The Disappearing Sea

The Aral Sea was once a body of water teeming with marinelife and filled with fishing boats bobbing and hauling in their catch. Moynaq, the main fishing port, is still perched on the edge of this sea that has now disappeared. As a result, Moynaq is a near ghost town. As for the spectacle awaiting us after an eight hour drive, it was incredible.

Listed long ago as one of the largest lakes in the word at 68,000 kms squared, the Aral Sea is now a desert. Leaving the car we walk to where the port once was and look down the 500 metre drop into the dry wasteland. A row of rusted fishing boats remain on the sea bed floor, forlorn and vulnerable in the face of this human-made disaster. It is the worst kind of spectacle. A surreal and wild scene , it’s as if Fellini just left the set. We climb down into the desert and clamber over the rusty hulks which have been graffitied with hearts and initials of local youngsters since the 1970’s. Sea shells are still visable under scraggy bushes, souveneers of a time long gone.

From the early 1970s silly Soviet irrigation projects, largely for the growing of cotton, sucked the sea dry. There is now only 5% of sea left and the 100,000 people who’s lives depended on this sea life are near destitute. To see a human-made natural disaster chills you to the bone even more than a naural disaster does. You have to wonder what kind of government would allow this to happen. Was the money worth it? At the site there are huge photographs documenting the shrinking lake over the years and a board ‘explaning’ this phenomenon politely avoids the truth.

In a tiny museum in the abandoned heart of town, a stern lady opens it up for us with a key, we find log books filled with black and white photos of the busy workers who once canned fish, piling them up for export.

Disintergrating taxidermied birds and animals stare at us with pleading eyes. Old fishing ropes hang with out purpose on the wall. Beautiful paintings depicting the sea life and the thriving community are now nostalgic pieces of evidence of what once was. Just like so many unexplained things in this strange country Uzbekistan we feel we are being looked at with suspicion and are soon ushered out once again, the door locked behind us.

Our train trip to Tashkent takes 2 days and there is not a dull moment on our carriage. Paloma and I read, draw and annoy the other passengers with Play School songs and laughter. She bolts up and down the compartment singing and telling everyone her name. An Uzbek grannie takes us under her wing and offers us some greasy Plov for dinner, giving us her dirty teacups to drink from.

Back in our lovely Tashkent guest house Gulnara, we repack our bags and reflect on this adventure. It has been wonderful but I am relieved when the wheels of the airoplane hit the tarmac in India, a place we truly feel we belong in.

Khiva to Ayaz-Kala

‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is filling my mind and heart with wonderful images as the music of Jimi Hendrix accompanies us into the desert after our lovely stay in the immaculately preserved old city of Khiva. Ben literally had to drag me away from here after I didn’t want to leave the Tosh-Hovli Palace and it’s tile and gaunch work. To enter the palace one has to duck through a beautifully hand-carved wooden door and walk through a dark passage way. Coming into the light again one is stunned by the many rooms either side of a courtyard, each with an open front and covered from wall to floor with individually hand-painted tiles. Each of the rooms is decorated completley differently. The celing is propped-up with a gigantic intricately-carved wooden column, not unlike the forest of colums one can walk through in the Jama Masjid. They are bulbous at the base and rise heavenward to a fine tapered end.

As Uzbekistan is not high on many tourists’ travel lists (apart from the French, for whom Uzbekistan oddly seems at the top) the travellers we have met have been the most intersting people we have spent time with anywhere in a long while. From the Frenchman Bastian traveling overland from Paris to Thailand, Jonas the Norweigan bloke trekking throughout Central Asia and Ray the vulcanologist from Spain and his partner Stephanie, a dutch chef, on a 12 month adventure across the world, all with inspiring tales to tell. Our paths keep crossing along the way and we trade tips and tricks on working out the quirk that Uzbekistan is.

Out side the taxi window the desert stretches unbroken to the horizon. Then suddenly out of nowhere the ancient Ayaz-Kala fort (4-2nd Century BC) is immense and crumbling before our eyes. We race up the dirt path and survey the ruins of what was once obviously a thriving city. One can still see the foundations of the streets and houses all made from mud-packed earthe and hay, blowing away with the desert wind. Ben, the keen amateur archeologist starts an illegal dig in the wall but comes up with nothing. It doesn’t look as if it has ever been touched.

It could be the psychedelic music we are listening to, or the fact that we are under the middday sun, but everything is kind of surreal here. Or maybe it is just the deliciously fresh desert air. After driving for three hours in this barren landscape we are glad to reach our yurt not far from Ayaz-Kala Fort. Set up on a hill over looking the nothingness and with a lone camel sitting near the door we feel we are home. Paloma is ecstatic and is practically jumping on the camel for a ride. Ben and Paloma mount the bad-tempered camel and disappear over a dune. They come back a while later with Paloma excitedly telling me ‘It was a baddy camel, he went up and down and up and down all bumpy over the desert!’ Ben tells me the camel stood up and sat and stood up again, over and over, then refused to move in the middle or nowhere. If you’ve ever been on a camel you will know that lurching feeling of almost catapulting off each time the camel gets up.

Inside the yurt the softest beds have been laid out on the floor. There are thick layers of handmade felt surrounding the outside of the yurt and beautiful horse hair ropes are decorating the bamboo structure. A feast of chicken soup and fresh vegetables, salad, bread and meat has been laid out for us, and the Uzbek tea which accompanies every meal. Gayrat (yes, indeed) our driver joins us and we demolish the food in no time. It is the best we have eaten our whole trip.

We are told we must see ‘the lake’ and we trek through the dunes and the thorny bushes for an hour to find the fabled lake. On our way I spot a turtle running across a dune. Whoever said turtles are slow has never met one. On arrival ‘the lake’ is more like a stagnant pond. We head back with Paloma trailing through the dust like a little nomad.

As twilight falls we sit outside our yurt watching the stars come out. Our favourite star, the first star we now call our Paloma Star is buring bright. The moon is full but not yet up and as the darkness descends the milky way lights up as only it can to it’s full glory with not one city light to diminish its glow. We watch shooting stars glide across the sky, satelites blink from afar. Our al fresco dinner becomes lively with a bottle of Uzbek vodak which is lovely and sweet. Then the turbaned Uzbek ladies with gold teeth glinting in the firelight bring more delicious food to our low table.

A huge bonfire is lit and some local musicians who have walked hours from some distant village are sitting on stools. A traditional Uzberk dancer is spinning round the fire. Her movements are eccentric and like nothing I have seen before. The few people who are staying here are all up and dancing round the bonfire with Paloma. She loves it and we dance for hours.