A Trip to the Aral Sea

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This is a guest post by Aziz Murtazaev, a native of Karakalpakstan, who nevertheless never saw the Aral Sea, until he went looking for it in his holiday. The original can be found here and here.

 

Before taking my vacations and going home, I was thinking to allocate time to the Aral Sea trip during my vacations. Even though I was born and grew up in the region where the biggest part of the Aral Sea is located, I never had a chance to see the Aral Sea. While my parents did have a chance to see the Aral Sea and go there for recreational activities when it was full several decades before, there was not much reason to do so when I grew up as much of the water had gone far away from its original coastline.

The interest for visiting the Aral Sea especially increased after reading a book titled Disaster By Design: The Aral Sea and its Lessons for Sustainability.

This post contains lots of pictures I took during my trip to the Aral Sea with the descriptions for some of them.

In the morning of September 19, we started our trip. It was a 2 day trip with overnight camping and the agenda for the first day was to visit Muynak first and then go to the current shore of the southwest part of the Aral Sea and stay there overnight. The agenda for the second day included driving over Ustyurt Plateau, visiting Sudochye Lake and on the way back, visiting Mizdakhan complex.

In the below snapshot from Google EarthTM software, we can see the current state of the Aral Sea shot approximately in April 2013:

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The destination point for the first day in this trip was the water basin of the remaining Aral Sea on the southwestern shore.

And here is the slightly magnified image of the above and the approximate route we took for two days (the route might not be that accurate, I’ve drawn it just based on my perception):

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As we can see from the red path, we went through Kungrad, Muynak and the former shore of Aral to the southwestern shore. And on the way back, we drove on the edge of Ustyurt plateau, visited Sudochye Lake and went back through Kungrad to Nukus.

I took several landscape shots on the way to Muynak:

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And we can see some houses of Muynak from here:

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Some water reservoir near Muynak:

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And finally, we entered Muynak. If we pay attention to the entrance sign of Muynak, we can notice several objects. We can see the painting of fish in a cylindrical object, possibly symbolizing the fish canning factory once flourished here. And we can see the waves of the water and the sea bird flying over the sea, symbolizing the sea shore that once reached here:

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In Muynak, we stopped at the museum which was located in the center of the city. This shot is the opposite side of the museum, where we can see the symbolic boat on the far right:

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The museum is mainly about the fishing industry and canning factory that once employed the whole city. We can see the cans displaying the variety of fish once living in the Aral Sea, before salinity increased to the level that was fatal for most types of fish.

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This statue used to stand in front of the canning factory in Muynak:

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Aral Sea and Aralkum:

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The Aral Sea from outer space:

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The remains of the ships once floating in the Aral:

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The canning factory, from inside, from the historical pictures:

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After ending our museum tour, we went to the former coastline in Muynak. It is hard to imagine that water used to reach this place before. Nothing but the desert can be seen in the horizon:

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As we come closer this is what we see. The so-called “cemetery of ships”:

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The panoramic view from the high spot:
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One very clear evidence that there was a sea once here. It is just amazing to see sea shells in the desert:

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A closer view of those rusted ships:

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Tourists who visited left some writings, including this in Korean:

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Just imagine that you are on board of this ship, and what you see around is only water:

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The cabin of a ship:

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and its engines:

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And two big ships located close to each other:

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After we finished looking around these rusted ships, we went on our trip. Our driver told us that we will pass nearby the canning factory on the way and the other three guys wanted to see that canning factory, but it turns out that for some reasons, the mayor of Muynak (or some other high-rank official) is not fond of curious tourists wandering around the canning factory.

We were told that stopping there, coming close and taking some pictures is not a good idea, as we might have some troubles with local police. The driver told that he ran into trouble in one of his previous trips.

The only thing we could do was to take some shots while we were driving by:

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We continued our trip and the way ahead was no longer asphalted road, as we entered into the former lakebed of Aral. We drove over two tracks left by many vehicles passing in that direction in a massive open area of Aralkum. On our way we saw many natural gas extracting towers, which are called derrick towers.

As it was mentioned earlier in the picture titled “Aral Sea and Aralkum”, in the former lakebed of the Aral Sea large deposits of natural gas have been discovered and many foreign oil and gas companies besides local ones are engaged in drilling for gas these days.

Here are some pictures of such derrick towers:

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We have passed different landscapes on our way, some areas containing bushes here and there and other areas where you can’t find anything but plantless plain lands:

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It was such a strange feeling. The feeling of absolute silence. In our fast-paced world we are always exposed to some kind of noise, but here there is absolutely nothing around which could produce some sound. Perfect place for obtaining peace of mind :)

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The green world appears as we come closer to water:

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And at last, we reached our destination, here is the blue sea, the south-west point of the Aral Sea:

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And here it is, a shot taken from high spot, the beautiful blue water:

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Our driver brought us to the shore of the sea and we could walk into the water up to knee-level. The shore was mud-like surface and we walked with caution not to slip and fall into mud or water.

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And here is the panoramic video I took when I went inside the water a couple of meters. So far you could see only pictures of the water, but here you have a chance to listen to the waves of the sea as well:

Lots of sea shells on the shore:

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Our driver (and tour guide at the same time) told us that there is a sandy shore around 15 km north from this spot, however, unfortunately due to time constraints we could not go there.

Here at the shore we found something interesting. We saw some camping place for a few dozens of people, and we were wondering what they were doing here, seeing how there was no derrick tower nearby.

