What used to be the major port on the Aral Lake is now a creepy town in the middle of a deadly desert. We had to hitchhike our way here. Our road trip
We keep on rushing our way through the steppe of Kazakhstan. Due to the Uzbek visa denied by the drunk consul in Azerbaijan, our bicycle trip in Central Asia recently became a hitchhiking race. The ferry from Azerbaijan dropped us in the middle of nowhere, in the city of Aktau, and from there we only have 15 days to reach Kyrgyzstan.
We had great plans about bicycle touring in Kazakhstan, before we started this bicycle trip. But now everything is upside down and we have to cope with it.
At least though, we want to visit the town of Aralsk, once the biggest port on the shores of the Aral Lake (or Aral Sea).
If you don’t know the actual disaster occurring since at least 5 decades in the area of Aralsk, read this short article we wrote about this.
Getting to Aralask
52 Celsius. We’re in Aktobe, the nicest of the Kazakh cities we saw so far. Some colorful wooden houses and even some trees along the roads. Just there anyway, outside the landscape is just the same: bare, yellowish, dry steppe.
We get out of the city and put our thumbs out. As usual, almost immediately we find a lift, hitchhiking in Kazakhstan is like taking the bus now.
A Russian-Kazakh guy who is going right to Aralsk (did you notice all the cities in Kazakhstan begin with A?).
We stop for lunch and he, as usual, pays for us, then starts to make phone calls and we understand he speaks about us. We grab from his Russian that he will take us to sleep in some motel, okay, if it doesn’t cost an eye a shower would not be too bad.
When it’s dark, we arrive at a place he doesn’t seem to know either, someone on the phone must have told him to go there. There’s a prefab with some rooms, it’s the sleeping quarter for workers building the road.
Dining and drinking with the local workers, next to the Aral Sea
They welcome us and lead in a room with a double bed. We ask how much it costs, but they seem offended and tell us they do not want anything! Long live the Kazakhs! We are told that there is a shower but there’s no light, so tomorrow morning.
They lead us to another room, where they have prepared the dinner. The driver must have told them I’m a vegetarian, because they knew it and get a lot of hard-boiled eggs! All, of course, accompanied by vodka, liters of vodka. These truck drivers, they don’t drink a single sip of beer when they’re working, but once the truck is parked for the night the party always begins. We go to sleep happy, and completely drunk. Sometimes humanity is not so bad! At least the humanity of the truckers…
Aralsk: what’s left of the biggest port on the Aral Lake
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We wake up late, huge hangover, we should learn how to say no to the 20th glass of vodka… We’re just 15km from Aralsk, so we ride our bicycles into town.
Aralsk, which until recently was the most important port city on the Kazakh side of Lake Aral, now is a gloomy and sad settlement in the desert. What remains of the lake is now more than 70km far from the city, from which is separated by a roadless expanse of sand.
Why Aral sea dried out
In the 1940s, the Soviet government decided to divert Aral Sea’s main tributary rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, in order to irrigate the desert region surrounding it, in an attempt to grow rice, cereals and cotton.
Many of the canals were poorly built, allowing water to leak or evaporate. From the Qaraqum Canal, the largest in Central Asia, perhaps 30 to 75% of the water went to waste. Today, only 12% of Uzbekistan’s irrigation canal length is waterproofed (Wikipedia)
By 1960, between 20 and 60 cubic kilometres of water were going each year to the land instead that into the Aral. With most of its water supply gone, the Aral Sea began to shrink.
From 1961 to 1970, the Aral’s sea level fell at an average of 20 cm a year; in the 1970s, the average rate nearly tripled to 50–60 centimetres per year, and by the 1980s it continued to drop, now with a mean of 80–90 centimetres each year.
By 2007, the Aral sea had declined to 10% of its original size.
The port of Aralsk and the shipwrecks
In front of the entrance of the old harbor, Nazarbayev’s photo (the president/dictator of Kazakhstan) with a huge fish in his arms. Promoting a project of “reconstruction” of Lake Aral, should we trust that something will happen. Besides, there is not much to see in the city. Many houses look abandoned, how to blame the poeple for leaving one of the cities with the highest throat cancer rates in the world? Indeed the toxic waste, dumped into the sea when it was still here, now became dust and fly freely with the steppe winds.
None of the countless associations allegedly dealing with the lake’s issue answered us, so we do not have a way to know much more. It’s really a shame. We can’t make it to the new shore of the Aral Sea, now in the middle of desertic steppe, impossible to reach by bicycle. To reach the actual shores, you must hire a 4-wheel-drive, porbably booking it in advance. We saw that the prices are not cheaper than 300USD per person.
So we go to see the port of Aralsk. The structures are still there, big cranes and shipwrecks. There’s a shallow pond on the south side, and a wall on the north one, that impede the access to the abandoned buildings. Here above is our video about this experience.
Travelling the Silk Road on a carovan
Around 6pm we are hitch-hiking again and at 6:01 (seriously) three trucks stop at the same time, they are together.
They are Russians going to Uzbeksitan (long journey), the trucks are huge, inside there are two double beds.
We’re in two different trucks, I’m in the one in front and Daniele in the middle one. With me the caravan leader, and his son (10 years old), who spends his holidays with his dad. They tell me to sleep and I sleep, nothing to see, they say. Just pustenjie (desert). Maybe they can bring us up to Turkestan, but they speak very fast Russian so it is not easy to understand.
At some point, we stop for a swim in a pond that looks like a mirage, it’s the first clear water since we are in Kazakhstan. We have a lot of fun trowing water at each other and we all get back to the truck completely wet. We stop in a parking lot for truckers and get dinner, of course payed, of course fried eggs, apparently one of the national dishes. Today is the birthday of my driver, a vodka and all to bed, of course on the truck.
Next morning, the caravan set off again after breakfast, fried eggs… the police stops them several times but the procedure is simple, the driver drops, jumps in the cop’s car, gives 2500 tenge and thats fine. Bribes seem to be the norm in Kazakhstan. We were stopped three times in a day, quite an expensive trip for them. We get the last dinner togheter 100 kilometers from Turkestan, then they turn on a road that doesn’t exist, through the steppes, an unpaved track to Uzbekistan. We greet and we pitch the tent in the nearby desert.