At Long Last: The Aral Sea, Part I

The Aral Sea is located in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in the far northwestern part of Uzbekistan. While once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last several decades it has lost 90 percent of its water, mostly due to irresponsible Soviet agricultural practices. Scientists have long considered the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history. I saw a National Geographic article featuring the impending destruction of the sea around twenty years ago, and a small seed of fascination was planted. It has been without a doubt my biggest bucket list item during my tour in Uzbekistan. We were fortunate to finally make our visit happen two weeks ago – one of the most sad and contemplative, yet amazing and mysterious trips I’ve ever taken.

My husband and I were determined to make this trip in spring before leaving Post. I think it was especially important to me, but he was excited and curious about it too. There were only a few hardy folks from the embassy that had made the trip as far as we were aware. To get there from Tashkent, it’s a 2.5 hour domestic flight to Nukus, followed by an off-road excursion across roadless terrain for hundreds of miles. I was aware that it would not be comfortable, per se. As longtime readers know, when Penny Postcard wants to be comfortable, she goes to a five star hotel! This trip was about seeing the sea, and being willing to bathe with hospital grade wipes and to be bounced within an inch of my life for a few days in order to do so. Although it was probably ill-advised for me to take such a rough trip given that I need spinal surgery and can’t even wear a shoe on my left foot, I never would have forgiven myself had I missed it. So, I not only went in my long skirts and Reef sandals, but I organized the tour, too.

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From Tashkent to the Aral Sea is about 560 miles (900 km)

A colleague of mine, S, who was departing Post and unable to accompany us, had recommended a hotel called Jipek Joli (“Silk Road”). The hotel, located in Nukus, organized expeditions all along the coastline and seabed via all-terrain vehicle. I have to say that I highly recommend Jipek Joli and their outfit, Ayim Tour. The hotel’s representative, Gulya, is fluent in English and more than capably handled all of our requests. The tour we took was called “Follow the Disappearing Coastline,” with a few additions that Gulya was more than happy to accommodate. They are a very reputable and trustworthy company, and deserve your business if you have a chance to do an excursion like this. Sadly, from inside Uzbekistan I need to use a VPN to reach their website, but it does function from U.S. servers.

I canvassed my colleagues to see who wanted to come with, but this trip wasn’t for the faint of heart, would cost a few hundred dollars per person, and required a day off. Unfazed, another embassy couple, M and B, both former military, joined forces with us and we started to sketch out our requirements as far as what we wanted to see along our route and what equipment we had vs. would need to rent.

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No fuss, no muss

The four of us flew out of the domestic terminal in Tashkent early on a Friday morning. We decided to check our packs so we could bring aerosols like dry shampoo and bug spray, and Costco-sized Pepto Bismol! We were lucky enough to be seated over the wing in the exit row. We kicked back and grinned at each other – I give all the credit to M’s superior Russian skillz.

When we arrived in Nukus, the baggage claim was outdoors. We stood around in the sun and wind for 15 minutes until a large flatbed truck, weighed down on one side with concrete sacks, backed up to a platform and offloaded our packs. I have traveled a fair bit domestically in Uzbekistan by car, plane, and train, but this was a new one for me and I quickly snapped this photo without drawing militia attention.

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We met our guide and driver Viktor in the airport parking lot. He was a calm, quiet and steady guy, experienced and ready for anything. He told us that he had retired from driving cabs for 25 years in Russia, but originally hailed from Nukus. The back of the blue Toyota Land Cruiser was filled to the ceiling with food and equipment. Me, V, M and B grinned at each other as we realized we were about to spend many, many hours sitting three to a seat in the back with one person riding shotgun.

Our first stop was my special request: the Savitsky Museum, otherwise known as the Nukus Museum of Art. The museum is famous for Soviet avant-garde art, as well as displays of Karakalpak folk art and archaeological artifacts from the surrounding region. I was really excited to see what was inside, but ended up a little disappointed by how it played out.

Foreigners are required to inform the museum in advance if they wish to visit, so we did that through Jipek Joli. From the first moment we walked in through hordes of schoolchildren and went through security, everything was unclear. How to buy tickets, whether or not a tour was required, and where to put our bags, cameras, and phones which we were informed were NOT allowed.

We were instructed to join a British couple on an English-speaking tour, and so we walked upstairs. A woman who had been away from her post at the bottom of the stairs chased after us with unnecessary theatrics to tear our tickets in half. We began to listen to our museum tour guide’s explanations of the exhibition, when another lady approached her fifteen minutes into the tour and whispered to her that we had not paid and that the tour couldn’t proceed until we did. The tour literally stopped and we all stared at each other while V dashed off to deal with it. Very odd and uncomfortable, and might I add, a totally unnecessary way to deal with such a situation. It isn’t like we didn’t have a couple dollars each to pay for what we were enjoying had we just been asked. Geez. I apologized on our behalf to the Brits and they just shook their heads, and we had a good laugh about it.

