Disaster by design: the death and partial rebirth of the Aral Sea (Part 2).

I’d seen Serik a long time before we met in the parking lot outside the Altair hotel; in fact, I first read about him on Al Jazeera. Dubbed “Aralsk’s only tour guide”, he’d accepted to be my guide for the day and now welcomed me in his purple Nissan 4WD. He was a man in his thirties, dressed simply in T-shirt, swimming trunks decorated with the Australian flag and shades. A real man of the steppe, he wasn’t one to waste words. Our conversation was to be interspersed with long intervals of deep, but not awkward, moments of silence.
We left at once, cruising through the light traffic of Aralsk – which nonetheless managed to produce an accident, with two Ladas lying crumpled at a junction – and then we drove into the steppe. As we went, Serik explained the plan: we’d drive to a village called Aqespe, near the north shore of the Sea, then off-road along the coast to Zhalanash and then back to Aralsk.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We trundled along a smooth road, overtaking lorries and slowing down to allow patrols of Bactrian camels to serenely cross before us. The road was a far cry from what I was to experience in other parts of Central Asia and it was the first clue of the fact that, at least in that particular corner of the former Aral Sea, those claiming death, disaster and despair ought to be taken with a fairly large pinch of salt.
We passed villages which, however dusty and remote, featured houses with double glazing and, as Serik pointed out, heating, plumbing and electricity. Some were so new that the crates used to ship the cinder blocks still littered their backyards. All this, said Serik, showed that the shores of the North Aral Sea were changing. The villages were still isolated and the steppe an unforgiving environment, but they no longer were destitute. Families were quietly thriving on cattle – cows, camels, horses – fishing was picking up again, so much so that folks now needn’t use their camels for transportation as most houses had two cars. “One to follow the herds, the other to show off in town” laughed Serik, and I joined him. All this, he said, had been triggered by “the project”.
He was referring to a $80m initiative sponsored by the World Bank that had grabbed the North Aral Sea from the brink of death. It included a mixture of improvements to the management of the Syr Darya waters and, crucially, built a dam across the isthmus that used to link the North and South seas. This desperate measure effectively condemned the South, but the results were dramatic. The sea level rose 6 meters, increasing the North’s volume by 68%; salinity returned to levels seen only before 1960 and wildlife appeared out of nowhere, staging a spectacular comeback.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
I was aching to see the sea, but we weren’t there yet. We bounced along a goat’s path dug between wispy bushes, having left the tarmac a few kilometres prior. Around us the dry grassland stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye dared to go. Where it met the sky, the dark blue sky and the tan earth were blurred by dust in suspension. But for yet another herd of camels, we were alone on the road, a mournful Kazakh folk whispering out the car stereo. A graveyard stood on an imperceptible rise of the otherwise perfectly flat ground. Cemeteries, here, looked like small citadels, necropolis of domed chapels enclosed behind brick walls, huddled one against the other like timorous children, crescents sticking out of every cupola. Behind it, glittering in the sun, was the view I’d been waiting for a good twenty years: the Aral Sea.  We rolled along the cemetery, the sea growing larger and larger to our left. It was a serendipitous locale for a graveyard, I thought, directly overlooking the bobbing water, so much so that I couldn’t take my eyes off the water for pretty much the entire journey to Aqespe. We drove on the former seabed, the pre-1960 coastline on my right, bone-dry and virtually lifeless. The view to the left was as different as night is from the day. A narrow band of green shrubs ran to the water’s edge, where birds of all sizes and shapes stomped, stuttered, flew and floated. If there was to be a symbol of the success of the World Bank project, the fluttering of dozens of little wings at the passing of our car had to be it. Ten years ago, the waters were kilometres away from here and the birds nowhere to be seen.
In the great poker game of the North Aral Sea, Aqespe had to be the one who picked up a 2 and a 7, offsuit. It didn’t really look any different from any of the countless mildly dilapidated villages straddling the whole former Soviet Union: a main drag along which houses lied, tossed in a random order, grey with corrugated iron roofs, trees in the back garden and a veggie patch for peppers and gherkins. Except that Aqespe barely had any trees alive, there weren’t any back gardens, veggie patches and those big, yellow pipes that appear pretty much everywhere in Russia. Or perhaps there were, but you couldn’t see them, for something was in the way of everything.
Sand. Sand was everywhere, in dunes and mounds and impalpable coatings on every surface.
