This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Israel edition.

Shadow of the Silk Road

Story by Daphne Raz    Photographs by Eddie Gerald

Beyond the legendary cities of the ancient Silk Road - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva - lie largely unexplored lands of Central Asia. This is a land of contradictions: peace and war, heat and cold, old and new.

In the southern region of Surkhandarya, one of the safest countries in the world borders one of the most dangerous ones. The Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya marks a passage that served the Soviet fighting forces and now carries commercial wares and visitors.

Ruins of Buddhist monasteries and elaborate Islamic mausoleums around the city of Termez testify to the history of this region – a crossroads upon which armies, cultures and religions made their way from Asia to Europe. Rare treasures dating back to the Neanderthal period are housed in the local archaeological museum.

North West of Termez, in the Gissan range, ancient traditions are practiced in Boysun and the surrounding villages. These are celebrated at the annual Boysun festival that hosts folk groups from neighboring regions and countries. Sariasia to the northeast of Termez is a land of canyons and waterfalls, streams and vultures circling in the skies, shepherds and farmers.

The Amu Darya flows along the southern border of Uzbekistan to the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in the far west of Uzbekistan. Up until 50 years ago the river meandered through a wide delta to the Aral Sea but the Soviet Union diverted the waters in favor of cotton crop, drying the sea and inflicting the worst man-made environmental disaster in the past century.

Moynaq, on the former shore of the sea, is now a Soviet style Wild West deserted town. A lone lighthouse overlooks the Ship Graveyard where some of the abandoned, now useless, fishing vessels remain on the dry seabed. The vast expanse of what was once the fourth largest inland sea in the world is now an arid expanse of gas rigs.

In the desert stretching east from Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, the haunting ruins of fortresses that defended the ancient Khorezm empire rise beyond the flat roofed villages and rusting hulks of abandoned factories.

Nukus, is an unlikely place for a world renown art museum. The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art named after I.V. Savitsky hosts the world's second largest collection of Russian avant garde art as well contemporary local work from the 20th century, many of which still portray a sea brimming with water.