On my journey across Central Asia in Summer 2012, one of the places I was curious to see was the drying Aral Sea.The sea has been drying since the 1960s because the Soviets diverted the rivers flowing into it for the water to be used in cotton farming. Towns that were once by the sea and whose main industry was fishing are now hundreds of kilometers away from the shores.
There are two towns in particular that have been directly affected. One is Aralsk in Kazakhstan and the other is Moynaq in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan. I chose to visit Moynaq because I learned the effects of the disaster were more visible there. To get to Moynaq, first I flew from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent to Nukus in an old RJ85 plane and then from there took a minibus.
Moynaq had an eerie feeling. The streets were deserted; there were several abandoned buildings, including a derelict fish-canning factory; lying in the fields there were rusty tanks and cars; during the day the heat was intense.
There was a lookout point to the dried-up Aral Seabed, about 12 meters above the seabed. The 10-12 rusty ships that had been found were lined up neatly. It was surreal to imagine that 50 years ago this was filled with seawater. Now the shoreline was 180km away.
At one point in time, 30,000 people were employed in the fishing industry in Moynaq but by the mid-1980s the sea had receded so much that it was no longer viable to run the fish-canning factory. These days the population of the town is made up of grandparents and grandchildren — parents are living in other cities as there has been no work since the factory was closed down.
The abandoned factory looked like a movie set from an American Western that had served its purpose. Although every now and then I could hear voices from the outbuildings, there were no security guards and I was able to roam around and take pictures without any trouble. I was surprised that most of the machinery, the doors, the window frames were still intact, had not been looted.
Evening at the lookout point
During the day I was one of the few people at the lookout point, but in the evening the place lit up. Mainly young people, some even from nearby towns, came to watch the sunset, hang out, flirt. It was the place to be in Karakalpakstan.
The first day I met four Spanish travellers who were doing the Mongol Rally. The idea of the rally is that from Europe you buy a ‘crap’ car that has an engine not more than 1.2lt in size, drive it to Mongolia, taking whatever route you fancy; when you arrive in Mongolia, you auction the car, and donate the money to a charity. However, many cars doing this rally are originally already in such a poor condition that by the time they reach Mongolia they have to be dumped in a car cemetery!
These four guys, unable to hide their excitement at seeing the Aral seabed, drove their little car directly down the slope onto the seabed, without thinking of checking the surface. Not surprisingly, their car got stuck! Luckily they were in a developing country, where passersby still come to help those who are in trouble — and I decided to take some pictures for them. More than an hour later, after trying various methods, they triumphed and were back up the slope, on their way to Mongolia.
The Oybek Hotel I stayed at was an attraction in itself. It was a two-story building, built in the Soviet days. From outside it looked banal. It was when you stepped inside that you noticed the real quality of it, the loss, the dilapidation, the desolation.
It had been abandoned some years ago, after the fishing industry collapsed and people stopped coming to Moynaq. The owner’s son had recently returned to town to renovate it, to accommodate the odd traveller who made it there.
The reception was completely bare, no decorations, no signs of life. In the corridor I could hear the echo of my footsteps. Of the dozen or so en-suite rooms with balconies, a few had been partially restored and furnished with simple wooden single beds and desks. The en-suite bathrooms though were locked and through the gap in the doors I could see they were full of rubbish — empty bottles, cardboard, packaging. The bathroom of one room had been cleaned up and was now being used as a communal toilet. It had pipes but no running water. Water to flush the toilet was brought up in buckets. Out in the garden a makeshift shower had been built; the shower head was the bottom of a plastic bottle with holes, and every morning the tank was filled manually!
It all made me wonder how this place had looked like just a few decades ago, what type of people had stayed here, how they had spent the evenings, what conversations had taken place in the communal room whose floor was now ripped out.
In the room next to mine at the hotel there was a French guy, a music teacher. I don’t often get my picture taken when travelling. But the landscape of the dry seabed was so extraordinary that when I saw him at the lookout point I couldn’t resist the temptation. He seemed miserable and was not impressed with being asked to take a picture. When I gave him the camera, he literally stood where he was, pressed the button and gave the camera back to me.
In the evening I invited him for a drink in my room. In such an isolated place, the mere fact that you are the only two foreigners — no matter where you are from or what kind of people you are — creates a common space and often leads to personal conversations. He was depressed. He was finding the desolation unbearable to cope with. He was complaining that there was nothing to do in this place. Whilst I was having cold beer from a glass bottle, he preferred to have warm beer out of a plastic bottle.
‘I don’t like travelling alone,’ he confessed. ‘In the future, I will either travel with someone or I won’t travel.’
On a more positive note, one of the coolest stories related to Moynaq I heard was of a French and a Slovenian guy I met later in Nukus. Rather than staying in my comfortable hotel with the outdoor shower, they chose to sleep in sleeping bags on one of the rusty ships on the dry seabed under the stars!
Future of Moynaq
The future of Moynaq is bleak. The resource here was fish, and now there are no more fish. Another lasting effect of the receding sea is climate change. Temperatures have since become extreme: winters are colder, drier, more bitter; summers hotter. An artificial lake right next to the dry seabed has been created in an attempt to produce rain and fish life. But, apart from that, the only prospect is a bit of adventurous tourism, a bit of boarding school business, and income from odd travellers like me and the music teacher.