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 (it’s also home to about 400, 000 Uzbeks and 300, 000 Kazakhs), are a formerly nomadic and fishing people, first recorded in the 16th century. Today they are struggling to recapture a national identity after being collectivised or urbanised in Soviet times. Karakalpak, the official language of the republic, is Turkic, close to Kazakh and less so to Uzbek.
Karakalpakstan was probably at its most prosperous in the 1960s and ’70s when the fruits of expanded irrigation from the Amu-Darya were being felt. But today the destruction of the Aral Sea has rendered Karakalpakstan one of Uzbekistan’s most depressed regions. The capital, Nukus, gains Tashkent subsidies to keep itself a model city for the region, but a drive into outlying areas reveals a region of dying towns and blighted landscapes.
In a cruel irony, Karakalpaks have been forced 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. The government practice of sending children into the cotton fields is alive and well here, as any autumn jaunt into the Karakalpak countryside will prove.