As we drove in, Serik told me the story of the place. Aqespe was a village of fishermen and cattle raisers sitting pretty by the seaside; as the water receded, the dust, blowing from the dry seabed, began taking its place and it seemed that it liked Aqespe quite a lot. Dunes began forming, covering the pastures, and the wind brought more and more of it, until it started laying siege to the village. Bulldozers were called in to fight them off but, year after year, Aqespe was being swallowed alive. A new village had been built, away from the lake and the dunes, but a few homes still soldiered on, and even fewer villages had decided to stay.
Serik parked at the edge of town and I got out. Up until then I’d seen dozens of photos of those Namibian mining towns being submerged by the desert, but this time it was happening right before my eyes. It was an experience a lot more profound than what I could experience out of a photo from Africa, and a great deal more unsettling. Sand made up the main road, sand so thin and impalpable that I sank in it as if I was walking in snow. Sand munched contently at the abandoned houses, and erected walls around the few houses that remained inhabited, trenches dug around them to keep them away from a mortal embrace. As I stood at the only junction in Aqespe, it occurred to me that this was the only place I knew of where one had to go downstairs to enter his own house.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Aqespe lived on. A man with a bucket exited the first house on the right, the one that looked like the next likely candidate to a sandy oblivion. I watched him as he watched me, walking with his bucket to a friend squatting atop a large dune behind us. Another man tended to a string of horses to my left, feeding them and stroking their lucid, shiny fur. A little girl and her siblings shrieked with delight as they played in a pen where a dozen Bactrian camels sat and looked at me solemnly behind their long eyelashes.
I wasn’t honestly expecting anyone to be living here; hell, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be wanting to be here, and I certainly didn’t expect any children to be here. The sight of the villagers made a neat crumpled ball of all the motivations for being here I made in the Altair’s dining room, and sent it flying along a perfect arc towards the dustbin labelled “Bullshit”. Fact was, Aqespe made me feel like a gatecrasher at a funeral.
I hobbled up and down the road, already annoyed at having to walk like a demented astronaut in the sand, not daring to imagining a lifetime of that. I looked at the man who was tending to the horses, thought what he could possibly be thinking about me, about these tourists nosing into his village’s misfortunes, and decided to hightail it out of Aqespe. It wasn’t until Serik drove us back to the shoreline that I stopped feeling like an intruder.
Google “Aral Sea” and most of the images returned will be of two kinds: black and white snapshots of waterscapes, and colour pictures of rusting boats stranded in the desert like used props of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Many an Internet source mourned how, one by one, these relics had been met by the flame, being sold by weight to Chinese scrapyards, as if it was a crime for locals to be trying to make a buck out of this misfortune and at the expense of tourists’ photos; long story short, I wasn’t expecting any beached boats to be remaining in the North Aral Sea and, frankly, I was perfectly happy with it. Aqespe had given me enough doom and gloom.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when Serik stopped the Nissan by the water, pointed towards a small hill covered in reeds and empty bottles of President vodka and simply said “Here’s the first one”. I followed the direction of his hand and, indeed, there it was. A rusty hull, some twenty meters long, partially wedged into the coast, prow lapping against the waters of the resurgent sea. I walked towards her, scaring a number of little birds that scattered around, chirping lamentably.
The air smelt of mud, salt and reeds. It echoed with the calls, trills and cries of the birds that loitered on the shore or bobbed along the shallow water, undoubtedly waiting for me to vacate the premises before returning to their occupations. But I still lingered on, for this carcass of a boat was puzzling. Even to someone as clueless to seafaring as myself, she didn’t look like any fishing trawler I’d seen before. She was long and thin, low on the water, with little if any superstructure to speak of, just a long deck with hatchways opening at regular intervals. This I emphatically reported back to Serik once back into the air-conditioned cocoon of the Nissan.
He nodded. “Yes, that was a tanker” he said. A moment of pause, then he asked: “You know about Vozrozhdenya Island, right?” I did. “Well, she used to run supply missions there, gas and diesel”. Vozrozhdenya, Russian for ‘rebirth’, was probably the most inappropriately-named place in the entire globe, a particularly nasty appendix to the already thick volume of Aral-related disasters. Once a small island bang in the middle of the sea, Rebirth island was designed as the location not of a buen retiro for Hare Krishnas, but as the location for the USSR’s most important research and production centre for chemical and biological weapons.
Details about what went down the small, closed town of Kantubek remain sketchy, but over almost 40 years Soviet scientists, who lived there with their families, created, weaponised and stockpiled tons of pathogens – anthrax, bubonic plague, smallpox, brucellosis and more – which was then stored in silos scattered around the island, its remoteness a guarantee of safety.
