Sunday, September 5, 2010

Badai tugai

Last Thursday, two colleagues and I undertook a small expedition to Karkalpakstan, braving a little tornado, to find the mysterious Badai Tugai, a Soviet- era natural preserve (zapovednik) with allegedly primeval tugai forest, the original floodplain vegetation.

Turned out that, though interesting and exotic in its own way, it is quite hard for a western observer to call the place either primeval or forest. There are trees, yes, a few poplar species and here and there a Russian olive. Those trees are small and crooked, since even regular river floods cannot hide that this is harsh terrain, precarious habitat eked out in desert conditions.

So the result for me would be a mix of steppe, savannah, and maquis, dry shrubland, in some places eerily resembling the aspen parklands of the American north, also mosaic landscapes with dwarf poplar trees, shrubs and grasses, parsed with little wetlands. Evidently, the desert context makes a difference, and the history of irrigation and land reclamation made it even harder to maintain anything looking like a forest.

This brings us to the un- natural appearance of the place, with elaborate ground works, a deer farm, irrigation canals, wide roads, logging, and virtually no dead wood. Poverty is one explanation: people collect the tinder and brushwood. Land reclamation plays a role: water levels dropped so much that the forest would have died without irrigation canals. And there is the Soviet attitude of translating policies into quantitative targets: 'Forest is trees and deer, so forest protection is managing their numbers'. Probably it was naive of mine to expect anything close to a natural forest in this engineered region.

[Saturday night, an adventure of a different sort: I tried dog meat for the first time, in a Korean restaurant here in Urgench. In two versions: a soup with dog meat, where you could add different herbs and spices, and a spicy dogstew with rice. An Uzbek colleague recommended, insisted, that dog always goes with vodka, so we had to comply with that ritual too]

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