This post is a travel guide with everything you need to know about travel in Karakalpakstan
Desolate and barren desert landscapes dominate the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. It receives relatively few tourists, even though it covers 36% of Uzbekistans landmass. It includes the remote Aral sea, the Kyzyl kum desert and the Ustyurt plateau.
A history of Karakalpakstan
Far away from Tashkent, Karakalpakstan has always had its own culture and language. Karakalpak culture is in fact more similar to that of Kazakhstan rather than that of Uzbekistan. However, they never really had any sort of independence and were always part of a bigger entity. The kingdom of Khorezm, the Khanate of Khiva, Russia, the Soviet Union and finally Uzbekistan.
The Karakalpak people were first mentioned in the 15th century. They were nomadic fishermen and herders along the Aral sea and the Amu Darya river. Karakalpak means black hat. Some say, because of the black sheep wool that they used.
Karakalpakstan was once a prosperous and fertile agricultural area that played an important role on the Silk road. This was all untill the cotton plantations in the east drained the Aral sea.
Karakalpakstan and the Aral sea
Now Karakalpakstan is the poorest region in Uzbekistan. Draughts and desertification have made life difficult here. Crop failures and a shortage of portable drinking water are every day struggles. It is a desolate scene, but there are still good reasons to travel to Karakalpakstan.
The aral sea disaster is for many people the main reason to travel to Karakalpakstan. But there is also plenty of history with ancient forts in the middle of the desert. It’s an off the beaten path destination. If you get tired of the busloads of tourists in Bukhara and Samarkand, Karakalpakstan is the perfect place to escape the crowds.
Places to visit in Karakalpakstan
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan. It is certainly not the most exciting city in Uzbekistan and it feels empty and desolate. In that sense it is truly representing Karakalpakstan. Art lovers will want to visit the Savitsky museum, but else there is not much to do. Still, it is a great place to base yourself and arrange further trips and to learn more about Karakalpak culture.
Things to do: Savitsky museum, bazaar, mizdakhan necropolis, qaur qala fortress
Moynaq has become a symbol for the Aral sea disaster in Uzbekistan. Once a wealthy harbour town on the Aral sea with an active fishing industry, now a poor village. Moynaq faces a number of challenges such as a lack of employment, toxic salt deposits and health problems among others.
Tourism is a promising new source of income and the town caters to those that want to see the Aral sea disaster up close.
Things to do: Aral sea ship cemetery & museum
3. The Aral sea
Most of the Aral sea has already dissapeared. Despite projects to restore it in Kazakhstan, there is not much hope for Uzbekistan. As of now, it is still possible to visit the shore of the Aral sea, but it requires a long drive through the former sea bed.
Tours often combina a tour to the Aral sea with Sudochie lake and the Ustyurt plateau.
4. Sudochie lake
Sudochie lake was once a large fresh water lake connected to the Aral sea. Now it still is a network of smaller fresh water lakes in the middle of the desert.
It’s a paradise for birdwatching with more than 200 bird species including pink flamingo’s
5. Ustyurt plateau
The Ustyurt plateau is a clay desert in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that covers a large area between the Caspian sea and the Aral sea.
The Ustyurt plateau is all about isolation and spectacular views. Here too you will find wildlife like the taiga, wild horses, squirrels and birds of prey.
6. Kyzyl kum desert
At first sight, the desert looks harsh, boring and uninspiring. If you look closely, it is anything but that. Kyzyl kum means red sand and despite the little rain the area gets, there is a surprising amount of wildlife like snakes, lizards and rodents.
The beauty of the desert reveals itself when you drive through, or even better, exploring it on the back of a bactrian camel. Once the sun set, the Kyzyl kum desert is at its most beautiful.
7. Fortresses of ancient Khorezm
Karakalpakstan was part of the kingdom of Khorezm. This ancient civilization is famous for their Zoroastrian beliefs and its desert castles and the Khorezm fortresses that are spread out in Karakalpakstan.
The ruins might require a bit of imagination, but they are nevertheless impressive. First of all, because of their colossal size and second of all, because of their spectacular location in the Kyzyl kum desert.
Fortresses to see: Toprak kala, Ayaz Kala, Kyzyl kala, Chilpik kala, Janbas kala, Gyaur kala.
Khiva is the most touristic city in Karakalpakstan, because of its history. Even though all of Karakalpakstan was part of the ancient silk road it is most visible in Khiva. It is so well preserved and restored that it feels like one big museum with beautiful minarets, madrassahs and mosques.
If it wasn’t for the other tourists, Khiva would feel like a journey back in time when it was a vital stop on the silk road with a large market for camels, carpets and slaves. Nowadays it is mostly cheap souvenirs for sale.
Read more about Khiva in my post on best things to do in Khiva.
How to travel to Karakalpakstan?
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan. The best way to reach Nukus is by the twice weekly sleeper train from Tashkent that stops in Urgench (to get to Khiva), Nukus and Kungrad (to get to Moynaq and the Ustyurt plateau)
When to travel in Karakalpakstan
Karakalpakstan has a rather extreme climate. Summers are sizzling hot and winters icy cold with temperatures below zero.
The best months are April, May and June and then again in September and October.
Accomodation in Karakalpakstan
Nukus: nukus has a decent amount of accomodation, but without doubt the best one is Jipek joli and their sister hotel Jipek joli inn. They also have excellent tours into Karakalpakstan. For backpackers there is dorm accomodation in Bez Qala guesthouse that also organizes tours.
Khiva: Khiva is the most touristic of places in Karakalpakstan with a large choice of accomodation. If you want to stay within the old town Islambek Khiva is a good budget option.
Moynaq: moynaq is often done as a day trip, but there is also accomodation available allowing you to get to Moynaq by public transport. There is a hostel and some home stays.
How to travel in Karakalpakstan?
From Nukus you can travel by shared taxi’s or minibus to the major cities like Moynaq, Kungrad, Urgench and Khiva. For Moynaq you might have to change transport in Kungrad.
To visit the current shore of the Aral sea, Sudochie lake, the Khorezm fortresses or the Ustyurt plateau you would need your own transport. Islambek in Khiva, Jipek joli and Bez qala in Nukus all arrange tours into Karakalpakstan.
Khiva is the best place from where you can explore the fortresses in ancient Khorezm. You can also organize daytours to Moynaq, but it will be a long day with more time in the car than outside. It is better to arrange them from Nukus. Either through Jipek Joli’s Ayim tours or Bez Qala tours.
Is it safe to travel in Karakalpakstan?
Karakalpakstan is a safe destination for travellers. Do keep in mind that you travel through isolated regions with few facilities outside of Nukus, Kungrad or Khiva.
If you go on a tour, they are often proffesionally run. Still if you travel into the deserts of Karakalpakstan it won’t hurt to make sure you bring your own first aid kit, enough water, some snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
Especially in summer it gets really hot and a heat stroke is possible so protect yourself from the sun. If you travel in spring and autumn you can expect a large variety of temperatures so bring some warm clothes too.
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Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.