Uzbekistan’s annual Stihia festival takes place in the desert formerly known as the Aral Sea. Once a 26,000-square-mile body of water, the sea is now little more than a dried-out, semi-toxic seabed dotted with the skeletons of beached fishing boats. The rusted hulks are everywhere, like abandoned props from a dystopian post-apocalypse film.

We arrived just in time for the first sandstorm, which here means clouds of salt, sand, and chemicals, what’s left of the once polluted sea, sucked up into the air, then filling your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. The briny grit gets into places you never knew you had. Fortunately, festival organizers were selling goggles at the bar. Surgical masks were plentiful. (Thank you, coronavirus.)

Moynaq, an ancient Uzbek city on the edge of the former Aral Sea, hosts the desert rave.

The Stihia festival began in 2018, when 150 or so young people gathered outside Moynaq, a former fishing town in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, to listen to electronic music, sleep in yurts, eat energy bars and plov, drink vodka and Tuborg, and maniacally dance under strobe lights to disco tech and acid house.

A lighthouse built to guide sailors now stands watch over a toxic desert.

This month, there were 1,500 or so revelers from Kazakhstan, Belarus, Germany, Japan, Ukraine, Argentina, France, Italy, and India. My group flew from Tashkent to Nukus and then drove four hours in a bus. This year’s festivities included a larger than usual influx of Russians—expats who had self-exiled to Uzbekistan to escape the sanctions and repression that followed February’s invasion of Ukraine.

The setting was like a cross between a refugee camp and a colony on Mars. A lighthouse has been rebuilt, and overlooks the scene. There were people dressed as robots, others wearing as little as possible, their skin etched with fluorescent paint, their faces hidden behind goggles, glasses, bandannas, and glowing masks, bouncing and swaying together like a synchronized school of fish, glow-in-the-dark ghosts dancing on a dead seabed.

There were people dressed as robots, others wearing as little as possible, their skin etched with fluorescent paint, their faces hidden behind goggles.

By day, we slept, or attended earnest panel discussions hosted by scientists and conservationists with titles such as “Developments of the Desert Ecosystem of the Aral Sea Region.”

Partying till dawn in the post-apocalyptic landscape of western Uzbekistan.

A festival this brazenly Western would have been impossible before 2016, when the 27-year rule of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, known for boiling dissidents alive, ended with his not-so-untimely death. Until Stihia itself began, there was nothing like it in Central Asia—not even in neighboring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s slightly cooler cousin. Since Karimov’s death, his country has been liberalizing in fits and starts, though a modest bacchanal like this is still a challenge to the nation’s continuing Islamization.

Otabek Suleimanov, the Tashkent lawyer and D.J. who founded the Stihia festival.

Stihia is the brainchild of a lawyer in Tashkent named Otabek Suleimanov, who likes to moonlight as a D.J. He visited the barren wasteland around Moynaq, which was once an island back when this desert was a sea, while working for a client. He came away enchanted by the region’s stark beauty. “Can’t we do something here?” he asked friends. “Bring turntables, speakers, and call for the gods of the sea like nomadic shamans?” He lobbied the government and somehow got them to allow what he hoped would eventually become the Central Asian incarnation of Burning Man.

The tyrant’s death notwithstanding, Uzbekistan remains an authoritarian country. There are still things that cannot be said or done. Not so long ago, the Uzbek foreign minister, Abdulaziz Komilov, chose not to remain silent about the invasion of Ukraine. Russian military operations, he said, “must be stopped right away.” Almost immediately, it was announced that he had been diagnosed with a “chronic illness” and was leaving the country for “treatment.”

Uzbek police provided security and kept a wary eye on illicit-drug use.

I smelled weed only once. Some guy offered to sell me Ecstasy, but I was suspicious because he was way too eager. There were Soviet-looking police surrounding the event, there to “protect” us. But poorly disguised plainclothes officers moved about, presumably looking for harder drugs—a lot of Afghan heroin moves through Uzbekistan. Sam, a Brit who has lived in Tashkent for years, marveled at how the undercover police went to so much trouble to blend in, wearing leather jackets “like the cool kids, but then they walk up to chat with the police in uniform and blow their cover.”

Alessio, an Italian reveler at this year’s festival.

Still, the complete absence of the smell of marijuana smoke—at a rave, of all places—was noteworthy. But as one American friend put it, “No joint is worth an Uzbek prison, and it won’t even be a prison in Tashkent!”

Suleimanov insists that “stihia” is Greek for “personal universe.” He also says that in Russian it translates loosely as “unstoppable force of nature.” The place always pulls him back. I understand. For even after three nights of living in a yurt with 11 others, using a plywood board with a hole in it as a privy, I will be coming back.

Festival amenities are minimal, but there’s always room for one more in the spacious yurts provided by organizers.

“Because of the war,” Suleimanov says, “we have a lot of Russians and people coming from Belarus coming to Uzbekistan.” The Russian contingent added an extra element of drama to the party. Many danced as if pretending to be high, “like they’d watched an instructional video on YouTube called ‘How to Look Like You Are Raving on Ecstasy,’” as my British friend Nora put it. The Uzbek government, hoping to lure IT workers, has welcomed them with visas, housing subsidies, and tax exemptions. The phenomenon even has a name: TashRush.

By day, festival-goers who weren’t sleeping sampled Central Asian food and culture.

The Russians, I found, did not want to talk politics. No one did. But the subject was on everyone’s mind. I asked Suleimanov if the war and the Russians added a new level of tension to the proceedings.

He shook his head and said, “Sand is the great equalizer.”

Will Cathcart is a journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, covering politics and culture. He is a former media adviser to the president of Georgia