Visiting the Aral Sea Disaster, Uzbekistan
Visiting the Aral Sea Disaster, Uzbekistan was originally published in June 2022
Mostly dried and desiccated into a toxic desert, the Aral Sea is among the world’s worst environmental disasters. Once a lively endorheic lake that provided fisherman’s bounty, numerous ports, and a center of trade, the Aral Sea’s waters were drained in poor diversion efforts to hydrate cotton fields and her islands home to top-secret Soviet bioweapons lab Aralsk 7.
With all that said, small pieces of the Aral Sea do remain and are possible to visit. The South Aral Sea largely sits within the bounds of Uzbekistan and the North Aral Sea inside Kazakhstan’s borders.
For tourists looking to get off the well-beaten tourist path in Uzbekistan, as well as those interested in environmental and dark tourism, it’s possible to visit not only the former port city of Moynaq but the remainder of the South Aral Sea too.
- Where to go Around the Aral Sea
- Getting to the Aral Sea and Surroundings
- Aral Sea Tours
- Visiting Moynaq and Nearby Sites as a Day Trip from Nukus
- Is it Safe to Visit the Aral Sea?
Where to go Around the Aral Sea
Moynaq has probably suffered the most at the hands of the Aral Sea disaster. The once-bustling and fairly wealthy port city at the shores of the Aral Sea now feels somewhat like a ghost town, despite its current population of around 13,000 people.
Moynaq is the ‘big city’, if you will, in the vicinity of the Aral Sea, so you will find a couple of shops and a couple of guesthouses where it’s also possible to arrange meals. For those going further afield into the Aralkum Desert, it would be wise to stock up before leaving Moynaq if you haven’t done so already in Nukus.
Where to Stay in Moynaq
The main two accommodations in Moynaq are the Hotel Moynaq (sometimes called the Hotel Oybek) and the Mayak Yurt Camp. If you’re looking for something more homestay/guesthouse-like try Hostel Abeskun Tur or Timur Homestay.
The Hotel Moynaq isn’t always open (it was shuttered for the season in October 2021 on my last visit) so it would be wise to call head (+998613221868). Mayak Yurt Camp is located just off of the Aral Sea Memorial next to the lighthouse, where you can rent a bed in a yurt from them or pay a small fee to camp on their site in your own tent. Mayak is usually open from May to September/October.
Aside from the above two, you can try the Hostel Abeskun Tur and the Timur Homestay. Note that all of these accommodations aren’t always open and that the easiest way to book is via one of the tour agencies in Nukus that specialize in Aral Sea trips.
Moynaq Ship Graveyard & Aral Sea Memorial
On the north end of Moynaq, you’ll reach the funky spike-like Aral Sea Memorial with depictions of the drying sea on its three sides at different stages in time. The memorial overlooks the Moynaq Ship Graveyard sat on the former shore of the Aral Sea (now it’s located over 100 kilometers away). You can walk down a path and go check out the rusted and decaying ships a bit closer.
In the same lot as the memorial, there is the Museum of the Aral Sea that is worth a visit if you’re coming all the way out here. The museum is small and features many paintings and artifacts from around the Aral Sea region, and you can even watch a short informative film about the Aral Sea disaster (available in several languages). Entry to the Museum of the Aral Sea is 20,000 UZS.
Stihia is an electronic music and environmental awareness festival held for the first time in 2018. Stihia aims to bring together musicians, artists, scientists, engineers, and environmentalists for talks and collaborations alongside a techno rave among rusting defunct ships.
The dates do move around a little bit as the first events were held in November, but now seem to be happening more in spring. The next Stihia is lined up for May 6-8, 2022.
Tokmak is a small village that you’ll pass just beyond the north end of Moynaq and the Ship Graveyard as you continue toward the remains of the South Aral Sea. It’s not a lot more than a scattering of homes, but some of these homes are the original houses of fishermen from the area.
South Aral Sea
The South Aral Sea is the remaining bit of the endorheic lake that lies mostly in Uzbekistan along the Ustyurt Plateau. Subsequently, this is the most-visited part of the remaining Aral Sea as it is accessible from Moynaq by 4WD on a long bumpy path that cuts across the toxic sands of the former lake bed.
The remains of the Aral Sea are a sight to behold and are still quite beautiful despite the disaster that’s raged on here. You can even go right down to the lakeshore and if you’re crazy enough (and it’s not the tail end of the season like when we went) you can even swim in the water. The shore is comprised of a thick black muck that will suck you in and you’re driver won’t be super thrilled about having to take you back to camp covered in the toxic mud (don’t worry, they all seem to be used to tourists getting coated in mud and have some plastic sheets they’ll lie out on the seats so that you don’t muck up the interior of their car).
Where to Stay at the Aral Sea
There is a small family-run yurt camp, located uphill from the current shore of the Aral Sea (with great views of the water). This is where you’ll be spending the night if you opt to join one of the two day Aral Sea tours from Nukus. They also have a restaurant on-site where they serve dinner and breakfast for those staying.
Very near to the Aral Sea shore and not far from the yurt camp, you’ll find the remains of the 12th century caravanserai of Kurgancha Qala. Here, Silk Road traders plying the route would have spent nights resting before continuing on their long journeys.
It’s mostly just ruins now with crumbling mud walls and toppled over piles of brick.
The Ustyurt Plateau is a unique clay desert that spans across the borders of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The landscapes of the Ustyurt Plateau are fascinating, especially in the area around the Aral Sea where it seemingly drops off the edge of a cliff and into the sea.
