Locked in by deserts on all sides, the bleak land that makes up the western half of Uzbekistan is called Qaraqalpaqstan. Formerly known as Khorezm, the area’s long history is dominated by the oasis towns along the life-giving Amu Darya. As you would expect, with the seat of power in Tashkent and the Amu Darya drained to irrigate cotton plantations, Qaraqalpaqstan is not exactly blossoming.
Visitors come here, either to witness the disastrous present, or to unearth the glories of the past. A trip to Qaraqalpaqstan combines well with a visit to Western Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the classic itinerary of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities.
One of the icons of Central Asia, the dried-up riverbed of the Aral Sea is the biggest attraction of Qaraqalpaqstan for the backpacker crowd. There isn’t that much to see (it’s gone, right?), but visiting the Aral Sea, either with your own transport or with a tour, is nonetheless a worthwhile excursion. See it with your own eyes, and notice what kind of thoughts and emotions it stirs up. Kungrat/Kungirot and Moynaq are the 2 gateway towns.
Nukus & Savitsky Museum
Nukus is the rather grim capital of Qaraqalpaqstan, but it has 1 highlight: the Savitsky museum. The Savitsky museum holds the second largest collection of Soviet avant-garde paintings in the world (after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg). Art lovers should not miss the opportunity to visit.
The isolated desert khanate of Khiva resisted Russian colonisation until 1873. Amazingly, the traditional architecture inside its walled city has remained completely intact, with some stunning examples of medieval Islamic architecture preserved. It is now a museum city preserved for tourism (new Khiva is built outside the walled city). It also serves as the spectacular decor for local wedding videos.
Desert fortresses of Khorezm
A ring of mud-walled fortresses guard the edge of the Kyzylkum desert. The fortified towns were built at different points between the 4th century B.C. and the 7th century A.D. to protect the area from nomad raids. Then, the Amu Darya changed its course, and the fortresses were necessarily abandoned.
Visit Ayaz Qala, Toprak Qala and some lesser-known mounds to ponder the area’s ancient history and experience the desert in a new way.
If you are a slow traveler interested in something beyond the traditional tourist highlights, saunter into Uchkuduk or the Badai-Tugai nature reserve, or rent a deck chair at Ayaz Kul. Stone Age hunting traps probably require an archaeologist contact to seek out – we are looking into it.
- Western Kazakhstan: Oil towns and stark desert landscapes, this is a geologist’s dream.
- Turkmenistan: A flaming crater, a marble capital. Ancient everything, Sufi this and that. The desert lives.
- Central Uzbekistan: Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Tashkent. Stay with locals in the Nuratau mountains and Kyzylkum desert.
- Ferghana Valley: Silk from Margilan & ceramics from Rishton. A traditional heartland.
- The South: Buddhist relics, and a village culture nestled in green uplands to escape the blazing summer heat.