Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kazakhstan 2018


What a difference a good night’s sleep makes. In my nice, quiet, spacious homestay accommodation, I managed to get an excellent sleep last night and woke feeling quite refreshed despite the long, dusty day yesterday.  After a very short shower that made full use of the family’s limited remaining hot water, I sat down to a lovely breakfast of greasy omelette, pressed meat and thinly sliced cheese with home-made bread and jam, accompanied by black tea, lovingly prepared by the lady of the house who thought it necessary to sit beside me and watch me eat everything.  Having no common language, being stared in silence at close quarters while I ate breakfast was a little awkward, but the atmosphere was relieved intermittently by a slight nod of the head and a sheepish smile.

The main theme of my travels today was to examine the regeneration of the Aral Sea, something that Kazakhstan has been working hard to do for almost two decades.  To look at this work, I first drove south with Serik about 80 kilometres on the highway to Kyzylorda before turning west and heading past several fishing villages to the waters of the Aral Sea.

The first village we came to was officially known as Kamistibas (or Qamystybas), but is more frequently referred to by locals as Kambash.  In addition to its role as a fishing village, Kambash also serves as a beach resort village, as it lies at the eastern end of Lake Kamistibas and has a fine white sand beach.  Being the end of the summer tourist season, we didn’t see a single tourist, although the hundreds of smashed beer and vodka bottles on beach were evidence of recent tourist activity; it is unlikely that either the cows or camels drinking water from the lake at the edge of the beach were responsible for them all.

Only local Kazakh people come to Kambash for a holiday; the facilities and the holiday homes are well short of international standard, and the livestock (camels, cattle and goats) wandering through the town, zealously adding their dung onto the sandy streets and the beach itself, arguably detract from its international appeal.

Our next stop, the town of Bogen with its population of 1,500 people, was also interesting.  Like Akespe yesterday, Bogen is slowly being covered by the relentless movement of shifting sand dunes, although so far the impact is less extreme in Bogen than Akespe.  Bogen was also interesting because its dried up shipping channel, now a salt-encrusted pan, contained the rusting remains of two fishing vessels that had been trapped there when the water level dropped back in the 1970s.  Being surrounded by salt and almost buried in it, it is not surprising that the vessels have largely rusted away; there isn’t much scope for villagers to cut these vessels apart and sell the metal as scrap.

Driving further west, we saw more and more areas where the Aral Sea is rising once again, with reed-fringed waters covering land that had been abandoned by the water several decades ago.  It was amazing to see how much bird life inhabits these regenerated areas; these wetland areas look truly healthy and vibrant.

Two structures that I saw today explain the change.  The lesser of the structures was the Aklak Hydro Unit, which are sluice gates that regulate the flow of water from the Syr Darya into what is now known as the North Aral Sea.  The more significant structure marked the western limit of my drive today; the Kokaral Dam.

Built by the Kazakh Government between 2002 and 2005, the Kokoral Dam was specifically designed to restore the depleted waters of the depleted Aral Sea.  It comprises a low, six metre earthen dam wall that extends for 13.7 kilometres with a set of sluice gates in its centre that regulate the water level by controlling the flow of water towards the south.  Before the dam was built, the height (altitude) of the surface of the North Aral Sea was 36 metres; with the construction of the dam, it has now stabilised at a height of 42 metres.  Consequently, the waters of the Aral Sea that in their natural state reached Aralsk (hence the port) but later retreated 100 kilometres to the south have now returned to within just 12 kilometres of Aralsk.

Proposals are being considered to raise the height of the dam wall by a further six metres, which would raise the level of the North Aral Sea to 48 metres, fully restoring its natural surface area.  The issue, of course is cost.  The initial dam wall and associated works cost US$86 million, of which US$64 million came as a loan from the World Bank with the balance being paid by the Kazakh Government.

One of the sluice gates was open today, allowing water to flow southwards towards Uzbekistan.  Whether the waters actually reach that far is uncertain; apparently not a single of drop of water from the Amu Darya (the Aral Sea’s tributary in Uzbekistan) actually reaches the Aral Sea these days – an amazing statement about over-allocation of water when I remember the raging torrent of the Panj River that I witnessed last week in Tajikistan, which is one of the Amu Darya’s tributaries.  In contrast, the Syr Darya that flows into the Aral Sea through Kazakhstan still contributes a viable flow of water into the Aral Sea; unlike Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan grows almost no cotton (a major user of irrigation water in Central Asia).

The sluice gates obviously represent a valuable fishing opportunity for local people.  I noticed a vast network of underwater nets immediately downstream of the dam, teeming with fish, and while I was there, two men in a small fishing boat were setting additional nets in place.

Those readers who are aware that I have been travelling through Central Asia without my luggage (which failed to arrive on my flight from Moscow to Osh on 15th August) may be as surprised as I was to receive a text message from Emirates Airline today advising that my luggage had been located, and that I should phone them in Dubai if I didn’t want my luggage to be destroyed.  Upon my return to the homestay accommodation in Aralsk this evening, I did phone them, advised them that I would prefer that my luggage should not be destroyed, and gave details of my forthcoming accommodation in Astana in the hope that my luggage might be delivered there in a few days.  At present, things do look promising, but of course, I was told a week and half ago that my luggage had been located in Moscow and would be sent to meet me in Dushanbe…

Day 4

Aral Sea around Kokaral Dam


30 August 2018