A huge expanse of sand lies at the edge of the main tourist circuit in Uzbekistan. Take a trip through the desert to get out of the city, and see a different side of life in Uzbekistan.
As a detour between Bukhara and Samarkand or Tashkent, the Kyzylkum desert combines well with a visit in the Nuratau mountains.
If you would like to get into the heart of the desert, the road from Navoiy to Nukus over Uchquduq is for you.
Where is the Kyzylkum?
The Kyzylkum desert takes up about 300 000 km2 in the heart of Uzbekistan between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, with parts in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Yurt camps and camel trekking
These days, when tourist brochures talk about taking “a trip into the heart of the Kyzylkum desert”, what this means is a yurt camp on the edge of the desert, near Aidarkul lake.
Doesn’t matter, it’s all desert anyway, and you can get the full experience here, with the added bonus of seeing the lake and easy access to the Nuratau mountains.
In the camps, you can stay in a yurt, do a camel trek, or do birdwatching on Aidarkul. On the way, you can visit the town of Nurata, which harbours a few sights, and nearer to Navoi, you can visit the petroglyphs at Sarmysh, one of the biggest petroglyph sites in Central Asia.
Staying in a yurt or doing a camel trek is a memorable experience, but time it right. March to May and September to October are the only times when the weather is bearable and the camps are closed the rest of the year.
Spring is best, as the desert lights up with colourful tulips and poppies, and animals like the Central Asian tortoise are active.
There are 4 camps in all, 2 close to Yangikazgan, the other 2 close to Dongalik (see map). They are all quite similar, really. You can book through Timur, he knows the latest gossips and can get you whichever is the best one at the moment.
In Dongalik there is Kyzylkum Safari and Aidar. In Yangikazgan, there’s Sputnik Navoi and Yangikazgan Yurt.
All camps have a light and plug in a stylish yurt, as well as hot water for showers. The 4 camps are often booked by tour groups, but they will rarely all be booked out simultaneously, so if you have your own transport and show up unannounced, you should be able to find a space somewhere. Booking ahead is preferable, though. Prices hover between 40 and 50$ for a night including meals.
As an independent traveler, you might feel the whole thing is touristy and fake. That’s definitely so: this is not how locals live. But the yurt camps offer an experience of the desert and its communities that you cannot get without your own camping gear and transport.
Like a homestay in the Nuratau mountains, sitting in the desert watching a tortoise crawl by is a good palate cleanser to appreciate the architecture and craftsmanship of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Your questions and reports are welcome in this forum thread.
All camps include a 20-minute ride on a camel, but for the full experience, you will need to go out for a day or longer.
When the camps are open, you can trek by camel from your camp into the desert. The guide will be a local camel farmer. Depending on the location of your camp, you might take in the village of Yangikazgan, Dongalik and/or Lake Aidarkul.
We would venture to say that 1 day of trekking is enough for most people to get a good experience, but the yurt camps also organise treks of 2, 3 or 4 days. In this case, you will stay overnight in the yurts of the local Kazakh semi-nomads. Expect homemade bread, camel milk, horse milk, camel meat, horse meat, and sheep meat.
Birdwatching at Aidarkul
Aidarkul, a 200 kilometres wide lake fringed with reeds, tamarisk and euphrates, was accidentally created when Soviet engineers tried to tap the Syr Darya for irrigation and their dam broke, letting water fill the large salt pan that is now called Aidarkul.
The lake has become a breeding site for migrating birds and one of the best sites for birdwatching in Uzbekistan. Enthusiasts may find cormorants, pelicans, gulls, terns and herons at this remote sanctuary. Others might just want to go for a swim.
Getting there and away
There is no public transport going to the yurt camps. When you organize your stay with the tour operator or camp operator, ask for a driver if you do not have your own wheels.
Or vice versa.
Into the heart of the desert: to Uchquduq
Ask anyone over 35 in the former Soviet Union about Uchquduq (meaning 3 wells in Uzbek) and they will start humming this song.
Uchquduq was founded in 1958, as a uranium mining town, supplying raw material for the nuclear weapons testing in Kurchatov. Uranium is still mined here to this day, as well as gold.
There is nothing spectacular to see here, but if you are driving, it’s the only place to refuel between Nukus and Navoiy.
The road from Navoiy to Nukus over Uchquduq is in good repair, only the last 100 km to Nukus are very bumpy. But you might get stopped by checkpoints. Latest reports indicate no trouble, though.
Trip reports are gathered in this forum thread.
Quite a few trains stop in Uchquduq, giving you the opportunity to see the sands pass by from the comfort (if the A/C works) of your train carriage.