It is quite an effort to reach the shores of the Aral Sea. First travel from the capital of Uzbekistan – Tashkent – via the ancient city of Khiva and across the Kyzlkum Desert on a long, uncomfortable, hot bus journey to Nukus. Then it’s a two-hour drive from this back-of-beyond town to an even more back-of-beyond place: Moynaq.
Why have I travelled to this remote part of Central Asia? That’s a good question, given the uncomfortable journey and what is possibly the world’s worst hotel in Nukus (rude service, nasty bathrooms and exorbitant price).
The signs for Moynaq begin 80 or so kilometres short of the destination and cheerfully display the fish and be-flagged fishing boats it was once known for. But what was once a thriving fishing village on the shores of the Aral Sea is now an inhospitable town in the middle of a desert.
The ground under my feet is silt, dried in tiny nodules. Are few stagnant small pools are all I can find of the Aral Sea, and the remains of Moynaq’s fishing fleet – now showing its rust-red bones in the scrubby desert.
This is as far as I got in my journey to the Aral Sea – to reach the current shoreline would take another seven to eight hours in a 4X4 vehicle. This region of Uzbekistan is called Karakalpakstan – “Sea of Islands” – so named for the over 1,500 islands that once dotted the waters.
A few days earlier, on my journey to Khiva, I saw large canals crossing the landscape. These tap the Amu Darya River (the mighty Oxus of old) and allow the people here to grow fruit trees and rice and, most importantly, cotton. Tiny seedlings of cotton stretch out in fields as far as the eye can see.
They also cause the environmental tragedy that is today’s Aral Sea, which used to be one of the world’s largest lakes but by 2007 was reduced to 10 per cent of its former size. In the 1940s the Soviets began massive irrigation projects, diverting the Amu Darya and other rivers, in a quest to become a world leading supplier of cotton.
A Soviet-era statue now marks nothing more than an environmental disaster at the edge of Moynaq.
Back in Nukus the wind kicked up and the poisoned air was soon thick with a dust storm. My hair was thick with the dust of the day. A few fat drops of rain splattered the ground and then stopped. Industrial pollution and climate change leading to environmental and human tragedy: it’s a reality here.
By Natasha von Geldern
Does such an environmental catastrophe as the fate of the Aral Sea make you angry?