I’d expected the whistling undertaker from For a Fistful of Dollars to be appearing at every corner I turned. I was to experience this feeling again, in Central Asia, but Aralsk looked – even smelt, if that was ever possible – the part of a Sergio Leone Western village before a Mexican stand-off.
It was two in the afternoon and the thermometer app on my phone chirped happily that it was +38 Celsius and that I should stay hydrated and get some sunscreen on. A hot breeze blew dust from the sidewalks into the street. Buildings and trees drew shadows so neat that I could only guess, not see, the men squatting in the shadows of the Aral Hotel, boarded up like I expected. A boy, looking like an extra in a Japanese cartoon, peddled past me. Nothing else stirred.
A gate with a lock led to the smallest city park I’d ever seen. Four benches along a path, two of which in the shadow, and both laden with elderly men staring impassibly at me. The path led past them and then turned left; Serik told me to follow it. I nodded to the men and walked on. A rather incongruous log house, of the kind one’d be expecting to see in the tundra, lied to the left. The city’s museum, shut. Around it, painted gaudily in the colours of a Russian flag, were three fishing boats, monuments to the dead harbour which, as Serik promised, lied just behind.
A tall concrete wall severed the port from the city itself but here, behind the boat, was an unlikely first row seat to the oddest spectacle, a prime spot to witness what sort of plague mankind could be when it really gave it its damnest.
Aralsk harbour descended quickly from the margin where I stood. How deep? Six, eight, ten meters? It arched wide into a vast gulf that then opened to a sea that wasn’t there yet – or anymore – depending on your level of optimism. On the near side stood the two cranes I’d seen before, together with store rooms and depots. On the far side the gutted shell of the cannery rusted away quietly, a testament to the thousands of fishing jobs deemed less valuable than those brought by cotton. A few meters away from me, a handful of cows munched serenely on the scrubs growing on the harbour’s slope.
As I stood there watching my mind brought me to an episode of my childhood. It was a winter evening and my mum and I had gone to the local pool to pick up my brother from his swimming practice. It was a day as different from today as it could be – cold, misty, dark, with lampposts glowing yellow in the fog – and we were early.
The pool complex had been built in the 1920s, in a rigorous Fascist style and, were it not for the music in the café where we waited, the flipper in the corner and the fact that any possible memory of the Ventennio had been chiselled away from the walls, you could still think to be in that period, when children were expected to be men in all but height.
The café, where mum and I waited, looked directly above the empty Olympic swimming pool. To my five-year-old eyes the sloping depths of the pool and its glistening porcelain perfection felt endless, mysterious and somewhat menacing. It was a feeling I wasn’t to taste again until some 25 years later, as I stood on the cusp of Aral’s dried-up harbour.
How could that happen? How was it possible for a port to run dry, for a sea to all but disappear and for the Book of Revelations to add a new chapter without anyone raising concerns, pounding the alarm or demonstrating dissent? I asked that to Serik, and I was immediately, politely, reminded that I was matching a democracy with an autocratic police state. Concerns had been raised, medical reports – especially from Uzbekistan’s Karalpakstan district – urgently raised, but no action was taken from Moscow. Cotton was deemed to be too strategic and, besides, the USSR’s environmental record was appalling anyway. “The decline of the Aral Sea was expected and [the cotton policy was] deemed a positive outcome” wrote Kristopher White in the Journal of Eurasian Studies. And that, as they say, was that.
I ate at one of the two restaurants recommended by Serik. A nondescript house without so much of a sign, standing opposite the Aral Hotel. The menu filled three pages of dense Cyrillic but only a handful of items were available; still, the chicken was tender and flavourful, the vegetables fresh and the fries had been cut and cooked by hand, rather than coming straight out of an industrial frozen pack. I felt the other clients’ gaze – all six of them – for the whole time. It was neither threatening nor hostile, just laden with curiosity and unasked questions. I felt it whilst I tucked into the chicken, the vegetables and the fries. I felt it as I dipped the hard bread into the meat sauce. I felt them looking at me as I drank Tassay water from the bottle, forgetting the glass left beside the plate by the gold-toothed waitress. And, as I stood up, gave a crumpled 1000 tenge note and waved away the change I felt them registering my every move.
I ambled about the deserted main square for a while, eyeing the I Love Aral sign and the monument to the glorious dead of the 1941-45 conflict, the list of name impossibly long for such a small place, as is the case in almost every ex-Soviet village I visited. Somewhere to my right, a train siren blew. Two women walked across the square.
Aralsk continued half-heartedly towards the railway station, a mixture of horticultural splendour and post-industrial decay. Neat flowerbeds ran parallel to the road along which I walked, drinking the last sips of the Tassay and kicking up dust, past statues holding enormous tulips and flower bouquets. A picture perfect bandstand lied prettily amongst delicate rose bushes in full bloom, a path leading to a statue depicting a gigantic one tenge coin. Behind them, the outer wall and gutted shell of a factory quietly crumpled away.
A nightclub was up next; it was shut down, for it was way too early, but still looked seedy enough with its promises of VIP lounges. It was followed by a mosque, the one whose minarets I’d seen from the overpass in the morning, ill-fitting gold-plated tiles glimmering on its dome and minarets. A crowd stood on the shady steps of the attached community centre, and they all turned round to look at my passing like spectators to the smallest, slowest Tour de France ever. I nodded at them and brought my right hand over my heart; they all responded in kind.
It was hot outside, but it was even hotter in my room. A white air conditioning unit had been mounted, protruding incongruously out of the dark green-and-brown tapestry, but no amount of cajoling succeeded in getting it to work; the air remained immobile, stifling and still. I felt I could hear the sound of drops of sweat working their way through the coating of dust and salt that had covered me like a shroud. I left again, seeking breeze and shadow.
The station’s first platform promised both as well as the unexpected spectacle of two men guiding a cow across the tracks and into the building, but it also came with the company of a woman who decided I was to be the audience of her stream of consciousness. I sat next to her listening to a deluge of Kazakh I couldn’t understand, but for a few words. “Nursultan Nazarbayev”. “Rossyia”. “Sit down my friend”. On and on she went, waving her hands and smiling, whilst my eyes ran up and down her arms where dozens of thin parallel scars ran from side to side of her sun-tanned skin. Eventually a train arrived and she boarded. Aralsk station plunged back deep into silence.
Saturday night in Aralsk. As the sun fell the nightclub opened, not looking any less seedy than it was before; both restaurants I’d been recommended were, instead, shut. A crowd of thirty-or-so teenagers congregated at the railway station square, below the wooden galleon. They didn’t bother checking me out as they set up a sound system based out of an impeccably kept, aubergine-purple Lada sedan and began dancing to the hardbass blasting out of the car’s open windows and doors. I went to sleep with that unlikely lullaby, and it still went on when I left the Altair at 5 AM, heading for the station.
Aralsk disappeared into darkness as I fashioned a comfy cocoon out of my third-class berth. I arrived in town without a clear expectation of what was waiting in store, and even now as the train rolled out I wasn’t too sure I understood what I’d seen. Images of yesterday played through my mind like diapositive. The shores of the Sea, birds: rebirth, recovery, the future. Aqespe, Aralsk: abandonment, disaster, the past. The villages, I reasoned as I was lullabied into a deep sleep by the swaying train, reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino: a man reacting to hardship not by becoming mournful and mellow but, rather, by turning tough, tougher than he’d thought he could ever be. And I couldn’t deny feeling a pinch of admiration for that.