Where the Hell is Karakalpakstan?


Leaving Turkmenistan was a lot easier than arriving in it. Sort of. My guide was panicking as the borders were closed between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, some sort of tiff as far as I could understand. Having been in Central Asia for two weeks I was less concerned, these crazy things tend to sort themselves out, all you need is patience.

We arrived at the border to find massive queues and locked border gates. It was closed. But after discussions with the border guards it seemed it was only closed to Uzbeks and Turkmen. They seemed quite excited to have an Australian try to cross and they opened the gate for me, slamming it shut as an opportunistic Uzbek tried to follow. Passport formalities were, not surprisingly, fast, and more time was spent with various members of Turkmen border customs, army and police all trying on my Panama hat and giggling uncontrollably, than with stamping my passport. Even so, I managed to get through the border in under 15 minutes, possibly a world record.

I managed to get a lone taxi to take me to Nukus, capital of Karakakpakstan. This is in fact an autonomous state within Uzbekistan. Mostly desert, and mostly unloved. Under Soviet rule it was part of Kazakhstan, but was pushed into Uzbekistan with a re-drawing of maps in 1936. It can veto any Uzbekistan law or regulation which effects it, while the Uzbeks can veto any attempt from Karakpakstan to fully secede. Not that it would currently, it is dependent on Uzbekistan money.

Nukus had the feel of a frontier town, a very empty one at that. Drab low level Soviet apartments dominate the centre. Sand was in the air and in small drifts on the road. While walking I constantly rubbed my eyes to get the grains out. Nukus has the largest gallery of Russian avant-garde art in the world, surviving being destroyed in earlier Soviet times by being hidden in such a remote location. It used to be a closed city, no foreigners and few others from the Soviet Union allowed to visit. In a way, it was a shame it was not still closed, it would have added a frisson of interest to actually try to get there.

I found the market, a rather ugly mish-mash of concrete and metal. I was after a late lunch and found these lovely ladies pictured above selling Paradir, a tasty flattened garlic topped type version of Non bread. Crispy on the outside, and soft and slightly stringy inside, it was one of the nicest Non breads I had tasted. large enough to feed a family, it easily lasted me for the next 2 days.

I loaded up with large bunches of tasty shiraz grapes, and cold water. I was travelling next to the Aral Sea, or what was left of it, as it has shrunk considerably over the last thirty years. This was the reason for Karakalpakstan poverty, it used to be prosperous in the 1960's when the sea and its irrigation provided seafood and agricultural wealth. Now, this has literally turned to dust.