Nukus was a strange kind of a place. We arrived at the bus station outside of town, with little idea of where we were and even less of how to get where we were going.
Rather than put ourselves at the mercy of the taxi drivers waiting at the station, we immediately jumped into the first marshrutka departing the station. We weren’t certain it was headed our way. But then we weren’t certain what our way was, and the bazaar, the Marshrutka’s stated destination seemed like a better place to orient ourselves at the very least.
As soon as we arrived in a suitably built up area we disembarked and Sarah sat in the shade while I went to find a hotel. Unlike in Samarkand and Bukhara, this was complicated not by the overabundence of lodging, but by its scarcity. Nukus had only two hotels and they took advantage of their duopoly by charging exorbitant prices to foreign tourists (though to be fair, these were only slightly more exorbitant than the prices charged to Uzbeks.)
We eventually selected the less expensive of the two hotels, and went out to see the city’s sights.
Part of the Moynaq fishing fleet sitting on what used to be the bottom of the Aral Sea
Or sight actually. Nukus was an odd town. It had virtually no businesses and seemed sustained entirely by the activity in its bazaar, and by the cluster of government buildings near our hotel. To all appearances, Nukus was a city invented by the Soviet government and kept alive by the Uzbek one.
Though it did only have one real attraction for tourists (other than the nearby border crossing to Turkmenistan), that single star shone very brightly indeed: The Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum is a true gem. And as with many of the worlds biggest diamonds, it has an interesting history behind it as well. Igor Savitsky was a Russian painter who originally travelled to Uzbekistan as part of an anthropological/ethnological expedition. He fell in love with the Karakalpakstan area and eventually made it his home. Once settled there he started to collect art that interested him. Much of this was the work of local Karakalpak artists. But another favourite was modern, avant garde style art that Soviet authorities had deemed bourgeois or counter revolutionary. Many of the artists had been jailed or sent to the gulags and had their work destroyed. But here, far from the watchful eye of Moscow (far, even, from local authorities in Tashkent… It’s over 1000km to the capital!) he somehow managed to collect an astounding 90,000 works, often including dozens or even hundreds of paintings by single artists. Savitsky’s collection, in the middle of nowhere in a republic that was itself the middle of nowhere, slowly became one of the world’s finest collections of Soviet contemporary art.
I’d seen the outside of the museum earlier in the day and thought that a couple of hours would be plenty to take it in at a reasonable pace. I was very wrong. True, it wasn’t a big building… two floors each covering about 4000 square metres. But the space inside was packed, wall to wall, floor to ceiling with fabulous art works. I’d read someone somewhere commenting that they’d been “starved of modern art” before they arrived at the Savitsky Museum. This still sounds a bit pretentious to me, but I do kind of see what they meant. After many months of great, but uniformly traditionally styled (even if the traditions were different) artworks, it was fun, entrancing almost, to be in the middle of such a playground of lively, creative, playful even, pieces.
Me outside the Savitsky Museum. They’ve actually got two additions planned that will drastically increase the available space for their exhibitions
Vladimir Lysenko’s Bull, perhaps the most famous work (and certainly one of the most striking) in the Savitsky. (Not my photo, as the extra ticket for a camera in the museum was fairly pricey.)
We just managed a visit that took in the museum’s full displayed collection with a few minutes left over for return visits to a small selection of our favourites. For anyone headed to Khiva in northern Uzbekistan, I can unreservedly say that the Savitsky museum makes the 2-3 hour trip up to Nukus very worthwhile.
Following our muse, we headed to the other hotel in an attempt to meet fellow travellers who might be interested in joining us for the trip out of town we had planned for the next day. We failed in this, but succeeded in meeting Paul and Glenn, two Englishmen taking part in the annual Mongol Rally in their own home-built dune-buggy like construction. Fascinating blokes, they were stuck in Nukus.
Paul and Glenn’s buggy outside the Jipek Joli Hotel attracts some attention
Our final act of the day was to go and check out the bazaar for dinner.
The Nukus bazaar was a lively one, with all sorts of goods for sale in one sprawling complex (unlike the bazaars in many other cities we’d seen, where one bazaar focussed on produce, another on jewelry, another on clothing, etc.) And given that Nukus saw very few tourists, sellers were delighted to see us simply as two more customers and happily charged us local prices for everything, no questions asked (not that this had been a major issue anywhere else in Uzbekistan outside of the busiest tourist areas in any case.)
Laden with a watermelon, a few tomatoes and two lovely dense, chewy loaves of Nukus Nan (bread), I returned to our hotel room where we spent the remainder of the evening watching Olympics coverage in Russian and planning for the next day’s adventure.
The fascinating, bustling Nukus Bazaar seemed to be just about the only commercial activity in the city more significant than a drinks kiosk
Probably the best meal for two I’ve ever purchased for less than $1.50
Moynaq is not a place most people have heard of. But odds are fairly good you’ve seen a photo of the town, or at least its near environs. Because Moynaq was formerly one of the two major fishing ports on the Aral Sea.
