As part of our travel in Uzbekistan, we decided to add an Aral Sea tour to our visits of Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand. The shrinking of the Aral Sea is a known world crisis, and we felt it was essential to explore the region if we could.
During our visit the Aral Sea, we discovered that the Aral Sea basin is more than its sea. From the ancient history back to the Silk Road period, Khorezm and Karakalpakstan traditions, the fishing industry and cotton culture, things we had never heard of before!
Read on to learn more about the Aral Sea and the history around the region, as well as a breakdown of our 3-day Aral Sea tour.
Where is the Aral Sea?
The Aral Sea is in Central Asia, split between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek side lays in the Karakalpakstan autonomous region and is commonly referred to as the South Aral Sea. The Kazakh side is known as the North Aral Sea.
What Happened to the Aral Sea?
Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s. Why is the Aral Sea shrinking you might ask? Well, water from the Amu Darya River was diverted continuously for irrigation projects during the Soviet Era. The goal was to develop agriculture in the desert, with new fields of melons, rice, and cotton.
Cotton production doubled between 1960 and 2000 and put Uzbekistan as the world’s largest exporter of cotton in 1988. However, cotton is a crop that requires a lot of water, which led to the overuse of the river water and the shrinking Aral Sea.
Aral Sea Crisis
The thriving fishing industry of the Aral Sea basin disappeared with the drying up of the Aral Sea. Seaport like Muynak (Moynaq / Moinak) which employed until 30,000 people, is now about 100 km / 60 miles from the Aral Sea shores.
Beyond the impact on the Aral Sea fishing industry, the desertification of the Aral Sea basin creates dust storms. These storms carry salt across Central Asia and up to Europe, damaging crops and water sources, and creating health issues such as respiratory diseases.
Aral Sea Restoration
To reverse the Aral Sea drying up, the affected countries devised several projects.
Kazakhstan built its Aral Sea dam in 2005. Since its completion in 2008, the water level rose, and fish returned in the North Aral Sea.
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan engaged their efforts towards the Aral Sea Basin Programme in 1984. However, it appeared that a lack of commitments from the countries and increased water consumption from the local populations prevented the programme from being successful. One of the current plans in Uzbekistan includes planting specific bushes to limit the desertification.
Aral Sea Tour
Given that the Aral Sea is shrinking at a fast pace, around 1 meter / 3 feet a month, we decided to visit the region as part of our Uzbekistan trip. The Aral Sea basin is quite off-the-beaten-path, and the best option to visit it was to take an organized tour. We partnered with Advantour and left Nukus for a 3-day Aral Sea tour.
While the original interest of the Aral region was the sea, the area is rich in history, none the least being about the Silk Road. We learned so much about the Aral Sea, the population migration, up to the modern Republic of Karakalpakstan.
We flew from Tashkent to Nukus, but our plane left about two hours late. Our itinerary changed from the original plans to compensate for that delay.
Day 1: Nukus, Ustyurt Plateau, Barsakelmes Lake, Sudochie Lake, and Komsomolsk Settlement
After picking us at the airport in Nukus, our guide Kamol and driver Viktor drove us to a local hotel for registration. A must-do in Uzbekistan where all travelers have to register their stay and have a registration slip for every third night.
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan and known for its world-class Nukus Museum of Art. The name “Karakalpak” comes from two words: “qara” meaning black, and “qalpaq” meaning hat and is the home of the Karakalpaks, a Turkic ethnic group in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan.
Our driver took us through the Ustyurt Plateau, a stony desert that separates the Aral Sea from the Caspian Sea. The Plateau is also considered the border between Europe and Central Asia.
The long drive took us to the Barsakelmes Natural Saltpit, a large salt lake. Shades of blue, pink, and white define the area, which is being mined for its almost pure salt.
Our next step was Sudochie Lake. Once a freshwater lake, Sudochie Lake has been gradually getting shallower and saltier. People abandoned nearby villages, fish became less abundant, though some water input occasionally fills the lake and prevents the complete disappearance of fish and migrating birds. A few ancient lighthouses made of mud bricks and scattered along the old shores were used to help the fishermen find their way back. The Sudochie Lake was one of the highlights of the trip, as we arrived right in time for the sunset illuminating the thousands of small grass islands. The cold temperatures of the November month had frozen several patches of the lake, creating stunning reflections on the water. We loved these moments watching the sun slowly illuminating the lake of pink and red streaks.
