It has been called one of the greatest man made disasters in history. The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world and home to a thriving fishing industry. An industry of such importance that it apparently provided all of the canned fish for the Red Army during World War 2.
Today it is only 10% of its original size (and still shrinking), and the only evidence of a fishing industry are the rusting ships on seabed in Moynaq.
Getting to the Aral Sea is not easy. The nearest major town is the capital of Karakalpakstan, Nukus. A town of classic Soviet design, Nukus feels like the end of the line. Wide streets lined with buildings that hark back to the glory days of the Soviet Union. It is from here that all Aral Sea tours depart. Therefore getting to this far flung outpost is the first thing that you’ll need to arrange.
We booked our tour of the Aral Sea through Caravanistan. It is not cheap, as the only way to get out there is to hire a 4×4 with an experienced driver. However we certainly felt that the trip was value for money. We hired an English speak guide.
Having an English speaking guide is something that we would definitely recommend. Our wonderful guide Ahmed, as well as speaking excellent English, was able to provide a huge amount of information on Karakalpakstan, the Aral Sea and how the decline of the Aral Sea impacted the economy, environment and local psyche.
Day 1 – getting to the Aral Sea
We were picked up bright and early from our hotel and headed out of Nukus towards Mizdahkan, a collection of mausoleums. On the outside it is clear that the desert climate has taken its toll, however the insides have been wonderfully restored.
From here it was back into the 4x4s as we sped off towards Kungrad, the last town and last piece of paved road before the Kyzylkum desert. Soon we began the climb onto the Ustyurt Plateau which gives incredible views over the desert.
At many points you can see where the Aral Sea used to be. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of the disaster. The sheer amount that has been lost is truly staggering.
We took a break at the abandoned fishing village of Urga. The outer shells of the buildings where fish was sold and stored still remains, however the environment is slowly taking over.
We headed back up onto the plateau and pressed ahead to the tiny hamlet of Qubla Ustyurt. Located high up on the plateau this hamlet was created by the Soviet Government as a base to conduct gas explorations in the area. Local nomads were relocated here to man the hamlet and support Soviet scientists in their quests for gas.
Whilst there is apparently a small amount of gas still being extracted, there certainly doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of activity. Now the village is home to approximately 40 residents that make their living from farming and tourism alongside the gas. The village’s largest and most impressive structure is the huge runway that was built for military and cargo planes to land on.
After sampling some camel’s milk, which I can only describe as tasting like carbonated yoghurt with the texture of slightly lumpy water, we headed for the main event: the Aral Sea. As we sped across the desert, we were surrounded by vast expanses of nothing. In every direction we saw the same thing; desert dotted with small shrubs. Somehow our drivers knew exactly where they were going.
After kicking up sand for an hour or so we arrived on the edge of the Ustyurt plateau as it dropped dramatically towards the edge of the Aral Sea. Whenever the Aral Sea is mentioned it is usually in a negative light due to the environmental, social and economic devastation it has wrought on the region. However, standing on the edge of the plateau looking out over what remains, it is hard not be impressed.
From here it was down to the water’s edge for a dip. The huge decline in size has left a body of water that is now incredibly salty. As a result you float like a cork as you enjoy the scenery around. Whatever you do, don’t get any water in your mouth.
The yurt camp that we stayed in has toilets and a hand pump shower. As well as wonderful views out over the Aral Sea. Our day ended with excellent Uzbek food washed down with a healthy amount of local vodka.
Day 2 – Moynaq and the ship cemetery
Since you are looking east over the Aral Sea it is well worth getting up bright and early for sunrise.
After breakfast we explored a nearby caravanserai before heading back up onto the plateau and towards Moynaq, one of the most iconic locations in the former Soviet Union. To get to Moynaq we came down from the plateau and headed southeast. It was here that we drove along a track that only 20 years or so ago was underwater. Now however, it’s a desolate desert landscape punctured by gas exploration companies hoping to strike it big.
Seeing the reality and scale of the disaster here really hits home.
Moynaq is most famous for its ship graveyard. A bunch of ships left to rust in what used to be the harbour. This is probably one of the most iconic images of the former Soviet Union and most definitely of Uzbekistan itself.
After arriving in Nukus 2 days earlier and feeling like we’d reached the very literal end of the line, Moynaq most definitely made us reconsider our feelings towards dear old Nukus. With unemployment hovering around 50% and a lot of jobs with the gas companies going to people who are not from Moynaq itself, many people in this once prosperous town are really struggling to eek out a living.
We had a wonderful lunch with a local family, washed down with plenty of chai. From here it was a straight shot back to Nukus as the bleakness of the desert roared past us, giving us plenty of time to contemplate the experience of the past 2 days.
This article first appeared on A Bear and A Pig. Want more? We also have an Aral Sea trip report by a local from Karakalpakstan.
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