Wow, wow, wow! That is all I can say about the wacky Republic of Karakalpakstan if you read my Wacaday report of my journey there, you’ll know this was lunacy turned on its head. This autonomous region within Uzbekistan that probably should have been its own country. To see what Karakalpakstan was all about, I headed to the KP capital city, a place called Nukus. I had no idea what to expect but was convinced it would be something a bit insane, a bit curve ball. It was. This was another one of my ridiculous quests to a barely known autonomous country that doesn’t independently exist – Karakalpakstan.
I can add it to the list of unknown or disputed countries/regions such as Adammia, Gorno Badakhshan, French Guyana, Nagorno Karabakh, Lagoan Isles, Christiania, Druze Village Isfiya, Uzupis, Austenasia, Transnistria, Podjistan and Ladonia! Although it has its own culture, land, people, language, flag and border checkpoints, Karakalpakstan doesn’t require a separate visa or permit and to all intents and purposes, its part of Uzbekistan. Just get an Uzbekistan LOI and visa and you are sorted.
Where is Karakalpakstan?
I might have covered this before on previous posts but a quick recap just for you. Karakalpakstan is situated in north western Uzbekistan. It borders both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The region houses the South Aral Sea and the city of Nukus. Karakalpakstan has a population of 1.7 million people, almost 500,000 of them are ethically Karakalpaks. So it’s the population of Northern Ireland in an area the size of Romania.
The is some sad history here, the Karakalpak name means “Black Hat”, but Karakalpak culture was decimated during the Soviet times so that now the original meaning of the black hat is not clear. The Karakalpak language is considered closer to Kazakh than to Uzbek and at one point, the republic was part of Kazak SSR. The language was written in a modified Cyrillic in Soviet times and in the Latin alphabet since 1996, once the USSR split up. During Soviet Union times, Karakalpakstan enjoyed a brief spell of 7 years as the Karakalpak SSR (flag below), ironically this was the nearest the country has ever got to independence, 1925 – 1932. It was swallowed into Uzbekistan after this and is now an autonomous region which cannot secede from the military dictatorship of Uzbekistan. A military dictatorship disguised ridiculously as democracy of course.
Due to my limited visa time in Uzbekistan, I only had time for a day here in Nukus, but at least I could overnight in the city’s excellent Jipek Joli Hotel and head to the city’s main attraction – the Savitsky Museum! Plus I get to add another “wacaday republic” to my backpacking repertoire.
Here are my top 8 things to see and do from my short visit to Nukus in Karakalpakstan, truly one of the most sublime, crazy and cool places I have been to so far. This is really just a quick visit to the city and republic, sadly the Uzbekistan visa I had was only for 11 days so I couldn’t spare any more time here. If you want to explore the place in detail, check out this brilliant website on Karakalpakstan tourism.
Well to put it simply, this is the number one art museum in the world. Yes, world number one. The best art museum on the planet, an accolade which is rarely disputed.
Having been to art galleries in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Rome, I have to agree and side with the Karakalpaks here. The Savitsky Museum is magnificent. Inside are the meticulous works of Igor Savitsky.
There’s so many stories with this museum too. Igor Savitsky managed to keep hold of thousands of paintings, not just his own but by others. These are paintings that were destroyed in all other parts of the Soviet Union. Savitsky was born in the Ukraine but made Karakalpakstan his home for a while in the wilderness as he continued to work as an artist. When I visited, it looked like they hadn’t had a foreign tourist for months.
There is one negative thing here though – the prices. I don’t have any authentic photos from inside the gallery to share with you, as I refused to pay the $45 US price tag for photography and $100 US for videoing! Ouch – it was enough of a scrape for a backpacking blogger to part with a $5 spot to get inside the door!
When you visit a mini republic like this, part of the thrill for me is seeing the local government and parliament. Similarly to Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria and Gorno Badakhshan, they have a massive parliament building. In front of it a leafy grassy park and a statue of local poet Berdaq, a national hero in Karakalpakstan.
Because the country is controlled by Uzbekistan, they also fly the Uzbekistan flag from here. You can’t go inside without a permit and in fact, even when photographing it from the front, I was chased away by a local peeler who was ripping at me!
The road that the parliament on is a throwback to old school Soviet days. This place feels a bit like Belarus, Moldova and Transnistria in various ways. The huge pillared gate is worth checking out.
4.Amet and Ayimxan Shamuratov’s Museum
A second museum on the list and a really cool one to check out. This was the first private museum in Karakalpakstan and all of Uzbekistan. I was able to get a guided tour of it from a member of staff at the Jipek Joli hotel. The museum is actually next door to the smaller section of the Jipek Joli hotel.
5.Night Out on the Rip
It wasn’t exactly a pub crawl, but I wanted to try the local beer here in Karakalpakstan. The off licences are unusual, they’re inside the supermarket in their own room that also kind of acts as a bar. The staff in here were all Karakalpaks and hadn’t seen a foreigner in months by the way it seemed.
I also headed to the Jipek Jolu (no relation) bar which seemed to have a crazy disco in it and I had my dinner in Neo Restaurant, which also had a bar and a dancefloor. So a hat-trick of drinks on a night on the rip in Nukus, Karakalpakstan! Qibray is apparently the local Karakalpak beer, at least that’s what the two girls told me, and for about 50 pence for a 1litre bottle, you can’t go wrong!
6.National Flag Photo
Pose by the Karakalpak National Flag which is similar to the Uzbekistan flag except the stripe in the middle here is yellow.
There was a flag in the reception of my hostel and obviously you can see the flag flying at the parliament too. As far as finding a souvenir one, I had a look in the market and couldn’t find one. Alas, I was only here for a day, so if you get a bit longer then hopefully you can pick up some local souvenirs.
There is a real Soviet style theatre here, worth admiring from the outside. I was only here a short time, so didn’t go in. This was just one of many buildings that caught my eye on my nonchalant dander round the city.
8.Nukus Bazaar and Market Stalls
Nukus is a desert city and seems slightly off the Silk Road path, and it doesn’t quite have a bazaar the size of those in southern Uzbekistan, Iran or Afghanistan but it’s still worth a walk. Life is basic for the people here, all sorts of unusual things were for sale in the markets.
Despite the fact that I only stayed a night here, I really recommend others to stay for two nights in Nukus to get a feel for this weird and unusual republic. If my visa hadn’t been restricted to just 11 days in Uzbekistan, I would definitely have spent a couple of nights here to explore more. Here are some more photos from my time in Nukus.
Here are my videos from my time backpacking in Nukus in Karakalpakstan: