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Muynak (Moynak) and the Aral Sea

Muynak history

Muynak (Moynak) (Moynak means “strake” or “shallow” in the Kazakh language) is a town located in the Karakalpakistan region.

Half a century ago, Muynak was a thriving port with a fleet of fishing schooners, a three-shift cannery, sanatoriums, mud baths, and a multinational population of tens of thousands. Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, Russians, Old Believers Cossacks, Koreans, Chechens, and Kalmyks lived here. The town was the cradle of the Karakalpak culture, where the poet Berdakh and a whole galaxy of local scientists and intellectuals were born. Nowadays it has approximately 13 500 inhabitants.

Muynak, the neighboring port of Kazakhdarya and Kazakhstan’s Aralsk lived off the Aral Sea, the world’s fourth-largest lake with an area of ​​60,000 square kilometers – slightly smaller than Sri Lanka and slightly larger than Ireland. The Aral was shallow, full of islands (the word “Aral” means “island”). It used to get the water from the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers, which carried more water than the Egyptian Nile. During 70 years under Soviet Russia, both rivers’ waters deviated to deserts with an aim to grow cotton. Thus, this ecological disaster came up!

Near Muynak, there were numerous fish state farms and fur farms, where fur-bearing waterfowl were raised: muskrat and nutria. The Tashkent-Moscow railway ran along the very edge of the sea, and the trains almost touched the water with their wheels.

Due to its geographical isolation, the Aral Sea region, including the Khorezm oasis and covered with river channels and lakes, the Amu Darya delta overgrown with tugai thickets, was a habitat for a huge number of rare or endemic species of flora and fauna, including the Turanian tiger and the Central Asian hyena, and their density was close to the tropical jungle.

More than 42 species of fish lived in the sea and the rivers flowing into it, some were endemic, such as the Amudarya pseudo-shovelnose (sturgeon fish nicknamed “mousetail”, which the Muslims did not eat because of its long and thin tail) and the Aral barbel, and some, for example, silver carp, flounder and grass carp were artificially added.


Muynak today

In recent years, however, two new sources of income have appeared in Muynak. Several foreign companies are actively searching for natural gas and oil on the former bottom of the Aral Sea and on the Ustyurt plateau, hiring Muynak residents for ancillary work. In 2004, Russian “Gazprom” resumed gas production at the “Shakhpakhty” field discovered during the Soviet era in the Kungrad region and is drilling at several promising areas.

In 2010, a consortium that included the Russian “Lukoil” and the Chinese “CNPC” found promising deposits on the exposed bottom of the Aral Sea. Reconnaissance stations are scattered along the seabed.

The second source of income is a tiny crustacean/plankton called Artemia subspecies Artemia salina, which was introduced to the sea due to its resistance to the extremely high salt content in the water. This crustacean is the last inhabitant of the Aral Sea and the most valuable complementary food for fry on fish farms and it is one of the main ingredients of cosmetology creams. Thus, in the last two years several companies, including the Chinese Yema Group, have begun harvesting and exporting brine shrimp eggs.

These companies employ several brigades of Muynak people, who, on a rotational basis, travel to the coast of a saber-shaped fragment of the sea about 200 kilometers from Muynak. The brigades settle in tents and yurts on the shores of the Aral bays, where the wind blows especially a lot of brine shrimp, and wash the crustaceans in small pools.

In September 2019 by the initiative of the Uzbekistan President to restore the former status of Muynak, a state unitary enterprise “Muynok aqua sanoat” was launched. The cost of the enterprise was 20 billion soums. It will be able to process 4,000 tons of fish per year, produce 200 tons of smoked fish, 780 tons of minced meat, 400 tons of fillets, 9 million pieces of canned food. Thus, the enterprise created almost 60 job places. Currently, fish is imported from Russia. But from next year the enterprise will have its own fish in their being-built pools.

Muynak tourism / Tourism in Muynak

A visit to Muynak is really adrenalin for travelers because they experience the eco-disaster, traditional life of shepherds (staying in yurts, drinking camel’s milk…), real canyons, wildlife, etc…

Off-road tourism, disaster tourism, ethnography tourism, CBT tourism, bird watching tourism, and similar types of tourism are developing in this region.

One of the most popular draws of Muynak is the ship’s cemetery beyond the lighthouse. Many boats that had once been moored at the dock sink into the desert, their rusted hulks are overgrown by desert plants, and wind and sand eroded away-indicating the eco-disaster of the Aral Sea. You can visit the Muynak museum and get information about its bright history.

You can drive through the trail of the Silk Road and reach to Sudochie lake where once Urga settlement (a prison settlement, here lived German, Polish, and Russian prisoners during 1930-1954 years), specialized in fishing, bloomed. There is a light tower (AD XVII century), the remotest village of Uzbekistan – “Qibla Ustyurt village” (where the real nomadic shepherd people of Uzbekistan live).

During the trip, you can get acquainted with local people’s life, shoot photos of local people and camels, drink camel’s milk (called “shabat” in the local language), visit Nomadic tribes’ cemeteries of XVIII centuries with different geometric figures on their gravestones, reach, in the end, to the shore of the shrinking Aral Sea to swim in its salty water and find pleasure with the accommodation of comfortable yurts and have meals cooked on desert wood-Saksavul or scientific name – Haloxylon.