WHY WERE WE IN NUKUS?
The city of Nukus is situated within the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan; a once fertile area known for the booming economy surrounding the cotton fields, now the poorest and most desolate region in the country. Now in the travelling world, the city is known as the home to the Savitzky Art Gallery (an astounding collection of Soviet Avant-Garde art) and as a base stop for trips to the disappearing Aral Sea.
It was the Aral Sea we were heading for. We had come to Nukus purely with the plan to use it as a base to visit the Aral Sea. But in doing so, we had a couple of nights before our trip and one on return from Muynak, to explore Nukus and find out more about the Republic of Karakalpakstan.
WHAT IS IT LIKE ARRIVING IN NUKUS?
One of the things we found most odd about Nukus was the scale of construction and building going on. There are genuinely enormous buildings (picture marble entrances and grand staircases) everywhere. However, most of the new buildings are empty, giving Nukus an even more desolate feeling in atmosphere…
From what we understood in translated conversations with our driver, the government of the Republic of Karakalpakstan is essentially building to create employment and keep people there. There isn’t in fact growth of population evident. It’s more like the opposite.
Whatever the reason, the city has a desolate and eerily empty kind of feeling. Streets are huge and buildings are vast. Traffic is nothing like the other Uzbek cities we have seen. There just doesn’t appear to be the same number of people around.
With three days to explore Nukus in total; here are the highlights that we found in the Republics capital city…
LEARNING ABOUT KARAKALPAKSTAN
We knew little about Karakalpakstan before arriving, but found it fascinating that this region of Uzbekistan was in fact autonomous and was guaranteed its own constitution. It even has its own flag! In principal it is free to make independent decisions about its own administrative structure, and so has its own parliament, but is still for now protected under the Republic of Uzbekistan.
You can visit the enormous parliament buildings in Nukus and walk through the grass park in the front, complete with a statue of local poet Berdaq, a national hero in Karakalpakstan.
If you’ve visited any markets in Asia or the Middle East you will know they are always a hive of activity. And suprisingly (given the empty streets of surrounding Nukus) the Central Market in Nukus was the same. We wandered through the inside and outside stalls, sampled Qurut (fermented sour yoghurt balls) while the boys had an ice cream, and ate far too much of the delicious bread that lines the entrance to the indoor market area!
It doesn’t have quite the same scale as Southern Uzbekistan markets, but definitely don’t miss a visit during your time in Nukus. It certainly has an interesting range of things for sale!
SAVITSKY ART MUSEUM
The Nukus Museum hosts the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant garde art (after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg) and is home to one of the largest collections of archeological objects and contemporary art originating from Central Asia. We didn’t know anything about this prior to deciding on Nukus for a few days, but if you are in town anyway, then it is worth a visit.
Igor Savitsky (1915-84) went to Karakalpakstan in the 1950’s as an artist in an archaeological expedition. He stayed on and began collecting Karakalpak carpets, costumes, jewellery and other works of art. Today the museum displays a collection of 90,000 items from Central Asia including paintings and sculptures as well as thousands of artefacts. The cost to enter (without paying for taking photos inside) is 40,000 SOM ($5 USD).
About 20km west of Nukus near the small town of Hojeli, are the remains of the ancient Khorezm city, Mizdakhan. We know the Silk Road has some incredible history, but exploring the ruins of a city that was inhabited from the 4th century BC felt surreal to be there in the flesh.
Mizdakhan was inhabited until the 14th century AD. Even after it was destroyed it remained a sacred place. It became one of the the oldest and most visited pilgrimage sites of Karakalpakstan with tombs and mosques continuing to be built in the 20th century. The most impressive tomb is the restored underground Mausoleum of Mazlum Khan; dating back to the 12th century. You can take off your shoes and walk down the steps into the tomb where local pilgrims visit to pay their respects.
Cost: A private taxi from Nukus will cost around 50,000S return.
UZBEK FOOD AND VODKA
I am not sure if this counts exactly as a sight on Nukus, but I’ve got to give it a chance. We found our initial two days in Nukus the perfect space to find our feet in Uzbekistan.
We had come from a few days in Tashkent, and had arrived by overnight train; but we hadn’t yet really had any time to breathe and slow down in Uzbekistan. We dedicated an entire afternoon (the heat helped with this choice) to just staying at ‘home’. We spent time resting and eating in the restaurant at Jipek Joli… I’m fairly sure by evening we had tried at least one new Uzbek food each.
We found a new passion for Lagman. A kind of hearty soup crossed with a light homemade pasta. And we ate Plov again; a staple Uzbek rice dish we had found first in Tashkent.
On our way to the Necropolis we stopped with our driver for lunch in a roadside restaurant. Gavin made friends with three men at the next table. They were so excited to understand we were all the way from New Zealand that they ordered him a bottle of Uzbek Vodka to take with us!
WHERE TO STAY
- Jipek Joli Inn (not to be confused with Hotel Jipek Joli) – this is where we stayed and would definitely recommend. The staff were fabulous and went out of their way to look after us and the kids. Great restaurant (with a yurt inside!) with a huge selection of meals.
- Besqala Guesthouse – we visited Besqala twice. To pick up our new German friend for dinner (who was staying there) and to pay for the Aral Sea part of our tour before leaving. This is funky looking hostel style guest-house with big open space for the shared restaurant and communal area. Handy location to town, and a variety of cheap room options.
It’s possible to arrive on the overnight train and depart the same day on journey to the Aral Sea. But if you have time on your visa for Uzbekistan then I reckon give Nukus a couple of days. We found it an interesting place to understand more about Uzbek culture – and ourselves as travellers – without anything set up specifically for tourists.
What do you think? Would you give it a try?
READ MORE ABOUT UZBEKISTAN
- Uzbekistan with kids: A travel guide (things to know, practicalities and challenges).
- Taking the overnight train from Tashkent to Nukus, Uzbekistan.
- Visiting human disaster: Our journey to the disappearing Aral Sea.