Khiva to Aral Sea Daytrip

The Khiva to Aral Sea Day trip was a highlight of our visit to Khiva, an ancient city in north-western Uzbekistan.

A great sightseeing option is to join a private one-day tour to the Aral Sea ship cemetery. The tour I decided to take was budget-friendly, included stops at many diverse locations on the way to the Aral Sea, and only requires the visitor to have a general level of fitness.

These ancient Uzbek cities also formed important trading hubs on the famous Silk Road route: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. For modern-day travel tips, be sure to read up on our Practical Uzbekistan Travel Tips and Guide.

Khiva to Aral Sea Ship Cemetery: Map of the Daytrip Stops:

Khiva to Aral Sea Ship Cemetery: Trip Planning

When we were in Khiva, I was floating the idea of a day trip to the Aral Sea ship cemetery but not really knowing how I was going to achieve this. I met a fellow tourist in Bukhara who could not recommend Islambek Travel highly enough and especially the Khiva to Aral Sea day trip.

With Islambek Travel being located within Ichan Kala, the walled inner town of the Khiva city, it’s easy to find the travel agency, located at the Islambek Hotel and speak face-to-face with Murad, the owner. He made the whole experience so easy, by stepping through the whole trip with clear explanations. All you have to do then is relax and enjoy the trip.

(Note: we have NO affiliation with Islambek Travel).

Rusted ships on the desert sand of a sea bed on the Khiva to Aral Sea drive

The ‘Aral Sea Ship Cemetery’ – My highlight of the Khiva to Aral Sea Daytrip

Islambek Travel offers year-round excursions and has different options to suit your schedule. A good thing is that the price is fixed for the trip and includes a car with driver. In other words, the more people that fill the seats, the less you pay. The ‘Day Trip to Muynak Cemetery’ cost me USD $32.50 (approx. 325,000 SOM which is the local Uzbek currency). A bargain in my books! And, this trip also included stops at:

  • Muynak Museum
  • Savitsky Art Museum
  • Mizdakhan 
  • Chylpik Kala.

You will need to pay for your own museum entry fees and food.

Pickup was organised for 06.30am so we hit the road just before sunrise. There was a long day ahead. Little did I know that it would be 16 hours later before we returned to Khiva Itchan Kala.

Khiva to Aral Sea Trip

Stop 1 – Chilpik Kala (Shılpıq – Uzbek spelling, Chilpyk – Russian spelling)

Chilpik Kala is a three-hour drive north of Khiva and overlooks the Amu Darya River. This round fortress-like structure with mud walls is built on a small hillock and makes for an impressionable sight on the barren plains around it. It is thought that this site was an ancient tower of silence (a royal dahkma), built by the Zoroastrian priesthood. Zoroastrian faith dates back thousands of years. This faith demands that the dead do not pollute fire, water, earth or air so they lay the bodies of the dead to lie on raised platforms to be stripped of flesh by birds. The bodies are then dried in the sun. This is considered a purification process.

Round fortress-like earthen structure rising up from a barren landscape

Chilpik Kala – a distinctive sight

The undulating ground inside the round earthern fortress

Inside Chilpik Kala

A dusty road winds it way from the highway to the base of the Chilpik Kala. Nearby is a modern looking yurt camp and concrete steps that lead you up to the side of the structure. From the top of the stairs, a deeply rutted worn section of the wall provides a steep but short clamber to the open rooftop of Chilpik Kala.

The rooftop is well weathered, roughly 50m in diameter, leaving no indication of how the structure might have looked in its earlier times. A lone triangulated flagpole stands vigilant, with multi-coloured pieces of cloth wrapped around it. A tribute to the souls that once walked this earth along with a hope for a wish to come true.

View of a blue river and green plains from the top of an earthern wall

View overlooking Amu Darya river from Chilpik Kala

Desert landscape seen from high earthern walls

Contrasting desert landscape seen from Chilpik Kala

Beautiful contrasting landscapes come into view. To the west, the splendour of the fertile lands of the Amu Darya River. Whilst to the east, a dry, flat, desert terrain is punctuated by small hillocks. You may even see pigeons circling Chilpik Kala, as they have taken to roosting in the crevices of the mud walls.

Thirty minutes to an hour is about enough time to absorb it all.

It’s all free here.

Karakalpakstan national emblem with Chilpik Kala and Amu Darya river

Karakalpakstan national emblem with Chilpik Kala and Amu Darya river

An interesting point is that Chilpik Kala still holds great significance in Karakalpakstan, appearing beside Amu Darya (the nearby river), on the emblem of the Karakalpakstan national flag.

