The site of one of the modern history's worst environmental catastrophes is now home to a bold new music festival. Tom Faber travels to Moynaq to find out more.
Otabek Suleimanov was making the final adjustments to his soundsystem. Above him the sun beat down, high in a hard blue sky. All around there was only scrubland, beige and khaki, perfectly flat, rolling to the horizon on all sides. This spot, in a remote corner of Uzbekistan, had once been at the shore of one of the world's biggest lakes. Now, following one of modern history's worst environmental catastrophes, the water had receded more than 150 kilometres. It left behind a forsaken town, Moynaq, and its largely forgotten population. Their lighthouse looked out onto endless sand. Their boats rusted on the desert floor.
In just a few hours on this spot, Otabek, a 40-year-old lawyer, would execute his improbable dream. He would unite music lovers who had travelled for days to dance to world-class techno. This handful of foreigners would be joined on the dance floor by thousands of local Uzbeks and their entire families, few of them familiar with this music. This festival, called Stihia, would sit at the faultline of the most pressing questions of the region. It would be a challenge for a new president, an alarm bell for an ecological disaster and a litmus test for one of the world's youngest club scenes.
This year was more ambitious, with two days of music and international headliners. On the first evening I joined a group of locals walking from the town to the festival. Young men tucked in their smart shirts, old babushkas arranged their coloured shawls, little girls in frilly dresses held their mothers' hands. It felt more like attending a rural wedding than a techno festival. As the town fell away we passed enterprising locals selling cigarettes, sunflower seeds and non-alcoholic drinks from makeshift roadside stalls. Police officers milled around in crisp, forest-green uniforms, employed by the local government to keep the peace.
At the heart of the camping area was a stubby lighthouse, a recreation calling mutely to the vanished lake. Next to the tents were yurts, which have been homes to Central Asian nomads for millennia. A food stall offered local dishes plov, an oily rice dish with carrots and lamb, and charcoal-grilled shashlik. Over at the soundsystem, Reptant's snarling electro track "Ectoplastic" blasted out to nobody in particular. The stage was placed at the end of the road. Surrounded by so much nothingness, it looked more like the end of the world.
As night fell, Otabek played a set under his DJ alias Kebato. As he eased the crowd in with a shuffling house cut by Markus Suckut, a man ran in front of the stage dressed in a tank top, gas mask and steampunk goggles, straight out of Burning Man. Throughout the selection of headsy techno, lasers and spotlights swept the air, picking out dense clouds of dust.
There were around 3000 attendees, 300 of whom were from outside Uzbekistan. Each foreigner I met was an adventurer of some description. It had taken me four flights and more than 12 hours on the road to get to Moynaq, and I met people who had travelled much further. Travelling long hours puts you in a loose, open state of mind, and everyone I met was warm, interesting and generous with their vodka.
Of the 2700-odd Uzbeks in attendance, a few hundred were clubbers from Tashkent who had travelled to the other side of the country for the festival. The vast majority were from the two nearest cities, Moynaq and Nukus. These were old men in flat caps, shy young couples holding hands and dozens of toddlers sitting on their parents' shoulders. At first they stood outside the dance floor, looking curiously at the small circle of foreigners and local young men dancing.
As the night went on, the crowd relaxed. Towards the end of his set, Otabek brought in a curdled 303 line that proved that acid is an international language. Locals and foreigners started dancing together. Alien Rain played punishing dungeon techno followed by a ruthless, high-intensity set from Jamaica Suk. I danced with an old fisherman with a craggy face whose elegant dance moves were all fingers, knees and elbows. Two local boys got on the shoulders of French guys, pogoing up and down. A little girl with pigtails, not more than three years old, smiled dazedly.
After his set, Otabek looked at the dance floor approvingly and told me: "They might not have heard this kind of music before but they just need to hear it once and they love it. A new culture is emerging in the heart of this crowd."