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Travel Karakalpakstan: The Stan Within A Stan Everyone forgot.
Karakalpakstan makes up a sizable area of Uzbekistan- over one-third of Uzbekistan’s landmass. Once prosperous and powerful, Karakalpakstan was a fertile agricultural region. Now the region of Karakalpakstan the has nearly been forgotten by the outside world and left in desolate dust.
Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan. Due to the drainage of the Aral Sea the region went from being one of Uzbekistan’s most prosperous to the poorest. The area is now mostly comprised of desert and includes part of what’s left of the Aral Sea.
The region has drawn people in with its mystery from the nomadic Karakalpak people to artists such as Igor Savitsky. Karakalpakstan had also drawn negative attention from visitors that don’t give it a chance and can’t appreciate the desolation or history.
Where to go in Karakalpakstan.
Many tourists will skip over this region as they either think there’s nothing there or just don’t really know anything about. There definitely are some interesting things here you don’t want to miss.
The capital of the autonomous republic. Home to Nukus Museum of Art. It is a Soviet creation and was closed off from foreigners until the collapse of the USSR. Nukus will likely serve as a base for your greater adventure as you travel Karakalpakstan.
Poor diversion efforts by the Soviets have turned this once prosperous sea- actually one of the largest, yet shallow and unstable lakes in the world into one of the worst environmental disasters in history. 90% of the lake is gone leaving the basin to desertification and covered in toxic chemicals from weapons testing.
Uzbekistan’s once bustling only port city is now nearly a ghost town with only a fraction of its residents left. Home to the ship graveyard.
Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm:
Eight castles sit perched in the desert, they are: Toprak Qala, Ayaz Qala, Koy-Kirilgan Qala, Big Guldursun fortress, Pil Qala, Anka Qala, Kurgashin Qala and Djanbas Qala. All are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Kyzylkum means red sand in the Turkic language. The Kyzylkum desert sits between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers. Home to the ancient castles of Khorezm.
Karakum means black sand in the Turkic language. The name came from the dark soil that is sat exposed beneath the sands. The desert is sparsely populated and sees little rainfall. The Karakum continues into Turkmenistan and makes up 70% of the country. The Karakum Desert sits southwest of the Kyzylkum.
What to do in Karakalpakstan:
Karakalpakistan is a giant region and if you choose to travel Karakalpakstan it can be extremely rewarding. Let’s face it: any to travel to Karakalpakstan is already getting off the beaten path.
The earlier mentioned Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm are a must see. Built between 4 BC and 7 AD to protect Khorezm from raids. You’ll likely have these desert castles scattered along the Amu Darya completely to yourself as they see nowhere near the traffic that Uzbekistan’s well-known Silk Road cities see. These castles are important fortifications along the Silk Road and ancient Khorezm played a huge part in the culture and history of the development of trade.
Spend the night on the shores of the Aral Sea.
Many operators offer overnight camping trips to the new shore of the Aral Sea. This will give a full grasp of how large scale the world’s biggest environmental disaster really is. You will spend a lot of time in the car as the shoreline now sits over 100 km from Moynaq.
Visit the nomadic Karakalpaks.
Meet the people that settled the Lower Amu Darya and southern shores of the Aral Sea. The Karakalpaks are incredibly warm and welcoming. If you do decide to explore out into rural Karakapakstan far enough you can still find families that still put up the traditional summer yurts. Try to visit in early June before it gets too hot.
Visit the Nukus Museum of Art
Also known as the Savitsky Museum. A museum with a collection of over 82,000 pieces. Only second to the Russian Museum St. Petersburg for the largest collection of Russian avant-garde artwork. Savitsky worked on collecting many pieces from Karakalpak artifacts, jewelry and clothing to avant-garde pieces. Many pieces in the museum are by Central Asian and Russian avant-garde artists whose works were banned under Joseph Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 1985 (One year after Savitsky’s death) that this collection was acknowledged for how remarkable it is, and not until 1991 when Uzbekistan became an independent nation that visitors could go to the museum as Nukus was off-limits during Soviet rule. One of the most interesting accumulations of ancient and modern art alike. Entrance fees are 25,000 Uzbek som for adults, 15,000 for students and 10,000 for children. Check out the museum’s website here.
Moynaq ship graveyard.
Eery and haunting, but worth a visit. Take a short trip out of Moynaq to see the rusted out abandoned ships which sit over 100 km from the current shoreline of what’s left of the Aral Sea.
Money in Karakapakstan:
As of September 2017 Uzbekistan has taken big steps with its currency to get rid of the black market and the circus that surrounded it (that was mostly due in part to its government’s ludicrous ideas). It used to be that $1 USD would only officially get you around 4,000 Uzbek Som, yet the black market would fetch you a rate of $8,100 som to the dollar. So why on Earth would you exchange money at an official exchange or in a bank? But now the government has risen the official bank rate to 8,100 Uzbek Som to the dollar. It’s advisable to bring cash into Uzbekistan with you as you’ll be hard pressed to find an ATM that will actually work, this is especially true as you continue on to travel Karakalpakstan.
Getting to Karakalpakstan.
Most that do travel Karakalpakstan include it in a tour of greater Uzbekistan and even Turkmenistan that would bring them in overland from Khiva.
If entering Karakpakstan by flight it will likely be via Nukus Airport. It’s only connections are Tashkent and Moscow-Domodedovo.
It is possible to arranage a shared taxi from Khiva or Urgench. Expect Urgench or Khiva to Nukus to run 48,000-81,000 ($6-10 USD) per seat.
There are Nukus bound trains via Samarkand from Tashkent. Check out the schedule here.
Getting around in Karakalpakstan.
Karakalpakstan isn’t easy to get around with the desolation and isolation and all. Expect to go by taxi to places such as Moynaq and ship graveyard and the going rate roundtrip will set you back about 325,000 som ($40 USD) roundtrip (3 hours each way), best to find other travelers to pitch in on the expense. A marshrutka (minibus) will cost about 810,000 som ($100 USD) roundtrip for the entire vehicle. Allegedly there is a bus between Nukus and Moynaq, but I went in with a group on a minibus, so I have no information on the regular bus for times, frequency or cost.
To go further afield to travel Karakalpakstan it would be recommended to book a tour with local guide and 4×4 through a local travel agent and find a group of travelers to try and share cost.
Where to stay in Karakapakstan.
Options are very limited. I personally stayed in Hotel Jipek Joli and have no complaints (okay the internet can be a bit slow, but I didn’t come to Nukus for the internet… I know some people out there will piss and moan about this). 285,000 som per night for a room ($35 USD).
In Moynaq the only hotel option is Hotel Oybek (I haven’t stayed here, so can’t report anything on it). Apparently there are homestays in Moynaq, but I have heard that they are not allowed to let foreigners stay.
In Ayaz, near Ayaz-Qala Fortress (between Urgench and Nukus) there is a yurt camp. Cost is 245,000 som ($30 USD) per person per night and includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Can arrange camel rides from here as well. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to book, otherwise try to book the yurt camp through a travel agent in Khiva.
It would be a good idea to bring a tent as you may very well be camping outside of any settlement. If you do go on a tour to the Aral Sea they will likely provide a tent for you.