Aral Sea, Uzbequistan

The Lake that Cotton Absorbed

dry boats
Boats lost in the dry bed formerly covered by the Aral Sea.
Monument to the Sea of ​​Aral Integral.
pure amazement
Uzbek visitor examines the rusty carcass of one of the ships that once plyed the Aral Sea.
At the Entrance of Moynaq
Road signs anticipate arrival in Moynaq.
No sign of sea
Interior view of another abandoned vessel.
days of plenty
Painting shows the daily fishing of the old days of the Aral Sea.
Employee Saltanak.
Cotton Inheritance
Sequence of rusty boats lined up along the ancient shore of the Aral Sea.
Sign out of date
Road sign indicating Kizi-Jar, a village halfway from the shores of the Aral Sea.
Archive Aral
Images from an album in a museum dedicated to the history of the Aral Sea and Muynaq.
Cans of preserves produced by factories once installed on the shores of an Aral Sea full of fish.
Dry boats II
Boats lost in the dry bed formerly covered by the Aral Sea.
Aral Expo
Pictures depicting ancient life around the Aral Sea.
Memories of the Old Times
Employee Saltanak shows an album with old images of Moynaq and the Aral Sea.
Anchorage over dune
Rusty and stranded boat on a small dune in the Aral Sea
In 1960, the Aral Sea was one of the four largest lakes in the world. Irrigation projects dried up much of the water and fishermen's livelihoods. In return, the USSR flooded Uzbekistan with vegetable white gold.

Some maps show in shades of green the vastness that runs from Nukus to Moynaq.

Thus, they indicate the delta of the Amu Darya river and its distinct branches that irrigate the western end of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region of Uzbekistan. We had left the capital, Nukus, three hours before, but we were still in the dusty aridity of the Qizil Qum desert.

Despite the somewhat monotonous route and the fact that we only recently met the guide and the driver, the conversation flowed much more than the flow we continued without seeing: “If every foreign visitor brought a bucket of water, the Aral Sea would be saved” he says. Nilufar us with Ravshan's smiling agreement, more concerned with avoiding the holes that mine the near-asphalt.

As naive as it is unlikely, this belief quickly became popular and retained in Uzbek culture, as the scientific community and the inhabitants of Central Asia watched the lake wither year after year, deluding that the international community would eventually step in and convince them. leaders in the region to avert the heralded tragedy.

Entering the City in Moynaq Riverside Times

We are approaching Moynaq, the only port city in Uzbekistan, if anyone dares to mention such a title these days. We pass a detour to the border with Kazakhstan and, further on, portals appear that announce the imminence of other villages.

signage, transport van, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Road sign indicating Kizi-Jar, a village halfway from the shores of the Aral Sea.

"Kizil Jar – Shirkat Xojaligi”: the first communicates the path to a village converted into an association of agricultural producers. Strangely enough, the portal is crowned by an Uzbekistan flag that is also used by boat.

A few dozen kilometers later, we come across what establishes the geographical limits of Moynaq, decorated with a fish jumping, by waves and a bird over the water. We didn't take long to find the precious liquid, but the sight proved as ephemeral as it was strange.

Small herds of amphibious cows roam a shallow swamp and devour semi-soaked pasture. The scenery is lost on the horizon and leaves us wondering if it's just any fringe of the big lake.

Ravshan resorts to his almost fluent German, dispenses with the translation and anticipates the inevitable question: “No, we haven't reached the Aral yet. We are at the mouth of Amu Darya.” Nilufar restores order. “It was and is so much water is drawn from the river that it no longer has the strength to reach the lake bed and spreads out.

Aral Expo

Pictures depicting ancient life around the Aral Sea.

It's still a little to Moynaq and the ancient banks of the Aral. It's an old story, however they get to understand everything." At that time, we were already aware of the essentials.

The Annihilating Intervention of the Soviet Regime

By 1960, Nikita Khrushchev was leading a Soviet Union on the rise in the world economic-political sphere. The immense Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan went almost unnoticed in the endless red territory but not the unscrupulous leaders of the Kremlin.

Since the Stalin's times that the regime aimed to carry out megalomaniac agricultural projects that involved the diversion of part of the flows of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for irrigation of cotton plantations conquered from the deserts of Qizil Qum and Qara Qum.

Although a considerable part of the water is lost in the transfer due to the poor quality of the channels, as predicted, the cultivation of white gold generated huge profits. Cotton became one of the great productions of the Soviet Union and remains Uzbekistan's main export.

Meanwhile, the millenary tribute of rivers was diminishing, such as the Aral Sea, which is today about 10% of its original size and divided into four smaller lakes.

The water gradually moved away from the old shores, and communities that thrived on fishing found themselves forced out of their traditional livelihoods. But that wasn't the only problem.

