Tag Archives: nukus
September 10, 2013

Muynak, Uzbekistan: Where cotton killed the Aral Sea

October 29, 2012

On our last full day in Uzbekistan we boarded an Uzbekistan Airways flight back to Nukus. Our flying companions were mainly composed of oil and gas engineers searching for black gold in the area around Nukus.

Once we arrived in Nukus we began the long drive to Muynak, a former port on the Aral Sea. I say “former” because the Aral Sea has retreated some 100 miles from Muynak, leaving a vast desert in place of the sea once plied by the pride of the Soviet fishing fleet. As the sea receded, Muynak’s once prosperous industrial fishing and canning industry collapsed and thousands of residents fled the city in search of better lives. The remaining residents suffer from a multitude of illnesses brought about by the toxic laden dust carried by powerful windstorms sweeping across the dried up seabed.

But how did this happen? As part of the Soviet Union’s “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature”, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that fed the Aral Sea would be re-purposed for irrigation. Instead of flowing to the Aral Sea, as they had for thousands of years, the majority of the river water would be diverted to the desert to grow cotton, with just a trickle of water making its way to the Aral Sea. The Soviet plan succeeded, much to the detriment of the sea and people of Muynak, and now Uzbekistan is the world’s 6th largest producer of cotton. The Aral Sea was sacrificed for the “white gold” that has become a mainstay of the Uzbek economy.

But they say a picture is worth a thousand words:

Aral_Sea_1989-2008
Comparison of the Aral Sea, 1989 vs 2008 via NASA satellite

We arrived in Muynak after a four hour drive from Nukus. The city is very run down, as one might expect after the local economy has been obliterated due to the decision of central planners in Moscow. There is a chance that nearby oil & gas exploration will be successful, but it is doubtful that any of the wealth from those projects would benefit the citizens of Muynak.





We visited the ship graveyard, a collection of old fishing boats stranded in the dunes that now make up the former seabed. It was hard to believe that there was once a sea here; the surrounding landscape reminded me of the desert I grew up in.













This monument marks the former shore of the Aral Sea



Small museum with exhibits about Muynak’s heyday as a fishing port

Our visit to Muynak was short, and we reached Nukus by dinnertime after the long drive back. Our dinner was rather sedate until a raucous birthday party erupted in the main room of the restaurant. Curious, a few of us left our table to check it out and soon found ourselves on the dance floor with a group of friendly Uzbeks, dancing our asses off to Lady Gaga and “Gangnam Style”. Compared to my new Uzbek friends, who were decked out in their finest, I felt quite grungy in my hiking pants and sand filled shoes. Still, we were warmly welcomed and it remains one of my fondest memories of the trip. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Uzbekistan.

August 29, 2013

Uzbekistan: Down and out in Karakalpakstan

October 24, 2012

They usually begin in the middle of the night, those sharp stomach pains that awaken you from a peaceful slumber. If you’re on the road long enough, in a foreign country with unfamiliar foods, you’re eventually bound to be afflicted with some sort of intestinal problem. Was it the afternoon ice cream snack, the colorful carrot salad at lunch, or the strange Uzbek version of pigs in a blanket served at dinner? I’ve had my fair share of sickness while traveling, the worst being in Paris and Brussels (the French speakers have it out for me, I guess) and I tend to just spend the entire day in bed when that happens. That wouldn’t be an option this time, however.

We were headed to Nukus that morning, a little over 100 miles away from Khiva. With my stomach rumbling fiercely, I skipped breakfast and spent the three hour bus ride alternately popping capsules of Immodium and Pepto. (Want the secret to quickly losing weight? Food poisoning). While our bus rolled through the Uzbek desert, we watched “The Desert of Forbidden Art”, a documentary about Igor Savitsky and his efforts to stash Russian avant-garde art in the backwater town of Nukus, away from the watchful eyes of the Soviets. The 40,000 (!) pieces of artwork he did save are now housed at the Nukus Museum of Art. Visiting this museum was the main reason we were traveling to Nukus.

Unlike the Silk Road cities we had visited over the past week, Nukus is relatively modern, having only been founded in 1932. It is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan that is home to the Karakalpak people (although they are quickly being outnumbered by Uzbeks moving to the republic). Aside from the art museum, there is not much for a traveler to see in Nukus. There are no grand mosques or mausoleums, nor is there a quaint old town; the city is entirely Soviet in construction, with the typical wide avenues, tree lined streets, and pre-fabricated apartment buildings.

We arrived at the museum shortly afternoon and were treated to a beautiful lunch spread, which, I unfortunately had to skip in favor of drinking Coke. I rarely drink Coke in the U.S., but when I’m sick abroad it is the first thing I turn to. It’s a nice taste of home, and the syrup always seems to calm my stomach.

We toured the museum for several hours. The artwork on display in this large building is only a small percentage of the collection, with the rest kept in storage rooms. Looking at some of these paintings, one could only wonder how the Soviet authorities could have possibly considered them anti-socialist (but then I guess if a piece of art wasn’t of the socialist realism school, then it was immediately suspect). It was hard to imagine that Stavitsky, a Russian painter and archaeologist, had managed to amass one of the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world (second only to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg); one can only marvel at his dedication to his fellow artists and perseverance in saving their art for future generations.


The museum


My favorite