If only the Soviet economic planners – who clearly hadn’t bothered talking with their Army colleagues – didn’t make Vozrozhdenya become larger and larger, so much so that it linked up with the mainland in the 1980s, when the island became a peninsula. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union melted away and with her the scientists, leaving Kantubek to fall prey of scavengers and its noxious produce at the mercy of whomever knew about it. A US-led mission neutralised tens of tons of material, but how much had simply gone forgotten and still lurked in the sand?
We drove on, leaving the tanker to its rest, the heat dissolving the memories of sea crossings to an island of secretive evils. The coastline offered solace from the dark thoughts of Vozrozhdenya, until a scene worth of the original “Planet of the Apes” appeared. I got off the Nissan and, like Charlton Heston when he approached the remnants of Lady Liberty in the planet that turned to be his future’s Earth, walked to my relic.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
This time it was a trawler, I was sure of it. She lied on its side; the fo’c’sle had gone, but the quarter was still intact, funnel and hatchways eyeing me. I walked closer, imagining how – had I been able to travel back 40 years – I’d be walking on the seabed, looking up the hull of the ship as her sailors hauled in the day’s catch. A loud crack, coming from my feet, startled me. I’d been walking over a sun-hardened, salt-encrusted mud towards the wreck, and in my daydreaming it hadn’t occurred to me that the mud had gone, replaced by shells. Hundreds, thousands, untold numbers of sea shells littered the shore, piled 30-cm-high in a band sneaking parallel to the waters’ edge, a holocaust of mussels offered to the gods of cotton.
A third relic followed soon, whilst we could still see the previous one lying sideways. It was the entire hull of another fishing boat, its above-deck structure gone or never existed in the first place. She lied at a slight angle, aged but nonetheless looking as if she could still take on the sea which now seemed tantalisingly close. I looked admiringly at its forms, but I was growing tired of doom and destruction. There’s just a number of times you can hear “fire and fury” before it loses its ascendant, and I’d reached precisely that point. I stopped looking at the rusting hull and began noticing other things, signs of rebirth that had so far escaped the spotlight.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Minnows swam furiously in the shallows, joined by other small critters who zoomed back and forth in the brackish waters. Unperturbed by my presence, birds who nested in the ship’s hull flew out of the peepholes or scampered along the muddy banks, picking the critters one at the time. Up above, flocks of larger birds cruised in the blue sky: honing their V-formation, dive-bombing into the sea, or gently caressing the waters before settling for the smoothest landing. I couldn’t see them, but I could feel the presence of fish in the waters of the sea; besides that, Serik had told me that, out of pretty much nowhere, fishing had reappeared and that last year 7,000 tonnes were caught by fisheries all around the North Aral Sea. The dive-bombing birds added to the tally.
I left the rusting legacy of disaster and returned to the car rather contently. From then on, it was only nature; harsh, perhaps unforgiving at times, but nature nonetheless. Villages like Zhalanash, once known for their boat graveyard, looked happier without them, free to be roamed by splendid horses and inquisitive camels, whilst everyone else waited for the sea to return. Outside, the wispy scrubland continued and we bounced along dirt tracks into the steppe; sometimes within sight of the water, sometimes far. The land was big and endless, a flyspeck of the ocean of grassland that started in Mongolia and wouldn’t end until Hungary. I’d seen, on the way there, “Hell or High Water” and it reminded me of the Texan panhandle I’d never seen. I started whistling to myself some Chris Stapleton, but my attempts to exert any influence whatsoever on Serik’s musical choices fell short. A truly post-Soviet flow of hardbass, Kazakh folk and, unfortunately, “Despacito” continued unabated.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
We crossed an imperceptible corrugation of the ground. A tree and a skeletal palisade sheltered an abandoned cemetery, a scene that cried out for a John Ford location scout. Behind it, the horizon was so vast that it felt like I could see the curvature of the planet. On the left, a grey blur: Aralsk, its twin cranes barely visible; on the right, a silvery twinkle: the extreme avant-garde of the returning Aral Sea. Twenty-five kilometres separated them; just 10 years ago, it was seventy-five. Aralsk slept in the heat of the early afternoon. Serik drove in town whilst I still day-dreamed about the birds flying above the water. He spoke of seeing the lake for the first time, of having to borrow a car from friends to see the lake, which he – born and bred in Aralsk – had never seen. I asked him about how it felt when he finally met it, a good drive out of Zhalanash, looking its worst before the onset of the project. “It was great to see the water, but also very sad”. Now, he said, it was better and, should the project be complete, it’d be only a matter of years before Aralsk harbour. “I’d love to see that”, I said. He smiled like a Cheshire cat. “I’ll sure let you know” he beamed, before driving off. Around me, Aralsk snoozed.
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22 Responses to Disaster by design: the death and partial rebirth of the Aral Sea (Part 2).