Once we realized the tour was two hours (!) we ended up bailing anyway and wandering around for fifteen minutes more on our own to just look at what attracted us the most. I visited the bathroom downstairs on the way out, knowing it would be the last non-squat toilet I’d see for a couple of days. I snapped on the light outside the door, and once I was settled in the stall, a museum worker came and snapped the light back off. “Hey!” I yelled, and then again in Russian, “I’m in here!” It stayed pitch black. I groped around in the darkness, trying not to pee on myself or trip. I walked out ruffled and irritated, but within seconds laughed it off.

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Bottom line: The Savitsky is a beautiful and well-curated museum, well worth a visit. But I think it is kind of sad that they aren’t more willing to share their treasures with the world by making ticketing more clear, and allowing guests to photograph and share their experiences on social media. Although I was expecting the lengthy, overly wordy Central Asian-type “tour” that goes on for hours and belabors every single point, I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to photograph anything. However, if you’re interested, there are some great works on their website. And don’t bring a pack like I did – I should have known better by now.

M called Viktor, and minutes later he swooped up to take us to a small liquor store before also swinging by Jipek Joli to pick up some very pungent fish. We hit the road, laughing and trying to keep the fish out of the direct sun. Luckily Viktor isn’t afraid of “the draft”, because all of our windows were all the way down and the wind tore through the truck, whipping my hair until I tied a scarf around it (M much more smartly had braided her hair and worn a cap).

After about 90 minutes we stopped at a pre-designated roadside cafe for a delicious lunch. I discovered the wonders of sparkly “Hit” beer and learned that when I wear my backpack, it makes using a squat outhouse easier and more balanced. We shared water, TP and hand sanitizer, and we were on our way again.

Viktor had a satellite phone in the car, given the lack of mobile phone service beyond Nukus…but it wasn’t exactly wireless. When he got tired of having it on the dash and ringing constantly, he yanked up the whole unit and handled his business. He didn’t speak any English, but he switched between Russian and Uzbek with dizzying speed.

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We drove for hours and hours across some desolate terrain. Every so often we switched seats so everyone would have a turn in the front. Viktor told us we were heading for some naturally occurring salt flats, and joked that its name, Barsa Kelmes, means “A place from which you do not return”.

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When the salt flats came into view, I was dumbstruck. I know that there are some in the U.S., but I don’t remember ever seeing them. The scene was absolutely unearthly. The white salt glimmered in the distance like a mirage. Viktor said that much of the salt in Uzbekistan still comes from here. It was cool to think that they were there as a result of nature, rather than the aftermath of some devastation of man.

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When Viktor stopped the truck on a large plateau above the salt flats, we walked to the edge and looked over. It was clear to me that I would not be able to make it down there in any sort of a timely manner, and I was also concerned about falling. So V, B and M made their way down there in about 10-12 minutes’ time and I stayed at the top taking photographs.

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Two things surprised me – first, the absolutely insane strength of the wind. I had to tie my scarf around my head to keep my hair from whipping me painfully in the face. At a couple of different points as I tried to take photographs near the edge of the canyon, I realized the feasibility of actually getting blown hard enough to lose my balance and tumble over a cliff, so I kept my distance. I could taste the salt in the air. The second thing that surprised me was, upon close inspection, how much plant life was actually thriving in that desolate environment. Scrub brush, desert flowers, and various thick-rooted succulents hung on for dear life against the wind, clinging tenaciously close to the ground. I found a nearly complete animal skull (which even still had some of its teeth) and took it to Viktor, who was chilling in the front seat of the Land Cruiser. “Probably was a gazelle,” he noted, and suddenly it was obvious to me too. He asked me a few times if I wanted to sit in the truck, or to have a camp chair, but soon realized I was odd enough to be content to stand almost meditatively in the wind by myself.

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About an hour after we left the salt flats, the paved portion of the road ended abruptly and dirt roads took over. Now we felt like we were really on our way! At some point soon thereafter, the dirt road also disappeared and Viktor led us through a maze of paths, making course correction after course correction with no compass and no discernibly different landmarks. We checked Google Maps and compass apps while in airplane mode and showed him where we were. He nodded and continued making small corrections. With only brief and occasional hesitations, he forged on while the sun dropped lower in the sky. Occasionally he would pop in some chewing tobacco. “My GPS,” he would joke. There wasn’t a soul in sight for hours, except for, much to our delight, the occasional prairie dog, fox, or wild horse. Our own satellite phone was safely in B’s pack, and our personnel tracking locator (PTL) sat on the dashboard, sending our location every five minutes to embassy security staff.

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Viktor drove until we reached a relay station where the plan was to pitch our tents and camp the first night. We were relieved because we were tired of riding and it was already around 18:00. We found places to pee around the rock formations, trying to avoid the wind. I was so busy avoiding peeing into the wind that I failed to notice that there were about 25 grasshoppers in the spot I’d selected. I will leave what happened with that to your imagination. My toilet paper also blew away before I could bury it properly, but at least I did not fall down.

