At Long Last: The Aral Sea, Part II

I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.

[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]

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As we rounded the corner, we all peered ahead to see how far ahead the sea was. And then suddenly, this:

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As I looked for the easiest way to climb down, I noticed that there were literally tens of thousands of small pastel seashells scattered as far as the eye could see. As we walked along the beach, they crunched and broke. It appeared to me that no one had walked there in ages, because nearly all the shells were perfect. And although I am normally adverse to collecting things from beaches or forests (and where I grew up, it’s against the law), I considered that the shells may stay better preserved with me than out there. So with great effort, I bent down and gathered what we estimated to be a small jar full to commemorate our trip.

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I also noticed the wood markers, signifying the reach of the water at different times. It kind of looked like the water had gained some ground, as some reports also claim. As I removed my sandals and walked into the water, I wished it could heal my hurt foot and that I could somehow heal the sea too.

As I was standing at the sea and looking around, I felt such a mix of thoughts and emotions. Solitude. Anger. Despair. Hope. Trying to understand how such a rich and beautiful resource, that had once provided sustenance and work for so many, had been so completely neglected, exploited, and brought to within an inch of destruction. Most Uzbeks, I think, are not even aware that the dust from the seabed is poisonous, filled with chemical pollution, blowing in the wild winds across the land. People in the area die of cancer and disease more acutely than other parts of the country.

My brother later described his thoughts about it, as usual, much more succinctly than I: “People suck.” And that’s pretty much the size of it. In all the pictures, we are smiling, because we felt lucky to be on the trip, but we also spent a lot of time being perplexed, wondering if the sea would make a comeback, and speculating about how the local people felt about what had happened to their livelihoods. FWIW, I have mentioned the Aral Sea to numerous Uzbeks and responses have ranged from, “Never heard of it,” to “It’s a vast ocean!”

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If there was a beach on the moon…
When we left the seaside, we parked by the side of the road amongst the abandoned seaport barracks, looking for someplace out of the wind, for an impromptu picnic shared with Viktor. It rained gently on us, in fits and starts, and not enough to motivate us to leave. Then it was another 3 to 4 hours back south towards the yurt camp, where we would spend our second night.

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Along the Ustyurt Plateau we stopped several times to take photos, and make our own bathroom wherever we could find it. “No looking!”

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It was great to get back to the yurt camp later that afternoon, where we had nothing on the agenda other than to rest and relax. The road down to the yurt camp looks crazy, but I was happy to see it in front of me after all day bumping through the canyons.

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While I took a little nap before dinner, V had some adventures with the camp kitty, and B and M hiked all the way down to the seaside from the camp.

It was so nice in the end to camp in the same place for two days, and not to have to pack everything up twice. The guys at the camp really went out of their way to make an austere environment as comfortable as possible, even “planting” fake flowers outside our yurt and along the cliff’s edge, and rushing over with hot water whenever they saw one of us visit the basin.

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The austere beauty of a desert seascape
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The second night for dinner, we also had the most legit plov I have ever had in Uzbekistan. And believe me, I have had my share. Sitting in a folding chart in the dry packed dirt, listening to the wind whip and snap the tent, eating out of Styrofoam…the most bomb plov. Both B and V initially said they wouldn’t eat it because plov is too greasy, but it wasn’t, and so they ate it all. What is it also about camping that makes vegetables taste fresher and crispier than ever before?

It was a strange weather day, overcast, windy and alternatively hot and chilly, and we ended the night by building a decent campfire and sitting around it until it burned out and we had to face our turn in the outhouse.

Somehow the first night I’d slept like a rock. Inside the cozy woolen yurt, and inside a tent yet, strait-jacketed into my furnace sleeping bag from the North Face, on top of a bunch of traditional Uzbek padded cushions, it was more comfortable than I expected. The wind was no match for the yurt, and I understood why nomadic people have lived in them on the steppes for thousands of years.

The second night of sleep wasn’t as easy for no reason I could discern. I kept on a strict regimen of my pills for nerve damage and muscle spasms, but didn’t have to resort to painkillers or sleeping aides (although I’d brought them for emergencies à la my February R&R). Every time I awoke, I told myself to go back to sleep so I would be ready for the ship cemetery the following day – for me, one of the highlights of our trip and the thing that had most captured my imagination. We had spent the first two days chasing the sea, and Sunday would bring us the aftermath of its recession.

In the morning we packed up and said goodbye to the camp.