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And here is the reason:

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What is that? It turns out that a group of Chinese came here and established a mini-farm for collecting Artemia, which is used in medicine and as a feed for fish, according to our guide. It is amazing to realize that when ecological condition changes, it provides basis for habitat for other type of creatures. When salinity increased in the sea, most types of fish died, however, that increase in salinity provided a natural condition for another type of sea creature, Artemia, to inhabit the sea.

Around 1 km away from the shoreline we could see something like high hills, around 30m higher than the level of the shore. That was the edge of the Ustyurt plateau, and not some mountain range. From that edge, if one were to go further in the opposite direction from the sea, all the land is at the same height: there is no going down.

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It was already over 6pm when we finished looking around the shore, and we went up the plateau to make camping and have dinner. It turns out that there is a special place for camping over the plateau, where drivers usually stop. What makes that place special is that it is surrounded by hills, so that one can enjoy not-so-windy air:

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Another group of people appeared after a while who chose the same place for camping as we did:DSC_0418

Our driver/cook prepared delicious plov on the fire:

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And here are our sleeping tents. It was really cold near the morning:

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The edge of Ustyurt plateau:

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View of the sea from the edge of Ustyurt plateau:

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Full moon:
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Moon on the rock :)

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The light beams from the moonlight can be seen over the sea:

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Before sleeping, I asked the tour guide when we can see the sunrise. We were in a very good location to see the sun rising over the sea. After getting to know the approximate time, I set my alarm to 15 minutes before that, so that I wouldn’t miss it for sure.

I woke up from the alarm as expected and was getting ready to shoot the half sun under the water scene :) It was already bright, but the sun did not yet appear:

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And you know what? The sky on the direction where the sun would appear was covered by the clouds. I was disappointed about that fact, but we can do nothing about that, so I accepted that truth and went on taking other shots:

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At last the sun appeared over the clouds:

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After taking shots, we had breakfast and wrapped up the sleeping tents and continued our tour. The way ahead was the path along the edge of Ustyurt until Sudochye Lake, where we would stop by and have lunch there. As we started driving over the Ustyurt we could see amazing landscapes:

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After driving a few dozens of kilometers over the Ustyurt plateau, we saw lots of stones piled up. After coming close, it turned out to be burials of some nomadic tribes:

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Each grave contains a stone plate and some geometrical figures are engraved on the stone surface. We assumed that these figures represent the tribe to which the buried people belong:

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These stone shapes and the signs on it in above pictures looked quite primitive. We were initially thinking that this burials could be dated back many centuries. However, we saw this finely engraved script (I guess Arabic?) on a well-formed piece of stone, which finely contrasts from all other stones. Maybe these writings could give the answer about the origin of this place.

If there is anyone who can read and understand that script among readers of this post, I would be glad if (s)he translates it to English. If the script is Arabic, then it could be written in Karakalpak language as it was based on arabic script until 1928:

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Another writing on ordinary stone:

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After walking around these burials, we went on our path and after another few dozens of kilometers, we could see huge cracks of landmass resembling canyons. Here is it, “Grand Canyons” of Ustyurt:

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And in another few dozens of kilometers, we came close to Sudochye Lake:

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After driving many kilometers of desert-like landscape, Sudochye Lake appeared as an oasis in the middle of desert. The word “Sudochye”, as our driver told, originates from the expression “Suw dushshi”, which means “fresh water” in Karakalpak. It turns out that besides huge salty Aral sea there was a fresh water basin which is also supplied with water from Amudarya.

Even though the biodiversity is in catastrophic condition in big Aral itself, here in Sudochye there are many types of fish inhabiting this lake.

The importance of this lake to this region cannot be underestimated, and a lot of attention is directed towards saving the biodiversity in Sudochye and around. According to our driver, there is a fish specie called Sander (судак in Russian, or сыла in Karakalpak) that inhabits in Sudochye that can only live in freshwater.

And as long as Sander fish can inhabit the Lake, we can be sure that the salinity of that lake is in a healthy range. If salinity should increase, Sander fish would just die:

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In these pictures we can notice some abandoned houses, probably quite long time ago. As our driver told, a Gulag camp was located here and these people lived in those houses. That was surprising for me, as I did not know about that fact before.

Gulag is a government administration of Soviet forced labor camp operated from 1930 to 1960 for political prisoners and other criminals. Those people probably made living here mainly by fishing in Sudochye.

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Not that far away from those houses, we found a cemetery of the community who lived in the camp. We noticed they belonged to some branch of Christianity from the crosses over the burials. The cross shape is a variation of the generic Christian cross, and after googling I found that it is an Orthodox Cross:

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After going around that place we went down close to the Lake and had some meal there. It turns out that a group of around 10 people regularly comes here for fishing. We had fried fish for lunch prepared by those fishermen from freshly caught fish from the Lake:

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After finishing our lunch we went on our tour, and on the way we saw this structure. According to our driver, it was a lighthouse that assisted the ships with navigation in this area. He told us that in the past periodically Aral and Sudochye used to be connected when water levels rose. And in those times, the ships from Aral could easily come to Sudochye:

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Some shots from the top of that former lighthouse:

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The other side, my fellow travelers:

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Here we can see the water channel that is coming from Amudarya and supplying Sudochye:

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… zooming in:

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After that we went down from Ustyurt plateau and headed back home.

This trip was very interesting, informative and exciting for me. One can realize that the Aral Sea has a very complex nature and is not a conventional sea.

It is essential to point out that Karakalpakstan is not just place covered mostly by plain boring deserts, but with a lot of interesting locations with unique history.

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