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We ventured down into the canyon to the relay station itself, and a lonely, grizzled guard and his menagerie of pets greeted us on the shore of Lake Sudoch’ye.

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Unfortunately, Viktor said it would be too windy to camp at the relay station after all, and that we should push on to the yurt camp where we had planned to spend the second night. We knew he was right about the wind, so although our butts hurt mightily, we’d been traveling for about fourteen hours, and the idea of spending another 2 or 3 hours in the truck was exhausting, we pushed on.

We sat quietly, but in good spirits, as the Land Cruiser sped across the parched earth, listening to music on headphones or staring thoughtfully out the window as the sun dipped closer to the horizon. One of my local staff colleagues at the embassy who was born in Nukus had told me that going home made her sad, and for the first time I could see for myself what she’d meant. There were times where I felt like I was on a different planet, or even the surface of the moon, so complete was the devastation. The only exception being the red foxes that ran, fluffy-tailed through the brush, peeking fearfully out at the truck from their fox holes without abandoning home, and the abundance of stubborn and hardy plant life that refused to give up and die. It was strange to consider that almost all of what we were seeing had been under the sea within our lifetimes.

Somehow we arrived at the yurt camp right before darkness fell completely. Viktor had timed it perfectly, despite the unexpected weather circumstances and us fitting in the Savitsky visit on the front end. We caught our first glimpse of the Aral Sea well past dusk and it glittered in the distance with what appeared to be the vastness of the Pacific. I was grateful to see that the yurts were set up, there was a fire burning, dinner cooking, a generator powering lights in the camp, and two local men hustled back and forth setting everything in order for the night. I suddenly had an even higher amount of respect for Ayim Tour.

We freed ourselves from the truck, laid out our sleeping bags and toiletries, and greeted two puppies and a reclusive cat who came to check out the new visitors. After about 90 minutes we sat down to a late dinner with two Swiss guests who would depart in the morning to travel on to Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Their guide, also part of Ayim Tour, was English-speaking (since the Swiss guys spoke French and no Russian). Despite my initially being a bit grouchy from sleep deprivation, we sat around the table, eating the fish (which wouldn’t have lasted another day given the lack of refrigeration), telling jokes, drinking our liquor, and laughing into the night. An especially memorable joke told by V and translated bit by bit by the English-speaking guide had Viktor and everyone else in stitches. The generator hummed, keeping the lights on until we were all ready to turn in.

It was not until the morning that I was able to appreciate the full beauty of our seaside location. Our camp consisted of two yurts (inside of which two separate two-man tents were pitched), a small outhouse and washbasin, both tarped-off to protect from the fierce, relentless wind, a small admin tent, and two blue tents for cooking and eating. I can tell you with some certainty that there was no one but us campers, the staff, and the resident cat and two dogs for at least one hundred fifty square miles. The solitude was perfect. The farther away yurt in the picture below was ours.

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Although the sea looks close, it is probably a forty minute walk with a steep dropoff right beyond our camp

The second full day of our trip, after eating some breakfast, we bid our Swiss friends and their guide farewell, climbed back into the truck, and made our way with Viktor three or four hours north along the Ustyurt Plateaus. Our destination was a Soviet ex-seaport right on the sea.

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During Soviet times, there was a Soviet military base there which oversaw the transport of personnel and supplies to a secret island in the middle of the Aral Sea. Evidently the island was called Vozrojdenie, and was a laboratory site for Soviet laboratory testing of biochemical weapons. According to Viktor, the island has since been destroyed and there’s nothing left to see, but I suppose you’d have to see it to believe it. All around the former seaport were indications that the area was once a heavily patrolled military installation. These days, there wasn’t a guard in sight, and in fact, this day of our trip, although we spent nearly eight hours on the road, we did not see another single human being anywhere other than those affiliated with our camp.

We made our way slowly down the steep road and through the interesting rock formations and abandoned military barracks, with many pauses and detours for photographs and closer inspections, coming ever closer to dipping our feet into the Aral Sea at last.

My excitement was making me giddy. All my adult life I had wanted to touch these waters and I was finally almost there. I wondered what my dad would have had to say about the various rock formations and how they had been created. As B and M climbed like mountain goats through rocks I couldn’t climb in my Reefs, and V set out half a mile away in a different direction for toileting solitude, I limped my way closer and closer to the seaport and shore. Viktor lurked behind in the truck, creeping slowly forward as we progressed, nothing new for him to see but not wanting to rush the strange foreigners with their large cameras.

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Me charging ahead, albeit slowly

And finally, I was close enough to smell the salt. The rain began to sprinkle down, but I was totally impervious, smiling and feeling so peaceful and grateful.

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To be continued in my next post

 

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5 thoughts on “At Long Last: The Aral Sea, Part I

  1. Pingback: At Long Last: The Aral Sea, Part II – Collecting Postcards

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