The Republic of Karakalpakstan isn’t its own country, and of the various large subtractions and additions of territories to Uzbekistan done by the Soviet regime, this one is a bit of an odd fit. Karakalpaks look and sound far more like Kazakhs (that is, more Mongoloid) than Uzbeks, yet they belong to neither group — and even then, they only make up a third of the population of the republic, dwarfed by the number of Uzbeks and even maybe Kazakhs. And even if you consider the entire population of Karakalpakstan, regardless of ethnicity, it only forms 3% of Uzbekistan’s population, yet nearly half of its land mass.
Their own distinct culture, formerly nomadic, is on display at the Karakalpakstan Museum in the republican capital of Nukus, where Alexa, Cesar, and I stayed for both nights we were in the area. Again, their yurts, jewellery, and dress suggest relations far closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks. More interestingly though, this museum used to be named after the late Igor Savitsky, who moved here from Russia and amassed a collection of banned works during the Soviet era, when paintings of anything *but* realism, people with full bellies, and a “celebratory” mood were not allowed. At over 90,000 pieces, his is the second-largest Soviet art collection in the world (and sadly only a tiny fraction of which was on display) outside of Russia, and while seeing some abstract paintings drawn in cubist or surrealist styles might not sound so interesting, reading about the state of mind of the painters brought it into context. One painting of a dumpling, sadly not displayed, was rendered so plump and juicy… because the artist had been stuck in a gulag, so hungry that he painted what he wanted to eat. While I couldn’t take any pictures inside, it was well worth the visit, and I wish I had opted for a guide to hear more stories.
But what brings me to this area is what’s killed a primary mainstay of Karakalpak culture, their tradition of fishing. The town of Moynaq, 200 km north of Nukus, used to be a port city on the shores of the Aral Sea. It’s now 300 km from the water: the sea is disappearing. You’d have to scroll pretty far north on the map above just to find it!