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A ship in the manmade desert which used to be the Aral Sea

  • A tumbleweed crosses the main street of Moynaq, the Karakalpak town which has seen 97% of its population depart

  • Rusting ships as seen from the bluff behind the Hotel Oybek

  • The sun sets over the edge of the world

Dreaming of the Sea: A Journey to Moynaq, Uzbekistan

First Published in Open Central Asia Magazine, Summer Edition 2016 


Unable to make our desired destination understood, my brother and I disembarked beneath a boundless sky on the outskirts of the ghost town of Moynaq, a place described by painter, archaeologist and art collector, Igor Savitsky – founder of the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan - as the ‘wasteland of the Soviet dream.’ It was fifty degrees Celsius in the shade, except there was no shade to be had. Dogs barking heatedly, shoeless children circled us, wanting to shake our sweaty, luggage encumbered hands.


Colourless tumbleweeds danced idly across the town’s single road as we ploughed onwards. Stopping to ask the few people we chanced upon the location of the gastnitsa, most just stared back blankly, those that did respond invariably pointing in opposing directions. The way throughout Asia, it was better to give a misleading answer than to offer no information at all.


Burnt and dehydrated, we’d been walking for an hour and three-quarters when I tripped on a rock, my bags coming down on top of me. Prostrate upon the ground with grit in my mouth, I was about ready to wilt, when like a mirage a purple ZAZ-966 appeared, sparks flying from its exhaust as it scraped along the asphalt. From this vision of a vehicle a rotund, Weeble-like man emerged, and then another, and another, until there before us stood seven men, gigantic in girth if not height.


And they spoke English.


‘My name is Big Rashid,’ the first introduced himself. ‘These are my brothers: Gennadiy, Viktor, Yuri, Lavr, Arkhip and Adolf.’


‘I’m Stephen and this is my brother Stan,’ I said, clasping his outstretched hand. ‘We’re looking for the hotel,’ I explained as he hauled me upright.


‘Da, the Oybek,’ Rashid nodded knowingly. ‘Come,’ he added, taking pity on us after scrutinizing my dishevelled state.


The nine of us somehow ramming ourselves into his car, I perched upon Adolf’s lap with my head wedged between the front seats.


‘We’ve been looking for ages, but nobody knows where the hotel is,’ I wheezed, craning my neck to avoid being hit by the gearstick.


‘But why would anyone in Moynaq know?’ Rashid snickered. ‘They will never stay there.’


It was a valid point.


‘But there’s no sign for the hotel,’ Stan protested from his writhen position in the footwell.


‘Ha,’ Big Rashid scoffed. ‘In Oz’bekiston you must pay extra to have sign.’


Rashid and his brothers, it transpired, were ethnic Russians from Kyzylorda in Kazakhstan. I asked what they were doing in Moynaq, but my query met with stony silence and darkened expressions, it was obviously a question too far.


Minutes later we parked outside a long, nondescript edifice, literally bursting out of the car as its doors swung open. From behind a tall iron fence, a mongrel growled its welcome, drooling as it bore its teeth.


‘Oybek, go,’ Rashid said, motioning for us to enter the compound.


Lining up to wave us goodbye, the seven siblings cast imposing shadows in the late afternoon sun.


We’d come to Moynaq to visit the Aral Sea, or rather the ship graveyard where the sea used to be. Draining of the Aral dates back to the US Civil War, when finding his supply of American cotton under threat, the Russian Tsar decided to use the sea’s tributaries to irrigate Central Asia - Uzbekistan in particular - to create a Russian cotton bowl. As early as 1908, the geographer and climatologist A.I. Voekov referred to the Aral as ‘a mistake of nature,’ a refrain the Soviets would later come to embrace wholeheartedly in their hunger for the white gold. Each bale of cotton soaking up 1.8 million litres of water, the sea’s trunks were siphoned off in leaky pipes which rarely reached their destinations, the Aral shrinking to one-tenth its size between 1960 and 2007.


At its peak, Moynaq was home to sixty thousand people, mostly fisherman and their extended families, the Aral Sea producing up to thirty percent of the Soviet catch and saving Russia from widespread famine in the 1920s. Accessible only by air and ferry well into the seventies, the town also served as a popular beach resort for bureaucrats, its airport hosting fifty flights a day at its peak. By the eighties, though, tourism had dried up. Digging channels through the sand in pursuit of the diminishing sea, Moynaq’s fishermen discarded their ships where they became grounded. The sea’s major source, the Amu Darya River no longer reaching its historic terminus, a local saying goes: ‘When God loved us, he gave us the Amu Darya, when he ceased to love us, he sent us Russian engineers.’


Today, the town’s population number less than two thousand, the remnants of the sea almost two hundred kilometres away across the manmade desert from which a billion tonnes of salt and dust are blown into the atmosphere every year. A spate of NGO interest which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union led to another saying: ‘If every scientist and journalist who visited the Aral Sea brought with them a bucket of water, the sea would be filled again.’ Unable to overcome corruption endemic throughout the region, most NGO’s have long since given up on the Uzbek portion of the Aral. As the last of the so-called Large Aral Sea quietly dies, the people of Moynaq have found themselves left to their fate.


Atop a bluff behind the hotel stood a concrete monument to the disappeared inland sea, a line of ships laid out on the former seabed below. The sheer scale of the sand-salt desert was stupefying. The hulks on the seabed played out their lingering demise, all rust and graffiti with only the buzzing of insects to break the silence. Huge dragonflies patrolling the exsiccated tract which offered nothing but loss and decay, the extent of the tragedy was immediately palpable.


Striped sunlight spilling through the skeletal ribs of their hulls, sun-baked trawlers lay slowly oxidizing. Animated by history, these inert objects took on an ethereal vitality in opposition to the overwhelming sense of desolation surrounding them. Thorny grey and fuchsia pink thistles destined to become tumbleweeds shook as brackish gusts whipped across the vast emptiness once so teeming with life. With the sea gone, the region was subject to searing summers and freezing winters, five hundred species of bird, two hundred mammals, a hundred types of fish and countless insects unique to the region all now extinct.​

At dusk, children came out to play on the jagged boats, devising games with sticks and discarded cans, serrated metal and broken glass peeking through the sand around them. With the sun setting behind the promontory an aurora pink light fell across the desert, a chill wind whistling through the ship cemetery, itself an extension of the other-worldliness which pervaded the whole town.


Back at the hotel, with nightfall the regular power cuts became more conspicuous. At dinner, we sat around the bare candlelit table, our hirsute, barrel-chested host directing as a babushka and her daughter dished up manty, ravioli style dumplings in a broth to be soaked up with lepyoshka.


Our room being the only one occupied, as midnight approached the pitch-dark floor took on an eerie aspect, shards of broken glass rattling in the windows. The town abandoned to packs of wild dogs, vehicles passed at a rate of less than one an hour. With no light pollution, the stars glistened with a rare lustre. It was just us, the dogs and grandma belching at the edge of the world.

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