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The only decent picture I managed to get of the inside of the yurt, which was also kitted out with its own satellite phone
We continued along the plateau and down towards Muynak (in Uzbek Mo’ynoq, and in Karakalpak Moynaq), the former resort town and famous fishing village.

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Thousands of years of history

It’s hard to overemphasize how totally dusty and dry it was out there. I was glad that I had brought Neosporin and nasal spray for the inside of my nose. As we approached Muynak, we drove straight across the seabed, occasionally seeing groups of desert tortoises like our Jamshid and Arslana.

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We also drove through a couple of gated-off oil drilling facilities, where we saw a few men walking around in the distance, heavy equipment standing still, and then, a truck trundling through the sand. Viktor told us the Uzbeks have partnered with Koreans and others to drill in the dry seabed. It’s easier than where there’s water, he told us. We all exchanged a sad glare. It was also the beginning of us being unable to pee freely in the wild without being concerned about observation.

Muynak used to be a thriving town, with tens of thousands of residents, fisheries, and ships docked at its ports. Starting in the 1970s, fisherman were casting their last nets in dismay as the water fled kilometers away. The town’s population is now drastically reduced, the effects of the economic collapse and pollution taking its toll. One of the most poignant and visible reminders of what the town used to be is the ship cemetery. I’d been waiting ages to see it and when I actually did, I was speechless.

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Abandoned trawlers on the former seaside

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And somehow, life goes on…
We stopped in Muynak at a lovely, cool guesthouse where a woman had laid out a nice table for us, with salads, cookies, bread, candies, and some delicious meat and potato soup. It was nourishing to our bodies and souls after being out in the heat and the dust.

We visited an outhouse down the street from the guesthouse before hitting the road. V and M were laughing at a picture on V’s phone, which turned out to be some “traditional” Serbian shoes with the toes curled up – ideal for hanging on and keeping your balance when using a squat toilet. I then made an attempt to explain the humor to Viktor with my impoverished Russian and miming combo – hilarity ensued. Some things just transcend language. (Although M being there greatly enriched every conversation because of her excellent Russian, for which we were lucky.)

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See any fish hereabouts?
After we left Muynak, we headed back towards Nukus to make our evening flight. Viktor offered to take us to one more place, which we’d missed on the front end due to visiting the Savitsky. We stopped at the Mizdakhan ancient cemetery complex, a traditional Muslim burial ground that had graves going back several hundred years. I fed a skinny stray mutt one granola bar, and then another. As it snapped down the sticky, nut-filled treats and wagged its tail hopefully, I wondered when it had last eaten.

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Joys of the road below, as we found our first “official” bathroom in 48 hours across the street from the complex.

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Shaming a donkey-beater. Free the donkeys!
We made our way back to the Jipek Joli hotel, met Gulya’s sister, and had a light but nice dinner before Viktor took us to the airport. The Nukus airport security took pity on us and did not make us throw away our large Pepto Bismol that accidentally got into a carry on pack. Other things I enjoyed there were counterfeit candy and not being crammed like cattle onto a stupid shuttle to roll 75 meters across the tarmac, instead being permitted to walk in the fresh air like free adults.

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When we got back home, tired and dirty but happy, and hours from having to wake up and go to work, I took a hot shower and could hardly wipe the smile off my face. I felt as if I had visited some very far away land, and indeed I had. Being whisked in a taxi afterwards through the fast, brightly lit streets of Tashkent didn’t change a thing. Visiting the Aral Sea had been everything – an escape from the pushing and shoving of Tashkent, the fulfillment of a dream, the furtherance of cultural understanding, the adventure of a lifetime, the stupefaction at mistakes not even half-heartedly rectified although clearly exposed, and the enduring hope that in time, nature will muster herself and reverse what man has done.

Hundreds and thousands and millions of years hence, the earth will set these travesties right without us, and in spite of us. Long after we have wiped ourselves out, the final and ultimate victims of our own greed and ignorant actions, Mother Nature will be calmly presiding over a process of rejuvenation, along a timeline not visible to the human eye. In the meantime, every child playing in the poisoned wind is another layer of shame upon those responsible.

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4 thoughts on “At Long Last: The Aral Sea, Part II

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

  2. Stories like this remind me why I started reading FSO blogs all those years ago in college. Couldn’t put this story down – thank you for sharing! Enjoy your next tour, I’m looking forward to hearing about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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