Stihia Festival – A Free Party in the Uzbek Desert

Ship Graveyard Photo by Freda Hughes

Ship Graveyard
Photo by Freda Hughes

I had read about Stihia Festival in Calvert Journal’s article after its first incarnation in 2018. I was intrigued by this free techno festival in a desert in Uzbekistan where the Aral Sea once was. My friend Maeve was travelling around Central Asia, so we decided to meet in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in late August and make our way to the festival together.

I flew to Tashkent from Dublin via Moscow, but there are a number of routes you can take namely through Turkey, but that is not a country I want to do business with given their abysmal treatment of the Kurds. I met Maeve, who had come in the day before by train from Kazakhstan, in Topchan Hostel in Tashkent. I’d highly recommend this place to future festival goers. It’s near the airport, clean, cheap and has loads of art and graffiti on the walls. Some folks from the Mongol Rally had stopped off there while we were staying.

Mogul Rally car outside Topchan Hostel Photo by Freda Hughes

Mongul Rally car outside Topchan Hostel
Photo by Freda Hughes

Stihia was held in the remote desert town of Moynaq. It is the site of a huge and ongoing environmental disaster. It was once a fishing village, but the Aral Sea has gradually retreated due to rerouting of rivers to boost the cotton industry since the 1960s. It now lies 150km from the former coastline at Moynaq which is littered with rusting boats and ships. Sandstorms on the dried-up seabed have caused widespread respiratory problems for the population of the area and poor water quality causes kidney and gastro problems. The fishing industry has literally dried-up and unemployment and outward migration are widespread.

Moynaq Photo by Freda Hughes

Moynaq’s iconic Soviet era welcome sign
Photo by Freda Hughes

The town lies in the autonomous republic of Karkalpakstan in the west of Uzbekistan. One-time part of the Soviet Union, it came under the governance of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively during that time while retaining its independence. In 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union it became part of Uzbekistan and adopted its own constitution in 1993. While remaining part of Uzbekistan it retains its own government, judiciary and language. Karkalpak, Uzbek and Russian are the main languages spoken in the region.

The Karkalpak and Uzbek flags flying together in Nukus Photo by Freda Hughes

The Karkalpak and Uzbek flags flying together in Nukus
Photo by Freda Hughes

Uzbekistan is a huge country and we were fully aware of the irony of getting an internal flight to the festival given its dual purpose of highlighting the man-made environmental catastrophe of the disappearing Aral Sea. The journey can be done by a series of trains, buses and taxis, but neither of us could arrive in the capital on time to make the trip that way. We took an early flight from Tashkent to Nukus, the capital of Karkalpakstan. In the airport we met two of the headlining acts who I’d briefly chatted to on the flight from Moscow. It was easy to spot festival goers in the departure lounge and we made up the bulk of the passengers on the short internal flight.

The plaza in at the art museum in Nukus Photo by Freda Hughes

The plaza at the Karkalpak State Museum of Contempoary Art in Nukus
Photo by Freda Hughes

Upon landing in Nukus, we took a taxi to the city centre which was sleepily starting to wake up. Buses to the festival were scheduled to leave at 10am from the plaza at the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. We looked for a café and found the hilariously named Cake Bumer and its sister café Tort Bumer, but unfortunately, they were closed. We nipped around the corner to Cinnamon Café which was already filled with folks on their way to Stihia. We ordered breakfast and got chatting to a young English lad called Billy. He had travelled to Nukus from Montenegro without taking any flights. He managed to get over the border the night before by hitching a lift on the Mongol Rally. We found out there was a place a few blocks away where local vodka was sold, so we jumped in a taxi with him and bought a few cans of lager and a few bottles of vodka. There was evidently no rush for the buses to leave before they were full, so everyone started to mingle on the plaza in the sun.

Cake Bumer cafe in Nukus Photo by Freda Hughes

Cake Bumer cafe in Nukus
Photo by Freda Hughes

Around 2pm we hopped on a bus full of Europeans, Americans, Russians and Uzbeks from the bigger cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. I recognised an Uzbek DJ from the Fragment Kollective who was coordinating our journey. The convoy of buses left and had a police escort most of the journey which took close to 4 hours. There was plenty of fun and numerous toilet breaks on the journey as we travelled across terrain that became increasingly more barren. We arrived at the festival site sometime after 5pm and took a look around. There were beautiful traditional yurts and people setting up camp nearby. Crew were constructing a giant wooden sculpture of the word ‘Sea’ and engineers were putting the final touches to the sound system.

