I was enjoying breakfast in the early morning sun, in the courtyard of my guesthouse in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, pondering my next move. My intention was to move Northwest to the ancient silk-road city of Khiva. The owner, of my guesthouse, seeing me pouring over a map came over and told me that he knew a taxi driver (don’t they all?) that would take me there ”for a reasonable price” and then I could hire him again the following day to go to Muynak if I wanted to.
Muynak? Never heard of it! I looked at my map, it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere but I was told it was a former fishing port on the Aral Sea. This now aroused my interest; I never imagined ever visiting the diminishing Aral Sea, one of the Worlds greatest ecological disasters.
The price to Muynak was an issue, something I considered on the 7-hour journey through the desert to Khiva. I thought long and hard, will I ever get this opportunity again? Maybe not, let’s go for it! After a little negotiation with the driver, we arranged to meet at the ridiculous hour of 4.30am the following day for the 5-hour journey North into the autonomous Uzbek republic of Karakalpakstan.
It was still dark when the driver arrived at my guesthouse and I managed a couple more hours’ sleep before daybreak. My driver spoke no English but when we hit the first town on the route he pointed at the people and said “Karakalpaks”. Their features were a lot different to most Uzbeks who generally have a more rounded face and oriental appearance. This is the poorest region of Uzbekistan and quite frankly it shows, there is little interest or appeal in the sand blown city streets and the local economy, once linked to fishing the Aral Sea, is in stagnation.
The Aral Sea effectively is now a large saline lake, it is estimated to be one-tenth of its original size. It has diminished after rivers flowing into it were dammed by the former Soviet Union to provide irrigation channels for the cotton fields that I had been driving through for the last few days. Pesticides from these fields have permeated into the lake salt beds producing a toxic environment for the local inhabitants. Cancers and infant mortality rates are high in the region.
We were soon to arrive at Muynak, a large sign so common on the edge of each city in the region marked our entry. Featured on the sign almost ironically were fish in the sea and sea birds flying above the ocean. The sign stood alone in the barren landscape next to where the lake once was, a tombstone for the city.
It was then I got my first glimpse of the former fishing fleet. Away in the distance, I could see the rusting hulks of fishing vessels listing helplessly on the sand. There is a memorial obelisk to the Aral Sea nearby where these vessels can be viewed from an elevated position. There are also information signposts depicting the shrinking of the Aral Sea over the decades. I spent a while here before descending onto the dry seabed itself and walking in and around the abandoned fleet.
My time here was up and this place certainly does not fill you with happiness and hope, I felt in a sombre mood as we drove back along the old shoreline.
There are plans to replenish the lake which I think will take generations, one Muynak resident was quoted in my guidebook as saying “if each expert who visited the lake brought a cup of water with them, we would be well on the way by now.” What could I ever say, deeper than that statement?