Where the Aral Sea used to be

Where the Aral Sea used to be

I’ll attempt to drip feed this post (pun not really intended!) over the course of the several days it will no doubt take to upload…. The Aral tragedy is fairly well known (I remember seeing posters about it in school geography lessons and wondering what all the fuss was about…) and I’m no expert (clearly!) so I’d suggest reading this very good piece first.

[Ok, so after 2 hours of trying to write/upload any photos, this is what I have! There’s clearly going to be a big gap in my blog where this particular stan should be and I guess that’s the way U********* likes it. Ffs.]

Meanwhile, here are some pictures (which I have been able to upload due to I guess being old& low res) of the remaining Kazakh Aral Sea (Small Aral), which is in much better shape, from when I visited 6 years ago:


Trying again, with tiny resized photos now!
In Kazakhstan in 2010 and 11, it was fairly straightforward to hire local drivers and jeeps in the former seashore town of Aral to take us out (in a skull-shatteringly bumpy ride) to the current shoreline which was only around 25km away (it may actually be closer now). In UZ, I was relying on trying to arrange a tour from Nukus, however the other two participants for my dates successively dropped out, apparently due to visa issues. It would have been prohibitively expensive to go on my own (the tour company reckoned they could rustle someone else up at the last minute but I didn’t really see how!). So the best I could do was attempt to get to Moynaq, the equivalent former fishing town, by some form of public transport (though the remaining water is much further away, 100km I think, so I wouldn’t be able to see that without the 4WD we would have had on the tour).

I managed to find a shared taxi half-way, to the town of Kungrad – I think there are marshrutkas too but taxi drivers always deny their existence. From there I paid for the whole taxi for the return trip to Moynaq, during which we passed many of those cotton fields whose irrigation is responsible for this disaster. It was a long drive for a short time at the ‘seashore’, but at this point, it just had to be done. At the graveyard of rusty boats at the edge of the town, there were a handful of other tourists so I think the taxi driver realised at that point that I was not alone in my bizarre foreign pursuit. When I went down to photograph the boats, I wondered about his lack of curiosity (he had apparently not been there since he was a small child) but I turned around and saw he was taking photos too.

Looking down, you see the sand is littered with shell fragments:

The memorial at the shore:

Although much diminished, the town still has several thousand residents, though it looked pretty forlorn:

Whitewashed walls and pale blue gates almost hinted at its past as a thriving fishing town:


As well as the destruction of the town’s industry, resulting unemployment, and catastrophic health problems that have resulted from the altered environment, there’s a deep intangible sadness (it seems to me) at the loss of this life-giving , vast natural resource, as a consequence of hugely misguided human mismanagement.

From Kungrad back to Nukus we became a shared taxi again, and a young woman and her mother got in. The young woman worked in a travel related job so in addition to the standard multilingualism of the region (Karakalpak, Uzbek and Russian) she also spoke Kazakh, English and German. I was pretty awestruck. She’d been with her (parentally chosen) husband for a decade and had two young children, but said that she sometimes wished she was alone so she could be free to travel the world. She loved to read, but I wondered what she’d been reading as I had one of the most curious translation questions I’ve ever heard from her: in the phrase ‘post-prandial blood sugar level’, what does prandial mean? She guessed ‘eating’ and I confirmed that she was right!



5 thoughts on “Where the Aral Sea used to be

  1. This is really interesting. You ought to write it up for a proper journal. The Guardian has an end of year competition for travel writing, so maybe that would be one place?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Re: “Prandial” – good for her. Wonder if she was reading one of those Diet-Health books that some of us (ahem are inclined to read. I knew what it meant, but must admit I had no idea where it came from Best definition I’ve found so far comes from medicine.net

    Prandial: Of or relating to a meal. Prandial pain is pain while eating.

    Although medical terms usually have a reasonably logical derivation, this is not the case with “prandial.” It comes from the Latin “prandium” which meant “a late breakfast or lunch.” “Prandium” was derived in turn from the Greek “pro-“, before + “endios”, midday.

    Now, however, “prandial” refers to any meal — breakfast, lunch, supper or snack.


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