We quickly headed to abandoned Russian and Polish settlements from the Stalin era. Due to our late morning departure, we had arrived at dusk and did not spend much time at this site. However, we could see the ruins of a hospital, houses, and an old Fish Factory. Today, one fishermen’s house is still standing, the sad remains of former glory.
The night was on us as we arrived at the Komsomolsk settlement, where we stayed in a local homestay. From mid-March to mid-November, the night is usually at the yurt camp by the Aral Sea. But these camps close for the Winter when the temperatures drop below freezing. Our night in the homestay was comfortable, a local Kazakh family that works in the gas plants that are now drilling the seabed of the dried Aral Sea.
Day 2: Komsomolsk Settlement, Kurgancha Kala Caravanserai Fortress, Kazakh Cemetery, and Moinak
We rose at 6 am to reach the Aral Sea at sunrise about one and a half hour away from the settlement. However, the heavy fog of the winter-like weather was obligating any visibility. Descending into the Aral Sea dried seabed, we finally reached the shore about two kilometers away. What a sober moment, when we realized with our own eyes the distance lost with the shrinking Aral Sea. Kamol pointed out the wet darkened section between the water and the dry land. The 9-m / 12-ft section was a recent shrinking section, only over 8 months. Not due to any tide, but real water loss. As my gaze stretched up to the original shore of this area, some two kilometers/ one mile away, the sad truth of the Aral Sea drying up couldn’t have been more apparent. Walking by the shore was heartbreaking, stepping over hundred of dead seashells.
A long day ahead of us until Muynak, we drove next to the ancient Kurgancha Kala, a 10 to 12th-century caravanserai and fortress from the Great Silk Road period. Even though the fog was still persistent and limited the views around the ruins, standing over the old structure gave me goosebumps. Picturing merchands and armed guards, camels loaded with silk and spices, the sounds, the smell, the colors back during the Silk Road time was such a thrill.
We pursued our day drive through the Ustyurt Plateau and passed along several Kazakh cemeteries from the 16-17th centuries. These Kazakh families left the famine in Kazakhstan in search of better living conditions. Arriving in the desert conditions of the Aral Sea, the conditions were not that much better, and many died along the way. Kamol pointed out the different headstone designs, here a circle, there an arrow. Each family had its cemetery, and each clan their designs. Two pillar headstones were written in Arabic, the script used in Uzbekistan until the Russians arrived in 1920.
Leaving the Ustyurt Plateau behind us, we drove into the actual Aral Sea bed for about four hours. A rough drive where our driver Viktor showed off once again his knowledge of the land. Without any actual map, road signs, or GPS, Viktor knew precisely where to turn. He pointed out his head as his GPS, and we genuinely believe he was a walking GPS!
We reached our guesthouse in Muynak (Moinak) around 4 pm, under a beautiful blue sky. Tired after the long day, we warmed ourselves around a hot pot of tea, fresh bread, and sweet cherries. We dined off a traditional Beshbarmak, one of the famous Uzbek cuisine. A lovely room, comfortable bed, and heavy blankets were perfect conditions to recover from the early morning rise.
Day 3. Moinak, Mizdakhan, Gaur Kala, and Nukus
Another foggy morning awaited us, and we decided to visit the local museum first, hoping the weather might clear up before the Cemetery of Ships.
The Regional History and the Aral Sea Museum is a small local museum featuring culture elements of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is the modern state of the ancient Khorezm empire. Covering the ancient culture of nomadic fishermen to the fishing industry of the early 20th-century, to the current Aral Sea environmental crisis, the small exhibitions and video provide interesting Aral Sea facts. One of the most striking elements is an Aral Sea map, showing the Aral Sea before and after comparisons over the years since 1960.
The fog hadn’t burned by the time we reached the Cemetery of Ships, but the visit of the site is a must-do while in the Aral Sea. Where a busy fishing port used to stand there, only 11 rusty abandoned ships now sit on sandy grounds, about 40 meters / 130 feet below its former shores. Where sea and marine life used to thrive, just sand and dry brushes now occupy the area. Walking among the old Aral Sea ships was again a sobering experience. Two of the larger boats are somewhat further aside, laying on their hulls, surrounded by dunes, a sad substitute to the original waves.
