WHEN THE AIRPLANE BEGAN its descent to the little airport of Zarafshan, the city appeared among ochre-colored dunes with clusters of standard blocks of flats built in the 1970s. They did not differ from the ones that could be seen in the outskirts of Moscow, Volgograd, or Novosibirsk. There were no monuments, tourist attractions, restaurants, or old buildings in the city. It was—and still remains—a mirage town, a ghost town, built by prisoners on Communist Party orders. The distance from Zarafshan to Muruntau is around 37 kilometers (23 miles) southeast, and “Zarafshan” translates from Uzbek to mean “gold-bearing”. The sky was unusually clear almost year-round, and the sun was always bright. One could not hide from it. It was always there—above, ahead, to all sides, or behind.
In Zarafshan, we got a real apartment on the eighth floor of a nine-story building. It was 1975, and for the first time in our lives we were living in a real apartment building, not a barracks or tent, and we had a real bathroom and toilet, a kitchen, and two rooms with a balcony. There was no central air conditioning system for the building, and the window air conditioner was not known to us at that time. In the summer months, scorching, desiccating heat prevailed during the day, and nights remained hot long after the sun went down. These all made our existence tough, even in our new apartment. But it was a reality we could not change, so we adjusted our level of tolerance.
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