Yurts on the festival site Photo by Freda Hughes

Yurts on the festival site
Photo by Freda Hughes

We’d booked two nights stay in a local hostel and easily hitched a lift back up the road with a local with the help of one of the festival crew. The remote town was somewhat overwhelmed with visitors and many people had opened up their houses as guest houses. Water and sanitation facilities are limited on the festival site so booking accommodation is a good idea, although camping keeps you much closer to the action.

Starting to set up camp Photo by Freda Hughes

Starting to set up camp
Photo by Freda Hughes

We stayed at the Hostel Moynaq and, despite some major confusion at the start due to our lack of Russian, Uzbek or Karkalpak and our hosts lack of English, we had a really great time there. We were lucky that two young German guys called Felix and Max arrived just after us and spoke excellent Russian. They explained that the water, electricity and WIFI were all down due to construction work nearby and told our host that we had booked a female only room. All was sorted and within a short while the power and water were back again. Our room was spacious, clean and air conditioned and the WIFI was good. After quick showers we headed back to the festival site with our too new pals and took a look at some of the rusted ships in the famous Ship Graveyard on the way.

The Ship Graveyard at Moynaq Photo by Freda Hughes

The Ship Graveyard at Moynaq
Photo by Freda Hughes

Moynaq is pretty much one big long wide street lined with a mixture of strangely empty newly built modern buildings and older residential dwellings, some of which were really basic and others less so. It bears all the signs of a sleepy forgotten place and locals were fairly amused by the influx of ravers. The festival site is literally parked on what appears to be a road to nowhere. I guess it would have been the coast road until the sea started to retreat, but now it turns off the main street and just trails off into the desert. There is a nostalgic looking lighthouse café and a small art museum where the promenade would have been. The Aral Sea Memorial statue is really striking. Shaped like a 3D isosceles triangle, the large white concrete monument stands on the highest point of the dunes that used to overlook the sea. Below this the former seabed is littered with rusting skeletons of ships and boats.

Aral Sea Memorial Monument Photo by Freda Hughes

Aral Sea Memorial Monument
Photo by Freda Hughes

I climbed up on an old rusty ship with the help of some local kids and could see the stage over the dunes as the first act Shilo played and the sun began to set. Visiting the derelict paradise that is the Ship Graveyard at Moynaq had long been on my wish list and I had to pinch myself to be sure this was really happening. I was at a free techno party in a ship graveyard on the bottom of a dried-up seabed in an autonomous republic in the most remote part of Uzbekistan!! It might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but for me this was a dream come true. I hadn’t really thought about getting down off this pretty large ship and nearly flattened Maeve jumping off into the sand below.

Standing on top of a ship in the Ship Graveyard as the first set kicked off Photo by Maeve Brosnan

Standing on top of a ship in the Ship Graveyard as the first set kicked off
Photo by Maeve Brosnan

We made our way to the stage which was pretty impressive and just kind of plonked on what would have been the coast road. They were using Martin Audio bass bins and flown line array tops. There was a mixture of tourists and locals dancing together but things were only starting to hot up. We wandered off to get some food further back from the stage. There was a barbeque run by locals serving plov and shaslik which smelled and tasted delicious. Lots of other locals had set up stalls on the edges of the festival site selling cigarettes, drinks, sunflower seeds and snacks. We headed back to stage area for Alien Rain’s (aka Milton Bradley) stomping set followed by a phenomenal performance by Jamaica Suk. At this stage the crowd were dancing like crazy with locals and tourists mingling and having great fun. The sound quality was excellent and the atmosphere electric.

Alien Rain at Stihia Festival Photo by Freda Hughes

Alien Rain at Stihia Festival
Photo by Freda Hughes

The festival is the brainchild of Otabek Suleimanov an Uzbek lawyer with a love of music and a penchant for techno since the 1990s. He works with the Faculty of Acoustics, a project which comprises Stihia Festival and the Fragment Kollective and has the stated aim of promoting the evolving art of modern electronic music in Uzbekistan by [. .] providing practical hands-on training, and inviting professional DJs to share emerging technologies”. Suleimanov described the Faculty as, “audiophile nomads, with no distinct place to play music” in Tom Faber’s excellent interview with him about Stihia on Resident Advisor. The electronic music scene in Uzbekistan is small and still fairly young but very much alive. The Fragment Kollective run regular nights in Sila bar in Tashkent and were involved in organising Stihia with many of their regular DJs on the line-up such as Shilo, SHMN, Hellyphat and Wulva.

