September 18, 2014

Walking on the Aral Sea

This is the Aral Sea. The photo above was taken from Moynak  harbour wall, where you can now see the local fishing fleet stranded. It was a fishing village once home to over 10,000 people, their boats and a canning factory. The drying up happened here so quickly that many owners were unable to move their boats in time. It is now a place of immense sadness and dereliction. The drying up of the vast Aral sea has destroyed the local economy.

Public transport to Moynak is limited, no one really comes here any more and the population numbers now in its hundreds. I managed to arrange a car and driver in Nukus, and we drove 300 km to the deserted town. Then I just got out and walked. I followed an old slipway down from the harbour wall and into what was once a massive sea but is now just sand. Within minutes I came across the first rusted boat, and then, often obscured by sand dunes, I discovered more and more.

You can climb onto them, but they are rusting badly now, so take extreme care (Note that Moynak has not got a hospital) and many holes are now appearing in the decks. Climbing onto one boat I entered the cabin via a hole in the roof. It's door was still locked from the last time the owner had tied it up, maybe after unloading a catch.

I spent hours just walking around these rusting skeletons in an empty sea. A monument to man trying unsuccessfully to master nature. The scale of the environmental disaster is huge. Not only has the fishing industry been destroyed by the Soviet masterplan to turn the surrounding desert into massive irrigated cotton farms. The shrinking of the sea has greatly affected weather patterns, with the region now 10 Celsius degrees hotter in summer, and 10 Celsius cooler in winter, which had badly disrupted the growing of crops, including the very cotton farms that started this whole economic misadventure.

The occasional disaster hunting tourist does not make up for the complete collapse of Moynak's economy. It is an astonishing site to see the local trawlers rusting in sand with no water in sight for hundreds of kilometers, but it does leave you feeling empty and depressed, and hoping that maybe just for once we can actually learn something from this. The words of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana never ring so true as to when standing next to these rusting hulks, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

For more on the Aral Sea and Moynak see this post

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