Revelers attend the Stihia electronic music festival in the town of Muynak on September 14, 2018. (AFP/Stanislav Khodjaev)
Beats pumped and strobe lights beamed across the desert in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan into the early hours of Saturday as festival-goers danced beside rusting boats beached miles from the shrinking Aral Sea.
The event, called Stihia or Element in Russian, was the first electronic music festival ever held in the Central Asian state, which has recently moved to open up to international tourism.
It was staged in an area of desert caused by one of the world's largest man-made environmental catastrophes, the shrinking of the Aral Sea that borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, caused by Soviet irrigation projects that diverted its tributary rivers.
"Lets fill the Aral Sea with an ocean of sounds. If we cannot fill it with water right now, let's start with the sounds," implored Otabek Suleimanov, one of the organizers of the festival that ran overnight from Friday.
The venue for the festival, Muynak, was once a fishing town on the shores of the sea, formerly the world's fourth largest freshwater lake, known for its "graveyard" of beached boats.
The rare music event drew DJs from across the former Soviet Union and Europe as well as 60 foreign tourists and around 7,000 locals, according to organizers.
Perhaps more notably, it did so with the blessing of Uzbekistan's authoritarian government and the conservative mainly Muslim population in this dust-swept patch of the Central Asian country.
"I wanted to witness the concert and the light show," said Guldona Turakulova, a 25-year-old nurse who works at Muynak's state hospital.
"This is the first time I have seen anything like this. I really want my Muynak to become a place that attracts (people) again," she said.
Her generation has lived with the after-effects of the Aral Sea disaster including lost livelihoods from fishing and tourism.
"My father tells me stories about the sea, about how they used to fish and swim here," Turakulova told AFP.
At the heavily-policed festival, a mock-up lighthouse loomed over revellers as a reminder of the receding sea, close to where a real lighthouse once stood.
Now, each year, tens of thousands of tons of salt-laced dust blow from the dried-up seabed, much of it contaminated by pesticides, affecting health.
This May one such storm blew across the region and into neighboring Turkmenistan, seriously damaging crops according to international media reports that were not confirmed by the secretive government in Ashgabat.
- Tourism boost -
Uzbekistan's government endorsed the music festival in the country's nominally autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, hoping it will help attract tourism to the economically depressed region.
Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took over after the death of Soviet-era leader Islam Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan has lifted or relaxed visa restrictions for citizens of dozens of countries as it looks to diversify away from exports of water-intensive crops such as cotton that played a key role in the Aral Sea's downfall.
Organiser Suleimanov told AFP he was hopeful of holding Stihia again next year, despite logistical challenges.
"This was just a pilot. We hope more and more people will come next time," he said.
The lineup included Ukraine-born Germany-based artist Dasha Redkina who staged an ambient dance set and describes her music as "experimenting with cosmic signals".
Speaking to AFP before her set, Redkina said the performance would be "a sacrifice to the Gods of water and rain, to bring the region the energy it needs to summon the Aral Sea back here."
For the moment, the rebirth of the Aral looks unlikely. By 1997, the inland sea was a tenth of its size prior to major irrigation works beginning in the 1960s and in 2014 NASA satellite images showed its eastern lobe had dried up completely.
Most progress on regenerating the Aral has been in its northern section in Kazakhstan, where World Bank funding helped build a dam.
Arina Osinovskaya, a travel writer who was visiting from Kazakhstan, said the Stihia festival's main draw was the "captivating" backdrop of the former fishing town and its stark environmental message.
"It is a good reminder to think about what is important. The Aral Sea concerns not only Uzbekistan but the neighboring countries and the broader region," she told AFP.
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