Nukus is a small, dusty desolate hellhole of a city on the west side of the country in the republic of Karakalpakstan. The people and culture are significantly different from others parts of Uzbekistan, more similar to Kazakhs than Uzbeks. The karalkalpaks also have a different language, a Turkic derivative that like the karalkalpaks is more Kazakh than Uzbek. We also immediately noticed the much less conservative dress of the women, with tight fitting jeans and tops and bare arms seemingly the norm out here.
Nukus itself is not much of a tourist town and is not really in any way a place that you’d want to visit except for one thing – they have an absolutely world class art museum. That was the only reason we traveled to the town.
Savitsky Art Museum
Its difficult to comprehend the backstory for how over 90,000 quality prices of art came to call the dusty streets of Nukus home – an self exiled Russian artist, Igor Savitsky, for decades amasses a wealth of artistic works and artifacts under the collective soviet nose. He is known to the soviets, but ignored given his home in this nothing of a town in this nothing part of the world. And he saves art that would have otherwise perished at the hands of the soviets, finds and preserves artists cutoff from and unknown to the wonder art world so that when the soviets fall, these things and these people can be known.
Savitsky had a love not only for his exiled artist contemporaries and the eclectic artistic community that gathered and painted in this colorful Uzbekistan, but also for the traditional arts of the karalkalpak, which he saw as unique and valuable and which he collected, thus preserving not only this art but also a part of a otherwise long departed culture and tradition. Both the artifacts and paintings are on display now in a large museum bearing his name, recently replacing the old decrepit house where he showed his collection to anyone who had any interest until his death in 1984. He predicted then that “one day people from Paris will be coming to see our museum” and even his colleagues laughed, but now the Parisians and many men re do come.
We visited the Savitsky Art Museum or Karakalpakstan Regional Art Museum; it took us nearly a full five hours the peruse the fraction of the collection on display. The museum boasts that it rotates the works on display so that visitors can come back and always see something new – not hard to imagine given the nearly 100,000 prices they have access to.
There were two floors of displays, the lower level focus sing mostly on karalkalpak traditional arts and a large exhibit of paintings and sculptures focusing on the devastated Aral sea while the upper level contained exclusively 20th century paintings and sculptures from the school of exiled Russian artists and what central Asians joined their ranks.
The artifacts on the lower floor were largely collected by Savitsky on archeological digs, as his original introduction to Uzbekistan was as an artist for an archaeological dig. Items range from pottery, coins, ossuaries dating back as far as 2000 BC to jewelry and textiles from the early 1900s AD. There was an extensive collection of jewelry and body decorations from Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan from the 19th century and its easy to see that the karalkalpak traditions are much closer to those of the Kazakhs or even the Turkmen than the Uzbeks.
The upper level houses only Russian art from the soviet era, some claimed from artists practicing underground in Russia itself but most from colorful conglomerate of exiled Russian and Uzbek artists that gathered in Samarkand and Bukhara. There were large collections of certain artists, like volkov, as Savitsky sometimes collected complete artist portfolios. The museum has also set up a small room dedicated to Savitsky himself, containing some of his quite fine landscapes dating back to his first visit to Uzbekistan on an archeological project in the 1920s.
Volkov is one of the featured artists, an entire room of his work leads off the upstairs display. There was s a small room of lysenko works, including his somewhat famous and controversial ‘The Bull’, which riled soviet censors as late as the 70s, a soviet inspector ordering the museum not to remove it from display. One of Angie’s favorites was ‘The Caravan’ (1929) by Tansykbayev.
The main bazaar in town became a frequent visit for us to exchange money, pick up miscellaneous items and food. We discovered a shashlyk hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was cheap and very tasty and we visited 3 times during our Nukus stay! At our third visit, they knew what we wanted and gave us extra bread. Even though we couldn’t communicate in words, we enjoyed the proprietors.
Jipek Joli B&B
Up till this point in our travel, the Jipek Joli was the nicest place we stayed. It was also the most costly (140000 som/night). However, the rooms were spacious and pleasant, very fast WiFi was available, and a decent breakfast was also included. The staff was friendly, however only a few spoke any English. We just had to make sure we addressed the correct staff member when we needed assistance. Overall, we were pleased with our stay there.
Train to Tashkent
From Nukus, we caught a long 22 hour train across the country back to Tashkent. We had upper and lower bunks on one side of a four-bunk compartment and found it very comfortable despite the age of the train (the soviets left it here, too). Each bunk came with a pad to soften the bed, a blanket, sheets, a pillow case, a pillow and a towel. It was really an easy, nice ride, especially while having one friendly, English speaking roommate and while the fourth passenger in our compartment spent most of the trip in another room with his family. The hot, boiling water available at the end of the train car is great for having tea or making instant noodle meals. The only real complaint we might list is that the train toilets were downright vulgar. One needs to be prepared with some AQtype of antibacterial gel as there is no soap or running water and also your own toilet paper, though this is not a surprise.