I love traveling and seeing new places and after over 25 years of living abroad, it is rare that I go to a place I’ve never heard of. Over our Spring Break last week, we traveled to the far western part of Uzbekistan, to an autonomous region called the Republic of Karakalpakstan. It took our traveling party a couple of days to learn to say it. Kara-kalpak – stan means “black” “hats” “people” “land of”. The name derives from the Central Asian hat made of the Qaraqul breed of sheep. An “autonomous region” is analogous to a state or province so it is not a separate country. However, the Karakalpaks have their own flag, their own language and they do have the right to vote for secession. The Karakalpaks are a traditional Turkic nomadic ethnic group of fishermen, herders and farmers. The language is more similar to Kazakh and Uzbek and they look more Mongol/Kazakh than the Uzbeks. In the few words I learned, Karakalpak differs from Uzbek/Kazakh like Catalan is to Spanish, slight differences of spelling and pronunciation and spelling, but similar structure. Karakalpakstan was part of the Khanate of Khiva and became an autonomous republic under the Russians and Soviets. It is historically known as Khwarezm and was controlled by the Persians before Alexander the Great conquered it. For milennia, the Karakalpaks survived off irrigation and fishing from the Amu Dayra.
The capital of Karakalpakstan is the city of Nukus. It felt rough-edged in the middle of a vast desert. The Uzbek government has put money into the infrastructure and in the city center, there are new apartment buildings with retail shops on the ground floor, new roads, a big mosque and nice promenade along one of the many canals leading off the Oxus River (Amu Dayra).
Our tour guide, Aydos, took us to the village of Shimbay for a day of experiencing Karakalpak culture. The tour company as with many businesses in Uzbekistan is new and is developing tourism in the region. The Shimbay villagers were excited for the novelty of foreigners and provided us a fascinating day. They were as curious about us as we were of them. No jaded locals, tired of the throngs of tourists in Karakalpakstan! I put together a video of our experiences. It really hit home for me the socio-economic levels in the region. All of the homes were clean and well-maintained, but every house had an outhouse (long-drop) and there were lots of livestock in the back yards of the homes. It reminded me of the stories my mother told me of her childhood in Michigan. Her grandparents came to America from Finland at the turn of the century and when she was born in 1940, the family still had a cow and outhouse.
The highlights included listening to Karakalpak folksongs played on a traditional, two-stringed guitar, the colorful women’s dresses and building a yurt. We got to see how yurts are assembled from Black Poplar branches, one of the few trees that grows in this dry region in riverine habitats. I also loved the bread ovens and like many Central Asia peoples, they’ve had a long time cooking with wheat and know bread! The menu included a hearty turkey stew, hot bread, fresh off the sides of the adobe oven and mixed salads.
The people of Shimbay were obviously proud of their Karakalpak heritage and we were honored to spend the day with them. The village had a real community feel, something that is lost in more affluent, modern societies. Humans yearn for connection and that is something we can learn from.