The greater Ustyurt area has been more recently designated the South Ustyurt National Park.
Kantubek & Aralsk 7
Aralsk 7 and Kantubek were the former Soviet bioweapons lab and testing site and “town” that the scientists lived in on Vozrozhdeniya Island, right smack in the middle of the Aral Sea. It was abruptly abandoned in 1992 and little was known what went on there for a decade. Sadly the ghost town of Kantubek was completely demolished in 2020 with almost zero foresight.
If you do decide to add Aralsk 7/Kantubek to your Aral Sea itinerary, understand that there’s essentially nothing left there aside from random pieces of broken wire, brick, tile, and the decaying remains of the Barkhan Airfield. I went up to Aralsk 7 in October 2021 thinking we’d be wandering around a ghost town to find that there was not much more than the flat, barren Aralkum.
Also, note that most Aral Sea tours do not include visiting Aralsk 7 and Kantubek on their itineraries, so if you’d like to try and go you’ll need to arrange a customized private tour or opt to rent a 4WD and visit on your own. I have also seen people arguing online whether or not it is legal to even visit- from my experience you’re unlikely to run into anyone out here (the only people we came across were some local Karaklpaks making the haul from their village across the border on Kazakh side to Moynaq) and I have yet to find anything the outwardly states that you go here, but it is worth noting that it is located right on the Uzbek-Kazakh border (if you’ve spent any time in the Central Asia region, you likely already know that border zones are many times quite sensitive.
Read more about the crazy history and my visit to Aralsk 7 and Kantubek.
Qubla Ustyurt Village
Qubla Ustyurt or South Ustyurt Village is a small settlement south of the current Aral Seashore. It’s not much more than a scattering of homes and a school. There is a decent-sized airstrip on the fringe of town that would have served workers and even tourists coming here to visit the Aral Sea in its heyday.
Sudochie Lakes is a wetland area and inland reservoir of the Amu Darya Delta. The area surrounding Sudochie Lakes is home to over 218 bird species, including flamingos. Another notable feature of the shallow lakes is the reed islands that I thought looked like giant lilypads as we looked down toward them from up top of the Ustyurt Plateau.
You can visit the ghost town of Urga, which was once a decent-sized village of fishermen, now home to a deserted fish processing plant, an old believer cemetery (which beacons back to the time when Urga would have been the first place in Khorezm settled by Russians), and the ruins of a 3rd century citadel. There are still a couple of families that live in Urga, though possibly not year-round, so you probably won’t be completely alone here.
Barsa Kelmes Salt Flat
Not to be confused with a former island in the Aral Sea named Barsa Kelmes located on the Kazakh side of the border, the Barsa Kelmes Salt Flat sits entirely within Uzbekistan southwest of the remaining Aral Sea.
Barsa Kelmes Salt Flat is an eerie pan of salt, a remnant of the ancient Tethys Sea.
At 70 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, Barsa Kelmes is quite large. There is one operation that still mines salt from the flat too.
Note that at certain times of the year it is dangerous to try and cross the shallow river that forms between the plateau and the salt flat due to the risk of getting sucked in. If this is the case on your visit, you can still observe Barsa Kelmes from the cliffside.
Getting to the Aral Sea and Surroundings
The easiest way of visiting the Ara Sea is to book a two day tour (more on that below). The area is quite remote and there isn’t really any public transport aside from marshrutka that make the haul between Nukus and Moynaq.
You can visit if you have your own vehicle, though it would be wise to have a couple of spare tires, especially if you plan to venture beyond Moynaq as flats are to be expected. A 4WD is recommended too as you’ll be following rough jeep tracks much of the way from Moynaq to the seashore.
Aral Sea Tours
Several outfits in Nukus and Khiva run tours to the Aral Sea between April and October. We ended up booking ours through Islambek Travel, which I’ve used in the past for other excursions around the Karakalpakstan and Khorezm regions of Uzbekistan.
Most Aral Sea tours are two days and one night, starting and ending from Nukus, though it’s also possible to start and end from Khiva too. The tours usually include visits to Moynaq and the Ship Graveyard, Kurgancha Qala, the Great Ustyurt Plateau and Canyons, South Aral Sea, Sudochie Lakes, Barsa Kelmes Salt Flat, and Mizdakhan Necropolis, and include a night spent in the yurt camp on the Aral Seashore.
Visiting Moynaq and Nearby Sites as a Day Trip from Nukus
Short on time or low on budget? Then likely a day trip from Nukus is in order for you.
Either way, Nukus is the best jumping-off point for those looking to explore both the Aral Sea and Karakalpakstan more thoroughly. The city also boasts a surprisingly good restaurant scene given that Nukus is quite far from almost everything else in Uzbekistan. One thing not to miss in Nukus is the impressive avant-garde art collection at the Savitsky Museum.
Where to Stay in Nukus
The Jipek Joli Inn and Hotel Jipek Joli are the top choices if you’re looking for accommodation in Nukus (both are actually owned and operated by the same people). Both options are centrally located and can even arrange tours to the Aral Sea and other destinations in Karakalpakstan for you.
Is it Safe to Visit the Aral Sea?
While the sands of the Aralkum Desert that forms the bed of the former Aral Sea are considered toxic due to desiccation as well as the former weapons testing that went on on the islands, a short visit for a tourist is largely considered safe. The health effects here are mainly a concern with long-term exposure, meaning the people that live around the Aral Sea region that have constant and repeated exposure to environmental toxins.
Have any questions about visiting the Aral Sea?
Ask in the comments section below.