Most people who visit Uzbekistan do the classic 4 cities: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. These cities have an immense amount of culture, history and incredible experiences to offer, but I wanted to highlight a region of the country that was once the most prosperous: Karakalpakstan.
A short history
At 36% of Uzbekistan’s total surface area, it is not possible to ignore Karakalpakstan. It encompasses the area from the western Kazakh border, the Aral Sea, the border with Turkmenistan and the Kyzyl Kum desert. Literally, Karakalpak means “black hat”, because the people were known to wear hats made of the wool from black sheep. Historically, the Karakalpaks were primarily nomads and fishermen.
Even though they have found remnants of tribes dated as far back as the Neolithic, the first real document speaking of the Karakalpak people is from the 16th century. It’s important to note that the area was never truly independent, but rather always a part of something bigger: the Kingdom of Khorezm, the Khanate of Chagatai and Khiva, the Soviet Union and now the Republic of Uzbekistan. It was only during the USSR that Karakalpakstan gained a form of sovereignty. After the fall of the USSR, it became part of Uzbekistan but retains its own constitution and language.
In short: Karakalpakstan is a region that has seen it all: From herding horses, sheep, camels and goats to fishing to cotton monoculture to mass unemployment. Historical records show that the region was always very fertile and the Amu Darya allowed for extensive agriculture. When the Soviets demanded the Karakalpaks to start producing cotton (an incredibly water-intensive crop) at high rates to meet the goals set by the Five Year Plans, the first tone was set for an environmental disaster: the drying up of the Aral Sea.
Further up the Amu Darya, in other regions of Uzbekistan,Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the water from the Amu Darya is also used for irrigation of crop fields. The pesticides from the fields ended up in the Aral Sea and became more and more concentrated as the surface became smaller. Most fish died and the industry ceased to be. Today, Karakalpakstan is nothing more but a desertified area surrounded by more deserts and probably the poorest of all of Uzbekistan. The reason why the Uzbek government is not putting a lot of effort into this is the huge reserves of natural gas found under the Aral Sea.
What is there to see?
Still in Ancient Khorezm and not too far from Urganch lies Ayaz Kala: 3 ancient castles dated from the 2nd to the 8th century AD. that were once used to protect the people of Khorezm from the attacking nomadic tribes. Although the insides seem empty, one can definitely see the remains of different rooms, palaces and agricultural settlements. The bricks are uncooked, which makes Ayaz Kala incredibly vulnerable to erosion and careless tourists. It’s also on the World Monument Fund’s list of top 20 most endangered sites.
Next to the complex lies the Ayaz Kala yurt camp, run by a family of 3. They’ll provide you with an amazingly decorated yurt to sleep in and they somehow manage to make incredible food from a very basic kitchen. Totally recommended! Get yourself a private taxi to also tour the rest of Ancient Khorezm and visit other Kala’s: Toprak Kala, Kyzyl Kala, etc.
This is definitely my favourite! A solitary, somewhat alien-looking ruin in the midst of an uninspiring desert. At first sight it looks like another Kala, but Chilpik is actually a so-called Dakhma: a ‘Tower Of The Dead’ in the Zoroastrian religion. People came here to drop their loved ones on top of the tower, which was essentially a mass grave, for scavengers to be picked on and ultimately eaten. Sounds a bit grim, right?
Not a trace of these practices remains today, there is only a sign that tells you the name of the tower. There’s a little path going up on the right side of the fortress (you’ll have to search a bit to find a good way to enter), which you can climb to reach the top of the tower. There’s also a tripod to mark the highest point of the area, heavily decorated with some fabric and ropes. It’s an excellent place for a magnificent view over the Amu Darya, big and mighty still, and the crop fields around. From here, you can also clearly see where the drylands start and how the region and its people are so dependent on the river.
Moynaq and the Aral Sea
Probably what Karakalpakstan is most famous for: The Aral Sea remnants. Rusty ship wrecks, toxic salt deposits, remnants of a prosperous past which was ripped from the locals in just a few decades’ time.
The town of Moynaq, which once used to be on the shores of this massive lake, is now almost empty. There is a museum about the fishing industry (and the canning factory which was there) and with a guide you most certainly have the option to go further and see the wrecks of the fishing boats. It is an incredibly photogenic place, but at least equally depressing. It is unique in Karakalpakstan and the rest of the world, probably the best example of how quickly human kind can wreak permanent havoc on the environment. It is definitely worth a day if you have a private taxi. There won’t be any public transport in this area!
The capital of Karakalpakstan is not what you’d call a thriving metropole. It is a very Soviet-looking place and is mainly composed of slabs of concrete surrounded by desert. However, do NOT misjudge this city by its initial appearance, there is much more than meets the eye.
As Karakalpakstan was used as a region for military tests during the Cold War (think Nuclear tests, biochemical weapons,..), it was not the place to be for anyone sane or of any importance within the Soviet ranks. This led Russian artist Igor Savitsky to display his Russia-skeptic art works here, far away from officials’ attention. They are still visible now in the Savitsky Museum and are a must-see when you are in Uzbekistan (if you are not very familiar with Russian art, then get a guide inside to truly understand the works).
Nukus also has a huge bazaar to do daily groceries or to admire the massive amounts of fresh dill, a presidential boulevard and a big mosque. Visit this city to experience the real vibe of a bigger Uzbek city without the tourism and the Silk Road atmosphere.
Do you have an urge to explore Karakalpakstan? I took a lot of inspiration from Indy Guide. They have connections with over 1000 local providers in Central-Asia and can definitely help you on the way to creating your dream trip through Uzbekistan.