In 1996, while working as an exploration geologist for Western Mining Corporation, I was sent to the remote Kyzylkum Desert in western Uzbekistan to report on various gold projects. This area is near to the Aral Sea, once a large freshwater lake with a thriving fishing industry, but now a dried-out dustbowl with a salt flat in the lowest portion.
We flew out to Nukus, where the vehicles were waiting for us, and travelled to the Karakalpakstan Gulag at Sultan-Uizdag, a former women’s prison from the Soviet era. The gulag was being used as a storage compound for drilling equipment, and it was to be our base while we explored the gold workings in the area. We slept in cells on old prison bunks using our superdown sleeping bags.
One morning, I got up early to photograph an old fortress about a kilometre away from the gulag. Fortress Gyraur-Kola was built from mudbricks in the fourth century CE, then rebuilt in the the fourteeth century CE after suffering severe damage from Mongol attacks. The fortress is being gradually destroyed by rising saline, part of the salination of the river basin caused by excessive upstream irrigation.
While photographing the fortress, I noticed a vehicle approach the gulag entrance. Four men jumped out, armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Two stayed to guard the gate while the others entered the gulag. Just before the men arrived, I’d noticed one of our Russian-speaking geologists heading out to the pit-drop toilet well outside the gate, so I snuck around to talk to him about how we should proceed. We decided to bluff it out, approaching the gate openly and cautiously. The two guards led us into the prison at gunpoint.
On entry we quickly discovered that the men were extremists who had come to capture us for ransom. Luckily, our Russian-speaking geologist knew the group’s leader – they were old university friends. The leader decided to let us off this time.
To celebrate this very fortuitous meeting, we purchased a sheep from the locals. I watched as it was slaughtered. After slaughter, the lamb was quickly dressed, and the cook turned it into a sumptuous meal. The excess sheep meat went with the extremists as a token reward to their colleagues back at their camp.
We completed the trip safely. Employing a Russian-speaking Melbourne geologist who turns out to know the leader of an extremist group in western Uzbekistan – the odds are mind-blowingly miniscule! But this kind of thing was just a typical occurrence when I was working around the world in the kinds of places tourists never see.
by Lee Chenoweth
Diamond Creek Older Men: New Ideas (OM:NI) men’s discussion groups