Road signage, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Road signs anticipate arrival in Moynaq.

Moynaq's Dried and Still Toxic Reality

We went into the village under the excruciating heat.

The place looks deserted and we only find a soul in the local museum installed half-walled with other Soviet-inspired public offices, decorated with populist murals. "azis jas jubaylar, sizlerge baxt kulip baqsin” communicates one of them who is like saying: “Young couples, may God bless you”.

photos museum-Aral Sea-Uzbekistan

Images from an album in a museum dedicated to the history of the Aral Sea and Muynaq.

In Moynaq, words could hardly make sense. Once upon a time, the city housed tens of thousands of inhabitants protected by the strength of the fishing and canning industry.

These days, fewer than 9.000 people are resistant, victims of an ecological disaster aggravated every time sand storms cover the streets and buildings with chemical-contaminated dust resulting from the accumulation of fertilizers and pesticides in the dry bed of the Aral.

The few who dared to stay – most of them karakalpaques – are at the mercy of a range of chronic and acute illnesses, in such a way that women have become aware that, in order to protect their children, they must not breastfeed.

The Evocation of the Aral Sea Fishing and Conservatory Times

Saltanak Aimanova welcomes us to the museum with protocol sympathy and presents us with what we are about to see. Maps explain the lake's drastic decline. Paintings by Raphael Matevosyan and Fahim Madgazin, among others, cover the high walls.

museum photo albums, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Employee Saltanak shows an album with old images of Moynaq and the Aral Sea.

They exhibit productive and picturesque port scenarios, with tones and textures – sand, snow and vegetation – dictated by the region's deep climatic contrasts.

In another sector, hundreds of canning tins with Soviet designs are piled up, colorful and artistic results of the toil and industry that gave meaning to so many lives.

cans, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Cans of preserves produced by factories once installed on the shores of an Aral Sea full of fish.

Next to the entrance, we leaf through an album filled with large black and white photographs of Moynaq's daily life, on board boats and in the factories where the fish was processed.

Saltanak sees us examining the book with renewed interest, intervenes and asks Nilufar for help, who translates his mix of Uzbek and Karakalpak: “I was very small, but I remember my father taking me to work and marvel at the discharges of the huge sturgeon and catfish.”

Systematic Lake Diversions that Cotton Absorbed Forever

As the flow of the great tributary rivers was diverted to the cotton fields, the slightly brackish water in which these and twenty other species of fish proliferated became increasingly scarce and saline.

At one point, it retreated so far that it was no longer visible from the coast and left the fishing boats stranded on the dry bed, in a state, even so, not as decaying as what we were about to find.

monument, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Monument to the Sea of ​​Aral Integral.

We said goodbye and left the museum.

Ravshan and Nilufar lead us to the opposite edge of the village and to a promontory surmounted by a pointed cement monument that recalls the rich times of the Aral, and in whose shadow a Karakalpak man slumbers.

From there, we see the endless, shrub-dotted, seemingly endless sand, once covered by the lake, and at the foot of the slope, a series of lined up ship wrecks.

dry dock boats, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Boats lost in the dry bed formerly covered by the Aral Sea.

Aral's Surreal Sand Sea

We descend and explore up close and on the twisted decks that mysterious heritage of rust that the authorities of the region decided to move from its original position on the lake to better satisfy the curiosity of visitors.

It's something that, we learned later, such a man rarely lends himself to doing.

Back in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, we spoke to Temur, the chief of Nilufar and Ravshan about the trip, and for some reason we mentioned the monument and the Karakalpak native.

“Oh, I know who they're talking about, exclaims excitedly, Temur.

“This man is always around but he almost never speaks to those who arrive. Once, without me really knowing why, he made fun of me and told me a number of things about the old days of Moynaq: that the Aral Sea was so deep that it reached almost to the top of the viewpoint where they now placed the monument.

That the natives moved from there, by helicopter, to other distant lake towns. That, at the height of winter, the ends of the lake froze in such a way that fishermen used horses to fetch their nets from the interior areas still unblocked.

rusty boat, Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Rusty and stranded boat on a small dune in the Aral Sea

That accidents happened and several horses and people drowned in the freezing water or were saved in extremis by the helicopters that the victims warned with signal shots and safety radar devices.”

Of you, the karakalpak said little. He only told Temur that the boat he was working on was called 'Буйный' (revolting or stormy).

As it did to the Aral Sea, Uzbek cotton has dried its identity.


Journey through the Uzbekistan Pseudo-Roads

Centuries passed. Old and run-down Soviet roads ply deserts and oases once traversed by caravans from the Silk RoadSubject to their yoke for a week, we experience every stop and incursion into Uzbek places, into scenic and historic road rewards.
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