Along the drive back towards Nukus, we made the last stop at the Mizdakhan Necropolis, a 4th-century BC to 20th-century AD cemetery. First an important site for the Fire Temple of the Zoroastrians from the 4th century BC, Mizdakhan became revered for Muslims in Central Asia. The nearby city, Nukus, actually means “the land of the pilgrims.” Several impressive mausoleums, ruins of a mosque, and tombs stand spread over the three hills that composed the necropolis. Mizdakhan was another highlight of this Aral Sea tour, totally unexpected and totally incredible.
The plan was to end the tour with the 4th- century Gyaur-Kala fortress. However, the muddy terrain to the fort and the fact that some local genius put broken glass over the one passable road, prevented us from visiting the remains.
We returned to Nukus, stopping at the hotel to pick up our registration slips. That concluded our trip, where we thanked Kamol and Viktor for their in-depth knowledge of the culture and area.
Best Time to Visit Uzbekistan Aral Sea
Spring and autumn (April – May, and September – November) are the best seasons to travel to Uzbekistan. Summer can be scorching hot, and winter incredibly cold due to strong freezing winds.
The Aral Sea follows the same weather patterns, with more extreme. The desert landscape makes the summer months even hotter, and the winter winds in negative temperatures will freeze you throughout unless you wear thick and insulated winter clothes. Winter can also bring thick fog in the morning, though afternoons can be sunny and clear.
In Spring, the desert blooms with flowers, covering the grounds in red, yellow, orange and more colors. In late Summer (September), the waters of the Aral Sea are warm enough to float on the shrinking sea. Until October, the region sees livestock grazing the desert plants: cows, camels, donkeys, horses.
How to Organize Your Aral Sea Tour
Independently or Organized Tour?
You can explore the Aral Sea by yourself, well, up to a point. While we are independent travelers at heart, we do appreciate the advantages of tours organized for us, when transportation is non-existent. The Aral Sea is one of these occasions.
- Take a shared taxi from Nukus to Muynak. These cars leave from 9 am, 12 pm, and 3 pm. They tend to be crowded. The return taxis leave Muynak from 6 am, 9 am, and 12 pm noon.
- Try to find a taxi from Muynak that could take you up to the Aral Sea shore. This ride is long and requires someone that knows the way through the Aral Sea seabed and Ustyurt Plateau.
- In addition to finding the way, knowing where to find the sites and what they mean is essential, as they are no information, no indication anywhere
- Costs: From what we gathered, it costs already US$500 to rent a car with a driver. The reason about the costs? There is about 900 km between Muynak and the Aral Sea shore. Add the costs for the driver’s food and lodging, and the extra costs for the fuel. A guide will cost around US$40/day, and will also require additional costs for food and lodging.
Account from US$350 and up per person per day, depending on the duration of the trip, and how many people share the car.
When you put together the costs of traveling independently, the costs of an organized tour makes sense. For us, the positive benefit of a tour was a knowledgeable guide that could explain what we were seeing. The Aral Sea is not very well known destination, and information can be hard to find. A local guide that is an expert in the local history is a must for the Aral Sea.
Advantour, Central Asia Expert
Among all the guides we ever met, Kamol was by far the most knowledgeable. No question was left unanswered, no detail small enough. We would have enjoyed the sites and history of the Aral Sea basin without him and would have never learned so much about Karakalpakstan and ancient Khorezm – names we never even heard before meeting Kamol.
As for Viktor, besides his extensive familiarity of the terrain, Viktor even slept in the car one night, worried the freezing temperatures might prevent him from starting the car in time for the sunrise the next day. If that’s not dedication to provide the best experience to their customers, I don’t know what is.
So it will come as no surprise that we recommend Advantour for exploring the Aral Sea and Uzbekistan in general. The company, created in 2003, even has offices across Central Asia and the Caucasus, where they can organize small group tours to explore cities and countries along the ancient Silk Road.
Aral Sea Travel Tips
- Be prepared for long days and hours on the road. The distance is about a 900-km / 560-miles return journey.
- Go with a reputable tour operator as there is no road sign, no signal in the Aral Sea basin. A well-maintained vehicle is important. Working A/C in summer, and heat in winter, are essential.
- A guide that knows the history of the Aral Sea basin, the Khorezm traditions, and Karakalpakstan culture is a must.
- The temperatures are more extreme than in the rest of Uzbekistan. Colder or hotter – dress accordingly. The winds are fierce, adding to the winter chills.
This tour was in partnership with Advantour. However, our opinion is our own and is not impacted by this connection. Thank you Advantour for the opportunity of working together.
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