Moynaq (also spelled Muynak or Mo’ynoq) lies in the heart of the former Aral Sea. Once a port town with a lively fishing industry, it is now surrounded by wetlands and desert. The sea is gone, ebbed away to never flow again. Or will it? Still? Is it possible?
In Moynaq, questions of ecocide and ecological restoration, hope in dire times and how to be-toward-death stick to the inside of a traveler’s brainpan like a clammy t-shirt drenched in desert sweat.
The main attraction in Moynaq is the ship graveyard located just below the lighthouse. Several ships which were once moored at the dock are now disappearing into the desert, their rusting hulks becoming overgrown by desert plants and eroded away by wind and sand. It’s quite a surreal experience to see these ships stranded on the land with no water in sight.
Near the lighthouse, an information board gives the history of the fishing fleet in incorrect but understandable English.
On the northwestern side of the town, you can see the hulk of an old fish cannery; like disused factories across the former Soviet Union, all useful bits have been carted off long ago.
Nearby, a few small beaches offer locals an opportunity to cool off from the relentless summer heat in the small ponds that remain. Near the canal, canoe-like boats are lined up along the shore. These are owned by the people in the village who use them for fishing and collecting grasses from the wetlands for their livestock. If you’re lucky, someone might offer you a ride on their boat.
In the center of the town, a one-room historical museum displays the anthropological, ecological, and industrial history of the region. It’s nothing too impressive but worth a visit if you’re there anyways. They have plans to expand which may or may not happen in the near future.
The Aral Sea and Aralkum desert
From Moynaq, you can hire a jeep to go the 3-4 hours to the current seashore of what once was the world’s 4th-largest lake.
The landscape of the Aral Sea is interesting. Seashells, salt and dried-up seaweed are everywhere. Beyond Moynaq, you can find other deserted fishing villages, including the fishing gulag of Urga. Old tombs in the wastelands, some reaching back to Massaget times, seem to mark the death of the future as much as the dead of the past. A crumbling adobe lighthouse signals existential dread.
The freshwater lake of Sudochye is a breath of fresh air, and the canyons of the Ustyurt plateau are a refreshing break from the twodimensionality of the landscape. Along the way, derricks extracting natural gas from the soil take advantage of the desert sea.
You can read a detailed report from a local looking for his vanished sea on a 2-day trip, and another 2-day tour report from a tourist.
It’s possible to hire a jeep for a tour to the current Aral Sea from Moynaq, which includes a night in a large tent, food, and transportation for 4-6 people. This can be arranged at Timur Guesthouse or Hostel Abeskun-tur.
From Khiva, the 2-day tour is offered by hotels and tour companies for 450$-550$.
If starting from Nukus, you can also book the same tour through Caravanistan starting from ~300$.
Apart from pitching a tent in the new Aralkum desert, which you are free to do, there are 4 accommodation options inside Moynaq itself. Moynaq is not a big place, they are easy to find.
Hostel Abeskun-tur (their sign says Hostel Muynak but everything else refers to it as Abeskun-tur) is the only quality hostel in the region, with very clean rooms and traditional decor, air conditioning, a large common area, clean bathrooms with running water, proper registration, and a staff who understand the service that westerners expect. The receptionist speaks decent English and perfect Russian and is very helpful.
This comes at a price, though, as a hostel bed with A/C goes for $20. They also have more basic rooms for $15 per person and are currently building a yurt which will cost $10. This is the only place in town with WiFi.
Mayak Yurt Camp
Mayak Yurt Camp is situated next to the old lighthouse (mayak is lighthouse in Russian). 10$ gets you a bed in a 5-person yurt and breakfast. Staying in a yurt is certainly more interesting than a hotel, but they do get very hot under the summer sun so don’t expect to sleep in. The showers are pretty decent and the squat toilets would be as well if the flush were working when we visited; We hope this is not a permanent problem, but we advise you to take care with the food they serve.
The location is prime, situated right next to the ship graveyard and overlooking the endless desert that was once a sea.
They can give registration slips but you have to either go to their partner hotel in Nukus to get it stamped or wait 2 days for them to bring the stamp to Moynaq. Due to their minimal English and Russian, we could not determine whether the 2 day waiting period was only that day or always. The cafe next to the yurts has great fish.
Timur Guesthouse is a nice option if you don’t need registration. This is a private house with one extra room for guests. Timur, the son of the owner, speaks pretty good English and will be very helpful if you arrive when he’s not away at university. The room is pretty basic with 3 twin beds, but, like every Central Asian family, they have plenty of comfortable mats for the floor as well (a cooler option in the summer). The price is $10 including breakfast, plus an extra $5 for lunch or dinner.
Hotel Aybek (sign says Hotel Muynak, everything else refers to it as Hotel Aybek) is only slightly better than you’d expect from the dilapidated facade and the abandoned atrium. The staff spoke no English or Russian, the registration slip looks different from all our other registration slips and has a “Muynak Tekstil” stamp on it and the rooms smell a bit funky.
The upsides are that there’s running water and beds to sleep in, it’s relatively cheap if you’re a hard bargainer and two of the rooms have air conditioning. The manager/receptionist/construction worker who we managed to hunt down after a long search started with an offer of $15 per person for a double room and we talked him down to $15 for 2 people with breakfast. We recommend starting with an offer of $5 per person to give yourself more bargaining leverage.
A few of the accommodation options also have cafes attached. The yurt camp has a cafe located on the bottom floor of the lighthouse, which serves great local fish cooked how you like it. If you’re a fan of dried fish with beer, this is the place to have it.
The cafe in Hostel Abeskun-tur/Muynak is flexible and willing to create dishes for any special dietary needs: a vegetarian’s best option. It’s also just a generally pleasant place to spend time. Timur guesthouse can cook homemade meals upon request and has space for large group meals. A few other cafes near the bus stop and in the cinema offer standard Uzbek fare.
Under your own steam: the road is paved. Though not in great condition, it is certainly suitable for bicycles, cars and motorbikes; you should be used to bumpy roads by now.