Singapore in technicolour.

Expat life. If there is such a thing, my half-a-week in Singapore, was precisely that. No sybaritic luxury and champagne breakfast; rather, restaurants on the East shore park, coconuts, cab rides even to do one kilometre and the shuffle heat-aircon-heat-aircon-pool in the condo. It smells boring, yet it’s a life that takes surprisingly little effort to adapt to. I’ll be back on the topic, but in the meantime here are a couple of snaps from the artificially-coloured corner of the city dedicated to “ethnic authenticity”.

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The future smells of pork noodles.

Five hours in the world’s largest city. Twenty-four million inhabitants, three times and change the size of Luxembourg, and all I’ve got is five hours to dip my toe in this behemoth of a pool. I walk out of Pudong Terminal 2’s arrivals, rolling superlatives on the tip of my tongue like the whisky I savoured before landing, the rock n’ roll breakfast. Eleven thousand buildings higher than thirty storeys. The second-tallest skyscraper in the world. Fourteen lines of metro, three hundred and sixty four stations, five hundred kilometres of tracks. The largest port in the world for container traffic. And I’ve got five hours – hang on, it’s taken a little while at passport control. I’ve now got four hours forty in Shanghai. It’s such a preposterous commitment that I cannot avoid feeling excited about it. It’s when you’re bound to fail that you can truly have fun.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
It’s odd to be gliding into town at the speed of four hundred and thirty kilometres per hour, suspended over the delicate interlocking of opposing magnetic fields alimented by strong electric current. Maglev, the technology of future, is already here in Shanghai, and it feels as if it’s been here a while. So long, in fact, that it’s had the time to grow a bit shabby. The concrete pillars on which we rumble are weather-worn. The white panels on the train have turned yellowish under the beating of the sun. The seat covers, so delightfully démodé in their fake-silk appearance, are creased and mangy. The cushions are sagging. Still, it’s clocking 430 km/h, the display shows, whilst the Piccadilly Line can’t manage a week without shivering, curling up into a tiny ball and dying for the day.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Exit six of Longyang metro station catapults me back a picture-perfect view of the world in future sense. This is the opening of Blade Runner with an optimist as director: cool breeze, blue sky in which puffy white clouds cruise and a parade of the most outlandish buildings ever designed not for use as background in Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. I leave the last whiffs of sweet & sour pork in the bowels of the metro station, and climb upstairs.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
An elevated platform runs between the palisade of highrises, darting in and out of a shopping centre that smells of delicate eau de toilette, crammed with boutiques peddling Vertu phones and other brands that I don’t recognise but that, inevitably, exude prestige, finesse and price tags that I couldn’t afford getting near to, not even when declined in Yuans. I walk on, mouth gaping wide in awe, but luckily I’m not the only one. Chinese visitors – city burghers from the suburbs, tourists from inland, coarse hands and wind-swept faces – amble about and behave pretty much in the same way, save for shooting selfies in full-automatic bursts. Stacked against a backdrop of skyscrapers, pensioners toss away the umpteenth cigarette butt before giving their personal interpretation of Zoolander’s Blue steel another workout.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
The centrepiece of this whole zone is a triumvirate of giants. Jin Mao Tower is the tiniest of the lot, yet at three hundred and eighty meters and change it’s taller than anything in the whole of Western Europe; if it was a man, London’s Shard would barely scratch his armpits. Shanghai World Financial Centre is the largest bottle opener, a whole half a klick of glass and steel. Finally, the newly finished Shanghai Tower, a whole hundred meters taller than its neighbour. Fifteen years ago, not a single one of them existed. Fact is, fifteen years ago pretty much nothing of what is around me today existed. When you live in such a quickly accelerating city it’s easy to amble on Memory Lane, I reason, wondering whether the old man who’s puffing fags on my right is reminiscing about the old times when everyone just had a bicycle and a Mao-style pyjama. Or perhaps he’s just thinking about his doctor’s appointment.
Three queues – four, I beg your pardon – deliver me to the 118th floor of Shanghai Tower, following a ride on, as the bored-out-of-his-mind operator said, “the world’s fastest lift”. It’s good to know that, somewhere, there’s somebody measuring this sort of things. Sleek dark polished deck, floor-to-ceiling windows offer what real estate view would undoubtedly call ‘unparalleled views’ above the city larger than Luxembourg three times and change. Twenty-four million people huff and puff, wheel and deal, below us, together with the world’s largest container port. From up here the magnificent palisade of Pudong appears a collection of Lego.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Up above, around me, are dozens of other men and women. I hear Spanish being talked, together with Hebrew, German and English, but first and foremost it’s Chinese. Teenagers update their Instagram statuses, or whichever micro-blogging platform is in use over here, families put together a group photo, yoga clubs practice a choreography in front a photographer hired for the occasion. I, however, am drawn towards a group of four elderlies, three men and a lady, with their portable stools and walking sticks. They are perched against the glass in a direction facing away from the rest of the skyscrapers, away from the city centre, towards a rather nondescript slice of urban sprawl. I move on, liking to think they’re up here trying to locate the whereabouts of the old shikumen where they grew up.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Another ride on the world’s fastest elevator, a quick dip in the metro and on the Maglev and I’m back to Pudong. Sitting on a metal chair I watch a family unfolding a studiously packed lunch, iPhone and other modern paraphernalia momentarily forgotten. As the smell of food floats through the terminal – inevitably, it’s again sweet & sour pork – I can’t help but reflecting that this family is as good a personification of Shanghai as it gets. Modern, bursting at the seams with cutting-edge technology but inhabited nonetheless by people, people with portable cookers where soy sauce and other ingredients slowly cook meat and noodles, people who still squat underneath the tall skyscrapers to pick up herbs, grown in studiously landscaped gardens, to be used in their grandparents’ recipes.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
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Shanghai stopover.

