Saturday, November 17, 2012

From "Sea" to Shining Sea

I began this trip by crossing the largest ocean in the world, then commenced to cross the largest continent and the most landlocked places. In the past week, I've finally reached salt water again in the form of two Central Asian seas. One healthy, one not so much

Aral - no water...

Caspian - Big water! And my new "go Russia" hat.

The Aral Sea (Nukus and Moynaq, Uzbekistan)

I left Khiva knowing that I had a week of Uzbek visa to fill and only two semi-practical destinations: the town of Nukus and its Savitsky art museum, and the old fishing town of Moynaq and the depressing catastrophe that is the Aral Sea. Since I had time to kill, I opted to stick with hitch-hiking.

The Savitsky museum
Nukus was a short trip. The hitching turned out to be a bit troublesome, but I made it nonetheless, just in time for a run-through of the art museum before closing time. The museum was pretty impressive, and quite colorful. Apparently this guy Savitsky ran around during the 50s and 60s collecting art from all over the Soviet Union. Partly because he was in the middle of nowhere, and partly because Stalin was out of the picture, he was allowed to do this despite Soviet restrictions on art and culture. The result is a vast collection of art on all sorts of themes. Many of the exhibitions here were on Central Asian life, the Aral Sea before and after, as well as a handful of landscapes and still life. A nice taste of a true collection of art and culture that wasn't created simply for tourists to buy (as I saw in most of the places of my last post).

Big city Moynaq. The main road.

After an exceptionally long and slow day of hike-hitching (emphasis on the hiking... I walked at least 15km trying to find a decent place to pick up a ride, or just out of boredom), I finally made it to the tiny fishing village of Moynaq. It's a bit tough to describe exactly what Moynaq is like. It definitely still has the feel of a fishing village somehow, yet the water is nowhere in sight. Imagine suddenly transplanting a small Duluth, MN or Aberdeen, WA from their resource-rich locations to, say, west Texas. That's about what it's like. The entire economy of Moynaq and the region relied on the sea and the fishing industry, providing much of the Soviet Union's fish supply. Today, however, it looks quite different.

The view out to "Sea" This bluff was the shoreline 50 years ago
For an idea of what's happening to the Aral Sea, go to google maps, find the sea, and toggle between the "map" and "satellite" views. The map shows the 1970s-ish shoreline (slightly smaller than original, but close to full size) and the satellite shows a view from a few years ago. The real sea is actually smaller than what the satellite shows there...

Something's not quite right...


Local playthings

The first Christian cemetery I've seen so far
The town still holds onto its heritage. There are boats all over the place, some rusted out and picked over for scrap on the sea bed, some on pedestals in parks, sand some only in paintings in the small, quiet museum. The cannery that once employed thousands of people is still there, as is much of the machinery and even some of the cans. Today the facility is home only to pigeons in the rafters and cattle grazing in the salty sand in the courtyards.

The cannery

Some parts of the cannery survived better than others

Much of the cannery material was left behind

Even the cans were left behind...

The town isn't totally empty, though. There are lots of kids running around and a few working schools and colleges (colleges in Uzbekistan are basically like specialized high schools). There are lots of drunks, and there are still a lot of older people who seem mostly to lament the lost past. My hotel keeper (I was the only tourist in town at the time, so I spent my first night trying to chat with her) is in her 70s and knew the town when the sea was still there. Most of her children work in Almaty, Kazakhstan or other Uzbek towns now, since there's no work in Moynaq. When I asked her if she liked it here, thinking she must have a reasaon to stay, she laughed, "No! It's a bad place! Bad land, bad weather, bad." Speaking of the weather, apparently a side effect of losing the sea is that there are now terrible sand-salt-dust storms that whip up from time to time, causing excessively high rates of respiratory disorders in the area, among other health problems.

Contextually depressing mural

The first Christian cemetery I've seen so far. A sign of the huge Russian population here during fishing times

"World peace"

But there is a bit of hope for local industry, in a way. Oil companies have started to move in to exploit the reserves beneath what used to be the sea. When I inquired about tagging along with another jeep to the sea (chartering one turned out to be an over $500 trip to camp in single-digit temps with inadequate gear), all the tour guides were only taking oil workers these days. Turns out most tourists like to come in the summertime. Weird.

