The Aral Sea, a place which used to conjure up images of vibrant fishing towns, sturgeon and caviar, is now famous for rusting ships, deserts, ghost towns and one of the worst man made ecological disasters in history. It was once one of the four largest lakes in the world and home to over 1,100 islands until the Soviets came up with a great plan back in the 60’s and began diverting the rivers which fed it to for irrigation, including cotton. By 2007 the sea had shrunk to 10% of it’s original size and has never recovered. Fishing livelihoods were destroyed but cotton or “white gold” was booming and the pesticides and fertilizers poured onto the fields did nothing to help the health of the depleted sea into which it would drain, nor the people living nearby. The drainage basin is mainly located in Uzbekistan but also parts Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan.
Unable to make it to Moynaq, the most accessible of Uzbekistan’s old Aral towns, in one day without taking an expensive private taxi, the town of Nukus is a logical place to spend the night. With only a handful of hotels the ‘tour book’ listed ones are expensive except for Hotel Nukus. Drab Soviet wallpaper desperately clings to the walls, crackling Russian television channels and toilets sans seats add to the yesteryear charm, though the price tag of USD$30 for the night had us initially regretting our choice. Especially when the water over the rusty bathtub and to fill the toilet was only running a few hours a day. Lucky for us the nest morning the exchange rate used by reception was as per the ‘official’ rate making it a reasonable USD$13. There’s a cheap Soviet canteen across the square with decent WiFi and a reasonable selection of food too.
There’s not much to see up this way as the sea itself is now a further 200km away and require you to take an expensive 4WD tour. Combined with the effort of timing the public transport to get here the journey out to the ex-fishing town of Moynaq is really only worth it if you’re super keen to see how mankind can cause irreversible environmental damage on an unfathomable scale. There is actually one reason to visit Nukus and that is the Savitsky Museum which houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the former Soviet Union. The museum owns some 90,000 artifacts and pieces of art – including more than 15,000 paintings – only a fraction of which are actually on display.
Stepping outside the hotel Sarah’s almost mowed down by a small white car which pulls to a halt at her feet before a cameraman jumps out and dashes across the road. A white Hummer stretch limo pulls to the curb and is swiftly mobbed by the gang of unruly Afghan refugee children who’d been swinging off our sleeves begging for money earlier. Jumping onto the sideboard and peering inside they’re soon chased away by the cameraman but appear again as if from nowhere when the bride steps out of the car. They’re grubby faces and over-sized clothing make a sad contrast against her polished appearance and dazzling white gown, which they’re soon tugging on with dirty hands begging for money and are sadly swept away like rats by her friends.
Inside the museum about half of the paintings were brought here in Soviet times by renegade artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky, who managed to work within the system to preserve an entire generation of avant-garde work that was proscribed and destroyed elsewhere in the country for not conforming to the socialist realism of the times. Head clockwise on the second floor so you can start off with some depressingly beautiful paintings of fisherman on the once thriving waters of the Aral Sea and finish off with a fun little visit inside a fabulously decorated yurt. Some of the embroidery on the women’s coats need a magnifying glass they’re so detailed. Photography is not allowed.
Other than this forget spending much time in the place.
Getting to the bus terminal for Nukus it’s a four hour wait for the bus as no one in town seems to know when it leaves. Hanging out in a nearby somsa restaurant to avoid the beggars the owners fill us with free chai and delicious parcels of hot somsa (a kind of Uzbek pastry pie/dumpling) straight from the fire whilst helping us keep an eye out for the once daily bus to Moynaq.
It eventually arrives and within minutes the bus seats are all taken and we’re left with the back corner that’s rapidly being filled with sacks of potatoes, flour, carrots and carpets. We spend another hour waiting on the bus so as not to lose our seats when minutes before departure two middle aged locals join us with 24 large bottles of vodka which soon becomes 23.5 as they sneak off to down half a bottle somewhere.
Shit. Not another vodka ambush?
Avoiding anything but idle chit chat we set off and soon enough one of the mildly intoxicated men starts climbing over us to get to his vodka. They’re celebrating the other mans 40th birthday and try their hardest to get us to drink. Standing firm the men’s attention soon turns to the rest of the bus as they start passing around the cut off top of a plastic bottle filled with the clear liquid.
