Nukus was my first halt in Uzbekistan. The 6th largest city of the country, it is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region within Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan covers a third of the area of Uzbekistan, which includes a major portion of the Ustyurt Plateau, and the Kyzyl-Kum Desert. The Amu Darya river is the lifeline of the region and flows through the city of Nukus.
Nukus is not known for its tourist attractions, but there was a reason I visited this city. More about that at the end of the post. It is located about 1000 km northwest of Tashkent, or a two-and-a half-hour journey by air from there by a propeller-driven plane, like the one in the photograph below.
When I saw the propeller-driven planes waiting on the tarmac of the Tashkent Domestic Airport, I got all excited as I had never flown in one. But 5 minutes into flying, I was reaching for ear plugs for they were incredibly noisy. It didn’t help that my window overlooked one of the propellers.
Once the initial excitement of the propeller plane had worn off, the flight was uneventful and monotonous, just like the landscape on ground below. Apart from a road or two or a cluster of dwellings, I didn’t see anything to break the sandy ground below.
Nukus itself arrived rather suddenly and if I didn’t feel the plane descending, I wouldn’t have known that. It is only later that I found out that the city is quite spread out and away from the airport, and one of the reasons why I didn’t see anything from the air.
When I landed at the rather small and quaint Nukus Airport on that September morning, I had been travelling (or waiting for a connecting flight) for almost 20 hours, and sleep deprived for even longer. It had been a long journey from humid Mumbai, to hot Delhi to cold Tashkent to dry and arid Nukus. I should have been sleepy and tired, but thanks to the numerous cups of coffee and excitement at finally being in Uzbekistan, I was not only awake, but also alert and ready to explore. 🙂
Nukus, which is also the name of one of the Karakalpak tribes, is built on the site of an ancient settlement called Shurcha. Compared to the other cities of Uzbekistan, it is a modern city having been built by the Russians after their annexation of the region in 1932. Much of the building and construction, however, happened only in the 1960s.
Nukus is the commercial, industrial, and educational centre of Karakalpakstan, and is considered to be a typical Soviet town. I using the word ‘considered’ for this was the first time I was coming across this style. The city is laid out in a grid format with single-storey and multi-storey buildings, as well as parks and public spaces, around the city centre. The roads are broad and tree-lined with pavements for pedestrians to walk and for children to cycle.
Though very different from the other places I visited in Uzbekistan, Nukus gave an indication of what to expect during my trip — from good places to stay to clean cities to broad roads to well-organised and clean bazaars to delicious fruits to friendly locals who loved all things India and Indians.
One thing that struck me about Nukus was how empty it was, in spite of signs of habitation, and how few people were out on the roads, especially the young. Except for the bazaar, which by Indian standards was not at all crowded, I hardly saw people on the roads. When I asked around, the answer I got was surprising.
September was cotton-picking time and all university students had to spend 3 weeks in the cotton farms picking the crop. This was compulsory for all students and that is the reason why there were no students around !
Prior to my Uzbekistan trip, I had done some reading of the places I would be visiting. Without exception, all sources mentioned that Nukus was the least appealing of them all. One account even referred to Nukus as a god-forsaken place; another was more polite by saying that Nukus was not a conventional choice for tourists. Having visited Nukus (as well as other cities in Uzbekistan), I will not agree with the first statement as it is a little harsh, but will endorse the second. Let me elaborate.
Nukus is used more as a gateway to visit the Moynaq, the site of the region’s greatest environmental disaster — the shrinking of the Aral Sea. It is a draw for tourists who love to visit environmental disasters. But I am no advocate of disaster tourism and was not in Nukus to visit Moynaq. I was there for another reason, one that makes Nukus rather special. The Karakalpak Museum of Arts or the Savitsky Museum — home to the second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art — is located in Nukus.
The Museum was stunning as were the few other sites that I visited near Nukus, and I’m glad that I did for I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. As for what exactly that experience was all will be shared in the next 2 blog posts.
Just a little more patience. 🙂
My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | The Mizdahkan Necropolis | 3 forts and a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |