By UTE SCHULENBERG
WHEN the SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic put an end to a tour Helen Proud was leading through Central Asia in 2003, she decided to remain in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Writing a book was the furthest thing from her mind.
"My home in Dorrigo was rented for another six months, so I took the opportunity to stay and learn more about this fascinating country," Ms Proud said.
"Here was this place with these evocative links to the Great Silk Road that had been completely locked away during Soviet times."
By volunteering her tourism and language skills at a local travel agent/guest house, she secured a room for her stay and a base to explore from.
"At first it was very challenging," she said.
"I had to learn the language (Russian) and find all my own friends.
"People are still very suspicious and fearful of foreigners."
It took three months before she received her first invitation.
"The mother of one of my English students prepared this beautiful lunch, during which she started telling me about her truck-driver husband, who had gone missing in Russia and how as a pensioner, she had received no money for seven months. The government has said it has no money ? imagine if John Howard said that to Australians!"
Slowly Ms Proud began hearing more stories from women about the harsh realities of modern Uzbeki life and also a plea to tell the West.
"The people feel dumped by Russia and believe the West doesn't care," Ms Proud said.
"After years of revolution, war and famine, the spirits of the men are broken. It is the women who are feeding their families and carrying the country.
"There is 70 per cent unemployment, no enterprise and no hope ? everyone wants to leave.
"I felt compelled to compile their stories."
To contact Helen Proud call 6657 2630.