Stop 2 – Nukus Art Museum and Savitsky Collection

Fifty kilometres away in Nukus, is the Nukus Art Museum otherwise known as the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. It is home to the prized Savitsky collection of Russian avant-garde art founded single-handedly in the 1960s’ by Igor Savitsky. He was a Russian archaeologist and art collector who coveted more than 90,000 pieces of art and artefacts from Soviet censorship. Today, it is heralded as one of the finest collections of Soviet avant-garde art in the world.

Nukus Art Museum building facade

Nukus Art Museum building facade

Due to the many pieces of artwork on display, a second building with its own admission fee is in use. I chose to enter the main museum with the most famous pieces of work after a recommendation from one of the museum staff. I paid extra for taking photos but this was only for cameras on mobile phones. Handheld SLR and Mirrorless type cameras are not allowed in the museum itself. However, they can be secured in a locker close by the museum entrance. Video taking is not allowed.

A Museum houses displaying artworks and antiquities

The Nukus Art Museum houses many artworks and antiquities

The marble stairwells and floors give the museum a grand appearance. Inside the museum, artefacts from different parts of Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa adorn the walls and cabinets along with a dazzling display of avant-garde art. I spent about one and a half-hour at the museum.

Click this link for more information on the Nukus Art Museum.

COST: The ticket cost for the main building is 48, 000 SOM (approx. USD $4.80) whilst parting with 72, 000 SOM (approx. USD $7.20) will grant you access to both buildings.

As fate would have it, and unbeknownst to me, Uzbekistan Television was filming outside the museum on the day of my visit. I was interviewed and asked what I thought of Uzbekistan, the people and my trip in general. There were smiles all round when I conveyed that all three were amazing.

The Uzbekistan National News team featuring me outside the Nukus Art Museum

I was interviewed by the Uzbekistan National News team outside the Nukus Art Museum

Stop 3 – Mizdakhan Necropolis

Just 22 kilometres away from Nukus lies the Mizdakhan Necropolis (cemetery), just south of the modern city of Khodjeyli. If ever there was a place that felt sad and lonely then this place is it. From the entrance, it looks like a smallish area but upon cresting the hill in front, the sight of the undulating landscape of four hills filled with thousands upon thousands of graves just stops you in your tracks.

Mizdakhan Necropolis with its many cramped fenced graves

Mizdakhan Necropolis is thousands of years old

Aside from wandering and observing the many graves, some of the interesting attractions that should be seen here are:

Mausoleum of Muzlum-Sulu-Khan

From the outside, this 14th-century mausoleum looks like a rather plain uninteresting brick-like structure as only the dome and arched entrance are visible. The beauty lies within. 

Earthen brick entrance to an underground mausoleum

The rather non-descript entrance to the Mausoleum of Muzlum- Sulu-Khan 

Descending the stairs, you’ll see the walls are all filled with small blue coloured tiles embedded into the mud-brick walls. The internal octahedral vaults house two gauze covered coffins with domes resplendent in azure coloured tiles and latticed windows.

Mausoleum interior showing arches and blue tiles

Mausoleum interior

Blue tiled dome interior of a mausoleum

Exquisite mausoleum dome interior

Ornate mausoleum with green/blue mosaics

Ornate mausoleum mosaics

Hillock of Jumart Qassap

This small 5-metre-high burial mound has supposedly been built over the grave of Saint Jumart. Ancient belief has it that a woman can be cured of sterility by tumbling down the slope 7 times.

Earthen hill burial mound within Mizdakhan Necropolis

Jumart Qassap hillock

Erejep Caliph Mausoleum

This huge structure dominates the local area with its 3 high walls and partly visible dome. It is an impressive and imposing structure. It dates back to the 9th-century, and according to legend, it is the burial place of an Islamic saint who preached in the area. Interestingly, it has a cane base to make it earthquake resistant.

Erejep Caliph Mausoleum earthen brick ruins

Erejep Caliph Mausoleum ruins

Mausoleum of Shamun-Nabi

Saint Shamun was apparently able to heal the sick, talk to the animals and even control the weather. No wonder he was revered. His 18th– century mausoleum differs from others in that it houses a tomb that is over 25 metres in length. Interestingly, when his tomb was opened by archaeologists, there were no remains inside.

A 25m long tomb shrouded in cloth

Saint Shamun’s 25m long tomb

Next to Mizdakhan Necropolis, are the remains of the 4th-century BC Gyaur-Kala fortress, not far from the Great Silk Road. It is one of the oldest and one of the most visited pilgrimage sites dating back to the time of the advent of the Zoroastrians.

There is a fair amount of walking to be done if you want to wander, and I spent an easy 1.5 hours here.

It is free to enter and visit, although one local wanted money for a personalized tour by himself. We declined. He then asked for money to walk by the necropolis but instead, we voluntarily donated to the drop boxes near the mausoleums.

