Uzbekistan is more commonly known for its Silk Road attractions; the cities of Samarkand, Bukara and Khiva. More recently adventurous travellers may have heard about Stihia Festival, a techno free party on the Uzbek deserts in the autonomous region of Karkalpakstan. Few will have visited the Sun Academy, also known as the Solar Institute, in the district of Parkent roughly 50km east of the capital, Tashkent.
Built in 1981 by the Soviet Union, the site was top secret until 2009. Only a small number of tourists visit this place and many Uzbeks we spoke to were not aware of it. There is no direct bus from any of the major cities, so we took a Yandex taxi from Tashkent. The journey took us through suburban Tashkent with its impressive Soviet era housing blocks and into the sandy hills east of the city. We passed through the busy town of Parkent which petered out into smaller villages as we climbed towards the site of the Solar Institute.
We asked our taxi driver to translate at the gate and for a small fee (around €4 each) we were given a private tour of the facility. The main entrance hall is impeccable and hosts beautiful multicoloured chandeliers modelled on the sun itself. Glass display cabinets contain materials tested for their heat-resistance in the furnace and there is also a perfect miniature model of the plant. The original purpose of the plant was to produce pure alloys for the USSR’s military and space engineering projects, but it only operated on this basis between 1987 and 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The plant now produces highly durable and thermally stable components for industry. It also functions as research and education institute as part of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences.
Walking out onto the forecourt, the huge concave concentrator is on your right while, facing it, on your left are stepped rows of mirrored panels called heliostats that direct the sun towards the concentrator. There are over 60 heliostats that are controlled to track the sun onto its mirrored panels. Its many mirrored tiles reflect and regulate the heat. The technical tower stands between the two huge mirrored plants. It houses the furnace itself. When its operational, it can reach 3000 degrees Celsius.
The spectacle is mind-blowing. The aesthetic combines Soviet futurism with disco-ball shimmer, all etched against rugged mountains and a vast blue sky. The extensive site is spotlessly clean. Everything has a function. As we walk up the steep hill, we pass rows of heliostats, each one almost the height of a two-story house. There’s a miniature concentrator stationed between two rows of heliostats which is used to demonstrate the process to visitors but has also been used to cook lunch on occasion. Further up the hill there are mechanisms for tracking the sun. The view of the rural mountains and villages from this high point is starkly but beautifully contrasted with the glistening futuristic Solar Institute below. We chatted to some workers and researchers on the way back down the hill, but the place was quiet with very few people around and everyone we met was friendly and curious about why we were there.
We walked around the side of the technical tower and saw the closed furnace doors facing the tiny window in the centre of the concentrator. Despite wear and tear from withstanding such extreme temperatures, there’s a typically Soviet beauty about the simple but striking yellow and blue design juxtaposed with so much scintillating glass. Underneath the huge metal frame of the concentrator its curvature and magnitude looms above us. Birds fly between the tower and the concentrator reflected against the many mirrors. Doing this while the furnace is operational would, of course, mean certain death for a bird.
The convex side of the structure with its large yellow and blue satellite dish at the top overlooks the village below and is an impressive sight to see emerging from the sandy hills when approaching or leaving the complex. Stepping around to this side of the complex feels like stepping back into Soviet times. Old satellite dishes and look-out towers are dotted on the path that leads to the archway through to the research institute. Its yellowish buildings form a quadrant around a sun-themed courtyard that conjures ideas of what it must have been like to work here when it was opened as an innovative but top-secret part of the communist infrastructure.
The heat and energy produced here is entirely clean and pure but is currently not used to power anything other than the furnace. They have hosted international symposiums on the use of solar energy and seem eager to work with researchers from other countries with established links with scientists in neighbouring countries.
You don’t need to be a science boffin or an academic to visit this place. I was fascinated by its aesthetic after seeing a photograph of it while browsing Soviet super-structures. It’s a place like nowhere I have been before and its well worth the trip from Tashkent. In actual fact, for me it was another significant reason to visit Uzbekistan. Anybody interested in communism and Soviet engineering or architecture will love this place. Be polite and respectful, remember this is a place of work, not a tourist attraction. And don’t forget to bring your sunglasses. Seriously.
Words: Freda Hughes