Soon enough they are having the bus pull over to either take a leak or vomit. Stuffing the bottom lip with chewing tobacco, rolling up papers into a cone to spit into the pair increasingly lose all inhibitions. As Matt sleeps the forward one of the two tries without success to gain Sarah’s attention as she assumes resting bitch face avoiding eye contact. Lucky Matt’s woken as he sleazily tries the reach around to tickle some side breast. Seeing we’d had enough some of the young local lads tell him to lay off so they both pass out embracing in the back. Thinking that he’s made some new buddies (and a potential new mistress) as they wake up and the bus stops in the middle of nowhere he invites us back to his house for vodka. Nice try buddy!
Arriving in Moynaq to vodka bottles rolling around on the bus floor we have no idea where the town’s one reported hotel is and soon realise the bus stop is at least five kilometres from the centre with the streets about as busy as a country town at midnight. Luckily the bus drives us a further four kilometres and tells us to be back for eight in the morning to make the return trip to Nukus.
Searching for the hotel in the direction everybody keeps pointing we’re soon running out of town when a lady of 35 who looks closer to 45 approaches and within minutes we have a floor to sleep on for the bargain price of UZD30,000 (USD$5). As the sun’s setting we grab some beers, cheese and bread and head out to the ship graveyard close by.
The expanse of nothingness is mind-boggling as the once prosperous fishing village is now some 200 kilometres from the shore line and getting further every year. The extent of the disaster goes further that industry as poisonous dust stores are whipped up causing acute and chronic illness in the local population that has dwindled from tens of thousands.
Sunset being the best time (before 4pm is ideal) for photos we clamber over the wreckage and find a perfect place to picnic – inside the cutout hull of one of the ships!
‘One bus a day and that’s it, be here at 8am’
we were told the night before.
With nothing else to do in Moynaq to miss the bus would have meant a depressing day in a depressing semi ghost town. So we leave our homestay just after 7am and manage to score a lift as yesterday’s bus driver pulls up next to us, saving the 5km walk back to the bus stop. The return journey has us mixing it up in the back seat with the crazies again, this time surrounded by an ever growing mound of fresh milk. We wondered what the hell they did to make money out here and why there was four sacks of empty old plastic bottles being shipped from Nukus. An old man starts off trying to converse in Russian then descends into incomprehensible garble and crazy laughter that has some of the locals looking precariously our way. Luckily enough they do the talking for us, after Sarah’s repeated responses in English did nothing to deter him, telling him to stop his nonsense and he promptly falls asleep.
Back in Nukus it’s a short trip to the taxi rank where we jump in a shared taxi to Bukhara seven hours drive away. Fairly uneventful we watch the sleazy driver and who we can only assume was his mistress flirting in the front seat. Things are going well for Mr Suave until we run out of gas in the middle of nowhere 40km from the finish line. A 30 minute attempt to flag down a passing car capable of taking four passengers ensures the flirtatious mood has soured by the time these two lovers depart company. Maybe next time buddy!
Uzbekistan cotton and forced labour
Uzbekistan is still one of the worlds largest producers of cotton but what you may not know that the country still uses forced labour in the industry. We had this confirmed first hand by locals we met, some who’d been lucky enough to be exempted for study reasons, others’s who’s had to go into the fields for up to 40 days, picking cotton, sleeping in rough conditions and not always provided with enough food. You can read more about it here.
Getting to Nukus and Moynaq
From Khiva to Nukus
- Take a shared taxi from the Northern Gate to Urgench Olympic Stadium (not the Avtovokzal) where shared taxis to Nukus depart – UZS15,000 for two people.
- Taxis depart to Nukus when full, the trip takes two hours and a seat will cost you UZS30,000 each.
From Nukus to Moynaq
- Ask any taxi driver for the bus terminal to Moynaq, it shouldn’t cost more than UZS4,000.
- Wait and wait for the bus. Ours left at 1pm though we’d heard it left at 11am so we got there for 9am so as not to miss it. There’s a tasty somsa joint at the station where you can wait. You can also try calling the number given inside the bus but we’re not sure if it works – +998944580776.
- The back seat is full of the crazies so try and avoid these seats. If you can just take a day pack as the bus will end up loaded with goods bound for Moynaq.
- Three to four hours later you’ll be in Moynaq at a cost of UZS10,000 each.
Return journey to Bukhara
- The bus from Moynaq to Nukus left at 9am. Get there early to get a seat.
- Take a taxi from the bus terminal in Nukus to the Avtovokzal where the shared taxis depart for Bukhara. Cost is UZS8,000 to 10,000 per taxi.
- A shared taxi from Nukus to Bukhara cost UZS100,000 per seat and takes approximately seven hours.