Stop 4 – Muynak History Museum

Passing through the city of Muynak in northern Karalkapakstan, some 185 kilometres from the Mizdakhan Necropolis, brings you to the rather scantily stocked Muynak History Museum.

Colourful road sign on the way to Moynaq (Muynak)

Road sign on the way to Moynaq (Muynak)

Museum building entrance

Muynak museum entrance

The museum consists of a small semi-circular internal hallway adorned with paintings of days past when fisherman plied the Aral Sea and catches were bountiful. It was quite interesting. Central to the museum is a large video room where you are seated to watch a poor-quality film dubbed in poor English. Some of the footage is interesting but it was nearly impossible to understand what was being said – a real shame. I spent about 40- minutes there.

Old photo of Aral Sea fisherman pulling in fish from a boat

Old photo of Aral Sea fisherman 

A woman collecting fish taken from the Aral Sea

Both men and women contributed to the fishing industry

Entrance fee: 20,000 SOM (approx. USD $2)

Stop 5 – Muynak Aral Sea Monument

The Muynak Aral Sea Monument is situated a mere 100m from the Muynak Museum and was erected to mark the original coastline. Now, looking out, there is nothing to see but sand and scrubby trees. This used to be the fourth biggest inland sea in the world.

Monument to the Aral Sea

The Uzbek Aral Sea monument at the original coastline position

During the time of Soviet Union occupation in the 1960s, a directive was issued for cotton growing on lands nearby the Aral Sea. Massive irrigation projects were undertaken but much of this water was lost due to inefficient water usage by absorption into the sand when transferring water from the sea to the fields.

By 1987 the Aral Sea level had dropped nearly 13 metres, shrinking to less than 10% of its original size. It is one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters. For before and after images, check out these NASA images of the Aral Sea.

It is free to visit.

Stop 6 – Aral Sea Ship Graveyard

If you didn’t already feel the plight at the loss of the Aral Sea, then gazing down from the original coastline, at the rusted skeletons of the old fishing boats certainly drives the point home.

There are two locations within a few hundred metres of each other where you can wander and wonder at these old shipping relics. These decaying ghosts, directly in front of the Aral Sea monument, all face out to what was once the open sea, as if longing to return to that life that offered so much more than this idle fate that has been dealt them.

A desert sea ship cemetery

The Aral Sea monument overlooks the first location of the ship cemetery

You are able to clamber up on a couple of the boats to gain better views using the purpose-built ladders and handrails. Ignoring a bit of graffiti, the boats lay as they were left many, many years ago.

Old fishing boats beached in the desert sand

Old fishing boats of the Aral Sea

Wooden hulled fishing boat

Wooden hulled fishing boat

2 grounded boats on a desert floor

The second location of grounded boats

This ship graveyard was well worth the 1.5 hours we spent here and honestly, I could have easily stayed another hour and a half.

It is free to walk around the Aral Sea ship cemetery.

Stop 7 – Badai Tugai

Although scheduled as part of the tour, there just wasn’t enough time to visit Karalkapakstan’s only nature reserve located 90 kilometres from Khiva. We left Muynak at sunset and ran short on time. A shame as the reserve is known for its forests, rare Bactrian Deer and birdlife.

Homeward Bound on the Khiva to the Aral Sea Trip

The drive from the Aral Sea Ship Graveyard to Muynak passes by man-made lakes with golden grassy island pathways and deep blue shallow waters that take on brilliant hues with the setting sun.

A cyclist navigating the narrow byways of a man-made lake

A cyclist navigating the narrow byways of man-made lakes within the old Aral Sea

It’s a long haul of 5 to 6 hours from Muynak to Khiva, broken only by stops at Metans. This is a methane re-fuelling station where all passengers are required to disembark for safety reasons whilst the vehicle is filled. We arrived in Khiva closer to midnight so we were all happy to call it a day.

A vehicle methane re-fuelling station

A methane car re-fuelling station – keep your distance!

Khiva to Aral Sea Ship Cemetery Wrap Up

It was a fabulous day out. There was a bit of everything included on the day trip which made it super-interesting.

My favourite attraction on this Khiva to Aral Sea day trip was definitely the ship cemetery and as I said before, I could have spent hours here.

It was a shame we didn’t have time to see the Badai Tugai Nature Reserve but it would have been hard to reduce time at the other locations without feeling like you were rushing.

UPDATE: Islambek Travel has recently confirmed that they will offer this same 1-day trip to the Aral Sea from Khiva also as a 2-day trip enabling more time to be spent at each location.

Have you been to the Muynak Ship Cemetery? Did you do a day trip from Muynak? We would love to hear about your trip and what you considered your highlights.

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