Five hours to kill before boarding for Singapore, one trip into town and the discovery that, out of all my music on the iPad, only one has survived an iOS update, many thanks Tim Cook. Still, it’s from Les Sages Poètes de la Rue. Somehow it fits with Pudong and even if it didn’t, it’s the only song I’ve got to listen to.
 La loi de la jungle tue, si tu es pas roi tu es perdu.

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Goodbye for now, Italy!

As with most good things (and luckily a fair few bad ones), it all must come to an end. On a nice day in September, the sky akin to Microsoft’s Windows 98 screen saver, we gave the car back to the Milan airport rental company and flew home. As cheesy as it might sound, the last record played by the car stereo before we turned it off one last time, 1,600 kms after we took it, was Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t stop. So, in true Grand Tour fashion (think the Amazon show, not the toffs heading to Italy to catch syphilis and cirrhosis), here’s a series of galleries of what we saw in the rest of our Tuscan journey. Just whistle don’t stop thinking about tomorrow as you flicker through them. As usual, open on any photo to start the slideshow.
Stormy Burano, a couple of views from Giudecca and a Canal Grande sunset, just because it’d be rude not to.
Ferrara, land of sweet accents, tan bricks and bicycles. It’s not a coincidence if Marco Pantani, the unforgettable Pirata, was born in this region.
Tuscany: San Giminiano, with its quirky art, tourists and painters; Pienza, smelling of Popery as the Protestants would say; Montalcino and its Siena Republic’s sign, and finally San Quirico.
And at last, Siena. Where the Contrade are the real deal.
That’s it from Italy. It’s been great to come back and visit.
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Chaos theory applied to abbeys.

Sometimes you don’t make it, sometimes you break it. Ian Malcom explained it in Jurassic Park, circa 1993. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine. 
A single valley, two abbeys, the same Medieval overlords. One – Sant’Antimo – is still busy, its nave echoing with recorded Gregorian chants, its Benedictine monks officiating mass at least twice a day, a shop selling honey and beer and olive oil. The other, San Galgano, is a different matter.

We are alone in the car park. We hardly met anyone on the road either, heavy downpours our only companions. The hills stop the radio reception and, after a few minutes of static, we’ve turned it off. My mind plays a song telling the story of Sarajevo’s library fire. Apt.

Galgano Guidotti, to quote from the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, was a man before he was a saint, and a had a lot to answer to the Almighty by the time their meeting would’ve been due. Death, murder, rape and pillage to be precise, part and parcel of the job description of a medieval knight. Mindful of that, one fine day in the mid-to-late XII century Galgano sunk his sword in a stone, where it still stands, and became a hermit. Cistercian monks followed suit.

We are the first in the Abbey. Birds echo through the open windows and doors of the chapter house. A busload of pensioners from Ferrara was inbound, but still they linger outside, their driver being reprimanded by the ticket staff for having parked his behemoth too close. A diesel engine starts, the bus driving away.

San Galgano Abbey quickly made a name for itself. It became the largest landholder in the area, giving work to hundreds of monks and families. It appeared in Siena’s records; initially sporadically, then frequently as the spiritual power of the abbey grew increasingly political.

A cobbled path led away from the chapter house into the church. A side door opened in the flank of the giant building.


A hundred meters long, San Galgano’s abbey church stands empty, its roof the frowning Tuscan sky. Pebbles creak below us, pigeons flutter from one window to the other, wind drafts dance from mullions to trifore whence stained glass had broken away centuries before us.

