August 29, 2021: Karkalpakstan
After celebrating my 30th birthday in Khiva, Uzbekistan, Abdullah our guesthouse owner and Sacha our airport driver met us early outside the guesthouse. Today was going to be a long transit day to get to Bukhara. However before heading southeast, we were going to spend a few hours in Karakalpakstan.
Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, meaning it is like a province but with local controls. Karakalpakstan was once its own SSR within the USSR. The Constitution of Uzbekistan allows Karakalpakstan to veto relevant laws passed by Uzbekistan and allows Karakalpakstan to secede from Uzbekistan should the Karakalpaks vote to do so.
Karakalpaks are their own ethnic group and speak their own language that is closer to Kazakh than Uzbek. There are only about 600,000 Karakalpaks in the world, of which 500,000 live in Karakalpakstan.
The economy used to be based heavily on fishing. However, the drying of the Aral Sea has devastated the industry. Luckily there is still plenty of groundwater to support farming.
The capital of Karakalpakstan is Nukus, 2 hours northwest of Khiva. However, we were not going to see that today. Our goal instead was to visit some of the fortresses from ancient Khorezm, a kingdom that existed in the region from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD.
There are more than 50 fortresses scattered around the desert northeast of Khiva/Urgench. We were going to visit 3. On the way out of Khiva, we stopped to pick up Sacha´s wife, who spoke only Uzbek. Then we crossed over the the Amu Darya River to officially enter Karakalpakstan.
The first fortress was called Ayaz Qala and was way out in the middle of the empty Kyzylkum Desert. To reach the fortress, we had to park our car at a private yurt camp and walk 15 minutes over the sand and up a hill. There, we were treated with a private viewing of the ancient ruins.
The fortress today contains four thick mud and stone walls surrounding a humongous empty courtyard. During its heyday, the courtyard housed hundreds of soldiers.
There wasn´t much to see inside the walls, but it was fun to wander in complete solitude. Also, the views of the surrounding desert were impressive.
Back at the car, the caretaker of the yurt camp tried to sell us lunch. When we said no, she said there was a 10,000-som ($1) entrance fee to visit the fortress. I knew that this was a lie because she is not a government employee and asked Sacha to take us away. However, the lady held the door open and blocked us from leaving. Rather than argue and scream over $1, I figured that it was probably easier to pay the fake entrance fee. Since I knew I was getting scammed, I at least wanted to make her work for it. Therefore, I insisted that she give us a physical entrance ticket, as every tourist site in Uzbekistan gives you a ticket receipt. She was upset by this request, but nevertheless took us to the backhouse where she gave us a registration slip to her hotel…not an entrance ticket. I always knew that this was a scam, but here was the proof in writing. She also charged Paul 3,000 som (30 cents) to use the bathroom, 3x more than any other bathroom in Uzbekistan.
The next two fortresses were smaller than the Ayaz Qala. The first one Topraq Kala was once the royal palace of the Khorezm kingdom. The inside is partially restored and actually looks like an ancient building.
The final fortress, Kyzyl Qala (great name, right!), has a very cool half-restored exterior but very plain interior.
At this point, it was too hot to see any more fortresses, so we commenced our drive to Bukhara. The drive took 6 hours. For the most part, we drove on a 4-lane highway near the Turkmen border. This was a huge shift from the terrible roads in Tajiksitan.
The drive was relatively uneventful and went through a mix of desert and cotton fields. Sacha wanted to hear some music and asked if we could play something. I opted for my reggaeton playlist which he loved. We danced the whole time. Even Sacha´s wife moved her shoulders a bit. When the song Taboo by Don Omar came on, Sacha freaked out because he recognized the melody, which is based off the oft-covered Lambada.
For the final hour of the drive, the road was under construction, so we had to drive on two lanes of dirt. The large number of trucks and the dust made it difficult and dangerous to pass. Eventually the pavement returned, and we made it to the ancient city of Bukhara.
The fortresses of Karakalpakstan are an offbeat stop. I wouldn´t go out of my way to see them, but it is a nice add-on during the long transit day between Bukhara and Khiva.
If you have the time and want to really explore Karakalpakstan, you need 1 day for Nukus (and its famous art museum) and 2 days for the Aral Sea.