Aralsk is one of the biggest attractions in terms of visitor numbers in Kazakhstan thanks to the iconic pictures of rusting ships in the desert that once was the Aral Sea. The sea is gradually returning thanks to a dam on the border with Uzbekistan, the remaining desert is being planted with hardy shrubs and the boats are slowly being taken out.
With the disappearance of most of the iconic ships, there is little left to do in Aralsk. People tend to be hostile to foreigners, as they feel they are only there to take snapshots of ugly and sad places in their town. As in most places in Kazakhstan, hotels are overpriced.
Aral Sea ship graveyard
The harbour, just south of the centre on Makataev street, already offers some rusty cranes and bits and pieces of boats. 15 minutes walk from the old harbour more shipwrecks lie in the desert. If you want to see even more, the Zhalanash ship graveyard is your thing.
Zhalanash ship graveyard
Zhalanash is 63 km away from Aralsk. There is a bumpy shortcut straight across the seabed, you can ask taxi drivers. There are another 6 rusting ships left at Zhalanash. Some were very big, but they are gradually being taken apart. Zhalanash is a camel-farming town, which still makes for picturesque shots with the camels in front of the ships. A taxi ride will be around 50 – 100$ two-way.
Aral Sea shore
It all depends on your negotiating skills of course, but you can get there for around 8000 tenge two-way. After some driving, you come to a body of water.
The Kokaral dam is what keeps the Northern Aral Sea from depleting completely. It’s far away from Aralsk. If driving solo, head in the direction of Kyzyl Orda, then turn right after 80 km to Kambash. You will pass Lake Kambash, Amanotkel and Bogen. You pass a bridge crossing the Syr Darya after about 180 km from the start. From there on, the restoration part starts: salt-resistant saxaul line the road, and after another 20 km you come to the entrance to the Kokaral dam. The Aral Sea here looks more like a wetland, with a small shell beach and a few little boats (in the water!). A river flows from the dam to the Southern Aral Sea, which is still fighting for its life.
Aral Tenizi is still organizing home stays, this is your best bet, even if it overpriced. Commenter Kathy stayed with Gulmira: comfortable room and friendly host, hot showers and heat (it was pretty chilly even in early October) for 3500 tenge per person.
With the demise of Aibek, there are 2 hotels left in town: Hotel Aral (Makataev 4). Price is 4000 tenge for one or 2 persons. It looks terrible, the AC “works” and checkout is at 8am. They’re screwing you, and enjoying it. You can take a shower and sauna next door in the fitness club.
The Aral Hotel charges 7000 tenge for a ‘suite’ with hot water (a water heater in the bathroom).
It’s the same as other regional museums around the country, but if you have some time to kill, check out the regional museum. Located on Tokey Esetov, close to the crossroads with Abulkhair Khan, it offers displays of the Soviet period golden days, the demise of the port, ethnography, ecology and local artists’ work. Opening hours: 9 – 12 and 15 – 18 Monday to Saturday: admission 200 tenge. There is another museum on the Aral Sea under construction.
Aral Sea tours
Aral Tenizi is an NGO working to restore the Aral Sea and the broken economy of Aralsk. They can drive you around to the aforementioned places. Cost will be 100$+. They are located near Hotel Aral, on Makataev.
Trains, buses and train station
The Almaty – Aktau train passes by once a day. If you want to get on this one, book your ticket in advance, people have to wait up to 10 days in high season for a ticket. The train station is located outside of the city and a taxi to Hotel Aral will be 200 tenge. Should you be interested, from the train station trains depart to other places in Kazakhstan, and buses leave for Kyzyl Orda frequently in front of the station.
Luggage, food and internet
You can leave your luggage at the internet cafe, also on Makataev near the Hotel Aral and Aral Tenizi. The guy is friendly.
There’s a new restaurant/nightclub called N004 with free wifi but average food.