The orange sand slides away beneath me as I meander down a long boulevard, the harsh sun stabbing at me from behind the trees. The ground soon turns to pavement as I cross four lanes of deserted, unused roadway and find myself alone in the middle of a massive, barren public square. Is this place abandoned or, markedly worse, inhabited by zombies?, I think, as I walk to the fridge to grab another beer.
I came here, to Zarafshan, Uzbekistan, via Google Earth and the internet connection in my very suburban, very Canadian apartment because I could and I was bored and I didn’t know much about the vast expanse of Earth between Beijing and Moscow. And I also came here because Google Earth promised to make the visit free, solitary (no tourists, no beggars, no tips!) and, thanks to the six-pack of beer beside my desk, well lubricated. In the past, to get a sense of the scenery of the Eastern steppe or a Pacific Island or a jungle village without actually visiting those locales, you would have had to read a book. Fortunately, those days are long one. Today, you can explore remote destinations from the La-Z-Boy comfort of your own home. Nauru, Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Oman: on my salary of not-very-much, I’ve been able to visit places that are too out of the way, too dangerous, too people-y, or otherwise too boring to visit in person.
Wikipedia must have lied, I thought, as Google swooped me down to ground level. There was no way this city of squares could be home to “over 65,000 people” as I had been assured. Indeed, at first glance, Zarafshan didn’t appear to consist of much more than a chicane in a highway and a collection of Soviet-era apartment blocks. A couple quick flicks of the ol’ mouse turned up little else and I considered moving on. Lesotho is beautiful this time of year. But the hardy, resilient traveler, that I am, I pressed on, figuring that surely there must be something worth seeing. If there wasn’t, the sheer absence would be noteworthy. It turns out the latter is true.
I came here, to Zarafshan, Uzbekistan, via Google Earth and the internet connection in my very suburban, very Canadian apartment because I could and I was bored and I didn’t know much about the vast expanse of Earth between Beijing and Moscow.
Uzbekistan, in case your globe still includes Rhodesia, is one of those countries in the dead center of Asia that was formed when Russia went to shit. If a map of the old Soviet Union (very, very) vaguely resembled a (male) bear, with eastern Siberia as the head, then Uzbekistan would have been in the gonad area. But since 2000-era military adventures are the touchstone for most people’s knowledge of Asian geography these days, it’s probably best to just say that the country’s southernmost tip touches Afghanistan.
In the west, the country abuts the slow-moving ecological disaster that is the rapidly shrinking Aral Sea. In the east, it bangs up against the Himalayas. And in the middle, amidst the Kyzyl Kum desert and miles and miles (and miles and miles) of sand and scrubland sits Zarafshan, a city that looks shitty and rundown in the Google satellite image and which, I am told by the internet’s only English-language travelog on the city, isn’t much better in real life.
“So, you want to travel to Zarafshan,” wrote a volunteer named Jon, on the website network54.com in 2005. “There is no real reason to ask why you want to come to Zarafshan. There can be no logical reason to do this. Therefore, any attempt to ask ‘why’ will only be futile.”
Jon writes that there is a seedy hotel in town and a restaurant that serves “low-end Tashkent food” and that “While the buildings represent the height of Soviet architectural design, the most striking thing to see in Zarafshan is actually outside of the city: nothing.”
Jon doesn’t seem like a fan and early indications aren’t promising for me either, especially since I’m exploring a town through a computer monitor on which “nothing” does not exactly come across as interesting. My self-assigned mission seems kind of like multiplying “0” a thousand different ways and expecting a new result. It seems, in other words, like an idiotic waste of time. So as I bore into the strange town, I’m not confident that the 6,000 miles or so between my computer and the residents of Zarafshan will make me like the city any more. But I’ll go there virtually, guzzle a beer, and after an hour or two, come back and drink another. Travel has never been so risk-free.
It’s the geometry of the place—the square blocks and the rectangular buildings and the straight roads—that first confronts me. Like many Soviet cities, Zarafshan seems to have been planned by a communist who played a pre-computer version of SimCity. All residential building comes in the form of apartment blocks, which are crammed into a very-square square mile of land. At first, I think the roads are canals, but they just turn out to be roads colored teal by a crappy camera. I congratulate myself on catching the detail before declaring Zarafshan to be the Venice of Uzbekistan in my future best-selling travelogue. (See, virtual travel has adrenaline-inducing risks too.) Zarafshan, it turns out, is more like what happens when Butte, Mont., meets Mad Max.
I zoom out until the city’s perimeter reaches the edges of my screen. From the air, Zarafshan looks like a city whose purpose was to ravage the surrounding landscape—which it was. However, using photos available on Google Earth, I find that from the ground, and despite the city’s hellish location and less-than-organic creation, Zarafshan doesn’t really resemble a 24th-century postapocalyptic ghost town. Somehow, the sand and the gray streets and the cement buildings and the blazing blue sky all direct one’s eyes to the trees, which exclaim, “Look at us! Something lives here!” The greenery and the car-less streets give a sense of calm to the place. But then, I am startled by the question, So where are all the cars?
Amidst the buildings meant to house most of the city’s residents, there is little evidence that Zarafshan remains a populated city. I do spot a turtle on the city’s outskirts. But I have less luck with warm-blooded creatures. Just south of the apartment block complex, I come across a new-ish shopping plaza featuring a cafe. There are Russian-types and Afghan-looking types and other stereotype types, but they’re all spaced very, very far apart.
I scroll-stroll a little farther west, where there is a reservoir that you might be able to swim in. But what may or may not be a public beach is deserted. Further up the shore, a couple of houses have docks that step out onto the water, which is piped in from the Amu Darya River 200 miles away.
Number of people: five, maybe 10. One of the things I like about virtual tourism, whether I wish to admit it or not, is that one does not have to deal with people. So the absence of other sentient creatures shouldn’t really disturb me. But it’s still strange to look at photo after photo of a city and not see more than a dozen people in total.
One of the things I like about virtual tourism, whether I wish to admit it or not, is that one does not have to deal with people.
Unfortunately, or not, there are no on-the-ground pictures of the industrial rectangle that can be seen in the satellite photo of the city. There seems to have been enough jobs in the area at one point. But there’s no telling if the people here are underemployed, overemployed, unemployed, or properly employed, although they are likely one of those.
I almost overlook it entirely, but eventually I spot evidence of post-Gorbachev activity in the form of a large neighborhood west of the reservoir that seems to be either too recently built to allow for much visible-from-space shrubbery or too impoverished for its residents to invest in it. The buildings could be slum-like shacks erected by those desperate for work after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Or they could be multi-story family compounds. Again, it’s hard to tell, and not just because I’m on my fourth beer. I feel fortunate to escape the dust that would surely have forced me to take a shower if I had been on the ground. The neighborhood is slap-dashed tacked onto the western edge of town and, like Zarafshan itself, remains a mystery.
Finally, an hour into my journey, my heroic determination and perseverance pays off as I meet Igelya (a.k.a. Lara) on YouTube. In a photo slideshow, Lara, who now lives in North Dakota, takes me from Zarafshan’s beginning as a mining city that sprung from the desert in the 1960s to more recent times, when the city was considered the center of Uzbekistan’s gold industry and the home base for the nearby Muruntau open pit mine. Lara lived for 20 years in the city and the photos show a family building snowmen, working in the mines and sharing meals. There are camels (!), more turtles (!!) and some smiling people (!!!). Back in the day, there were motorcycle races and swimming races and people selling food.
Some of the photos look like they were taken in the last five years. So, if you physically follow in my digital footsteps, it is possible you will find people there. Poor them. Poor you.