No doubt most readers are familiar with the Aral Sea and its tragedy, but for those who aren’t, a quick primer:
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union was making an effort to increase production in all of its major industries, and the textile (primarily cotton) industry in Central Asia was no exception. To further this aim, the Soviets started irrigating vast tracts of formerly arid land, creating lengthy canals across the desert to do so. The water carried by the canals came from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers which were also the major feeders of the Aral Sea. At that time the Aral Sea was one of the largest inland seas in the world.
The cotton growing experiment was quite successful. Production quadrupled due to the new irrigation schemes. But the canals took so much water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya that in many years they stopped reaching the Aral entirely. A shallow sea to begin with, surrounded by desert, with an intensely powerful sun above, the Aral Sea was very vulnerable. With its major water inflows stopped, evaporation rapidly exceeded replenishment. The water level began to drop. The shoreline receded. The salinity of the sea increased.
The once prosperous fishing industry vanished, as the shores fell away from the former ports, in many places to 150km from their former location. Indeed, the fish almost disappeared entirely, as they were unable to cope with the drastically increased salt concentration in the sea’s waters. And things on the newly dried land were no better, as the salt left behind made it very difficult for anything to grow. The desert expanded, and without the sea’s heat sink, conditions became much harsher in the towns formerly on its shores.
Our journey to Moynaq began at the Konye Kala bus station/bazaar. We weren’t entirely sure when the bus was leaving, so ended up having a while (1.5 hours in fact) to wait. It’s a good thing people in the bazaar were so helpful otherwise we might have started thinking we were in the wrong place. While we waited I made a dash back to the main bazaar to change some more money for the day in an attempt to ensure we’d have just the right amount of Uzbek Som for our final full day in the country (the money changer there even went to the trouble of rushing around the market searching for a US$20 note to give me change for my fifty so we wouldn’t be stuck with useless Som when we departed!)
Back at the bus station, we joined thirty or so other passengers for the 220km journey north. Twenty nine human passengers, as well as one turkey passenger, who was stuck in a bag with only his head protruding, and left up on the overhead luggage rack, with a cup of water in front of him to sip at during the trip. The turkey even kind of behaved like a person, spending much of the trip on the verge of sleep, his eyes drooping shut, his head slowly drooping until he woke with a start, his head snapping back up. I probably wouldn’t have been quite so relaxed if I’d been stuffed in a bag and left on a luggage rack, but I guess turkeys are better at dealing with their lot in life.
The land on the way to Moynaq was surprising. I was expecting a dire landscape. Dry and even more barren than the deserts we’d seen previously. But in most areas, things were surprisingly green, even in the height of summer. And I could be mistaken, but it appeared as though the healthy looking plants were wild, and probably not irrigated farmland. Indeed, the area on either side of the road looked like the river delta it had formerly been.
Wetlands in the Amu Darya delta along the road to Moynaq
The next surprise was Moynaq itself. We’d expected it to be a grim, tired, dying town. Its true, we hadn’t seen it in the old days when it was a bustling fishing port. And it’s also true that the brilliant sunshine that made the place look happy and vibrant was also withering sunshine that made it impossible to go outside and do anything, leaving the streets mostly empty. But most of the people we met were smiling, and seemed happy to see us. The homes we saw as we walked the main street from the bus station to the city centre weren’t in perfect repair, but they looked no more dilapidated than plenty of others we’d seen in Uzbekistan.
I suppose much of this was artificial. With the sea gone and no fertile land nearby, the economy must have been entirely dependent on subsidies from Tashkent. Other than a few shops around the bus station, there wasn’t a business to be seen. And poignant reminders of the town’s former glory days abounded. A fishing boat up on a plinth beside the town hall. A disused community centre with broken windows just off the main street. A big fish painted on the “welcome to Moynaq” sign at the town’s entrance.
Moynaq’s main street. Somehow, whether it was the big, brilliant blue sky, the white and/or pastel coloured buildings, or the sand, it just FELT like a beach town. I kept expecting to turn a corner or walk over a rise in the road and see the sea ahead of us
Somewhat Surprisingly, Moynaq had a fairly large Christian cemetery. Another legacy of the Soviet era.
But of course the most striking and most famous reminder was the remains of the Moynaq fishing fleet. At first efforts were made to retain the town’s connection with the sea, canals being dug out to chase the receding shore. But eventually this became impossible and there was nowhere left for the ships to go. So they were left at their docks as the sea level dropped, eventually turning the waters to desert, leaving them sitting on the salt and sand of the former sea floor.
There were more than I’d expected. Perhaps a dozen all told, sitting, lolling on their sides, slowly rusting away in the sand. and while they weren’t huge, oceangoing freighters, they were large vessels, nonetheless. There were more than I’d expected. As big as they were, they looked insignificant compared to the vast expanse of salt and sand stretching off to the horizon and beyond. Not entirely disimilar, I suppose, to the way they had once been dwarfed by the sea.
