Hidden in one of the most obscure corners of the former Soviet Union lies one of its darkest secrets; the disappearance, in a single lifetime, of the Aral Sea (Orol Dengizi), once the fourth largest inland sea in the world. Moynaq (population 12,000), 210km north of Nukus, encapsulates more visibly than anywhere the absurd tragedy of the Aral Sea. Once one of the sea’s two major fishing ports, it now stands some 180km from the water. What remains of Moynaq’s fishing fleet lies rusting on the sand in the former seabed.
Muynak (Moynoq, in Uzbek Latin, Mojnak in Karakalpak) was once the largest port on the Aral, a finger of coast where a significant part of the Aral catch was processed and canned. In 1921 as the Volga region suffered a terrible famine, Lenin appealed to the Aral fleet for help and within days 21,000 tonnes of fish had been dispatched, saving thousands of Russian lives. Today it is a nightmarish town of stagnant, corrosive pools and deserted factories, the victim of a Soviet crusade to overcome nature. Not a single fish can survive in the sea, 10,000 fishermen have lost their jobs and the port of Muynak has lost its ratson d'etre. The only reason to visit it is a macabre one; to witness the death throes of the sea and the dramatic sight of dozens of deserted fishing boats rusted at their moorings, submerged in sand, riding the crest of a sand dune, 160 kilometres from the shoreline. Many of the ships have been sold off for scrap in recent years so you might have to hunt around to find some.