It’d happened quickly. In 1328 a famine hit the abbey, then twenty years later came plague. The Black Death didn’t decimate the population; it cut it by four-fifths.  Those who survived then had to deal with marauding armies of mercenaries. At the turn of the century only eight monks remained. Less than two centuries later, San Galgano was abandoned.
What could possibly explain the demise of San Galgano and not of the other tens of abbeys, nunneries and monasteries dotting the hills of Siena province? Surely there were political, economic, sociologic reasons behind the abbey’s death. Wrong choices, scarce resilience, perhaps its fame accelerated its demise. Or, perhaps, it was as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking.

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Of the intrinsic beauty and harmonious forms of Tuscan hills.

I come from a region where the land is alternatively very flat – filled with rice paddies, corn fields and factories – or very mountainous. There’s really not much of an alternative; it’s either flat as a ruler or climbs to 2,000 meters in 5 km. So, whilst I appreciated the generic idea of rolling hills in Tuscany, crowned by cypresses and dotted with manors where the likes of Sting can wear red trousers and savour the fruit of his hectares of Sassicaia, it always felt a bit mythical to me, like finding an Audi driver that won’t tailgate on the motorway, or a solicitor that won’t overcharge you. You get the idea.
Then I found this.

Now, I will admit that this isn’t the most flattering of the photos – and how could it be, considered I did it whilst clocking a tad bit more than the 70 advertised on that funny round sign over there – but it was the first sighting that, yes, the Sting-manor-Sassicaia scenario could indeed be real. It’s an ugly photo, but bear with me, for it contains everything I was to admire for the following days. A sky dotted with clouds. Light playing around on the nude hill-sides. The soft contours of the land, making them almost alive, like the muscle of some sleeping beast. Empty roads. It only could get better.
Outside San Quirico d’Orcia lied a small chapel, Vitaleta. If you Google it, like we did, you’ll find a sequence of images as Tuscan as a half cigar, a glass of potent red or a swearword involving the Virgin Mary, poisonous snakes and some lady of ill repute (seriously). So one day, nice and early, that’s where we went. For a while it was only us, the bees, a tractor far away, some insects and a posse of swallows dive-bombing to feast on the flying bugs.

And there she was. In typical Are We There Yet? fashion we’d arrived from the wrong way, getting to see the back of the chapel rather than the more august front, but I’ve never been one for doing things properly, ever. The air was warm yet not oppressively so, the sky echoed with the shrills of the birds and a faint breeze brought some distant smell of vegetation. Far to the west massive clouds rolled around, bringing the large thunderstorms that were to hit us later in the evening. I wondered with apprehension at the erosion on the hills; I’d just discovered them and didn’t feel them to be turned into yet another copy of Vercelli province.

I shouldn’t have worried. The glorious Tuscan hills continued in all directions throughout Val d’Orcia, and perhaps even further. Some donned a thick shawl of bushes and trees, some stood bare-shouldered, some were half-and-half. A few had some lucky person’s house plucked on top, many a whole village and a couple a luxury resort where the likes of Sting could host their friends should they ever run out of visitors’ rooms. All of them were a beauty to behold and a joy to drive around.
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Venezia people watching.

I came to Venezia expecting it to be a slightly less polished version of EuroDisney, a Hogwarts-styled theme park caught in a flood, inhabited only by visitors brandishing iPhones and Instagram accounts named “Eat-Pray-Love89”. As it turned out, that wasn’t to be the case and we found the delicate, sing-along sounding Venetian accent echoing pretty much everywhere we went.
Please note I’ve written sounding. Venetians – and the Veneti, those from the wider Veneto region – are amongst Italy’s most prolific swearers, so much so that cursing could be considered a form of art over there. Pets, uncles, deities, mothers, retarded nephews; nothing is safe from a torrential burst of profanities in Veneto, and it’s done with such naturalness, spontaneity and flair that even the most upright of the toffs wouldn’t be able to take offence at that. And if he did, then he’d better return whence he’d come from.
Epithets aside, people-watching in Venezia turned out to be remarkably more interesting than I’d ever thought, and it took us along routes we’d never thought. We might’ve been sitting in Calle Scaleta, looking at the house whence one Marco Polo left for his China, and we’d casually eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in the cicchetteria where we were drinking spritz, about the acqua alta SMS not being sent, or the app not sending notifications for yesterday’s tide surge.
We took the poor man’s gondola, the No. 1 ACTV vaporetto along the Canal Grande, after having witnessed, amongst hysteric bursts of laughter, a blonde youth cursing the helmsman of the boat he’d just missed (together with his dog, the boat and the omnipotent) in a remarkably feat of freestyle dissing. We chugged along the Canale, past manors where Mazzini, Wagner and Byron lived, died or both. Around us, city life took to the waters: gondole, speedboats, even the fire brigade cruised along the Canale. At the helm of their boats Venetians developed even more swagger, more savoir-faire, than the impressive amount already displayed by their countrymen whilst at the wheel of an Audi – on the fast lane, that goes without saying – of the A4 motorway.
Once back on the ground we stalked a Romanian couple’s nuptial photoshoot. It turned out the groom wasn’t too keen on being photographed by anyone but the contracted artist.
Terra firma – as firm as it could be on these islands made of tree trunks stuck into the lagoon – was also where the water commuters ended when they weren’t busy sailing, smooth and cool like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Even without their feet wet, I had to concede, they looked no less at ease.
Murano and Burano, off Venezia proper, were provincial Italy meets the lagoon. Men stopped for an impromptu chat whilst their dogs sniffed around at their feet. Suited and booted art dealers stood outside their gallerias, awaiting the impending stream of tourist to come. Pensioners stood on the doorstep of their homes, whilst tourists snapped photos of one another on the bridges linking one pavement to the other. In the corners, tacky adverts – because all ads in smalltown Italy have an element of tackiness in them – flapped in the wind together with the day’s laundry.
Back in Venezia, men ambled along the windswept walkways running besides the Canale della Giudecca. Kids, too, made an appearance; free from the day’s lessons at school they ran around on hoverboards or, more traditionally, they played football in the square.

