Moynaq: a travel guide to the Aral sea in Uzbekistan
This post is a Moynaq travel guide with everything you need to know before you visit Moynaq.
There is no other place in central Asia where the Aral sea disaster had so much impact on its people than in Moynaq. Once, Moynaq was a prosperous town on the coast of the Aral sea with a port and active fishing industry that employed thousands of people.
Now, Moynaq is one of the poorest towns in Uzbekistan. The local economy vanished along with the Aral sea. But it is not just the loss of livelihood that affects the people. The impact goes much further. The soil in the former sea bed is highly polluted with pesticide residues and toxic salt deposits that get in the air with dusty sand storms. As a result, pulmonary diseases are rampant.
Moynaq and the Aral sea
The drying up of the Aral sea also aggravated climate change in this remote part of Uzbekistan, with even less rain than before. Severe draughts are the result. It is without doubt the biggest ecological disaster in central Asia. The cause was a decision by the Soviets to make Uzbekistan the leading cotton producer, despite its desert landscape.
The Amu Darya and Sir Darya rivers were diverted for the needed irrigation. Soviet scientists already predicted that the Aral sea would dry up, but the economic benefits of the cotton industry were too big. The cotton profits are still the main reason there is not much hope for the Aral sea in Uzbekistan. Only 10% of its original size remains and salinity is so high that marine life has become almost impossible.
On the other side in Kazakhstan, projects to restore the Aral sea had some success, but in Uzbekistan the government tries to hide the urban decay by modernizing the city of Moynaq and focusing on tourism. Its remote location in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan is a challenge though and most travellers never make it that far into Uzbekistan.
Moynaq travel guide
Travelling to Moynaq is not too complicated though. You might have heard you need expensive tours to see Moynaq, but this is not true. Even though it is remote, it is possible to get there with public transportation and there are enough facilities for the independent backpacker.
I hope this Moynaq travel guide will give you enough information to visit Moynaq on your own or with a tour if that is what you prefer. Moynaq is one of the best places to visit in Uzbekistan to see the Aral sea disaster and it is a worthwile addition to any Uzbekistan itinerary.
Things to do in Moynaq
It was a surprise to find a flashy new city centre in Moynaq. However, despite modernization efforts, there is still not much to do. There is the ship cemetery and the museum and that’s about it. But it’s part of the point that Moynaq is about. Once a lively city, now a shadow of what it used to be.
It is possible to see everything in a day trip from Nukus if you have private transport, but if you want to get a feel for the town or travel by public transport, it is better to stay over night. Outside of the centre, Moynaq is a sad place that can only be experienced by wandering through its suburbs and explore some of the deserted fish canning factories.
1. Nauruz in Moynaq
I was actually lucky to find Moynaq in a festive mood with some late Nauruz celebrations that atracted quite some local tourists from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The nauruz fair included a Karakalpak fashion show and obscure games that revolved around sheep, cows and men showing off their strength.
If you visit Moynaq in late march it is worth contacting Jipek Joli when they celebrate Nauruz in Moynaq. Apparently they have slightly different dates than the official Nauruz celebrations.
2. Moynaq Museum
One of the few things to do in Moynaq is the Moynaq museum. The museum is small, but a must when visiting Moynaq. The paintings on the second floor show you how Moynaq was before, when the port was still there. On the ground floor you can see items from the fish factories and a small exhibition about the Aral sea disaster.
3. The ship cemetery
Because of the Nauruz celebrations it was extremely busy at the ship cemetery and as the only foreigner I was soon part of the attraction. People were extremely friendly and curious where I came from. Once one person was brave enough to ask for a selfie with me, the others all followed.
That the ship cemetery was such a tourist attraction was not exactly what I had in mind when I taught of ship wrecks left behind to rust away in the isolated desert of what was once the Aral sea. Besides all the people climbing on top of the ships and taking selfies, it felt a bit staged with several ships in a neat line for display just below the lighthouse and the old harbour.
Behind the ships there is the vast desert as far as the eye can see. Miles of sand with dry bushes and sea shells. For me, this was the most impressive part of the ship cemetery.
One advantage of staying in Moynaq is the opportunity to see the sunset at the ship cemetery when light is best for taking pictures.
Things to do near Moynaq
4. Sudochie Lake
Sudochie lake used to be a large freshwater lake connected with the Aral sea and is now a wetland area rich with birds. From Moynaq it is possible to arrange a 4 wheel drive to bring you there. The trip is best combined with the Ustyurt plateau and the actual shore of the Aral sea.
5. Aral sea shore
It is a 3 to 4 hour journey by four wheel drive from Moynaq to the shore of the Aral sea that is now 150 kilometers from Moynaq. Tours can be arranged either in Moynaq or Nukus.
Where to sleep in Moynaq
1. Hostel Moynaq (Abeskun-tur)
The best place to stay in Moynaq with clean rooms, wifi and registration. The price ranges between 10 and 20 dollars per person per night. The receptionist speaks decent english and is very helpful.
2. Mayak Yurt camp near lighthouse
One of the cheapest options is sleeping in the yurt camp near the light house. The price ranges between 10 – 15 dollar per person per night including breakfast. The location is spectacular, overlooking the former sea bed.
If you arrive in Moynaq you might be approached by ladies offering homestay accomodation. Even though I have no personal experience, this might be an interesting option.
Where to eat in Moynaq
Cafes near the bus station cook the standard Uzbek fare like plov. It is better to eat at your accomodation where they will serve you homecooked meals. The yurt camp has a cafe at the bottom floor of the light house that serves good fish.
We had a delicious lunch at a homestay. Karakalpak food is quite similar to Kazakh food and we got a Karakalpak version of the classic dish beshbarmak (noodles in broth with meat on top).
How to travel to Moynaq
Don’t believe anyone that tells you there is no public transport to Moynaq. It is very well possible to get to Moynaq on your own. However, Moynaq is as far as it gets, if you really want to travel to the current shore of the Aral sea you do require your own transport.
From Nukus there is a daily marshrutka leaving Nukus at 9 AM. It is best to be at the bus station at 08:30 to make sure you have a seat. The journey takes between 3-4 hours and costs 13,000 som (as of march 2019). The same marshrutka returns to Nukus at 3 pm.
by shared taxi
If you missed the marshrutka, you can also travel by shared taxi. There might be direct shared taxi’s to Moynaq. Otherwise you can take a shared taxi from Nukus to Kungrad (2 hours) and then from Kungrad to Moynaq (2 hours).
Although most people travel from Nukus it is possible to take the twice weekly sleeper train from Tashkent and get out in Kungrad rather than Nukus. From Kungrad it is less than 2 hours to Moynaq and there are frequent shared taxi’s. You can check my post about train travel in Uzbekistan to find out what it is like to travel by train in Uzbekistan.
Tours to the Aral sea
If you only want to visit Moynaq there is no need for a tour, but if you prefer the comforts of your own private taxi you can arrange this as a daytrip through Jipek Joli in Nukus (60 – 100 dollars).
You can even arrange this from Khiva, although this would be a very long daytrip with more time in the car than outside. If you also want to visit Sudochie lake, the shore of the Aral sea and the Ustyurt plateay you do require a tour.
Jipek Joli’s Ayim tours or Bez Qala tours in Nukus arranges 2 – 3 day tours by jeep including transport, meals and accomodation. The price ranges between 300 – 500 dollars per person depending on the amount of people.
It can also be arranged in Moynaq through the hostel Muynaq or the Mayak yurt camp.
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