Muynak: a ghost city at the Dead Aral Sea (part 1)
Русская версия Our trip to Central Asia started from Urgench, a city in the West of Uzbekistan. We started it there not occasionally: not far from Urgench there is a town of Muynak which used to be a blossoming industrial center at Aral Sea, but ended up as a dying out dessert village.
We arrived in Urgench at 2 am and faced a terrible customs control. Even though we were let to be the first as the guests, we got through in about 40 minutes only. One has to declare all the electronics, jewelry, and money without a single mustake, and if you make one, you have to rewrite two copies again and again. Filling in customs declaration in Uzbekistan requires a separate post, as it is very important information for the travelers. On our exit from the country they also checked our bags, and e.g. whether the camera we were carrying was in the declaration we filled on the entrance. Multiple travel guides have inconsistent information upon this declaration, and you may easily get in trouble.
By the way, the customs officer did not only hinted that we should not change money in the bank as we would lose on its low official rate, but also advised on the taxi price from the airport to the city. Getting out of the airport, we immediately faced mean taxi-drivers who competed in offering the highest price to us. We ended up going for 3 dollars istead of 2 recommended by the officer. Since to get to Muynak we had to go to Nukus first, we headed to the staadium from which the shared cars to Nukus depart. We had to wait a couple of hours for the company since the morning was too early, and ended up on a car for 25000 sums each. The taxi-driver also exchanged money for us: these are 100 dollars.
We were also lucky to get to Nukus 10 minutes before the bus to Muynak (for 9000 per person) was departing.
By that time we were so tired after the sleepless night , that could sleep in any position.
The bus made few stops in different settlements and once at the wooden box in the middle of the road. Here people passed money to the driver, and he put it to the box. As we learned later, local imam (religious leader in Inslam similar to our priest) was buried here and people made donations in such a way to support a mosque here. We were told that is is very difficult to become an imam that is why only the best ones reach this status, and people deeply respect them.
After 3 wonderful hours in the bus we finally reached Muynak.
A woman from this shop at the bus stop immediately suggested her house to stay. It cost 25 dollars for the 2 of us full-board.
Muynak is situated in Qaraqalpaqstan region – people here have their own language. Qaraqalpaq are the majority of the population. There used to be a lot of Kazakhs and Russians there (who moved after the industry and later the Soviet Union collapsed) and there are still Old Believers living.
Some pictures of Muynak:
And its story…
In 1890s Muynak based on the Aral Sea already had its large fisheries for fish-processing. After the October Revolution, the fisheries were nationalized. Muynak got its status of a city in 1963, which seems incredible now. It was a bustling center situated on the crossroads and attracting a lot of new population due to the availability of work. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world then, famous for its abundance of natural resources. In Turkic ’Aral’ means ’island’, and, as the locals argue, it was considered a saving island among the hot sands of Kyzyl-Kum and Kara-Kum. By 1995, the sea lost three quarters of the water volume and surface area. Prior to its complete closure in 1998, the cannery was working on imported raw materials.
The condition of Muynak is not so bad is it could be. Locals still fish in the remaining ponds, and the sea shrinking revealed the gas deposits. Moreover, the place attracts a lot of tourists who also bring money staying with the locals. Another serious income for the locals is organizing trips to the remaining Aral Sea through the desert and sand – costing up to 500 dollars.
As our co-traveller, Muynak accountant told us on the way back next day, there were no roads while the sea was still there, and Muynak could be reached only by plane or ship. There was an airport here, and that is what is left from it:
You might also like to visit local museum. You may save on its price if you pay to the museum-keeper, not at the cash desk;) The museum tells the story of Muynak, its traditions and industries:
Even though there are very few people left if compared to what it used to be, life goes on.
Faded placards also widespread all over the country show people how happy they are.
But are they?