TWC'S Odyssey
Tan Wee Cheng's Travels in the Central Asian Republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

20 Jul   Khiva - Nukus, 
Republic of Karakalpakstran

Why Nukus - hardly anyone goes there.  2 reasons:
1) The Aral Sea.  The shrinking of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental disasters of the 20th century.
2) Nukus is the capital of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.  I have long wanted to visit such unusual political entities.  Also keen to see what exactly is the "black hat" after which the Karakalpak people are named?

Getting to Nukus is a challenging task.  Contrary to what the LP Guide says, there are no direct bus links between Urgench and Nukus.  My Belgian friends have a Flemish guidebook that contains detailed instructions on how to get to Nukus from Khiva.  And so I set off early for Nukus.  Took a marshrutnoe taxi (70 soms; this is a small van used as a taxi) to Urgench from the North Gate of Khiva first, and then caught a taxi (not before two taxi drivers briefly fought over who should take me; 600 soms) across the legendary Oxus (Amu Darya) to the godforsaken town of Beruni (just inside Karakalpakstan's boundaries).

"The Oxus…rolls its stately burden down from a hoar antiquity through the legends and annals of the East."

  G.N.Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889

The Amu Darya was pretty wide at this stretch.  It was hard to imagine that it actually dries up a few hundred kilometers from here, leaving half of the Aral Sea high and dry.  Here, muddy waters flowed rapidly northwards while vehicles crossed on the pontoon bridge.  It was said that the bridge used to be more unsecured than now, and before buses got onto the bridge, passengers would alight to walk across.  The bus would then cross the bridge slowly with the driver's door open, so that he might save himself in time should any mishaps occur.

The renowned Amu Darya - muddy waters, wild toghay (a kind of desert marshland unique to Central Asia) - hard to imagine that the waters would dry up miles ahead, and that the Caspian tigers once roamed these parts. Flag of the Republic of Karakalpakstan: It has five stars representing the five districts of the republic.  The Uzbek flag has 12, for the 12 viloyats (provinces).  The yellow here represents the deserts of the republic. Pontoon bridge across Amu Darya, or Oxus.  I wonder when they will build steady, safe bridges here.
The ancient fortress of Toprak Qala in the southern part of Karakalpakstan.  This is also a national symbol of the republic and appears on the national coat of arms. [Picture from Odyssey Guide "Uzbekistan"]

At Beruni Bus Station, through a bizarre mixture of sign language and my Russian phase book, I made it known to the people that I wanted to get to Nukus and secure their assistance in getting the bus (which started elsewhere) to stop for me.  A lady collected 250 soms from me and claimed that she would pass the money to the bus driver.  Only later did I realize that she did not and I had to pay another 300 soms.  Like many towns in the Amu Darya delta, Beruni plays host to remnants of a qala, or fortress.  The people here appeared to be a mixture of Uzbek and Kazak.  A number of the latter were seen wearing the traditional ak-kalpak.

After a long wait, the van-bus came at 11:45 am.  The journey was a demanding one - hot and cramped, over 10 people in a tiny van.  So cramped that I couldn't move for 4 hours, and my shoulders were wet with the sweat of my neighbouring passngers - in heat of possibly 45'C !!!  Miles and miles of cotton fields and sunflower plots, before the van entered the seemingly endless and monotonous Kyzylkum (Red Sands) Desert.

Reached Nukus, this standard Stalinist-style city in the middle of the desert, at approximately 3 pm.   Took a taxi driven by an ethnic Tatar to Hotel Tashkent.  Even though I looked like a typical backpacker, I was asked whether I was a journalist and whether I wanted to be driven to Moynak, the former fishing port on the Aral Sea.  I supposed few tourists came here.  Only journalists came here to report on the Aral Sea disaster.  In fact, the Uzbek government used to forbid visitors here.  In "Extreme Continental: Blowing Hot and Cold Through Central Asia", Giles Whittell mentioned that the local KGB told him that he must get a Nukus visa permit in order to stay, and this permit was only obtainable in Tashkent.  And Whittell took an overnight bus to Tashkent, obtained the permit, and then back to Nukus via another overnight bus.  I was worried about this and no one I met so far on my trip could provide me with the answers.  In any case, I was to stay two nights here without any such problem.

