Moynaq: The Abandoned Ship Graveyard of Uzbekistan

At one point, Moynaq was one of the thriving fishing cities in Asia. Being home to the fourth largest inland lake, Moynaq had a fully functional port and a booming economy. Fast forward to the 21st century, Moynaq is a ghost town and an abandoned ship graveyard. Journey with us as we explore what’s left in this once-remarkable city.

History of Moynaq

The city of Moynaq was built in the 1920s. Its success was based on it being the gateway to the Aral Sea. At the time, Moynaq was the only port city in Uzbekistan, so fishing and transportation were its main economic activities. During the 1930s, canning was introduced, significantly boosting the city’s economy.

The first fish cannery in Moynaq was built in 1932 and was designed to produce 10 million cans yearly. By 1941, this factory was fully established and supplied the Soviet Union troops with food during World War II. As a result of the thriving economy, the population of Moynaq hit an all-time high because labor was needed to operate the ships and process the fish.

People got to Moynaq by air or sea – the Moynaq airport was built in 1947 to facilitate this. However, it wasn’t a fully functional airport; it only accommodated helicopters and mid-range passenger aircrafts.

Why Moynaq Was Abandoned

Up until the 1960s, everything was perfect in Moynaq. However, things started going south when Russia opted to divert the Aral Sea’s two sources of water: Syr Darya and Amu Darya. At the time, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, so Russia was in charge of making big decisions. The purpose of this diversion was to direct the water to an open desert for the growth of cotton.

The plan to divert the water sources initially seemed like a success because, 20 years later, Uzbekistan became the world’s largest cotton producer. However, this milestone came at a price – the fall of Moynaq. The water that was being diverted caused the Aral Sea to shrink. By 1982, the water levels had dropped by almost 15%, and the Soviet Union didn’t bother. By the turn of the century, nearly 60% of the Aral Sea had shrunk. Today, only 10% of the Aral Sea is left.

Moynaq slowly started losing value as the sea dried. It stopped being a port, and all regional fishing activities were halted. In the early 1970s, the locals, with the help of the Soviet Union, tried to restore the water levels of the Aral Sea by building dams, but they were unsuccessful.

Apart from the reduction in job opportunities, as the sea evaporated, the salinity levels increased drastically. The polluted seabed would be carried to land by strong winds, causing chronic illnesses among the locals. This gave the residents more reason to leave.

The 1970s witnessed a massive exit of people from Moynaq. The population dropped from 60,000 to 30,000. By 1990, when the fish cannery was closed, only 5,000 people remained there. However, this number seems to have improved, with the last census done in Moynaq in 2018 showing that about 13,500 people still live there.

The Current State of Moynaq

At the time of writing, Moynaq is an abandoned ship graveyard with water miles away. There is no employment, and the weather conditions are terrible. Most buildings are in ruins, and the population is steadily decreasing. At the harbor, there is nothing but dried sea and tiny bushes growing from the sand, surrounded by many sea shells.

There are a handful of boats decaying on the dried shoreline. Tourists can access these boats because no one is guarding them. They can also visit and explore the abandoned fish can factory.

Occasionally, Moynaq hosts a few events. For instance, this city hosts the Stihia Festival, where thousands come to listen to and dance to electronic music. The event was first held in 2018 and occurs every year. In 2022, the visitors had to endure massive sandstorms. This year, Stihia will be back in Moynaq. The ghost town is also ideal for bird watching and antelope spotting.

Is Moynaq a Good Place to Visit?

For anyone who is a big fan of abandoned places, Moynaq is a unique destination. This abandoned city tells the tale of how natural disasters are just a decision away.

How to Get to Moynaq?

To get to Moynaq, visitors have to use public road transport from the city of Nukus. It’s a three-hour journey that costs less than $2.

Where to Stay in Moynaq?

The locals allow visitors to stay in their homes, for a small fee, of course. There is also a hostel located on the main street. Alternatively, visitors can camp next to the abandoned ships. The latter works best for those traveling in large groups.

Here are some photos of how Moynaq currently looks like:

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