Nukus isn’t much of a destination. The two reasons (I’m aware of) that people come here is to 1) see the art museum and 2) take a trip out to the former shores of the Aral Sea. I planned to do both, and then leave as soon as possible.
After Julica and I arrived, we took a walking tour of the town to get our bearings and find out any options we had (for food, entertainment, other accommodation). The town was pitch black. Very few people on the streets, no street lights, and no discernible “downtown”. The extent of our evening included getting harassed by a drunk guy, passing by some sort of well-lit government building, walking through the very basic amusement park, and finally finding a place to eat dinner (where we randomly had 3 guys purporting themselves to be English teachers – we believed one of them). This town was definitely not meant to have tourism as its economic base.
Uzbekistan, like Turkmenistan, has annoying paperwork obsessions. In Uzbekistan, not all hotels can accept tourists. But tourists have to be registered while they are in Uzbekistan, and this happens at each hotel/guesthouse you stay at. After each stay, the hotel will give you a little slip of paper (perhaps even just a stamp on a post-it note) that you need to keep to show when you leave the country. (Update: mine were not checked when leaving into Tajikistan).
That night, I attempted to make a plan to leave while still seeing everything I wanted to. I would visit the museum in the morning, and then get a taxi out to Moynak (former fishing community, now a desert wasteland) which would then take me to my next destination, Khiva.
It was a great plan in theory.
The taxi option was ridiculously expensive, though somewhat legitimately. The country’s gas stations ran out of gas the week before, and drivers were slowly also running through private stashes.
So instead, in the morning I happened to meet Christina and Katarina – German mother and daughter – who were also interested in heading to Moynak. Katarina had spent the past 9 months in Uzbekistan, teaching German in Tashkent. She spoke a little Russian and Uzbek, and so I tagged along with them as we attempted to catch public transport out to Moynak (a 200 km trip).
Our first marshrutka (minivan) we thought was going to take us to the town halfway to Moynak. Turns out it was only taking us to the place where taxis hang out that are heading to the town halfway to Moynak. I watch Katarina closely as she bargains, trying to learn this skill which I have tried so long to get by with not knowing.
We get to Kunigrad, and spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to make the second half of the trip happen. A man adopts us at the bazaar, and it seems like he’s trying to find us our next marshrutka, but after a while it seems apparent that he just likes to walk around and repeat what we say. Finding a marshrutka in the end was half test of patience, half pure luck.
The drive out to Moynak was long, flat, and dry. And hot. When we arrive, the town is a lot larger than I expect. I have no idea how we are going to find the deserted boats that mark the old sea shore. The town was strange – all the buildings and streets were faced with one big wall. Like all the life and activity was taking place behind them, and the streets were left dead. I don’t know what sort of life exists here though. The industry has completely crashed since the drying of the sea. What remains?
We are in luck with finding the boats, as our marshrutka driver takes us right out to where the boats are. He goes even further by asking how much time we want, and tells us he will take us back to Kunigrad after. For the same reasonable price. Remarkable.
The boats and the sand are beautiful, but depressing. Surreal really. There are about seven large fishing boats, rusted from bow to keel (are those the proper boat part names?). The sand is hot, and littered with sea shells. All this 180km from the current sea shore. It’s utterly inconceivable that Moynak used to be a thriving fishing community, until the Soviets decided to divert most of its feeder rivers to irrigate cotton fields. What’s amazing is that they expected the sea to dry up. It’s not certain whether they expected the scale of environmental disaster that followed.
High above to boats, informative posters show the gradually shriking of the shoreline. A huge monument has been erected this year, with an image of 1960 and 2010 sea shapes respectively. As though they are celebrating 50 years of ecological catastrophe and depleted communities.
On our way back we stop briefly in the centre of Moynak to wait for any more passengers. A small child, maybe 18 months old, is placed in the middle seat on her own as if she’s just another passenger, waiting for the car to leave. She sits silently, barely noticing the three foreigners questioning her existence. When we leave and her mother still hasn’t shown up, I’m a bit concerned, but we pick up her mother a few hundred metres down the road. The young girl has just sat quietly the whole time.