  1. J.D. Riso says:

    Another fine account, Fabrizio. Nature always finds a way to bounce back. The Soviets sure made a mess of Central Asia. Such stark beauty in the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anna says:

    A great read. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. erinwrote says:

    What a striking landscape!! Love the descriptors – “gate crasher at a funeral,” “demented astronaut”! I’m fascinated by that cemetery, how hauntingly poetic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks Erin for reading, I thought I’d gone a bit too far with those similitudes, but I’m glad at least one person liked them (and thanks for reading from Hargeisa, I know it’s really cheesy but I like seeing “one view from Somalia!” in my map).
      On a slightly serious note, I really loved those Kazakh cemeteries; I wanted to have a wander around, but it seemed that the British/European habit of just casually strolling to a cemetery and having a walk wasn’t that well understood and I didn’t feel like breaking local customs.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. equinoxio21 says:

    A unique journey to a dying sea…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave Ply says:

    Desolate imagery. It’s amazing how much mankind can screw things up. At least someone accepts there’s a problem and is trying to fix it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lexklein says:

    I know I shouldn’t, but I feel worse after reading part 2! Of course, I’m happy that some recovery has been made, but the village, the sand, the abandoned vessels, the cemetery … all have such melancholy looks. I’m happy to read about the wildlife, though, and hope that in less than that fateful 25 years, the sea can make a full comeback.

    (Oh, and “Despacito” is everywhere; there’s no escaping it. And why try – it’s kind of fun! Hey, I just cheered myself up!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Yes, I see your point, I’ve felt sort of the same on that day. Plus, seeing how damn BIG the steppe is made quite an impression on me. See the photos of the camels, or of the cemeteries with that small cliff behind? Well, if I was to walk towards that direction there’d be 4/500 km of absolutely nothing before reaching Zhezkazgan. Incidentally, that’s where the Soyuz land since there’s no danger of hitting anyone. It just blew my mind and intimidated the hell out of me. As for Despacito… argh!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dalo 2013 says:

    The photos drew me in, and the writing is simply fantastic. A start to something beautiful.


  8. A fine transfer of emotions, vistas and history. Plus films, and ending on the plus side. Can’t beat the feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The Rover says:

    Is it possible to contact Serik to arrange a tour? If so, how?


    Liked by 1 person

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