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

Uzbekistan has recently emerged from an oppressive regime after the death of former president Islam Karimov in 2016. Karimov ruled from 1991 until his death and was world renowned for his embattled approach to international relations and repressive policies against his own people. Brutal repression, censorship and forced labour were commonplace. The new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made notable changes towards a much more relaxed regime and you really can feel it in the air in many parts of the country. The place feels safe. There is still a heavy police presence on the streets, but it is notably benign. This was true at the festival too where the cops seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and were happy to let the dancing continue into the night.

Jamaica Suk at Stihia Festival Photo by Freda Hughes

Jamaica Suk at Stihia Festival
Photo by Freda Hughes

Over the two nights the festival line-up featured acts from Japan, Denmark, California, Berlin, Ukraine and of course Uzbekistan. Mama Snake, who recently played in Dublin with Mutate, performed a set that stood out as a favourite for many people on the second night. The mixture of seasoned ravers, back-packers, curious travellers and locals was magic. At the end of the night the large ‘Sea’ monument earlier constructed from wood was set alight on the sand. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars. The sky was incredibly clear, just like at the seaside.

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

We met some fun and interesting people at the festival and had some great conversations. As well as our German and English friends, members of a Polish photography collective were staying in our hostel. They had been travelling through Central Asia and had come to Moynaq to photograph the Ship Graveyard. They stumbled upon the festival by accident. We had so much in common and stayed up most of the night chatting with Karolina, Marcin and Zofia. Their work is great, and their ethos is non-hierarchical and all about skill sharing.

Maeve as we approached the stage Photo by Freda Hughes

Maeve as we approached the stage
Photo by Freda Hughes

We met some English and American folks who worked in embassies in Uzbekistan and some really cool folks from Tashkent, Moynaq and Nukus. Tulkin, Anastasia and Igor all work in Tashkent and were big into electronic music. They told us about another dance music festival held the month before in the capital and about the emerging scene in the city. They gave us loads of advice and tips for places to visit on the rest of our stay in Uzbekistan.

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

During the day temperatures reached around 36 degrees Celsius.  While photographing the Ship Graveyard we got talking to an Egyptian guy who worked for the UN and later to an English guy who was working for an engineering company on the Aral Seabed. Both told us there was little or no hope of the sea ever returning and that the aim now was to try to encourage forestation where the sea used to be. Oil and gas companies have also begun drilling in the sea, made easier by the lack of water. The UN Aral Sea Programme aims to improve the livelihoods of population living in affected areas by working with local communities to improve access to basic infrastructure, clean water and gas and primary healthcare facilities. They have begun planting ‘one million trees’ and salt-retaining plants on the Aral seabed.

Barren land in the region Photo by Freda Hughes

Barren land in the region
Photo by Freda Hughes

Breakfast in our hostel was nice; yogurt, bread and fruit, and eggs if you wanted them. We only noticed two cafes in the town and ate lunch in the lighthouse café on the festival site. The food resembled Irish stew with a hint of Uzbek plov. It was a bit heavy in such a hot climate but did the job. Its really important to stay hydrated in such a dry climate and its also really important not to drink the tap water. Don’t even use it for cleaning your teeth unless you have a strong stomach.

The Lightouse Cafe on the festival site Photo by Freda Hughes

The Lightouse Cafe on the festival site
Photo by Freda Hughes

We dropped in to Kafé Dalet with an American couple we met for a quick drink, but quickly realised it was hosting a local family celebration. The women looked amazing in their beautifully tailored dresses and classy colourful high heels. Uzbekistan is known for its beautiful textiles and women throughout the country are noticeably fashionable and stylish. The dress code at the festival was relaxed and casual.

Kafe Dalek Photo by Freda Hughes

Kafe Dalet
Photo by Freda Hughes

Because the soil is so dry workers water the grass verges during the day and dust rises off the roads with each passing car or bicycle. The aesthetic of Moynaq is really striking. Its desolate and curious, brightly coloured in some ways and banal in others, the combination of which evokes feelings of a town the sea forgot.

