You can see Chilpik from so far away. You crest an insignificant rise in the desert and there it is, on the horizon; flat-topped, vertical sided, rising up like a skyscraper, towering over the landscape. And then, oddly, as you rein in the kilometres, reducing the distance between it and you, it begins to shrink. It never becomes small, never gets anywhere close to being unimpressive. It remains, even when you are standing at its base, truly enormous, a monument of staggering proportions, but it is monument built on a human scale. When you are far away it appears something more; from a distance it looks unearthly.
The story of Chilpik sounds made up; it sounds like it is a fabrication, a children’s bedtime tale. A Zoroastrian tower of the dead? Where recently deceased family members and loved ones were brought, and laid out, for their bodies to be picked clean by vultures and other carrion, till nought is left behind but bleached-white bones? The remains then gathered up, a year or more later, and buried in the ground at the local necropolis? It sounds preposterous, but it is all true. Chilpik is a dakhma, also known as a tower of silence, an essential part of the long established ritual of excarnation, or de-fleshing, practiced in Zoroastrianism.
A man awaits us at the base of the tower. This is unexpected. We are in the middle of a vast stretch of unoccupied desert. What is he doing here? And how did he get here? He has no means of transport, no shelter, no table, no chair. Just a lone man, standing at the interface between the world of the living and the world of the dead – like Charon, the ferryman of Hades. I’m not sure if Charon carried a guitar though, as this man does. He pulls the guitar up to his chest, hugs it lovingly, seconds away from beginning to strum.
‘He sings songs for tourists,’ Sukhrab, a Kyrgyz NGO worker seated in the middle of the troop carrier, informs us. ‘Kazakh folk songs,’ he adds. ‘You want to hear a song?’
‘Maybe later,’ the group replies.
The busker puts his guitar back down. He doesn’t bother to hide his disappointment.
I’m crammed in the back of a troop carrier with a bunch of NGO workers, on a weekend trip out of Nukus, capital of Qaraqalpaqstan. There are eight of us in total. We mill around uncertainly, once free of the vehicle, our attention divided between the enigma that is Chilpik, and the sky-churning, stratosphere-darkening, imminently-threatening storm that is racing up behind us. The wind is already beginning to pick up. There are some in the group who are questioning the wisdom of climbing Chilpik with such a storm approaching. But the clouds appear to be veering off to the south; there’s a strong chance that the storm might miss us, or, if not miss us entirely, just splash us a wee bit. We decide to risk it: the ascension of the tower is commenced.
We’ve parked the troop carrier at the rear of the tower. The summit would have been unattainable from this point when Chilpik was in use; the only way to the top a set of stairs facing the Amu-Darya (the Amu River, once known to the English speaking world as the Oxus). Two thousand years of wind and water erosion has decimated those stairs; they no longer exist. But the same elemental forces have also carved out several new access points. We are taking advantage of the most commonly used of these: a steep, narrow ravine.
The top of the platform is uneven, unadorned, unremarkable. There is nothing here; no structures, no objects, no architectural features. Just this wide, open platform that is slowly eroding away. The stone and loosely compacted mud that Chilpik is comprised of is no match for the wind and rain, no match for the storms that beleaguer the region.
Speaking of which…
Our exploration time is going to be cut short. This storm is not going to leave us alone. For the last twenty minutes it’s been spitting out lightning like watermelon seeds. And we’re atop the highest ground for miles around. The rest of the party has already fled; they’re making a beeline down the slope, heading for the only shelter around: the troop carrier. It’s time to make a run for it.
It’s already hammering down by the time I get back to the troop carrier. I squeeze into the rear section of the vehicle with the NGO workers. In the front seat, sitting next to the driver, is the optimistic busker. He would still be outside, experiencing the brunt of the storm, if he hadn’t been offered sanctuary.
‘Rakmed, rakmed,’ he says, offering his thanks.
‘He will now sing us a Kazakh song,’ translates Sukhrab. ‘He does not ask for money-’ A ground shaking roll of thunder momentarily interrupts his speech. ‘He does not ask for money,’ he continues, ‘he will sing for free, to show his thanks for letting him sit in the car.’
The busker begins plucking at the guitar strings. He has to compete with the noise of the wind, and the driving rain, and the periodic thunder, but his deep, husky voice manages to reverberate throughout the car. His song needs no explanation; it is a song of remorse, a song of nostalgia, a song of fondness for things lost; a slow, melancholic, rolling ballad; the guitar work reminding me a little of Mason William’s Classical Gas. He plays a second song. A third. The storm continues to batter the car, the wind shaking it from side to side; lightning striking the ground all around us. The windows fog up, hiding the outside world. We sit in a cocoon, a placeless bubble, protected from the elements by a mechanical forcefield. The Zoroastrians that used this tower of silence so many centuries ago would not have had this protection. They would have been out there, in the tempest. They were a part of this place. We are not.
Then the storm is gone, little rivers of muddy water running down the side of Chilpik, eroding it further, the environment scrubbed clean, washing all evils away.
‘Rakmed, rakmed,’ the busker repeats, thanking us again as he exits the car, returning to his place in space and time. He wanders off in the post-storm gloaming, guitar swinging from hand.
Practical information and how to reach Chilpik:
Chilpik is a one hour drive from the city of Nukus. There is no public transportation (although there are share-taxis running between Nukus and Khiva). A private transfer is the best option, and can easily be organised from Hotel Jipek Joli in Nukus, or Meros B&B in Khiva.
UNESCO has produced a useful and informative handbook on the kalas of Khorezm, called The Golden Ring of Khorezm, which also features Chilpik. It can be downloaded here.