Getting back to Nukus was a lot easier than leaving. We eventually arrive back into town, and walk through the bazaar, picking up some plums, cucumbers, and apples, and eventually making it back to the guesthouse. We have arrived too late to see the museum today, and my plans to get to Khiva tonight have been completely tossed out the window. I had expected to meet Julica’s mother, arriving by plane in the morning, but apparently there was a delay and Julica is just now fetching her.
The next morning, I went with Katarina and Christina to the art museum and it was well worth it. The founder of the museum basically was a collector of art during the Soviet times, when anything diverting from realist art could see the artist put in prison, or a psychiatric institution. Nukus is so completely in the middle of nowhere, that he was able to do all this collecting in relative peace. Only a fraction of art is on display at a time, and I enjoyed what was there. I also bought a small painting done by a local art student – a water colour of a nearby ruin for about $2.
From here, the three of us planned to find a taxi that could take us to some historical forts on the way to Khiva.
And this is where I started hating Uzbekistan.
Let me preface this by saying that in pretty much every country I have travelled to on this trip and all the others, if you arrive at a bus station or any other transportation hub and walk up to anyone and say your destination, you will be pointed in the direction of the bus/shared taxi/van/train etc. If there isn’t a direct way to get there, people will often suggest transit points. All this without knowing each others’ languages.
The main transportation hub in Khiva is around the bazaar. At first the three of us scope out a hire taxi area and try to arrange this private trip with the fort stops. We get nowhere. The prices we are quote are ridiculous even in the face of a gas shortage (especially as many taxis run on propane and are not effected). And the men seem drunk, and get increasingly aggressive with their speech, space, and finger pointing. After about 20 minutes, I decide to go on my own and bypass the forts. I’m just going to get a shared taxi to Khiva, or to one of the main transit points near Khiva.
In front of the bazaar there are hundreds of marshrutkas and taxis going various places. I ask a variety of people “Khiva?” and get nowhere. I ask the names of other nearby towns. Nothing. Eventually a man offers to help, and then it’s clear he want me to hire out his entire taxi. No thank you. He calls a friend who speaks English to help me, but the friend just keeps telling me that the man can drive me to Khiva for X dollars. I tell the friend I don’t want the full taxi, I’m looking for a shared taxi or bus or marshrutka, but again, I get nowhere.
At this point I decide to try my luck at the bus station outside of town. I ask for the bus station, and people start nodding “station, station” (“vogzal, vogzal”) and direct me to the correct city bus. When I arrive, it’s clear that I have been directed to the train station. When I ask the marshrutka drivers outside about getting to Khiva, they shake their heads. I go inside the train station. There’s a line. I’m hopeful. When I ask about Khiva, it seems like there is a train leaving later today, or tomorrow, or now. Eventually I find someone that speaks English, and it turns out that no, there is no train to Khiva. She tells me to go the bazaar.
I want to cry. I’ve been to the bazaar. I ask about the bus station, and how to get there. It’s about 10 minutes away she says. Outside, one of the marshrutka drivers wants to explain something, but obviously our languages are getting in the way. One of the passengers tells me she will show me how to get there.
We end up back at the bazaar, at which point she shows me to yet another marshrutka. This marshrutka leaves the bazaar and heads BACK to the train station, at which point it continues on to the bus station, which is close enough for me to have walked. The bus station has a few shared taxis, which of course each want me to hire out their entire car. But, hallelujah, there is a minibus going to one of the transit points. And it leaves in half an hour.
It took 3 hours of frustration, but I’m finally going to get out of Nukus. I realize that I don’t speak Uzbek or Russian, but Khiva and its nearby transit points are only a few hours away from Nukus. This is a very common route to go, and the only way to get anywhere east to the rest of Uzbekistan. There must have been shared taxis going. Whatever. Grrr.