Me, Baatar and Nik in their abode
I did meet a few "fishermen", however! They weren't all Uzbek, in fact most of them were Chinese, and they weren't quite looking for fish... These guys spend the summer going back and forth to the sea collecting brine shrimp eggs from the super saline water, which they then bring back to Moynaq for packaging and sending off to China for... something. They turned out to be awesome guys, and one (Nik, on the right), spoke a bit of English. I almost got a ride with them to the sea, as they were leaving the next morning, but they didn't know if they would be gone for a day or two (no problem) or maybe two weeks to a month (bigger problem). Since I only had 5 days left on my visa, I opted to stay behind. Oh well, there's always the Kazakh side!

The Caspian Sea (Aktau, Kazakhstan)

After leaving that depressing sight, I started my trek out of the country and to Kazakhstan. As it turns out, there's not much in Western Uzbekistan. Just hours and hours of this:

Steppe/desert riding...

With a few of these thrown in:


Again, hitching was hard, and it was cold and windy. Despite the deserty-look of this terrain, the weather was frigid. Even getting a ride wasn't always a guarantee of warmth. One van I rode in had a broken heater AND a broken windshield. The three of us crammed up front shivered our way across the steppe. But at least we were moving. So often my rides ended up looking more like this:

It's amazing how much hitchhiking looks like this sometimes

I finally made it to the border (where they didn't even mention anything about the registration slips I had so diligently collected...) and across, I still barely managed to find a ride from the complete middle of nowhere to the nearest town, Beynau. At that point, I'd had enough of all of the above, and opted for some of the below:

I've been workin' on the railroad...

I figured the next several hundred km of steppe probably looked a lot like the last several hundred, and a night train would also get me out of paying for an expensive Kazakh hotel for the night, win-win! Turns out when you ask the cashier for the "very cheapest" ticket on an overnight train, you probably shouldn't hope for a decent night's sleep...

Nevertheless, I made it to Aktau and the Caspian Sea, my first glimpse of water big enough to reach the horizon!


I didn't realize how much I'd missed big bodies of water until I finally got to the beach. I had plans to go out and explore the desert and some supposedly cool historical sights near here, but instead I've spent the past two days mostly sitting near the water and reading. 

While doing this my first morning, actually, I had an old Russian man power-walking in a neon track suit stop and look at me. At that point, I was still bundled up in my winer travel clothes, scruffy as ever and a week unbathed  (Khiva was the last place with running water), and I was munching on sausage and stale bread next to my behemoth backpack. I smiled at the man, and after a mooment he asked in Russian, "You're hitch-hiking?" I was shocked. I'd spent months generally having people assume that I was lost, stupid, destitute, or all of the above when I tried to explain what hitch-hiking was. Here was someone who not only knew what it was, but pigeonholed me for one immediately!
"Oooohhh, Molodyes!" (Good for you!)
He asked a few of the basic "where are you from" "where are you going" "how long" "alone? really?" questions, then realizing my Russian was limited, just sat there beaming at me, shaking his head fondly. I'm guessing he either spent part of his life doing the same, or always wanted to. He shook my hand and started to walk off, but only got about 10m before he turned on his heels, powerwalked back and gave me 1000 tenge (about $6.50). Despite my protests, he insisted that I take it, then waved and powerwalked off into the distance. Maybe I wouldn't stick to trains from here on out, after all...

MiG memorial
I have gotten out to explore Aktau a bit, though, despite my sea-centered-ness. It's definitely a very Russified place and not so much Central Asian anymore. Sure, most of the people still speak Kazakh first, but there are a lot more white people wandering around, a lot fewer headscarves on women (and more shaved heads, actually), and a lot fewer chaikhanas and shashlik stands. They exist, but they're generally overshadowed by these:

Phonetic translation: Vinni-Pooh! I wonder if Kristof Robinov eats here
and these:

"Hmm, whom should we blatantly imitate: McDonalds or Burger King? Why not both?"

Also, apparently Aktau was only created by the Soviets for Uranium mining and enrichment, along with other heavy industries. All that petered out in the 90s, so now there is a ton of sketchy industrial wasteland surrounding the town. On the plus side, lots of room for street art (and graffiti...):

I hope Mr. Fox accepted the apology

Oh yeah, and today I saw a kid playing with a syringe. So, that's cool.

The sea!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the commentary on the Aral Sea. Soooo glad you finally got to a large body of water! Train sounds smart covering that distance but your hitchhiking has provided amazing adventures:)