festival (Courtesy of Otabek Suleimanov)

"We had even forgotten when we last asked the government for something," he said of the Karimov years.

The money came from private sources, Suleimanov explained, and the biggest sponsor was Indorama Corp., a Singapore-based petrochemical giant with interests in the Uzbek cotton industry.

"The reason why they are doing it is because they are investing in our cotton sector," he said. "And because this whole thing, the disappearance of the sea, happened because of cotton and because of the [Soviet] stupid, inefficient, shortsighted policy."

Hundreds more techno fans showed up for the Stithia festival than expected. (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water and covering an area larger than Sri Lanka, the Aral Sea started shrinking in the 1960s, after the Soviet government diverted the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to cotton production.

The sea split into the smaller North Aral Sea and greater South Aral Sea in 1989. The Kazakh authorities have managed to stabilize what is left of the northern part, after building a dam in 2005 that manages the flow of water from north to south. But the southern part will inevitably disappear altogether unless Central Asian governments rethink the use of river waters for agriculture.

Permission to hold the music event, the first of its kind, came in stark contrast to the previous government's policy of promoting Uzbek "traditional values."

The Karimov regime banned "harmful" and "destructive" Western customs and practices such as Valentine's Day, Santa Clause, rap music and video games, and revoked the licenses of singers whose lyrics were deemed insufficiently patriotic.

Festival organiser Otabek Suleimanov checks the equipment before the six-hour concert. (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

When notable public events like marathons or film festivals were held, they were monopolized by Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara. Once touted as a potential successor to her father, she fell from grace in 2014 after publicly feuding with her mother Tatyana and younger sister Lola, as well as top government officials. She has been kept under "restricted freedom" since found guilty on charges ranging from embezzlement to extortion and tax evasion in 2015.

Suleimanov, an articulate, British-educated lawyer who doubles as a DJ, said it had always been his dream to play under the stars in this most desolate of places -- despite the unmitigated environmental damage, the area remains one of the world's least affected areas in terms of light pollution.

When he shared his dream with friends, the idea snowballed and eventually reached the ears of the government.

Many revelers camped on what was once the seabed. (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

"I do link the holding of the festival to Mirziyoyev's policy of openness because it would have been very difficult to organize such event in the past," Suleimanov said, "Now the government is made up of far younger and very progressive people."

"The president himself is the biggest reformer and he sets trends now. He is facing an enormous task of solving a huge heap of all kinds of problems that has piled up in the country."

Suleimanov expected between 200 and 300 people to show up for the event, despite the 1,200 km road journey from Tashkent. However, hundreds of techno fans who traveled to the venue independently were joined by about 300 people escorted by police from Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, 200 km south of the former seashores.

The revelers, from Uzbekistan and abroad, were engulfed by the townspeople from Moynaq, a settlement of 13,500 people.

"We want to hold this event in order to lay the foundations for the next year because this is a pilot edition and we want to see how it works out technically and culturally," Suleimanov said. "We hope to make it an annual event and hold it for two or three days."

For technical reasons, Stihia, which translates into English as "irresistible force of nature," was held on a cliff that used to jut out into the sea rather than on the seabed at the "ship graveyard" as planned, and lasted for six hours as opposed to 10.

The festival created a party atmosphere in a town that has had little to celebrate in recent years, with children and adults greeting tourists on the street.

Traders seized the opportunity to sell homemade snacks, and some locals and a newly-built restaurant modeled on a lighthouse offered their yurts as accommodation to visitors.

The organizers cooked up plov, a famed Uzbek rice dish with carrots, raisins, chickpeas and meat, to feed the partygoers. Even though the sale of alcohol was banned in the festival venue, the security forces tolerated consumption in public, turning a blind eye to a certain amount of bootleg booze.

"We have come to the festival and to see what is left of the Aral Sea," said Arseniy Rusanov, 27, from the Kazakh city of Aktau. "We are from the Caspian Sea and our sea is growing smaller every year. Who knows what will happen in 50 or 100 years. We want to know about the consequences of drying up in advance."

Ships rust on the former seabed. Most of the Aral Sea disappeared due to a Soviet agricultural policy of diverting the Amu and Syr rivers to cotton production.  (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

His friend Yesbol Sakipov, 25, said that they had traveled for about 36 hours to get to Moynaq. "I was born on the Caspian Sea and the topic of the Aral Sea is very close to me," he added.

The water level of the Caspian, the world's largest inland body of water and comparable in size to Japan, has been falling by an average of seven centimeters a year since 1996. However, it still has about a meter to go before it reaches the modern-day minimum level recorded in 1977.

"I am here because I saw the announcement for the festival on Twitter and it seemed like the strangest festival I have ever seen advertised anywhere," said Armin Rosen, a freelance writer from Brooklyn, who had traveled especially for the event.

"The festival has brought a lot of people here and people like me have seen the devastation and now have some idea of what has happened ... It will generate some awareness that maybe wasn't there before."

The party mood briefly generated in Moynaq also instilled some hope among the locals about the revival of the sea and the fishing town.

"I swam in the sea when I was young and the beach was only 500 meters from my home," recalled 60-year-old Shegebay Kulmashanov. He complained that his recollections of fishing and swimming in the sea now sounded like a fairy tale. "I now think that the Aral Sea will return. I am 60 now and, I don't know, it may return in the coming 60 years."

Kulmashanov said he believed that the festival would be beneficial in the long term by boosting tourism and providing seasonal employment.

"However, we need more practical things such as better health care and vegetation planted on the former seabed to prevent dust storms," he added.

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