From white, sandy beaches to gorgeous mountain peaks, exotic cultures and blessings of hospitality, we all travel because we like to fill our brains with wanderlust and visit colorful places.
Like many other people, traveling is a key element which is highly correlated with my happiness.
However, as well as Iove having fun and enjoying our beautiful planet, I also travel to learn and, of course, to become wiser.
This means that, in order to understand our marvellous world a bit better, I believe that traveling should also occasionally include visiting sad places, such as a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq, Kibera slums in Kenya or exploring the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, a massive lake which used to be the fourth largest inland body of water but, today, is just a ship cemetery and the planet’s worst environmental disaster.
Moynaq, a city which used to be a thriving center for the fishing industry, is today a ghost town which has a harbor without sea and is the gateway to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.
For more places to visit, read: Backpacking in Uzbekistan – 1 to 3-week itinerary
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The disaster – What happened to the Aral Sea?
In the 1960s, when both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were still part of the Soviet Union, the Russians decided to divert Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the two major inflow rivers that fed the Aral Sea, to irrigate a desert land to produce cotton and become one of the top world’s cotton exporters.
In fact, believe it or not, they actually achieved this ambitious objective and, by the end of the 1980s, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest cotton exporter.
The worst part of this is that, actually, the Soviet Union knew that this would eventually lead to a natural disaster but, for some reason, they didn’t give a damn f***.
Therefore, over the decades, they kept on diverting the water until the Aral Sea shrank almost completely, becoming an actual, dry and desolated desert.
Sadly, the Aral Sea shrinking didn’t stop with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the governments continued with the irrigation process, especially Uzbekistan.
That’s why, today, the Aral Sea is 10% of what it used to be in the 1960s and its level of salinity is close to that of the Dead Sea in Jordan, making the life of marine life almost impossible.
The Aral Sea disaster has brought real misery to the region. The fishing industry disappeared, the land became arid and the air polluted. Aralsk, on the Kazakh side, and Muynaq, on the Uzbek side, used to be two very important centers for the fishing industry and the economy of their country. Nowadays, both are hopeless towns with huge rates of bitterness and unemployment.
I actually visited both parts but, in this guide, I will tell you how to visit the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.
The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and the Republic of Karakalpakstan
The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is within the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, the poorest and most desolate region in the country. Karakalpakstan used to be a fertile region but, after the destruction of the Aral Sea, most of the surrounding land became extremely arid and a large part of the population started to suffer from a pulmonary disease, as the air carries loads of salt particles.
In addition, the Uzbek Government has abandoned Karakalpakstan to its own fate, so it has never invested any money in developing the region. This has resulted in a huge increase of poverty and more unemployment.
The situation can’t be more dramatic.
By the way, the people from Karakalpakstan are mostly Kazakhs and Karakalpaks, an ethnic group very similar to Kazakhs, who also speak a similar language. Only one-third of the population are actual Uzbeks.
What to actually see in Moynaq
Nowhere else is the Aral Sea crisis felt more dramatically than in Moynaq. From being a wealthy town, today, Moynaq is a semi-ghost town that has the saddest bazaar I have ever seen in Central Asia, consisting of a couple of stalls with just rotten fruit. The streets are practically empty and there are several buildings in ruins.
Muynaq has the famous harbor without sea, which is now 150 kilometers from the actual seashore. I know, it’s insane.
From the harbor, all you can see until the horizon is miles of sand and dry bushes where skinny cows struggle to find some tasty grass to put into their mouths.
The sand is full of seashells and, during the day, the sun is as hard as in any desert in the Middle East. It’s very hard to believe that, just a couple of decades ago, there was an actual sea here.
Right next to the harbor, there is a ship graveyard which consists of ten or twelve boats, approximately. You can enter the boats and even climb them. We actually camped on the shade of one of the biggest ships and even drank a bottle of wine on the top of it. It was quite an experience.
Besides the boats, you should also visit all the buildings that were related to the fishing industry. There a few fish-canning factories, as well as other buildings for other certain purposes. Everything is abandoned and in complete ruins.
Practical information for visiting the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan
Where is the Aral Sea and Moynaq
How to get to Moynaq from Nukus by public transport
From Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, there are daily buses leaving at 8:50am to Moynaq. It’s a 3-hour journey and it only costs 20,000UZS (1.80USD).
Most likely, in Nukus, you will be staying at Jipek Joli Inn, which is the best option in the city. A taxi to the station only costs 5,000UZS (60¢). Here’s the bus station location, by the way: 42.449906, 59.565252.
How to come back from Moynaq to Nukus by public transport
To come back, there is a bus at 3pm so, if you really want to get a real feeling of the place, I suggest you stay overnight in Muynaq and come back on the next day (there is a 9am bus).
Alternatively, you can also come back by local shared taxi. We first took a taxi to Kongrad for 10,000UZS (1.22USD) and a second one to Nukus for 15,000UZS (2USD). Price is per person, assuming you are 4 people.
You may also find direct shared taxis for 30,000UZS.
Where to stay in Moynaq
When we first arrived in town, a few ladies approached us asking if we were looking for a homestay, so this would be one good option.
Another option would be staying at the hostel located at the main street.
Furthermore, right next to the ship graveyard, there are a few yurts which cost 12USD per person per night, although you may bring the price down to 10USD. Alternatively, you can camp next to the boats, which is what we actually did.
We made a fire, brought some drinks and had plenty of fun with another group of travelers. Please note that we went there in October and, at night, it was extremely cold.
Where to stay in Nukus
Budget/mid-range Hotel – Jipek Joli – Like I said, most likely you will be staying here, which is the only decent option in town but it’s pretty good. It is a funny hotel because it hosts fro backpackers to mid-range and even high-range travelers, as it has many kinds of rooms, as well as a pretty good restaurant.
Tours to the Aral Sea
Some people prefer going on a tour, basically, because they can take you to the actual seashore, which is around 150 kilometers from Moynaq. If you have a GPS and a 4×4, you could reach it by yourself, but bear in mind that you will have to drive for a very long time off-road and over the sand.
Jipek Joli Inn offers 2-3 day tours, with an overnight stay at the seashore. A small group I met at the hotel said the trip was really worth it. Prices range from 500USD to 700USD for a Jeep, including accommodation (a tent) and meals. For further information, please refer to the hotel.
More information about Uzbekistan and Central Asia