The red sands of the Kyzylkum desert have settled astride the edges of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. On both sides of the border, Kazakhs shepherd in this sublime, inhospitable landscape, scourged by icy winters and scorching summers. A stay in the desert combines well with a visit to the Nuratau mountains, for those travelers interested in seeing a different side of Uzbekistan as an alternative to the standard route between Bukhara and Samarkand.
What to do
There are no attractions or facilities in the Kazakh side of the desert. On the Uzbek side, you can stay in a yurt, do a camel trek, or do birdwatching on Aidarkul. On the edge of the desert sits the town of Nurata, which harbours a few sights, and nearer to Navoi, you can visit the petroglyphs at Sarmysh, one of the biggest sites of petroglyphs 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, but we prefer the Kizilkum Safari camp for its location close to the lake, its friendly staff, slightly lower prices and tasty dinners (vegetarian options not bad either). You can book through the Nurata Ecotourism Association.
The other camp in Dongalik is called Aidar (+998 222 5618, +998 223 9546). In Yangikazgan, there’s Sputnik Camel (+998 79 225 5417, +998 79 2238081; [email protected]) and Yangikazgan Yurt (+998 225 1419).
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.
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
You can get a taxi from Navoi to take you to Nurata for 2-3$ per seat. Without your own transport, it will be difficult to find a ride to the camps from here. Easiest is to organise your stay in advance and get picked up by your camp’s driver.