It was more than a decade ago that I first visited Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, while researching the first edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uzbekistan.
It was the end of a long and challenging journey. Tourism in the region was still in its infancy. We struggled to find places to stay and eat. Fuel shortages had caused queues at petrol stations that were probably visible from space.
Nukus seemed grey and depressing, especially when compared to the well-established destination of Khiva, about a four-hour drive to the southeast. Even the Savitsky Museum, with its renowned collection of Russian avant-garde art, seemed forlorn. Under-appreciated staff struggled to protect this precious legacy from leaking roofs, dust and general decay.
I would not say it was love at first sight. And so, at the end of the Bradt guide, the Autonomous Republic was given only a few pages. After all, who would realistically go there on holiday?
Fast forward to 2023, and my co-author Stephanie Adams and I have just sent the first travel guide devoted entirely to Karakalpakstan to the printers. It is a full-length, 200-page book, commercially published by an international travel publisher with a reputation to uphold.
So what has changed since that first bleak visit? Well, Karakalpakstan has changed. And so have I.
Before the deadly protests of July 2022, it was rare to read any kind of media coverage about Karakalpakstan. Even in neighbouring parts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, those who have visited are in a small minority. There is a little more international awareness of the Aral Sea, but a man-made environmental disaster and a former Soviet bioweapons base are not the kind of assets that consultants would typically advise you to highlight when trying to promote a tourist destination.
But what Karakalpakstan is doing now is realising its potential for dark tourism. Donors are interested, and money is being spent on developing infrastructure for ecotourism and adventure tourism. Long-established attractions such as the Savitsky Museum and newer features such as the quirky Stihia electronic music festival are attracting culture vultures from the west.
Nukus itself has been transformed to the point where the centre is almost unrecognisable. The government is working hard to develop the city and Karakalpakstan’s other tourist attractions and integrate them into regional itineraries.
If you want to see glittering UNESCO monuments, go to Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara. Karakalpakstan’s tourism offering is rougher and more rugged. But, significantly, there is also a much greater sense of the relationship between the people, their cultures and the environment. The Beleuli caravanserai on the barren Ustyurt plateau is built of stone blocks inlaid with shells, a reminder of a time when the area was an ocean floor. Karakalpak nomads dug deep furrows in what is now the Saigachy Reserve to trap herds of the historically abundant Saiga antelope. In Muynaq, skeleton ships lie solemnly on the sands of the Aralkum, the world’s youngest desert, testifying to the town’s past as a thriving fishing port.
In Karakalpakstan, with its physical distance from the dominant Uzbek and Tajik cultures further east, it is also easier to see, experience and appreciate the cultural identities of minority groups. There are Karakalpaks, of course, and then Kazakhs and Turkmens, among others. The streets of Nukus are a mix of many different languages.
The Berdaq Museum of the History of Karakalpak Literature and the Museum of the History and Culture of Karakalpakstan showcase mainly folk culture. Statues and mausoleums commemorate local heroes and historical figures such as Ernazar Alakoz, Narindjan Baba and Al Beruni. Karakalpakstan’s artisans still produce yurts, woven reed screens, jewellery and other decorative items, preserving their applied arts traditions. Tourism not only offers these artisans an opportunity to diversify their income through workshop tours, yurt stays and handicraft sales, but also affirms that their cultural heritage and skills are valuable and worth passing on to the next generation.
The Bradt Guide to Karakalpakstan is a celebration of the unique identity of this complex but endlessly fascinating place, its people and their resilience in the face of extreme environmental, economic and, at times, political challenges. My hope is that the guide will help balance the dominant narrative of the Aral Sea disaster with the many other extraordinary things that Karakalpakstan has to offer, and that it will be an authoritative source of tourist information that will not only inspire the adventurous traveller, but also facilitate their exploration of the least visited part of Central Asia.