This desert province in northwest Uzbekistan is in fact an autonomous republic. It is theoretically sovereign (with the exception of the right to secession), and political decisions impacting upon it are made jointly by the Uzbek government and the Karakalpak legislature in the republic's capital, Nukus.
If you’re attracted to desolation, you’ll love the Republic of Karakalpakstan. The Karakalpaks, who today number only about 400,000 of the republic’s 1.2 million population (there are almost as many Kazakhs), are a formerly nomadic and fishing people who are struggling to recapture a national identity after being collectivised or urbanised in Soviet times. The official language of the republic is Karakalpak and Uzbek.
The Karakalpak (Black Hat), whose ethnic umbrella gives the republic its raison d'etre, are a Turkic people whose language, traditions and clan structure have closer links to the Kazakh than the Uzbek and whose physiognomy owes more to the nomadic Mongol than to the settled Persian. Their ancestral heartland was traditionally centred upon the lower Volga and Syr Darya rivers and northern Aral, but towards the end of the 18th century the clans were gradually driven southwest into the Amu Darya delta by relentless Kazakh aggression. Their signed treaty of friendship with the ambassador of Peter the Great in 1722 meant little in these new lands and they were made reluctant and unruly subjects of the Khans of Kungrad and later Khiva, in 1827 a Karakalpak rebellion held the town of Kungrad for a time but it was bloodily suppressed by Khivan forces, in 1873 Karakalpak lands were ceded to Russia and rose restlessly under Soviet rule through the ranks of nationality from an autonomous oblast in the Kazakh republic (1925), to autonomy in the Russian Federation (1930), to an autonomous republic in its own right (1932), to an autonomous republic inside the Uzbek republic (1936).
In these dizzy days of ethnic assertiveness the republic's status is somewhat ambiguous, but practical autonomy stretches little further than a national flag, emblem and TV station. Approximately 30 per cent of the population are ethnic Karakalpak, 30 per cent Uzbek and 30 per cent Turkmen. Only 2 per cent are Russians, descended mainly from Cossack fishermen, and most of these are leaving.
Today the land is characterized by impending ecological disaster and entrenched popular islam, a heady mix of environmentalists and pilgrims and a tiny trickle of tourists.
The destruction of the Aral Sea has rendered Karakalpakstan one of Uzbekistan’s most depressed regions. The capital, Nukus, feels half deserted, and a drive into outlying areas reveals a region of dying towns and blighted landscapes. In a cruel irony, Karakalpaks have been forced in Soviet times to embrace the devil in the sense that cotton – the very crop that devastated the Aral Sea in the first place – is now one of the region’s main industries.
For all the indignities it has suffered, the Aral has been generous in defeat, yielding vast oil and gas reserves in its dried-up seabed.
There are two reasons to travel out into this Wild West of Uzbekistan: to bear witness to the environmental disaster that is the Aral Sea; and to wonder at how the incredible modern art collection of the Igor Savitsky Museum possibly made it out here.