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I first learned about the Aral Sea a few years ago on an Anthony Bourdain episode. I was fascinated by it. I’ve wanted to visit the disappearing Aral Sea ever since.
The town of Nukus is the starting point for any adventure to the Aral Sea. It’s on the Western side of Uzbekistan, and most directly accessible by hiring a car or taking the overnight train. We opted for the overnight train figuring it would save on accommodation costs. Plus, the girls love any mode of transportation that involves sleeping!
If you’re interested in Nukus, you might also be interested in these 20 former-USSR Cities.
In Tashkent, when we mentioned the overnight train, we were told it was long, hot and bumpy. By the time we boarded the train I was thinking we’d made a grave mistake, but it was already paid for so there wasn’t much to do about it.
We lumbered onto the train with all our stuff about 10min before it was supposed to depart. We managed to load up our cabin, then promptly stripped off any un-necessary clothes. It was a sauna! We were all drenched from head to toe, just sitting in the compartment. The train departed 40min late, by which point Randy’s finger’s were pruney from sweating so much! As soon as we began to move, someone came by to closer our door. The window didn’t open, and I was expecting we’d lose half our body weight in sweat overnight. Luckily, there was a tiny bit of air conditioning in the cabin, and once we were moving it started to flow. I wouldn’t say it was cool, but it was comfortable enough. We stopped sweating and were relatively comfortable sitting in our underwear with the door closed!
We had a typical backpacker dinner or ramen noodles, played a game of Uno, and settled in to bed.
Both girls slept decently well on the top bunks. Randy and I didn’t sleep that well at all.
It was a long 20 hours.
Although we left 40min late, we still pulled into Nukus on time. By the time we arrived at our apartment we were ready for a shower and some good air conditioning!
Our driver picked us up at 8am, loaded us all into a large Toyota Prado, and we were off. The first part of the drive was paved and comfortable, but by late morning we’d left the pavement behind and were driving on top of the Ustyurt Plateau. It’s a giant desert, stretching West as far as the eye can see. To the East it drops off into what used to be the Aral Sea. Now, the base of the plateau looks eerily similar to the top.
We didn’t catch the first glimpse of the sea until mid-afternoon. As we drove along, a line of blue shimmered on the Eastern horizon. “It’s BIG Mom!” Calais exclaimed. I told her that although it looks big, it used to be much, much bigger.
The girls (and me & Randy) had been waiting all day to swim in the sea. Our driver stopped the car a few hundred meters from the edge and told us we could go swimming. After a quick change into our bathing suits, we made our way towards the water’s edge. It was a bit mucky along the shoreline, and REALLY mucky upon entering the water. Calais decided that since we’re going to float in the Dead Sea later in the trip, she didn’t need to wade through the muck. I coaxed her through it, reminding her that the Aral Sea might disappear completely in her lifetime, and this might be her only chance to get in. With a firm grasp on my hand, she pushed forward.
About 20m out the ground hardened a bit and it was deep enough to float. It sure was salty though! I’d like to say we had this zen experience, but between the muck and the salt it was anything but. Calais cried because she got salt in her eyes. Then Kacela cried because her leg was stinging in the water. An they both cried because they got salty water in their mouths!
We managed to swim for about 20min, sometimes peacefully, and sometimes not. We took the obligatory family picture in the sea and decided we’d done it, and we could get out!
Slogging back through the muck was even worse than getting in because there was no sea to rinse it off after. By the time we got back to the vehicle, we were glistening white with salt, and our feet were grey and muddy. Luckily there was a shower waiting for us up at camp.
I woke early after a fitful sleep in the yurt. I wanted to watch the sunrise, so pulled myself out of bed and left everyone else asleep. Sitting on the top of the plateau, coffee in hand, watching the sun rise over the sea is something I’ll always remember. It was so quiet and peaceful. There was nothing to do but sit and be present in the moment.
As with all good moments it had to come to an end. Soon everyone was up and ready for breakfast. The girls had fun chasing the 2 resident dogs around, and Randy and I enjoyed another cup of coffee before packing up to leave.
We descended from the plateau just south of the sea shore, and drove away on the desert. This was the old sea floor, although you’d never know it. The sea has been gone for so long that sage brush and other plants cover the surface. The only hint was the mirage spanning the horizon, caused by the layer of salt blanketing the ground.
The Aral Sea used to sustain a prosperous fishing industry. It’s now been replaced with drilling rigs for natural gas. Dozens of rigs lined the make-shift road, all in various stages of disrepair. The concentration of rigs was a bit shocking. At least there is something to keep the people employed.
The town of Moynak lies at the previous southern shore of the Aral Sea. It’s a small town, with many buildings in disrepair, including the old cannery. Along the edge of town is the ship graveyard. This is where the old fishing boats were brought when the fishing industry collapsed. It’s depressing to see them rusting away in the desert, hundreds of kilometres away from the current edge of the sea. A shocking reminder of something that once was and is no more.
It’s too late for the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is essentially gone. The social, economic and environmental impacts of this are difficult to measure. How did this happen? And why do so few people know about it?
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This was the biggest room we’ve stayed in so far, and seems to be a bit of a traveler’s hub in Nukus. There’s a great restaurant on site, and breakfast was included. It’s also the most expensive place we’ve stayed, but it was worth it. Plus, the wifi was relatively fast!
Cost: $75 US/night
This was one of the only things we booked prior to our trip, and it was a splurge. We used Caravanistan tours (via their fantastic website on Central Asia) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Our tour included lunch at a fisherman’s camp, dinner & breakfast by the sea, overnight in a Yurt and lunch in a cafe. It also included an air conditioned 4WD vehicle and driver.
Cost: $800 USD ($931 CAD)
There’s not a whole lot to do in Nukus, but the Savitsky museum was a great way to spend the afternoon. It’s full of avant garde art from the early 1900’s that was illegal by Russian standards. Much of it was spared due to the out-of-the-way location of Nukus. We got lucky and had a local art student who wanted to practice English give us a free tour!
Cost: 40000 som ($6CAD)
We were very unadventurous in Nukus and ate all 3 of our non-tour meals at the Jipek Joli Inn. We did venture out a bit the last night and tried the restaurant at the Jipek Joli Annex, however it was the same menu!
Cost: Lunch 36000 som ($5.50 CAD), Dinners 30000 ($4.60CAD) som & 53000 som ($8.15CAD).
Most of our transportation was connected to our Aral Sea tour, however the few times we needed to get around town we took a taxi or just walked. The taxis were incredibly cheap.
Cost: Taxi to south shared taxi stand for Bukhara 10000som ($1.50CAD), Shared taxi to Bukhara (we paid for all 4 seats, taxi took 6 hours) 500000som ($77CAD).
Our Aral Sea tour definitely was over budget, however we’ve managed to keep everything else well enough below budget that we’re still on track.
Avg daily cost so far in Uzbekistan (Up until Aug 10) is $159.95, Aral Sea tour included!
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