Karakalpakstan – the stan within a stan

With a Karakalpak lady - header

What is Karakalpakstan?

Karakalpakstan is an autonomous region within Uzbekistan and occupies the whole north-western region of the country. The stan within a stan is populated by around 1.7 million people of which 400,000 are estimated to be of the Karakalpak ethnic group. The other major ethnicities include 400,000 Uzbeks and 300,000 Kazakhs.

Karakalpakstan is predominately desert and is one of the most inhospitable areas of Central Asia. This has only been compounded by the drying up of the once mighty Aral Sea (see below), upon which much of the local economy relied. The effects of this catastrophe has left Karakalpakstan as one of Uzbekistan’s poorest regions.

Karakalpak culture – 5 interesting facts

Karakalpak culture should be seen as a distinct entity and retains features which are not present in the rest of Uzbekistan.

– 1 –

Flag of Karakalpakstan

Flag of Karakalpakstan

Importantly, the Karakalpaks have retained a separate language which is closer in grammatical form to Tatar and Kazakh. There are two dialects of Karakalpak: Northeastern and Southwestern, and it was written in the Arabic and Persian script until 1928. Soviet attempts to adopt the Cyrillic script were generally successful and modern Uzbek attempts to revert to a Latin alphabet has proved to be stubbornly slow.

– 2 –

Karakalpak folklore is rich in legends, fairy tales and songs. The Karakalpak national epic, Forty Girls is a poetic tale about the Karakalpak struggle against foreign invaders. It tells the story of a chieftain’s daughter, Gulayym, who received a fortress as a gift and was allowed to train an army of forty girls to defend it. After the enemy’s attack, when male soldiers were unable to fight, the girl army managed to repel the offensive. There is also a love story involved between Gulayym and a Khorezm Hero, Aryslan.

We were very lucky to spend some time with our Karakalpak host who explained the story as we watched the ballet in the Karakalpak capital, Nukus. In the below short video you can see a brief fragment showing you the richness of traditional Karakalpak attire.

– 3 –

Perhaps the most shocking custom for visiting Europeans remains the persistence of bride kidnapping. In Karakalpakstan nearly one fifth of all marriages are conducted in this manner. In its worst cases it is predicated on abduction and force, often involving the woman being raped. The social stigma which is attached to a woman having sex out of wedlock results in familial pressure on the woman to accept the new circumstances. In other cases the abduction is the result of mutual dating and is agreed beforehand thereby avoided the prohibitive cost of the ceremony and bridal price (the process where the woman’s family must provide expenses for the daughter).

Karakalpak women

Ania with Karakalpak women

– 4 –

Cotton, or white gold, as it is known in Uzbekistan has been disastrous for the country as it was one of the prime motivations for the man-made Aral Sea disaster. However, it is fundamental to the economy accounting for as much as 17% of the national export and is grown throughout the region of Karakalpakstan. One of the more unpleasant products of this trade is the means by which it is gathered. Adults and schoolchildren alike are required to stop work or school for as much as two months of the year in order to head to the fields and collect it. It is arduous back-breaking work and although many of the younger people we spoke to had good memories of their time in the fields (well, they get to avoid school, right?) the adults knew that the use of forced labour was an abomination.

Nukus, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan

Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan

– 5 –

From the shocking to the ridiculous, we heard some very strange tales whilst travelling in the autonomous republic. What we found most curious was the pervasive fear of headaches and the ways to counteract them. Apparently, it is very important to sleep with your head facing the east. Why this would stop headaches we have no idea but for some it is a very serious issue indeed. Also, graveyards cause headaches allegedly because of the spirits that live there. The best cure we heard though was shockingly simple … All you need to do is look at the sun, say some magic words (2,5,6 in Russian: some words in Karakalpak: more Russian numbers) and hey presto, you are cured. We met somebody who had gone to take a special course in Kazakhstan for this magical formula. I bet the instructor was laughing all the way to the bank. Personally I would recommend drinking more water as I didn’t see anybody drinking a single cup all the time we were there.

With a Karakalpak lady

The Aral Sea disaster & the effect on nature

The salt covering the road sides is the first indication that something has gone terribly wrong in the area. The Aral Sea, once one of the four largest lakes in the world, has been shrinking since the 1960s and today is a mere 10% of its original size, leaving behind desertification on a mass scale and the destroying of nature and livelihoods on an unprecedented scale.

The causes are surprisingly simple, human stupidity. It was decided in the early 1960s, by the centrally planned Soviet government to divert the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, in order to irrigate the desert. It was done in the hope of growing rice, melons, cereals and above all cotton, and for a time it was “successful” in so much that by 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of ‘white gold’.

The benefits didn’t last for long though and the disastrous effect on the ecology, economy and society is plain for all to see today. The recession of the water has left huge plains covered in salt and toxic chemicals which are picked up by the winds and spread over a vast area. People in Karakalpakstan suffer from a lack of fresh water and increased rates of cancer, lung disease, child mortality and a host of other problems as a result. The local fishing industry, which once produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s fishing catch, has been wiped out with former fishing towns now ship graveyards, stranded many kilometres from the water’s edge.

All in all, a massive fuck up!

Aral Sea - ship graveyard. Photo by: Zhanat Kulenov, under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo, Wikipedia

Aral Sea – ship graveyard. Photo by: Zhanat Kulenov, under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo, Wikipedia

written by: Jon and Ania.


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