July 29, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 5: Aral Sea

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On my last trip to Kazakhstan back in 2008, there were two places I did not get to visit due to time constraints... and they later became itches that needed scratching.  One was Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the other was the Aral Sea.  I would manage to scratch both of them on this trip.

The Aral Sea is one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters in the world, thanks to the Soviets who decided to divert rivers feeding the lake to irrigate crops such as cotton - one of the most water-hungry crops that require between 8,000 - 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg.  So, after decades of being starved of water, the Aral Sea began shrinking in a vicious cycle.  As the remaining water evaporated, the salinity of the lake increased, and life in the lake began to disappear.  The Aral Sea is now a mere fraction of its former self.

When I made the decision to come to Baikonur, I realized that Aral is really not that far away.  So I made arrangements to extend my trip and spend an extra day touring the Aral Sea.  I wasn't gonna come to Kazakhstan a second time and leave without visiting the Aral Sea when I was gonna be within 250 km of it.

We left Hotel No. 1 at Site 2 in Baikonur Cosmodrome before 5 a.m., so that Stuart and I could be dropped off at Turyatam Station while some of the others were driven back to Kyzylorda.  We were booked on the 6:07 a.m. train from Tyuratam (Тюратам) to Aral Sea (АРАЛ МОРЕ).  While I couldn't read the electronic ticket I received as it was written in Cyrillic, I did manage to catch that the 4-hour train ride cost the staggering sum of 969 Tenge - roughly USD 3.  In the back of my mind, I had a suspicion that this wasn't gonna be a train ride I was gonna enjoy...

The train rolled in to the station on time, and as Stuart and I headed to find our carriage, I started to get a whiff of the smell coming from the train.  This was not gonna be good!

It got worse once we got on the train.  This was a sleeper train with 3 levels of bunks stacked vertically, and pretty packed in.  I don't know how long the Kazakhs who were asleep at this hour have been on the train, but the poor ventilation wasn't helping.  The conductor led us to the bunks that had been booked for us, and I wasn't surprised to find other people sleeping in them.  Our conductor shook and slapped the squatters to wake them up, and they reluctantly got off to find somewhere else to sleep...

This was not at all what I had signed up for.  When I went to India back in 2007, there was no way in hell that I would ride on an Indian train.  So I paid a few hundred U.S. Dollars to hire a hotel car from the Oberoi in New Delhi to drive me to the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra.  Now I'm on a smelly Kazakh train.  In economy.

I left my big luggage on the floor and lifted my big camera bag up to the middle bunk, then proceeded to climb up there myself.  I pushed the mattress that was still warm with someone else's body heat to one end, used my camera bag as my pillow, and tried to find a comfortable position for the next four hours.

The windows were tied with strips of cloth so that they were partially open and allow for some ventilation, but the smell was still overwhelming.  I decided to pop mints into my mouth at periodic intervals for the duration of the ride.

Some four hours and many mints later, we arrived at Aral Sea Station. Our guide Serik Dyussenbayev picked us up and we started our long drive to the Aral Sea right away.

Serik decided to take the "short cut", which meant driving on the dried out lake bed.  This was, of course, exactly the experience we were looking for.

Our first stop was the ruins of an old processing plant for fish.  The local fishermen used to bring in their catch on their boats, but nowadays this place has become a salt bed.

I guess it hasn't completely dried out here, since we were able to leave footprints in the wet top layer.  And then there's this tire that has been partially buried...  We also see tiny shells from bivalves scattered around.

We continue our drive on the vast lake bed, seeing cliffs in the distance which once represented the shoreline.  We run into the occasional group of camels, horses, and cattle on the way.

Eventually we reach Zhalanash (Жаланаш), a fishing village.  The fishermen here used to have their own boats nearby and when the water dried up, they were stranded in what was known as the 'ship cemetary'.  Up until a couple of years ago there were still three ships on the lake bed near the village for visitors to see.  They are all gone now, taken apart by scavengers after scrap metal.  The only sign that the ships ever existed was just a small chunk of scrap near the road when we passed by.

We continued driving for a while until we reached the Karasandyk Canyons.   The terrain here looks like a mix of Monument Valley in the US and Wadi Rum in Jordan.

The scenery was so stunning that I finally took my drone out for a spin, flying it up above the top of the rocks and also getting a view of the Aral Sea from up high.

It was time to find ourselves some ships, so we drove to an area near Aqespe.  For the first time today, we come face to face with a grounded ship, just meters from the water.  Stuart and I were so excited, and we walked over to the ship right away.

There was plenty of vegetation by the water, and as I bent down to snap pictures, I suddenly realized that I recognized a particular species... It was salicornia!  I had first tasted it on a plate at Amber.  And it made perfect sense that I found it here, because it grows on the shores of salt lakes.  I immediately posted my finding on Twitter and informed Chef Richard Ekkebus - who jokingly suggested that I bring back a supply for him.

It's obvious that scavengers have been here, but the ship's hull was largely intact.  I walked around the ship, occasionally sticking my head inside for a peek.  All the while enjoying the breeze coming in along with calm, lapping waves.  There was no one here but us, and I was loving the feeling of solitude, the realization that I was in the middle of nowhere.  46°45'23" N, 60°44'11" E to be exact.

There are more ships for us to look at, so we move along the coastline until we reach an even more spectacular sight.  This time we found one with a twisted hull, sitting in shallow water.

I send the drone up in the air once again, and the images I see on my screen are nothing short of stunning.

There was one final ship we had to see, and this turned out to be the largest of the three.

We found a group of locals having a picnic here, and they very kindly invited us to share in their food.  We graciously accepted their offerings, and they all wanted a picture with Stuart.

We had been out for a long time, so we figured that we should probably head back to town.  Taking the "short cut" on the way back turned out to be more challenging than coming in, so Serik decided to turn towards the main road - which, while not completely smooth from a layer of asphalt, was at least paved with gravel.  I'm sure Serik was happy that he didn't have to wrestle with the steering wheel of the 4WD once we got onto this section of the road...

Serik had arranged for a homestay for me overnight, and I was hosted by Gulmira.  After Stuart and I cleaned up, she served us our dinner - our first proper meal of the day.  Not surprisingly, we started with a salad of tomato, cucumber, green peppers, and carrots.  The vinegar delivered some good acidity to whet our appetites.

Gulmira had also prepared some deep-fried fish with potatoes for us.  Here we have carp and bream, served with shredded carrots and onions on top.  I could see Stuart having a little trouble with the bones, but even I - who grew up eating very bony freshwater fish - had to slow down and take time to remove all the bones.

When he's not busy guiding tourists around the area in the summer, Serik works part-time for Aral Tenizi - an NGO helping to revive the local fishing industry.  He told us that in the past the water of the Aral Sea was so salty that only flounders were able to survive.  After the Kok-Aral Dam was built in 2005, the surface area of the Aral Sea expanded significantly and water salinity reduced over time.  Nowadays some 15 different types of freshwater fish can be found in the water, while flounders are finding it difficult to survive in the freshwater environment.

Stuart needed to catch an overnight train back to Kyzylorda, so I bid him farewell and retired for the night.  It's been a very long day...

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