Nukus, Qaraqalpaqstan – desert capital, home to Savitsky Art Museum 2

Before visiting Nukus (by the way it’s pronounced No’kis, rather than Nookoose, as I first thought), the only information I had on the city was from my guidebook, which declared Nukus a desolate cultural wasteland.

Hardly a glowing review. But is it true?

Well, I ended up spending four months in Nukus, capital of the autonomous republic of Qaraqalpaqstan (a territory of Uzbekistan), and I can tell you that it is not desolate, nor a cultural wasteland. To the contrary, I found Nukus to be a charming city full of fascinating cultural attractions.

The Qyzylqum Desert

Desert surrounding Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Okay, so the surrounding landscape is a little desolate.

If you approach Nukus by car from Khiva, or fly in from Tashkent – and those are pretty much the only two ways to do it – then you’ll get a good feel for the arid plains that surround Nukus.

I know these types of environments aren’t to everyone’s liking, but they have a stark beauty that I really appreciate. They aren’t cluttered like alpine views, or overly precious like rainforest scenes. Just a simple, refined, austerity.

Anyway, once immersed in Nukus, you are barely conscious that the city is enveloped by desert.

Nukus State Art Museum (Savitsky Museum)

Savitski Museum, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Arthur White

The Savitsky Museum is such a stellar attraction it’s a crime more people don’t know of its existence. It’s a museum of such importance, containing art works of such merit, that you’d expect to find its like in Berlin or Vienna or New York. But here it is in Nukus.

Its founder, Igor Savitsky, a Russian artist born in 1915 in Kiev, spent much of the 1950s and 1960s tracking down Russian avant-garde art that was banned – for being decadent bourgeois art and counter-revolutionary – during the times of the Soviet Union. Savitsky brought the works here, to Nukus, due to the city’s isolation and remoteness; it was so far off the radar it was left alone by the party officials.

The artworks are extremely powerful, but unless you have a firm understanding of 20th Century Russian art, you won’t grasp what’s so momentous about these works without assistance. Make sure you have some form of guide when you go. Or there is a PBS documentary, called: Desert of Forbidden Art, which you might track down.

I urge everyone to go to Nukus, and visit this museum. The Savitsky Museum needs all the international support it can get.

Presidential Boulevard, Nukus

Presidential Boulevard, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Presidential Boulevard, the main road through Nukus, is lined by grand municipal buildings and large formal parks. The parks are full of leafy trees – unlike the surrounding desert – and, apart from the occasional wedding ceremony, devoid of people. It makes for a lovely stroll through town.

Nukus Mosque

Amu-darya with mosque, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Religion was banned during the times of the Soviet Union. In Uzbekistan, where the predominate religion was Islam, mosques were closed and in some cases destroyed.

Religion returned to the country following the demise of the USSR, but its uptake and practise has been subdued. These days mosques are few and far between, and many, like Nukus Mosque, appear empty most days of the week.

Nukus Canal

Amu-darya with castle, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The mighty Amu Darya (Amu River) – known in Victorian times as the Oxus – flows past Nukus during its 2,500km journey from the Hindu Kush mountains to the shrinking Aral Sea.

Nukus Canal is just a small offshoot of the Amu Darya. It and many other canals just like it divert water into the desert for cotton production and other agricultural purposes.

Nukus Bazaar

Slicing butter at the bazaar, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Slicing off a cube of butter at the bazaar. Photo credit: Arthur White

Okay, after the Savitsky Museum, Presidential Boulevard, Nukus Mosque, and Nukus Canal, there aren’t all that many tourist sites in Nukus. Make that none. But there are still plenty of nice things to do in town if you know where to look.

Nukus Bazaar, for instance, is a great spot to visit as a tourist.

Buying meat in the bazaar, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Buying meat at the butcher. Photo credit: Arthur White

The bazaar is where I did the majority of my shopping while living in Nukus. Ordinarily I despise grocery shopping, but I always came away from the bazaar feeling content. Buying your groceries from individual vendors is surprisingly gratifying. It’s only when you do this, that you realise how depressing it is buying all your victuals from faceless multinational corporations.

Socialist realism mosaics

Social realism mosaic, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Socialist realism artworks glorify the most praised values of socialism – that being the rise of the proletariat. It was the official art form of the Soviet Union. Artists that contravened the rules, regarding form and content, risked imprisonment (many of the risqué artworks that escaped the censors were salvaged years later by Savitsky).

Socialist realism artworks were prevalent across Central Asia during the times of the Soviet Union, and continue to be produced today. Nukus has many fine works.

My local shashlik restaurant

Backstreets, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Many of my Sunday evenings in Nukus were spent inside the local shashlik restaurant, which doubled as a bar/meeting place. The restaurant was housed within a typical, solid, mud-brick dwelling, with no outstanding features to alert you to its presence – you had to know it was a restaurant or you would walk straight past. It offered informal service, had plaster flaking off the walls, its chairs were old, mismatching, and broken; and the walls of each room were painted a different gaudy colour. In short, it was a typical hipster, shabby-chic cafe, but without the pretentious staff and bushranger beards.

A bottle of sugary Russian wine costs US$2. Can’t finish it? No problem, take the bottle home with you. No fuss. No silly rules. A 1L bottle of flat Russian beer costs $1.

And the shashlik…

Shashlyk, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Shashlik comes two ways: cubes of meat on a skewer, or minced meat on a skewer. The minced meat variety is generally tastier, but it comes with an increased risk of food poisoning due to its tendency to be undercooked (and meat is often stored in unsanitary fashion in Central Asia – as per the photo of the butcher above).

The meal comes with half a loaf of sliced bread, a plate of onion, and a bottle of vinegar. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is quite delicious.

Backstreets, Nukus, Uzbekistan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

And that wraps up my tour of Nukus, my home for four months of 2015.

It may not be the prettiest place in the world. It might be a little rough around the edges. It might be remote and harsh and hard. But remoteness and hardness can be virtues. As Igor Savitsky so effectively demonstrated.

Nukus isn’t a cultural wasteland, it’s a cultural vault.

Practical information and how to reach Nukus:

There are daily flights between Nukus and Tashkent. It’s a 2 hour flight if you score one of Uzbek Airway’s new planes, and a 3 hour flight if you fly in one of their old Iluyshins.

Nukus is also connected by rail; you can reach Tashkent by train (trip time varies from 18 to 24 hours) or Aktau in Kazakhstan (trip time is approx 24 hours with a transfer in Beyneu). More transport info here.

Or visit my crappy capital cities page.

More on Qaraqalpaqstan:

Chilpik – Zoroastrian Tower of the Dead

Kurgashin-Kala – Desert Fortress of Khorezm

Toprak Kala & Qyzyl Kala

Ayaz Kala – desert fortress times three

Posts on Uzbekistan:

Khiva – silk road city, desert oasis, hub for slave traders

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara – the magnificent Tower of Death

Sarmish-say – 4,000 petroglyphs in dramatic gorge setting

The Registan – masterpiece of the Timurid Empire?

Ulugh Beg Observatory – greatest astronomer in 1000 years?

Tashkent – world’s oldest Quran? capital of Russian Turkestan?

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