Nukus is an ugly, dusty city (but this would soon be compensated by other factors).  Built in the desert in the 1950's after a great flood washed away Turtkul, the capital of the then Karakalpak ASSR, Nukus was a purpose-built capital meant to celebrate Soviet conquest of the desert.  Wide boulevards, huge buildings - all hallmarks of Soviet city-planning.  But Nukus is a city very different from other parts of Uzbekistan - it is surprisingly cosmopolitan - Karakalpakstan's population is almost evenly divided between Karakalpak, Kazak and Uzbek, and about 10% are representatives of numerous peoples including Russian, Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans, etc.  In Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, people seem to speak Uzbek or Tajik more frequently than Russian, and there were fewer Europeans.  But here, Russian is the predominant language and the atmosphere is more European than Middle Eastern.

Hotel Tashkent - a ten storey building, probably the tallest in the city.  This was supposedly the better of the two hotels in the city.  However, as I soon found out, there's no running water except between 6pm and midnight.  So much for US$20 a night (LP still listed it as charging US$2), but again, one may pay in soms at the official rate. Karakalpak is officially a bilingual city.  Signboards are in two languages - Uzbek and Karakalpak.  Government buildings fly flags of the two nations.  Like other political entities in the former USSR, Karakalpakstan actively promotes its own national heroes.  Here the most prominent one is Berdakh, the national poet, and one of Nukus' main streets is named after him.  I walked around the city central, visiting the Karakalpak State Museum and Igor Savitsky Art Gallery.  The former contained interesting exhibits on the history and wildlife of Karakalpakstan as well as the culture of the Karakalpak people.  A pity that there were no English captions.  The latter was an extensive collection of Soviet avant-garde art from the 1920s and 1930s.  Its founder, Igor Savitsky, had taken advantage of Nukus' isolation to hide this banned art from the regime.


Government HQ of Karakalpakstan - flags of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan fly side by side. Wall murals at the Hotel Tashkent - scenes of inter-ethnic harmony, Karakalpak national culture and prosperity: The last is certainly non-existent now. Skyline of Nukus - Stalinist buildings, dusty streets, desert, etc.
Statue of Berdakh, Karakalpakstan's own national hero - 19th century cultural guru, poet and thinker.  The main streets in the republic are named after him, and statues of him can be found everywhere.

I rang the Uzbektourism office hoping to find out about car rentals or tours to the Aral Sea, but no one in their office could speak English - so much for tourism promotion…  Well, I thought it's probably better to take a taxi there.  However, at the hotel, I bumped into a local working at Karakalpaktourism, and he knew someone who speaks better English and might be able to assist me.  That's how I got to know Yulia Miroshnickenko (Tel: 8361-22-22168), a young, pretty Ukrainian.  She teaches English and guides tourists around whenever the opportunity arises.  We spoke over the phone about the services she offered.  I wanted to find out the cost of a trip to Moynaq.  I drove a hard bargain as I don't normally go on package deals if I can get to a place myself.  She agreed to include in the deal other places around Nukus apart from Moynaq.  It was a rather long call and we spoke about other topics such as life in Nukus and local customs and traditions.  (Apparently kidnap-marriages still occur from time to time, sometimes leading to tragic outcomes.  This is an ancient nomadic custom among the Karakalpak, Kazak and Kyrgyz peoples that goes like this:  A guy takes a fancy to a girl, and knowing that the girl's family may oppose their marriage, kidnaps the girl - sometimes on horseback, as romantic tradition demands - and then presents the fait accompli to the family after a few days.  In many cases, the couple already knows each other well and decides to elope.  However, there are also many cases where the guy is just a local gangster who takes a fancy to a pretty girl.  Some of these kidnap-marriages result in suicides or murders.)  The pleasant exchange of ideas persuaded me to make an exception this time.  I was even prepared to increase my "bid" although I didn't eventually (as she finally agreed to my price).

Shared choy and nan with two elderly ladies looking after my floor - a Kazak and a Karakalpak in early evening.  Really warm night.  I felt the heat even as I slept.  Totally drenched with perspiration.

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