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Exploring Aralsk

The harbour - The place in Aralsk that provides the most vivid testimony of the consequences of the desiccation of the Aral Sea is the old harbour, just south of the Hotel Aral along Makataev Street. You are confronted with a space which is harbourlike in shape, but with dry flats and grazing livestock where the sea ought to be. Old cranes stand abandoned and derelict canneries loom over the site. Along the side of the harbour abutting Makataev Street four rusting boats have been mounted onto rusting stands, as unwilling monuments to an environmental disaster. All four bear the registration of Aralribprom, the enterprise which in Soviet times ran the fish industry in the town, from boats to processing plants. Another piece of labelling added to one of the boats tells us that Alikhan and Aigerim will be together for ever. Nice for them. A log-walled house down here by the quayside, once charming and still bearing carved blue and white window frames, has been gutted, and the whole place is forlorn, with broken vodka bottles and other rubbish scattered everywhere.

Central Square - Heading north from the harbour, Makataev Street hits the main thoroughfare, Abulkhair Khan Street. Immediately across this is a short pedestrian stretch, which runs into the large and rather barren central square, around which are grouped the main administrative buildings of the town, and several monuments. The latter include a war memorial, with a statue of a bereaved Kazakh woman in front of two metal pillars, preceded by an avenue dedicated to the local Heroes of the Soviet Union. There is also a monument honouring the local mothers who have produced heroically large numbers of offspring: it is centred on a silver statue of a woman holding out a laurel wreath in her right hand and cradling a baby in her left.

The railway Station - One of the sights of the town is the railway station, a single- storey whitewashed building with a tall barrel-vaulted central hall. Constructed between 1901 and 1905, the buildings most notable feature is the large wall- mounted mosaic in the waiting room that commemorates the towns contribution of 14 wagonloads of fish when famine struck Mother Russia. Lenin's figure is in the top right-hand corner of the picture. Look out for the depictions of the town's railway workers, fishermen and scenes of active commerce. The contrast with the town today could not be more striking.

Aral District Museum of History and Local Lore - One block east of the central square, Tokey Esetov Street heads north off Abulkhair Khan Street. A few metres up, on the left, the single-storey building with the varnished wood exterior houses the Aral District Museum of History and Local Lore. Opened in 1988, the displays are rather tired looking, and presented in a strange sequence, but there are some interesting exhibits. The first room has a range of Kazakh ethnographic items, including one item of silver jewellery, hung down from the hair, which incorporates practical attachments for the cleaning of fingernails and the inside of the ears. A display of musical instruments includes the harp-like adirna, carved into the form of a saiga. Historical displays cover the Kazakh khanates and the building of the Orenburg-Tashkent railway, the latter illustrated by a mural and by segments of rail stamped with the year '1902'.

A hallway is walled with interesting pictures of Aralsk as it looked in the 1970s, including one of the Hotel Aral actually appearing rather smart. The next room features displays on the fishing industry and on regional meetings held to address the problems of the decline of the Aral Sea, including a gathering in Kyzylorda in 1993 which brought together four central Asian heads of state. The next room features the works of local artists: a collection of mainly downbeat pieces highlighting the death of the port. A cart in the centre of the room was used by Bakhyt Riskalov, local Hero of Socialist Labour, to transport fish. Local handicrafts come next, including the work of one craftsman specialised in producing fish- related souvenirs from cattle horn.

The next room looks at the Soviet period, highlighting Lenin's appeal for fish in 1921, and the positive response spearheaded by Tolegen Medetbaev, head of the Council of Deputies of Aral district. A diorama depicts an engagement of the Civil War in 1919, when Bolshevik forces seized control of this stretch of the Orenburg-Tashkent railway from the Whites, an important moment in the struggle for control of central Asia. There are a few stuffed animals, which have seen better days in every sense, and coverage of the Barsakelmes Nature Reserve, once an island in the Aral Sea providing a safe, protected haven for a range of mammals including the central Asian wild ass, known as kulan. The desiccation of the Aral Sea turned this island into a peninsula, raising considerable challenges for the reserve authorities.