Surrounded by 3 different deserts, Nukus (No’kis in Karakalpak) is a quiet place. You are surprised that 300 000 people live here. There is one major tourist attraction, the Savitsky museum.
Combine it with a visit to Moynaq and the vanished Aral Sea, the nearby Mizdakh Khan necropolis, Khiva and the desert fortresses of Khwarezm for a full tour de Karakalpakstan.
In the past Nukus was often described as the grimmest city in Uzbekistan, but in recent years a lot of money has gone to renovations of the streetscape. It has made Nukus looks quite pleasant, less poor than it actually still is (a waiter can expect around 40$/month wages). Outside of the center, it is still pure desolation.
Beyond the Savitsky museum, though, there is little to hold your attention in the city itself. If you are going to the Aral Sea and are looking to spend the night somewhere: Nukus has better choices than Moynaq.
Lightly populated by nomads, the Nukus area did not see a permanent settlement until the middle of the 19th century, when Cossacks first started to man a frontier outpost here. Nukus remained a village for the longest time, until 1927, when the regional capital was moved from flood-prone Turtkul (which the Russians had founded as Petroalexandrovsk).
In Soviet times, Nukus’ isolation gave Igor Savitsky the opportunity to build a collection of banned avant-garde paintings away from the prying eyes of Communism’s apparatchiks, saving priceless artworks from destruction.
On the other hand, the city’s isolation also made it host to a major research center for chemical weapons, birthplace of the famous Novichok agent. Its sister facility Aralsk-7, known mostly for its anthrax and weaponised plague, was located nearby on an island in the former Aral Sea. Both sites have since been dismantled.
Other economic activity was mostly connected to farming, cotton growing and the Aral Sea fishing industry.
Post-independence, Nukus is the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, but besides a flag and a parliament building, it is not exactly clear what that means in practice.
With the disappearance of the Aral Sea and its associated ills (salt and pesticide storms, respiratory diseases) and even greater heat and water scarcity on the way, it is difficult to see what future this city could possibly have several decades from now. Time will tell.
Sights and things to do
The major sight in Nukus is the Savitsky museum, which has an excellent collection of ethnographic treasures and of Russian and Central Asian avant-garde art of the early 20th century. All info at our Savitsky museum article.
Nukus has a big market. There is nothing out of the ordinary for sale here, but it’s the liveliest place in town.
Amet & Ayimkhan Shamuratovs’ house museum
Traditional Karakalpak music is closely related to that of the surrounding cultures. Folk tales and epic poems are accompanied by traditional string bow instruments like the qobuz and the duwtar.
The house museum of writer Amet and actress and singer Ayimkhan Shamuratovs is the centre of oral culture in Karakalpakstan. It’s in a building attached to the Jipek Joli Inn, where the owner is their granddaughter. There isn’t much to see (overview): some instruments, writings, stage costumes, … It’s about the people you can meet. Talk to the people at the hotel for more information, or check out the museum’s website.
Some music recorded at the house museum, courtesy of Accordeonistan:
- 3 songs of the Ayimkhan Shamuratova ensemble (SoundCloud)
- A folk song by Nagima Karimsakova (YouTube)
- Shamuratova ensemble in action (YouTube)
Worthwhile excursions in a 50 km radius of Nukus are
- the Mizdakh Khan necropolis, a mix of Zoroastrian and Islamic burial sites, with the impressive mausoleum of Maslym Khan Sulu
- Nearby villages offer a chance to get hands-on with Karakalpak crafts and yurtmaking.
- Shilpiq Qala, a 2000-year old tower of silence for Zoroastrian funerary rites
Beyond, you can connect your stay in Nukus with a trip to Moynaq and the remains of the Aral Sea, Khiva, the desert fortresses of Khorezm, and the Ustyurt plateau that leads you to Western Kazakhstan.
Bus and shared taxi
There are 2 bus stations in Nukus. The southern bus station is about 1 km back from the train station (Gmaps / OSM). You can find buses and shared taxis going to Urgench/Khiva (2,5 hrs) and Samarkand (not recommended) here. There might not be anyone going to Khiva; in that case, you will have to go to Urgench first.
Moynaq is a difficult destination to find fellow passengers for a shared taxi; it might make sense to head to Kungrad first and find another taxi to Moynaq from there.
Since registration is no longer an issue, the accommodation market has expanded in Nukus. Thankfully.
For budgeteers, the best place is the Besqala hostel. Good location, a decent breakfast is included, and the place is kept very clean.
The Tashkent Hotel is considered the best hotel in town, but we disagree. It has huge rooms but a rather boring business hotel feel, bad wifi and the breakfast buffet is stale.
Instead, the Jipek Joli Hotel is the best choice in our mind. Great beds, experienced staff, proper wifi, good food. The nearby Jipek Joli Inn from the same owners has a lovely courtyard, but it is surpassed on all other counts by the newer hotel.
Near the airport, Hotel Aral is very new with great amenities and a good breakfast, but far from town and very business-like. Asem is very similar, a bit closer to the center with rooms that are a bit older.
Finally, Ratmina used to be a good cheap option with decent rooms and proper breakfast, but prices have risen – don’t pay more than 25$ for a double.
Eat & drink
Plenty of local food can be found on Berdaq prospekt. Neo and Merlion have local and Russian dishes with higher standards.
Okean on Almazar street does fish food, while Sogdiana on Saraev street has Korean food.
Neo is the best place to gate-crash a party, which tend to happen almost every day of the week, until 22.30. You can also try the disco at Kafe Milan, or otherwise find cheap beer at Armon.
Nukus also has a good coffee and cakes shop, Cinnamon, across from the Savitsky museum.