Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #15 – from Nukus to Urgench

With Alliyar's dad, Nukus, Uzbekistan - header

Staying in Nukus: Karakalpaks, learning about Soviet avant-garde and going to the ballet

Our first Uzbek host was in fact a Karakalpak, an ethnic group that live in the north-west of Uzbekistan, and it was at Alliyar’s house in the suburbs of Nukus where we would spend our first few days in the new country. Alliyar was a nice guy who, like many Karakalpaks had some very strange believes but all of them inoffensive. He worked for Hyundai as an

Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #15 - from Nukus to Urgench: Karakalpak hospitality

Karakalpak hospitality

engineer which required him to live outside of Nukus on weekdays while returning to his family home every weekend. His family were extremely welcoming, plying us with as much food and tea as we could consume, but the spartan conditions at his house were a little trying at times. Especially, given just how cold it was and the outside toilet was a hole in the floor squared off with sheets. There is nothing comfortable about having a poo with icy cold air swirling around your bum, I can assure you.

Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #15 - from Nukus to Urgench: Nukus, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan


Nukus, like the toilet situation, is not pretty. Post-industrial, covered in salt from the Aral Sea catastrophe and lacking in sites and charm. The word desolate is perhaps a little strong but there is a pervasive crumbling, feeling of ex-Soviet grey that hangs over the place. My abiding memory of the place was a public toilet (why all my impressions revolve around toilets here is perhaps indictive of either the place or my state of mind at the time) where the toilets were separated by low slung walls with no doors and four men were all taking a shit, staring out, dragging on cigarettes.

Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #15 - from Nukus to Urgench: The Savitsky Museum, Nukus, Karakalpakstan, UzbekistanThe one attraction it does have is the Savitsky Museum, a Mecca for fans of Soviet Avant-Garde which was established in 1966. The collection is the legacy of the Russian painter, archeologist and collector, Igor Savitsky, who first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950 and fell in love with the place. In spite of the inherent risks of collecting art that was deemed by the authorities as un-Soviet (namely not of the Socialist Realism school), Savitsky’s passion for avant-garde painting motivated him to track down all manner of works by outlawed artists. He only got away with it because of the remoteness of Nukus, which was a closed city in Soviet times.

Not being massive art buffs, we must admit that the significance of the pieces passed us by a little and personally I found the story of the collection’s inception to be much more interesting that the art itself.

Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #15 - from Nukus to Urgench: Ballet Hall in Nukus, UzbekistanNukus also saw a first for us, we went to the ballet. I know, I know, cultured people like us had never been to the ballet before? Shocking! Seriously though, we must say that we enjoyed it immensely and it was much more engrossing than I thought it would. OK, it wasn’t the Bolshoi and it was strewn with tiny errors but I have nothing but respect for those souls who transported us away from the grim for a little over an hour. Check out a little sneaky video of the piece below:

Hitchhiking to Urgench: howling winds and successful lifts

It was good to be back in a country in which we could hitchhike again and it was with renewed spirit that we hit the road, thumbs outstretched.

We positioned ourselves on the edge of town with the aid of a taxi driver who took us further than the amount we were willing to pay. The first thing to say is how cold it was. It was biting, so cold that we lost the feeling in our fingers almost immediately, with winds howling and salt blowing, the very image of depression. The salt and the sand in the surrounding desert blew so hard that it was hard to walk in a straight line and only the weight of our luggage kept our feet on the ground.

We were scared that we would have to spend a long time in these conditions, so it was with great joy that the first car we stopped was heading to our next destination, Urgench. Two brothers, who had been driving all the way from St.Petersburg, where they lived and worked as barmen, in order to sell their car for a healthy profit in Uzbekistan. On route we observed the barrenness of Karakalpakstan and honestly, it felt good to move away from the region where it felt all hope had died.

After a brief stop at a mosque so they could pray we were very nearly in Urgench. We did get stopped by a police checkpoint and went through what was to be a regular occurrence in the country. Passports thumbed through, details taken and sent on our way but no drama of much description.

written by: Jon

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  • Zazdroszę tych miejsc :)

  • Uzbekistan, podobnie jak wszystkie WNP z tego regionu to największe ever marzenie! Wspaniale czytać wasze dobre doświadczenia.

  • I’m always impressed by the places to get to by thumb :)

  • Takie miejsca wciąż są dla mnie niedostępne i tylko mogę pomarzyć, aby w samotną podróż wybrać się do Uzbekistanu. Jednak kto wie, może kiedyś uda mi się je odwiedzić. Póki co nie pozostaje mi nic innego, jak tylko pozazdrościć wyjazdu!

  • I’ve always wanted to travel in that part of the world to see what it’s like. You painted a good picture of the living conditions. I’m sure the bathroom situation took a little getting used to. ;)

    • haha it did take a little while to get use to Laura, you’re right, especially when it was so cold. We can’t recommend visiting Uzbekistan enough though, it really is extremely diverse and beautiful.

  • You guys always have such impressive experiences and so different from every other traveler. This places looks very interesting in a fascinating but sad kind of way, I guess you cam across several places similar to it on your trips. The generosity and openness of the people never ceases to amaze me in your travels

    • Karakalpakstan was fascinating but it was a little depressing at the same time. People everywhere, in our experience, are nice – it is just a matter of going out there and exposing yourself a little. Glad you have found our trip interesting!

  • What an experience. Loved watching your 40 girls ballet video. What of the culinary highlights/best thing you tried/recommend?

  • We’ve lived in and explored most of Western Europe, but sadly haven’t ventured far into Eastern. However, I find the cultures fascinating and would love to get to experience them as well! For as seasoned travelers as we are, I can’t say we’ve ever hitch hiked and am not sure if I would in many places, but love hearing stories of those who do so fearlessly!

    • Hey Anna, firstly we can’t recommend hitchhiking enough as it is just the best way to travel if you are interesting in meeting local people and having some great experiences. Also, if you’re thinking of visiting Uzbekistan, simply, do it! Europe is of course brillant but Asia is a whole new world just waiting to be explored.

  • I realize how little I know of the Stan States reading your posts. This ballet dance is just mesmerizing. Thanks for sharing!

  • This post makes me realize we should hitch-hike more. We generally have our own transportation, usually a rental car, so we can get around in our own wishes however it’s not nearly as adventurous as they way you guys travel. Way to go!

  • I’m impressed… I didn’t realize you could get around so well by an outstretched thumb. Not sure it’s a destination I’d travel to but I love reading your descriptions.

  • I would love to get to the ballet, and I’m glad that it provided you with a bit of an escape from the grim outside for a while. Thanks for the sneaky video!

  • I would have never looked at Uzbekistan as a cool destination but this changes my mind! I love the “40 girls” ballet, great video. I could do without the hole in the ground bathroom. I need a little comfort and heat in that situation, haha!

    • Uzbekistan is definitely a destination worth considering! It has numerous beautiful and well-preserved old Silk Road cities and it is a culinary paradise in all of Central Asia. We were quite surprised as well, but Uzbekistan is a gem!