A fishing boat listing in the sand
Staring through the ribs of an old fishing vessel at its compatriots in the desert
Sarah in front of a rusted out fishing vessel in Moynaq’s former harbour
From the sea floor we climbed up a set of stairs to the new Aral Sea memorial, overlooking the former harbour. Sarah had gone up first, and when I arrived I was a bit surprised to find her in the middle of a picnic. Five Moynaq residents were camped in the shade of the monument happily munching away on tinned meat and bread, well on their way through their third bottle of vodka. It seemed an odd spot for a picnic, but I suppose you make do with what you’ve got.
In typical central Asian style we were welcomed into the circle, and toasted all around with several small glasses of potent spirit. We had just enough time to have the standard chat, explaining our ages, where we were from, how how we’d got to Uzbekistan, how long we’d been married (not that anyone was particularly shocked by unmarried couples. We just didn’t know how to say “girlfriend/boyfriend of five years” in Russian, but could say “wife,” and “husband.”)
Our new Kazakh friend. Vodka all around! I somehow or other ended up finishing a whole (small) glassful within seconds of sitting down. But still managed to stand up again without TOO much trouble
Moynaq’s Aral Sea memorial
Bidding our new friends farewell, we hurried back to the bus station. Once there we sat and waited for a while until an Uzbek gentleman came and asked us where we were headed. He explained that there were no more buses left for the day (doubtful) and that he was heading to a large town halfway back to Nukus. Despite our doubts about the lack of buses, he was a friendly guy, and was asking a very reasonable fare, so we joined him for our trip back, swapping his car for a marshrutka in his home town of Kungrad, about 1/3 of the way back.
As we rode back to Nukus, we reflected on our visit to Moynaq. I was happy the town hadn’t been as unhappy a place as I’d expected. It made it feel less like we’d gone to gawp at the misery of its inhabitants. Had it been as grim as I’d expected, it might have ended up feeling like a visit to, say, Auschwitz. A visit while the victims were still living there.
But instead, it seemed like a visit to a war memorial. A way of reminding ourselves (and you dear readers) of how big a mess man can make of his world. And of the importance of treating our planet carefully. And a sign to the residents of the town that the outside world hasn’t forgotten them.
An ancient Soviet era bus now in use as a sort of a cargo van. And, of course, the gorgeous blue sky over Moynaq
On our final night in Uzbekistan we enjoyed one last meal of bread and melon in our room, before popping over to the other (more expensive) hotel to visit our friends from the day before.
We found them sitting drinking whisky with two Uzbek men, having clearly been at it for a while. The two Uzbeks were border guards they’d met as they entered the country the previous day, and who had helped them find replacement parts for their buggy in the auto bazaar earlier in the day. Since which time they’d been hitting the vodka and cementing the bonds of international friendship. We were pleased to hear they’d managed to repair their vehicle, and entertained to meet the border guards, but before long they’d disappeared into the night in search of further evening entertainments.
The following morning we packed up, paid our hotel bill then headed outside to make our way to the border. Step one was a walk to the bazaar. Step two, a marshrutka to Konye Kona. Step three a taxi to the border itself, perhaps 20km further on.
We arrived to find a big crowd waiting behind a barrier with the two large customs buildings off a few hundred metres distance. Apparently the crowd was just their waiting for friends or family to cross from the border, as the soldier on duty at the barrier beckoned us to climb around, tiptoeing along a ledge at the edge of a large culvert to make our way there.
Once at the customs post proper, we filled out our declaration forms, ready for the coming inquisition.
Fortunately (and somewhat surprisingly, given the state they’d been in) our border guard friends from the previous night were on duty, so the process went very smoothly indeed. A cursory look in our bags. A look at the medicines in our first aid kit. A curious browse through the books we had with us. One amusing question (“do you have any drugs or religious texts with you?”) And we were through. No counting our cash. No asking to see our hotel registration slips (which meant we could have couchsurfed and camped to our hearts content.) And certainly no hint of asking for bribes. As with our entry to the country, departure was a long way from some of the horror stories we’d heard about the bad old days in central Asia.
Entering Turkmenistan was actually little more difficult than leaving Uzbekistan. The process was a bit more long and involved, but essentially hassle free. Fill out this form. Fill out that form. Hand over your passport. Go to this window. Pay some money. Go back and collect your passport. Put your bags through the x-ray machine…
There were a lot of steps, but each went quickly and efficiently, so it probably took only an hour or so (once again, far removed from the four, or even six hours we’d heard of others taking for the crossing.)
As we left the Turkmen border post we got chatting with a couple of Uzbek women who we’d wordlessly made friends with inside. As we walked, I helped them with their rather hefty bags, and we learned they were headed for the Konye Urgench bazaar. We ended up taking a taxi into town with them, paying the exact same price they did (it’s nice to have friends who know the ropes ) and finally bidding them farewell as we reached the centre of the city.
Welcome to Turkmenistan
Tags: Aral, Aral Sea, Llew Bardecki, Moynaq, Nukus, Travel, Uzbekistan