Officially the Republic of Karakalpakstan, this autonomous region of Uzbekistan is in the far West of the country, bordering Kazakhstan to the West and North, Turkmenistan to the South and the rest of Uzbekistan to the East.
Karakalpakstan is huge and is roughly 37% of the entire area of Uzbekistan, while it only contains 2 million people, compared with the total population of Uzbekistan which is over 35 million! This means Karakalpakstan is very sparsely populated, and you’d see why if you visited – it’s a lot of desert.
In Karakalpakstan they speak their own language, called Karakalpak, and is linguistically closest to Kazakh. As 30% of the population is Uzbek, the Uzbek language is also officially spoken. The capital of this autonomous region is Nukus, which is probably most famous as the gateway to the Aral Sea and the equally famous Savitsky Art Museum, which strangely contains the world’s second largest collection of Russian Avant-garde artwork.
The Karakalpak people are historically semi-nomadic as opposed to Uzbeks who were not and have their own unique culture, arts, food and history.
History of Karakalpakstan
Karakalpakstan was originally inhabited by various nomadic tribes, the main two being the Saka and Massagetae tribes. The name Karakalpak actually means ‘Black Hat’ and first appeared to describe the locals in the 9 th Century. They were originally Zoroastrians until the Arabs conquered the area in the 8 th Century. The area also boasts a Christian history as supposedly Saints Thomas and Andrew travelled the area spreading Christianity.
The Karakalpaks first emerged as a state after the Mongolian invasion in the 13 th Century. For most of their history they were never particularly large in population, no doubt owing to the inhospitable nature of their homeland, meaning that they were easily conquered. They came under the rule of the Kalmyks, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Uzbeks up until the end of the 19 th Century, when most of Central Asia became part of the Russian Empire.
It's actually owed to the Soviet Union that they received their first autonomous homeland when in 1925 they were separated from the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic called the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. This was short lived when it was joined to the Uzbek SSR in 1936. It is because of this arrangement in 1936 that Karakalpakstan was part of Uzbekistan upon their Independence in 1991 when the USSR broke up.
In 1993, the Supreme Soviet of Karakalpakstan approved its own constitution stipulating that it is a sovereign republic inside Uzbekistan which can pass its own laws and at any point vote to separate and gain full independence. While legally quite distinct from Uzbekistan, in reality Tashkent calls the shots and any real independence from the central government has been on paper only. This nominally independent republic also has its own flag and coat of arms.
A minority of Karakalpaks want their homeland to be fully independent , something which Tashkent would never allow. The region is highly dependent on the rest of Uzbekistan, especially for water, as the two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya both run through the rest of the country first. Furthermore, one of the region’s main industries was fishing, but with the decimation of the Aral Sea, the fishing industry has almost completely collapsed. The loss of the Aral Sea has also meant that huge areas of what was once farming land has now become arid unusable land which has also meant the region has become dependent on food from the rest of Uzbekistan. The Karakalpak population of the region has also been decreasing as a percentage and is now less than 50%.
Karakalpakstan is one of the two poorest regions of Uzbekistan, and the Karakalpak population suffers higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and poor health than their Uzbek neighbours. With the retreat of the Aral Sea, thousands of Karakalpaks have lost their livelihoods and are being forced off their land. While agriculture is still one of the most important industries, most Karakalpaks have moved to the capital Nukus or left the region altogether, either to the rest of Uzbekistan or, according to estimates up to 200,000 have moved to Kazakhstan.
Cuisine of Karakalpakstan
While all Central Asian cuisine shares similarities, Karakalpak food encapsulates all of Central Asia by being an interesting mix of Uzbek, Turkmen and Kazakh foods.
Every meat, except for pork, is on the menu, with locals eating lamb, beef, chicken, camel, horse and even rabbit, not a common meat in the region. Dishes such as kuurdak (fried meat with potatoes), beshbarmak (the national dish of Kazakhstan, flat noodles with horse meat), shashlik (kebabs), as well as meat-based soups are extremely popular.
Like the rest of Central Asia, there is an emphasis on your table being full of food, so if you happen to eat with locals, expect to eat much more than you need.
The most uniquely Karakalpak dish is Zhueri Gurtik, a type of small flat dumpling made from millet and served with meat and some vegetables on top. Also unique is Turak, a spiced smoked dried cheese. Owing to its fishing history, spicy fish soup is also a very popular dish.
What to see in Karakalpakstan?
Considering the area is sparsely populated desert in a corner of the world few know exist, there are some amazingly unique things to see. The three main things are the devastating Aral Sea with its ship graveyards at Moynak, the phenomenal Savitsky Museum and its second largest collection of Avant-garde art in the entire world, and the ancient desert castles of Khorezm.
During the Soviet Union is wasn’t possible to travel to Karakalpakstan, because of military bases, so tourism to the region is a recent phenomenon.
Although the hardest part of Uzbekistan to get to and rarely visited, it is possibly the most rewarding part of Uzbekistan to travel to.
The Savitsky Museum , officially known by the very poetic name of the State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, was founded by legendary Moscow artist Igor Savitsky in 1966. Although he was officially showing local artists and artifacts, Savitsky took it upon himself to collect pieces of banned art work, most of which was never displayed during his life time.
Savitsky died in 1984 and Marinika Babanazarova took over as curator. With the start of Perestroika and the opening up of the Soviet Union, the amazing collection of over 10,000 previous banned pieces were able to be put on display. The art is some of the best examples of genres such as Constructivism, Cubism, Futurism, and Neo-Primitivism.
The museum is the largest collection in all of Central Asia and the second largest Avant-garde collection in the world. It is located in the largest city and capital – Nukus.
Moynak Ship Graveyard and the Aral Sea
The Moynak ship graveyard is located in the middle of the desert but was once a bustling port town on the shores of the Aral Sea . The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world, before irrigation. The Soviet Virgin Lands projects and general mismanagement created possibly the world’s worst environment disaster. The Aral Sea is now less than 10% of its original size, meaning fishing towns like Moynak are now nowhere near the water. The water that is left is so salty, polluted and toxic that it can never be recovered.
Located where the port of Moynak once was is a large collection of different types of boats, fishing vessels and ships, just siting there on the desert floor, now rusting in the hot sun. The population of the town has also almost completely vanished, as without fishing there are few economic opportunities. Although an extremely sad story, the ships do make for great pictures and you can climb on and explore them.
Ancient Khorezm Fortresses
Only rediscovered in the 1930s, this collection of more than 50 fortresses and castles in the middle of the desert are UNESCO heritage listed. It’s believed these structures date back as early as the 4 th Century BC.
The history of these structures is hotly debated, but it’s believed they were most likely abandoned when the Mongols invaded in the 13 th Century.
Funnily enough Igor Savitsky was on the expedition which found the sites in the 1930s, so its his second contribution to Karakalpakstan!
How to get to Karakalpakstan and get around
By far the easiest and fastest way to reach remote Nukus is by air. Nukus Airport is a small international hub which receives almost daily flights from Uzbekistan’s capital city Tashkent, as well as regular flights from international destinations. Travel by rail is the second most popular means of transport. There is a station in Nukus which receives both local and international trains, including regular arrivals from Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
For travel within Karakalpakstan, options include private vehicles, shared taxis, minibuses and buses. If you plan to take a trip to the Aral Sea, a 4x4 car is highly recommended, particularly in winter and in rainy weather.
We love visiting the Aral Sea and Nukus, so if you’d like to come and see this unique part of Uzbekistan check out all our tour itineraries .