Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kazakhstan 2018


It took two full days to get here from Almaty, but the journey was worth it.  My day exploring the northern shoreline of the Aral Sea has been fabulous – like walking through the photographs of a beautifully written, well-illustrated Geography textbook (you know what I mean!).

Last night’s sleep in the Hotel Altair was not the best I have ever had.  The noises outside the hotel and in the next room continued for much of the night, the bed was uncomfortable because of lumpy springs protruding through the surface, and the hard pillow was simply ridiculous (measuring almost a metre square and 20 cm in thickness.  I managed to get a couple of sheets thrown into my hand for me to lay on the bed myself, but when I did so, it became evident that both sheets were about 60cm too short and 60cm too narrow to cover the top surface of the mattress (which of course also made tucking anything in impossible).

After a simple breakfast of three hard boiled eggs, three slabs of butter, eight slices of stale bread (I didn’t eat them all!) and a pot of green tea, I set off with my new driver, Serik, at a little after 9:00am.  Unlike yesterday’s driver, who spoke no English, Serik was nearly fluent in English and keen to show me some of the interesting geography of the Aral Sea.  As readers of beautifully written, well-illustrated Geography textbooks know, the Aral Sea is one of the world’s environmental catastrophes as over-use of scarce water from the two tributary rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.  Over-allocation of water resources began during Soviet times chiefly (but not exclusively) for irrigated cotton growing upstream in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  As a result of the water shortages, the Aral Sea has been shrinking for almost half a century, exposing toxic materials on the sea bed which become airborne, decimating the once flourishing fishing industries in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and changing the climate of the region for the worse.

Today’s drive followed much of the northern shoreline of the Aral Sea, or more precisely, we spent much of the day driving on what used to be the seabed of the Aral Sea to the west of Aralsk.  The road was certainly rough and bumpy, but would anyone expect otherwise from a recently exposed seabed?  The rough ride was worth it though for the great insights it provided.  The first stop was at Sarishiginak, which used to be on the Aral Sea shoreline but which is now several kilometres inland from it.  Sarishiginak was a major fish receiving station, located there because a deep channel allowed ships to come right in to the shore.  The fish receiving station closed in the mid-1970s when the shoreline moved south, but the collapsing concrete shell of the building and the wharf foundations remain, looking forlornly across the former harbour which is now just a bare salt-encrusted plain.

Although there were many areas of salt pans visible where the Aral Sea used to be, the good news is that regeneration is seeing the waters of the northern part of the Aral Sea (the Kazakh section) expand once again and salinity levels decline.  Serik has done work with Danish and Kazakh researchers on the Aral Sea, and he commented that in the 1990s, the salinity level was about 22 grams per cublic metre of water.  Today, the salinity level is just 5-6 grams per cublic metre, while at the dam (that I will be visiting tomorrow), the salinity level is just 1-2 grams per cublic metre.

Driving further to the west we came to Zhalanash (population 750), one of the several fishing villages that used to be on the shoreline but which now finds itself several kilometres away from the water.  All the villages in the area still rely heavily on fishing, but it is less convenient now because of the additional travel involved.  On the other hand, as the northern part of the Aral Sea is being restored, the fishing industry (which had declined markedly with the shrinking surface area and increased salinity levels) is once again prosperous, and the reliance on a few hard-to-catch saltwater varieties of fish has given way to a relative abundance of easy-to-catch freshwater varieties of fish.

Until a few years ago, Zhalanash had a ‘ship graveyard’ of abandoned fishing vessels that had been left high and dry when the waters of the Aral Sea retreated, somewhat similar to the one I had visited in Moynaq in 2006.  Zhalanash had twelve abandoned vessels, but in the period 2007 to 2015, local people cut them up systematically and sold the metal as scrap to earn income.  Today, Zhalanash has no abandoned ships, and even the places where they used to be show very few signs of the ships that once lay there.

Fortunately for those who are interested in this phenomenon, four abandoned ships do remain further to the west, although the residents of Zhalanash recently heard about them and they have started the process of cutting them up for removal as well.  All four boats are within a few kilometres of each other, and rather than being completely surrounded by desert scrubland like the vessels at Moynaq and Zhalanash, they rest on the rising shoreline of the Aral Sea that is encroaching once again into the dry land it abandoned several decades ago.

I made a stop at each of the four remaining vessels, all of which are more battered and damaged than the largely intact vessels I saw and photographed at Moynaq twelve years ago.

The most westerly stop on today’s drive was the small village of Akespe.  Akespe was interesting for two reasons.  First, it is home to a hot spring that was being used by several local Kazakh families for bathing.  The water is indeed hot (62 degrees Celsius), and feeds a colourful algae bloom that is reminiscent of those found at Yellowstone National Park in the US, although much smaller in scale.  I confess to not knowing why the hot spring is there, as the area isn’t noted for having underground geothermal activity, but Serik told me it has been there since the mid-1970s when it was discovered during drilling operations.

The second reason that Akespe is interesting is that the town is slowly being covered by the shifting sands of dunes that became activated when the waters of the Aral Sea fell, exposing the sandy deposits that became mobilised in the strong prevailing winds that blow across Kazakhstan’s wide steppes.  The remains of several houses that had been destroyed were clearly seen, while several other houses were in the process of burial, with the owners in some cases frantically trying to keep the shifting sands at bay.  Even the main street (actually, the town’s only street) was a few metres deep in sand, making walking difficult despite the many firmer patches of deep camel dung that provided some relief to the lose sand.

On today’s drive, I saw various herds of camels, horses, cattle and goats, which led me to ask what they are all used for – for example, are camels used for transport, milk or meat?  It turns out that all these animals are raised almost solely for meat production; motor bikes rather than camels and horses are used these days for transport.  Apparently, the consensus in Kazakhstan is that the best meat is horse, followed by camel, followed by beef cattle, although it is acknowledged that if you have guests, you will slaughter a sheep in their honour.

I had a one hour walk around town after returning to Aralsk, this time to the area known as the Old Port.  Before the Aral Sea retreated, Aralsk was a major port city.  In honour of this past history, local officials have preserved four fishing vessels that had been abandoned on dry land as the waters retreated, painting them in Russia’s national colours (!) and placing them in a small park along the street from the former Hotel Aral.  The park overlooks the old port, which is now a flat plain covered by green scrubby bushes, but overlooking the plain are two of the old cranes used at the docks for loading and unloading the ships.  It is a nicely appropriate ‘nod’ to the city’s past economy and history, something that may yet be repeated if the proposals to raise the dam wall by a further six metres come to fruition.

Rather than returning to the Hotel Altair this evening, Serik arranged homestay accommodation for me.  The change is delightful in every way.  The house is occupied by a lady whose eldest son, who studies medicine at a university in western Kazakhstan (11 hours away by train) is presently home on the final days of his annual summer break.  The lady speaks no English, but her son does, and we had a delightful dinner time conversation over her wonderful home cooking of potatoes with beef, accompanied by fresh home-baked bread and black tea.  The house is in a quiet part of town (but closer to the town centre than last night’s hotel), the room is spacious (it contains three beds plus a table and two chairs), and the shared bathroom at the other end of the house is said to have hot water.

Oh, and the internet works too, now that this afternoon’s power blackout is over.

I am fairly confident that tonight’s sleep will be an improvement on last night’s, and a home-cooked meal with family conversation made a great start.

Day 3

Aral Sea around Akespe


29 August 2018