Have you ever heard about the Republic of Karakalpakstan (or Qaraqalpaqstan)?
Well, don’t worry, because most people don’t know about the existence of this theoretically autonomous northwestern end of Uzbekistan which is now poor and hungry for water.
Truth is, most people don’t know much about Uzbekistan either.
Once a busy Soviet fishing port on the Aral Sea — one of the four largest lakes in the world (it was 68,000 square kilometers in 1960) — now is no more than 7% of its original size, because of environmental degradation.
There is no other place in Central Asia where the Aral Sea disaster had so much impact on its people than in Mo’ynoq. It was once a popular holiday destination in the old Soviet; with its beaches, seaside restaurants with fresh seafood, and hotels. But these days, you will only see the ruins of the former glory.
In the 1950’s the Soviet Union began using the streams to irrigate the neighboring cotton fields. After 60 years, the water drained up from most of the Uzbek part of the Aral. A new desert was created, the Aral Kum – Aral Desert.
From a bustling fishing town with 40,000 people employed in the fishing industry, Mo’ynoq is now literally a ghost town in the middle of the desert. 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 further resulted in a huge increase of poverty and more unemployment.
The ship graveyard is not exactly what you might have in mind of ship wrecks left behind to rust away on a isolated desert. It felt a bit staged with several ships in a neat line for display just below the lighthouse and the old harbor.
Behind the ships there is the vast desert as far as the eye can see. Miles of sand with dry bushes and sea shells. One advantage of staying in Mo’ynoq is the opportunity to see the sunrise and sunset at the ship cemetery when light is best for taking pictures.
Getting to Mo’ynoq
Don’t believe anyone that tells you there is no public transport to Mo’ynoq. Even though it is remote, it is still possible to get there with public transportation and there are enough facilities for the independent backpacker. However, if you really want to travel to the current shore of the Aral sea you would require your own transport or engage a tour.
We took a 17-hours sleeper train from Tashkent to Nukus. From Nukus, there are buses leaving daily to Mo’ynoq at 9a.m, 11a.m and 1p.m. It is best to be at the bus stop at least 30-minutes before to make sure you have a seat. The journey takes between 3-4 hours and costs 15,000 som (USD2).
The same bus returns from Mo’ynoq to Nukus at 9a.m and 3p.m.
We chose to sleep in the yurt camp near the light house which costs us USD10 per person per night including dinner and breakfast. The location is spectacular, overlooking the former sea bed. Alternatively, you may camp next to the old abandoned ships if you have your own tent and sleeping bag.
Mo’ynoq is truly a depressing place, but still worth a visit if you have more time in Uzbekistan. I hope this Mo’ynoq travel guide will give you enough information to visit Mo’ynoq on your own.