Moynaq: The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea

The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea


It was a long, dusty road to Moynaq.

The battered old Soviet-era car I was travelling in spluttered along the rough track that led from the train station of Kungrad in Uzbekistan’s isolated and vast far western province of Karakalpakstan to the remote town of Moynaq.

All I could see out of the window were endless rocks, sand and sparse vegetation.

Karakalpakstan is Uzbekistan’s largest province, but there is little here, and there was little to see out of the window.

It wasn’t always this way though.

Moynaq, the crumbling desert town I was travelling too was once a thriving fishing port on the Aral Sea. Now, it is simply a despondent memorial to the folly of the Soviets. It’s a place where old fishermen struggle to make ends meet, where fish canning factories have stood silent for decades and where the rusting ships of the Aral Sea have now found their final resting place.

After the long ride through an empty land, I reached Moynaq. The old car dropped off the passengers I’d been sat with, making a quick round of the battered and dilapidated houses that constitute the town. On the way in, we’d passed a sign marking the fish canning factory. There was little left to see. There is little left of Moynaq at all really.

The driver asked me where I wanted to go in broken English mixed with broken Russian. Eventually, we understood each other, and he drove me to the dusty outskirts of town, where the desert sands stretch endlessly into the distance.

This was the edge of the Aral Sea, once one of the largest inland water systems in the world- until the Soviets decided to reroute the rivers that fed this huge body of water for irrigation projects further afield within the Union.

Since the 1960’s the Aral Sea has simply kept declining in size. The water is now miles away from the shores where I was standing now. The population of Moynaq has declined and the economy here has yet to recover.

All I could do was look out over the vast sandy basin before me and count the few remaining ships in the sand that had been lined up as rusting reminders of the human-made disaster that has irrevocably changed the landscape of the Aral Sea and the lives of the people who live here.

It was an experience that humbled me to the core, something I’d felt in few places on my travels across the world before. To hear of the environmental change, to see it on the news or read about it online is one thing, but to actually see the visible, tangible effects of environmental change is another thing entirely. This was an experience that really brings home the drastic, damaging effect that humans can have not just on places like the Aral Sea, but on the fellow people that call this home, and I believe that people in places like Moynaq who struggle to get by after the decline of their fishing grounds, need more visitors to raise awareness of both their hardships and the decline of the Aral Sea.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Moynaq The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea - Aral Sea shipwrecks 2

Aral Sea shipwrecks

WSE Travel - Moynaq The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea - Aral Sea shipwrecks

Aral Sea shipwrecks

WSE Travel - Moynaq The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea - The dried up Aral Sea

The dried up Aral Sea

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GO – Getting There

Moynaq is a long, long way from anywhere, in the far western Uzbek province of Karakalpakstan. The nearest train stations and cities of interest are Kungrad or Nukus. I travelled down from Kazakhstan, from Aktau to Kungrad by train, a journey of 24 hours, before finding a share taxi in the morning which travelled the last few hours to Moynaq. From Moynaq I managed to find a share taxi going to Nukus, a journey of around 3 hours where I shared a seat with a goat, from where I carried on my journey along the Silk Road towards Tashkent. In either Nukus or Kungrad, it can be difficult finding transport to Moynaq, it is sporadic at best, and returning is even more difficult. Tours occasionally run here in 4×4 from other Uzbek cities, but these do not come cheap.

WSE Travel - Moynaq The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea - Map

Moynaq The Rusting Ships Of The Aral Sea – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Moynaq is not really a destination where there are things to do as such. It is a destination to experience the effects of the Soviet Union’s policies on real people, to feel the real remoteness of their position now in comparison to only a few decades ago.

There is a memorial on the edge of town, where it is best to start. From here you can see the last of the Aral Sea fishing vessels that were not sold for scrap, and now form a rusting memorial in the sand. There might not be much to do, but it is a humbling experience.

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Stay – Accommodation

Most businesses in Moynaq have over the years slowly closed down, including any hotels and even homestays. It may be possible to arrange a stay with a local family if you can speak Russian or Uzbek, or have a translator, but don’t count on this. Instead, it is best to travel to Moynaq on a day trip from Nukus, or from Kungrad via Moynaq to Nukus (or vice versa). In Nukus, there are a few hotel options, the pick of which is the Jipek Joli, which offers good rooms at affordable prices and can help arrange transport- vital in these parts!

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Eat – Restaurants

Just as the hotels closed, so too did the restaurants. There are few eateries in Moynaq, all I saw when travelling through was a local grocery shop which also seemed to act as a local tavern and pick up point for share taxis. You are best getting supplies in Nukus or Kungrad.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Moynaq is now part of a desert. That means the summer months are scorching hot and the winter can be freezing. The best time to visit is either autumn or spring, when the temperatures are just about right, although still, expect it to be dry, bright and dusty.

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Safety – Possible risks

Uzbekistan is an incredibly safe country for tourists to visit, however, the only place I ever felt like I was intruding on local lives, and that I wasn’t so welcome, was in Moynaq. The people have suffered and continue to suffer a lot because of the Aral Sea Disaster, and they are not all that keen on tourists dashing and photographing their misery, so just be wary of who you photograph, always ask permission, and try to show good intentions when visiting. The world doesn’t necessarily know that much about places like Moynaq, and I believe the benefits of seeing a place like this first hand outweigh the negatives, but always make your own moral decisions. It is not the sort of place to visit on a whim.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

The local currency is the Uzbek Som, but in Moynaq, there will be no ATMs, no money changers, no markets etc. To get in and out of the town in a share taxi will cost 3 or 4 USD each way, perhaps more- it depends on your bartering skills. Once there, to get to the ships, you will need to tip the driver a few more dollars too!

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

As already noted, Moynaq is the site of a human-made disaster. The people here lost a lot, and recovery has yet to really appear. Any money you can contribute to the local economy will go a long way to help them back on their feet, but in Moynaq itself, there, unfortunately, might not be too much opportunity to do so. I wish I had paid more money to have a guide take me across from Nukus or Kungrad, so I could speak to the local people in more detail about their situation, and not have them feel so much that I was just dashing in and out taking photographs. This is your choice of course, but a bit of extra effort could go a long way.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Uzbekistan is still an emerging tourist destination, and until recently visas were hard to acquire and travel here was difficult. Things are slowly changing in other parts of the country, but Moynaq remains a very off the beaten track place in an off the beaten track country. Travel to Moynaq is not an easy undertaking. It is remote, and it is difficult to arrange transport. Travelling here though is rewarding for its own sake, and for the humbling experience of seeing the Aral Sea and Moynaq first hand.

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!

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