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Aralsk (Aral)

Four decades ago Aralsk (pop. 40,000), 450km northwest of Kyzylorda, was an important fishing port on the shores of the Aral Sea, with a population twice its current size. A large mosaic in its train station depicts how in 1921 Aralsk’s comrades provided fish for people starving in Russia.

But now, once the main port on the Kazakhstan shores of the Aral Sea, the town of Aralsk provides a stark testament to the environmental and social disaster wrought by the diversion of the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya for cotton production, and resultant desiccation of the Aral Sea. Today a large part of the Aral Sea is gone, victim of Soviet irrigation schemes, the shoreline is pushed 60km out from Aralsk. If you want to witness the Aral Sea environmental disaster firsthand, Aralsk is easier to visit, and more interesting, than similarly defunct ports in Uzbekistan. Nor is everything quite so gloomy here: efforts to save part of the sea are succeeding and a small-scale fishing industry has started up again.

In 1847, the Russian fortress of Raimsk, under the command of Colonel Yerofeyev, was built in the area inhabited by the Junior (Lesser) Horde, near the Aral Sea. The fortress was located 65 kilometres from the mouth of the Syr Darya. It was of strategic significance in the struggle against Kokand and Khiva to the south for control over the area east of the Syr Darya. The following year, shipping was started with the launch in Raimsk of the schooners Nikolay and Konstantin, named after Russian tsars, which navigated down the Syr Darya to the Aral Sea. Apart from the military advantage this link gave, it was highly popular among travellers as well, described as late as 1933 by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart.

Nearby, a town for construction workers was built in 1905 right on the northeast shore of the Aral Sea, to help build the railway line connecting Orenburg and Tashkent. Aralsk became an important fishing town, its moment of glory coming in 1921, when, in response to an appeal from Lenin to provide fish for the hunger-struck people of the nascent Soviet Union the town responded with 14 railway wagons full of fish. The town, Aralsk, grew rapidly and was given city status in 1938.The city did well, and the level of accommodation was high by Soviet standards. People would tell visitors the legend of the city's origin: the 40 gods, who lived under the great blue yurt (heaven), dropped a large, blue, brightly shining turquoise on the Earth during a game. The turquoise signified beauty and an abundance of water and fish. The sea became famous for its fish. Chingis Aitmatov writes in his book The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years about the fisherman Edige, who takes the altyn mekre-the golden fish-from the sea for his beloved wife, Ukubala, in order to fulfil her wish for a child. The poetic description of Edige, waiting patiently for the fish, of the stormy and yet intimately known sea and the fisherman's respect for nature, is deeply moving.

Edige gave his golden fish back to the sea's wild waters, after Ukubala had admired and embraced it. Those were the days; today, nobody fetches any golden fish from the salt lake that remains. The Aral Sea is virtually dead. At one point the sea had receded some 100km from the town. What is left consists of two remaining partial lakes, which nonetheless are still large by most standards.

Storms now carry sand and salt grains from the dry seabed right across the Central Asian steppe, onto the glaciers of the Tien Shan and even as far as the Himalaya. The Aral Sea's huge volume of water once influenced and moderated Central Asia's extreme continental climate-the sea was large enough to generate rain clouds. Now, however, the water volume is insufficient for this, and a vast region of once habitable land is falling into desertification. Though resistant plants and bushes still grow on the dry, salty seabed, the area is becoming drier, colder in winter and hotter in summer.

Aralsk is a poor and depressing-looking place with people living in single-storey whitewashed cottages. Billboards on the way into town are mostly supported by the government or NGOs declaring their various initiatives. Many householders around town have a camel or two in the yard. In recent years, a kind of disaster tourism has developed. Although the town is in a state of desolation, with sand storms a daily phenomenon and one in 10 children dying before their first birthday, it still attracts many foreigners, who come here to marvel at the results of Soviet thoughtlessness and stupidity.

The completion of the Kokaral Dam in 2005, and rise in the water level of the Northern Aral Sea, has brought the water back to around 25km from the town, and the local authorities hope that, with the construction of a mooted second dam, water will once again flow into the harbour of Aralsk port. However, after years of confronting the misery of health, ecological and economic problems wrought by the loss of their sea, it will take a long time for public confidence to return.

Sights & Activities - Four fishing boats stand on pedestals beside the former harbour, just along the street from the hotel. They were brought here and painted in 2005, as a tribute to fallen heroes. Also close to the harbour is the old fish-processing plant, Aralrybprom, which stayed alive 20 years after the Aral Sea departed by canning fish from the Baltic and Vladivostok, but eventually went bankrupt in the late 1990s. The small history museum has a few desiccation photos and some imaginative oil paintings on the Aral Sea theme – including Zhalanash Port, showing a woman in bathing costume striding towards what looks like a desert. There’s also a large diorama of a battle between Bolshevik and White forces near Aralsk in 1919. 

The most-frequented sightseeing spot is the ships' graveyard. From Aralsk, simply drive or walk for dozens of kilometres over the dry seabed. Everywhere, ghost vessels lie lopsided on their keels, scattered over the dry soil. Most of them are fishing boats, which once provided work and wealth for the region. It is certainly an emotive experience, often driving one to tears of anger over such wasteful and tragic loss. The cemetry is located near Zhalanash (Zhambyl), a former fishing village 45km west of Aralsk, where you can still see four abandoned hulks rust in the sand, often providing shelter for those other ships of the desert, the area’s ubiquitous wandering camels. A few years ago there were more ships, but several have been reduced to nothing by scrap-metal scavengers.

Getting there The railway station is east of the centre, just off Abulkhair Khan Street. It lies on the Tashkent-Orenburg line, and there are several trains east to Almaty and west to Aktobe, as well as a train every two days to each of Atyrau, Mangyshlak and Uralsk, There are also through routes to several Russian destinations (including Moscow, Ufa and Chelyabinsk), Tashkent and Bishkek. There are two local trains daily terminating at Saksaulsk to the northwest of Aralsk. These run eastwards as far as Kyzylorda and Turkestan, respectively. Buses for Kyzylorda depart from outside the train station. All places of interest in Aralsk's compact centre are walkable.