Is this Earth a beautiful pit of despair, bounded by a rainbow drawn in fecal colors, or is it a valuable gift, given to us by a grade-A asshat? These are the type of philosophical dilemmas that cross the mind of the wanderer in Karakalpakstan.
Being asked to write about some of the places the Central Asia Rally will soon cross, Karakalpakstan (Qaraqalpaqstan is more linguistically correct) immediately rose to the top of my list. Living under the shadow cast by the desiccation of the Aral Sea, this little-known stan has gotten a bad rep and has drawn mostly disaster tourism in recent years.
Tourists with an open eye, an extra day to loiter and the imagination to appreciate the weight of history, the power of landscape and the nomadic traditions of a desert nation however, will find Karakalpakstan a fascinating place.
Karakalpakstan: an overview
Painters have an eye for light. Perhaps that is what drew Igor Savitsky here, to establish his now world-famous museum of avant-garde art. A cotton-growing region by force rather than natural disposition, the bright sun here filters the shades of brown, white and grey that bring perspective to the barren landscapes of the Kizyl Kum desert and the Ustyurt plateau. They are brought onto the canvas by some of Savitsky’s paintings in his museum.
For those planning to drive here, the landscape is a unique draw. The flat, barren horizon invites meditation: this is a place for mystics and wandering Sufis.
Most surprising is the long history of the region. Places like the UNESCO World heritage desert castles of Toprak Qala, Ayaz Qala, Koy-Kirilgan Qala, Big Guldursun, Pil Qala, Anka Qala, Kurgashin Qala and Djanbas Qala Mizdakhan give an inkling of a once-blooming society, the powerful state of Khorezm that guarded part of the ancient Silk Road. These are places few foreigners get to see, and they are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of archaeological treasures strewn around in the desert.
When it comes to the history, traditions and culture of the Karakalpaks, David and Sue Richardson are the experts. As they stress time and time again, Karakalpaks are tremendously welcoming, and spending a day drinking tea in the yurt with the whole family is as inevitable as it is unforgettable for anyone wandering the outer regions. Should you still be in doubt, consult their authoritative Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta, a massive, luxurious book showcasing the beauty of this people.
Darik’s fledgling Visit Karakalpakstan guide hopes to be another point of reference in the future.
At last, there is the Aral Sea, famous for all the wrong reasons. Do take a trip there, camp near the shore, and see the sun rise. It’s a moment worth remembering.