Ship Graveyard Photo by Maeve Brosnan

Ship Graveyard
Photo by Maeve Brosnan

On Sunday we checked out of our hostel and shared a taxi back to the festival site where the buses were waiting to take the tired rabble of festival goers back to Nukus. Some people were staying on to make the 150km trip to the retreating shores of the Aral Sea which is much cheaper if arranged like this while in Moynaq. Booking online through tour companies is insanely expensive, but people we met got a lift out to the shore for $25 per person from a local former fisherman. Because of the soaring heat a guy in a white balaclava filled up our bus with gas from a barrel at a gas station outside the town.

Gas station in Karkalpakstan Photo by Freda Hughes

Gas station in Karkalpakstan
Photo by Freda Hughes

Everyone was feeling like the wrecks in the Ship Graveyard by the time we reached Nukus and we were sad to see that neither Cinnamon Café nor Cake Bumer were open. The café in the Art Museum is airy and has decent food though. I noticed Mama Snake and DJ Sodeyama sitting at the table next to us. The air con was a godsend. We took a walk around the museum which really is worth a visit. It houses the biggest collection of avante garde Russian art in the former Soviet Union. It is named after its founder, artist and ethnographer, Igor Savitsky and houses his own works and archaeological finds along with some wonderful soviet and contemporary art.

Selection of art in the museum

Selection of art in the Karkalpakstan State Museum of Art

We got a taxi to the airport and again our flight was full of people who had been at the festival. There was a friendly atmosphere, but everyone was exhausted from three crazy days in the desert. I liked the organisers non-hierarchical approach and the absence of celebrity or commercial culture. DJs coordinated buses and helped arrange accommodation, photographers built wooden structures onsite, headliners travelled by bus with the other partygoers and everyone lent a hand. There were no commercial vendors at the event, but to everyone’s surprise, after the success of the first Stihia festival in 2018, President Mirziyoyev offered to sponsor the festival this year

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

The absolute uniqueness of this event is what drew me to it. Trying to do something new and different in a bizarre and intriguing location just for the hell of it with the result of a whole load of people happy and dancing into the early hours of morning was always our aim in Poster Fish Promotions. The fact that this festival has the dual purpose of raising awareness of this manmade environmental disaster while bringing people and music together that wouldn’t normally experience each other really appeals to me. I also love the fact that it’s a free festival. Its accessible and reaches out to all. Locals are employed throughout the build and the festival itself brings a lot of money into the area.

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

Money though is hard to come by there as there are no ATMs in Moynaq and none that will take foreign cards in Nukus so it is important to come prepared with all the Uzbek som you will need. The denominations are huge, but food and accommodation are cheap, so you won’t actually need much. Taxis can involve a bit of haggling but are still not expensive at all. Hostels will take, and sometimes insist on taking, US dollars as payment so its good to have some with you too. It is impossible to purchase Uzbek som outside of Uzbekistan as it is a restricted currency but there are plenty of money exchanges and banks in the cities. ATMs that take foreign cards can be hard to find so it is worth bringing euros and dollars with you when visiting Uzbekistan.

Market on the outskirts of Moynaq Photo by Freda Hughes

Market on the outskirts of Moynaq
Photo by Freda Hughes

It is an amazing country with hugely varied regions and some fantastic architecture. The culture is quite relaxed now and evidently secular despite roughly 90% identifying as Muslim. The place feels very safe and public spaces are clean and well maintained. Drinking bottled water is essential and squat toilets are commonplace. Tourists do get noticed especially in country areas, but not hustled or harassed, just asked to step into photographs.

Ship Graveyard Photo by Freda Hughes

Ship Graveyard
Photo by Freda Hughes

I would highly recommend Stihia festival to anyone up for the trip. As the festival is free your costs will mostly involve getting there. You need to register online in advance to get your wristband and your place on the bus. It’s a Bring Your Own Beer (BYOB) event so don’t expect a bar on site and stock up before you leave the nearest big town. Most importantly remember to respect the area and the people who live there. They are already living in an environmental disaster area so bin your empties and don’t leave litter lying around. Try to learn one or two phrases of Uzbek or Russian and embrace the uniqueness of this festival.

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

Keep an eye on Stihia’s website here for details of what’s happening in 2020. I really hope that this becomes a regular thing and that I can return to at some point in the future. Who knows maybe next year there will be more than two Irish people making the long journey to this wonderful event.

Photo by Freda Hughes

Photo by Freda Hughes

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