Moynaq, Uzbekistan

The day is spent driving north toward Moynaq. At one time, this was a major shipping port of the Aral Sea. Over the last 40 years, diverted rivers and expanded water consumption have shrunk the sea. Rusty ships sit in the desert, awaiting the sea’s improbable return.

There’s nary a security guard or cop, so we climb across the barges’ and boats’ jagged hulks and look around.

Afterward, local kids direct us to their favorite restaurant. It’s an unmarked blue bunker. The screen door is locked. We knock. “Hello?” I say hopefully.

No answer.

As we walk away, a lady opens the door a crack. She motions for us to come in, and we enter a dark warren lit by whatever sunlight dribbles in from between the dark slats of the walls. We’re seated at a long table—right beside the local police force, happily slurping up bowls of noodle soup.

Our meal choice is simple: black or green tea and noodle soup served cool with pickled spicy cucumbers. It’s an instant restorative. The dark brown broth is lamb-based, interspersed with thin noodles that are almost like vermicelli.

“I could go swimming in this soup and be happy,” says Bugs Meany’s Denwood. It’s very hot outside, and the soup is refreshing.

After we pay, the policemen call us over. They don’t want to check our documents; instead, they want us to drink vodka with them.

“But we’re driving,” Mims says, miming driving a car.

They wave off his protest and pour him a healthy jigger of vodka.

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