In the meantime, by the fish market, a small dog was finding all this way too dramatic.

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Delirious Venezia.

Thirty-one years, all of which in possess of a passport marked “Repubblica Italiana”, and I had never been to Venezia. I visited Hanoi, Dušanbe and Charlotte, North Carolina, but never made it to the city at the end of the Veneto lagoon. That had to change somehow.

Venezia brought memories of Istanbul by the bucketful. Not just because of the spontaneity of waterborne commuting, or because of obvious historic ties, but for me it was because of something else. Much like many of Istanbul’s neighbourhoods – Fener, Balat, Galata, Kuzguncuk – Venezia’s sestieri seemed designed to get lost into, and we very much obliged.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Roads made of smooth stone slabs, bridges of bricks and granite. Green water, mould-patched walls from which windows of all shapes and sizes opened. Spun roundels, semi-circular, lancet or ogee: all sort of arcs were present in Venezia, often in the same building. This architectural mixing, intertwining and crossbreeding was a fitting similitude for what happened here on many fronts. Placed as it was at the busiest crossroads of the world, Venezia made the world theirs.
Rarely crossing paths with other tourists – or any other pedestrian, for that matter – we began noticing details. Everything, not just commuting, happened on water. Supermarket deliveries, taxi services, rubbish collection – with recycling ferociously adhered to – and all those wheelings and dealings that, anywhere else, would be accomplished by marauding white vans happened, in Venezia, by boat.

Because, after all, Venezia was a real city. Or, as the green banner say, una vera città.

Walking around Dorsoduro, Sant’Elena or even Rialto, it was hard to think Venezia could ever be submerged by tourists, but one needn’t scouting too hard to find apt clues of their passage. In Italy the No-Tutto “no to everything” season hadn’t gone away yet, but for once the No Grandi Navi was a campaign I could subscribe to, especially after seeing mammoth cruise ships trundle along the Giudecca canal.

Details continued to bounce to our eyes. Slowly, Venezia reveals another side of her – because, like Istanbul, Venezia is a she, a great dame – character. A quirky note, made of street art: irreverent and subtly critical art, taking as many forms as one could wish or imagine, and then some more. For instance, it could be a jest aimed at the American presence in Vicenza and Aviano, Saluti da Vicenza, “Greetings from Vicenza” says the bombing airplane.

Or it could be a caricature of those tourists who clog only selected piazze and calli.
Modern economy didn’t escape the hand of the unnamed artist. The euro has now replaced Mark the Evangelist’s Gospel, and the lion sported a sinister, reptile, grin. Euro tuum vitae meae.

It wasn’t a recent phenomenon either. Past and present of street art intermingled, and nowhere this was more visible than in a piazza where an indie drawing had been sticked above a faded hammer and sickle, all within spitting distance from a church parvise. It didn’t get any more Italian than that.

Sometimes it was art for the sake of art, perhaps with a nod to the city’s past, such as the pigeon wearing the Plague Doctor’s mask. And why not? It didn’t necessarily have to be political, or denouncing this or that. I found myself liking these little chef d’oeuvres intensely, for they added a subdued, unobtrusive touch of beauty to hidden corners of a city that had plenty of the good stuff.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Walking the Ghetto Nuovo, a mere teenager at 501 years of age, we wondered whether street art didn’t date any older than the last decade, whether today’s stickers, drawings and photos were indeed a baton passed from previous centuries, a tradition spanning ages, cultures and religions.
Whatever the answer, street art seemed positively alive and kicking in Venezia. And when streets ended and canals began, it did what everyone else in town did: it, too, took to the water.

 

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Disaster by design: the death and partial rebirth of the Aral Sea (Part 3).

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.
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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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