It must really suck to be a Karakalpak. Once upon a time, you were one of Central Asia’s most avid farmers, then your land was prostituted, polluted and destroyed beyond recognition and, even after your livelihood was obliterated, you were never been compensated for your loss. The worst part, however, would have to be that while you evolved, thrived and subsequently suffered over a period of two thousand years…most of the world does not even know you exist.
Karakalpakstan is indeed the invisible Stan; the one which man has simply forgotten. Stretching out over 160,000 square kms and being made up of over 400,000 inhabitants, this autonomous region of north-western Uzbekistan is ironically only renowned for being home to the southern half of the Aral Sea, the site of one of humankind’s most tragic mistakes.
You see…the Aral Sea is actually a desert; one filled with sea shells and rusted old fishing boats. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, it has been dried like an old prune over a matter of just a couple of decades. Find a time machine and travel back to the 1950s and you would enviably visit one of the most thriving fishing hubs of Central Asia.
The demise of the Aral was due to a rather unhealthy obsession, by the Soviet Union, to grow cotton. The sea was fed by two formidable rivers, which were both redirected and endlessly exploited to irrigate newly farmed cotton plantation in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Cotton, a plant from which we derive our most beloved material, is one of the thirstiest crops known to man. It loves and needs water like few others do and it’s for this very reason that, soon enough, both rivers (and by consequence the entire Aral Sea) were drained to a crisp.
The visa-drama we faced in Baku, when we were denied a transit visa through Turkmenistan, had one optimal silver lining. By being forced to sail to Aktau instead of Turkmenabashi, we entered Uzbekistan from the north rather than the centre. This meant we would be riding within 80kms of the southern port town of Moynaq, once a very thriving fishing village. The chance to visit the southern ‘shore’ of the Aral Sea was one we just couldn’t pass up. Although the devastation to this entire region and its inhabitants is certainly tragic, it’s worth noting that the landscape itself is nowadays regarded as one of the most surreal and mesmerizing sights in Central Asia. We’d heard other traveller’s reports and seen plenty of photos but, being the sceptical adventurers that we are, we were not entirely convinced.
We were gonna have to go and check it out for ourselves.
As we cross the border from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan I am reminded, once again, that this is the flattest bit of land I’ve ever seen. There’s only one main ‘highway’ cutting through Karakalpakstan from north to south and, potholes notwithstanding, the major risk I face, in the next two days, is falling asleep behind Pixie’s handlebar.
Luckily, the odd curious camel provides some much-needed distraction.
As we pass what must have been an ancient settlement (it eerily looks like a dusty old village to the uneducated) we’re reminded of the fact that we are, for the first time this year, riding along the historic Silk Route. Marco Polo travelled through here over eight centuries ago and I do wonder if even he managed to stay awake atop the hump of his dromedary. We spot a Silk Route monument in the centre of town and, being obviously deprived of noteworthy photo ops, stop to take a picture of that too.
I must say that unless you are a lover of all things flat, dusty and beige-coloured, you may not necessarily enjoy riding along this road for a couple of days. Even Chris, who is a desert lover, admits that as far as striking scenery goes…this ain’t no Sahara or Simpson. Me? I’m quite impartial to green to be honest…and water. Lots of water…but there’s none of that here.
In the early afternoon we ride past Jasliq, a small desert community which exists purely for the servicing of a nearby oil field and jail. We are insanely happy to spot a roadside eatery as we’d actually managed to run out of food the night before. I’ve been salivating at the sight of camels in the distance for at least four hours!
As we slow down on approach I notice a sign crammed with symbols swinging in the wind. The only two which grab my attention are those for ‘bed’, ‘restaurant’ and ‘shower’.
These roadside eateries are really weird, I must confess. They look sort of decrepit and abandoned from the outside, but you’d never guess the quaintness of the décor and the liveliness hidden behind the fluorescent blue windows and frames. Even here: if it weren’t for the fact that two trucks are parked out the front, I’d swear the place was empty.
As we park and take off our helmets a little old man emerges from the front door to greet us. He bids us a hearty ‘salam alekum’ and proceeds to hand-sign everything they’re offering from drink, to food, a shower and even a bed.
Yep, we’ll have all four thanks!
As we enter the dining room I notice that the obsession with the colour blue extends to the floor tiles and the blinds. It is blissfully cool inside (the consistent rise in temps outside has been brutal by the way) and pristinely clean. If not a little Spartan…
Our first business of the day is to feast, and feast we do. We order two serves of shashlik (shish kebabs), fresh bread and salad (which in these deserty villages consist of pickled tomatoes and cucumbers) and gorge ourselves into a stupor. The over use of sheep fat in the cooking of the meat adds some much-needed calorie supply at this stage. The meal is delicious and we enjoy it more that you could imagine. If we’d known that it would actually end up being the best meal we would have in the whole country…we would have asked for seconds.
The young lady behind the counter is acutely observant (or perhaps she smelt us before we even arrived) and asks if we’d like to stay, have a shower and spend the night in one of their rooms. We agree without hesitation, especially once we discover it would only cost us $10 each. Our room is simple and the beds a wee bit saggy but from where we stood (at the front door) it may as well have been the Kempinsky Hotel in Djibouti.
Several showers and a restful sleep later we are ready to pay our bill and head off down the highway yet again. Once the inn’s owner gets a wind of our plan to reach Moynaq he suggests we leave the tarmac behind and cross the actual desert instead. According to him, if we follow the power poles for about 150kms we’ll come to the western outer rim of Lake Aral, what we had read being the most scenic part of the lake. As water receded at a swift pace , it left craters on the shores; creating a moon-like landscape of varying mineral colours.
We quickly change our plans and decide to tackle a real desert crossing! Even though the weather looks a little dubious, we are still keen for a little adventure. I’m not even all that worried about riding on this desert considering it’s all so flat. How far down could I possibly fall?
We line up our bikes between the double row of power lines (21st century explorers at their best) and set off on our sandy ride.
It takes us about six hours to reach the 1970’s shoreline of Lake Aral. The scenery which awaits us will go down in my travel history as one of the most astounding I have ever seen. I know this is supposed to be a lake, and I know I’m supposed to be depressed at the sight, but I tell you…this is one of the most beautiful places I have EVER seen.
The contours and colours, at this time of day, are simply spectacular. The ground crumbles beneath our feet due to the excessive concentration of salt. Much like the Valley of the Moon outside Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, it feels like we’re exploring a different planet altogether.
We find a nook for our tent and enjoy a spellbinding sunset.
Next morning, as we set off to cross what was once the sea bed we are propelled back into what seems an eternal flatness. The contours of the lake-shore become a distant mirage.
We reach the former port town of Moynaq mid-morning and this is the first ever hint that something is seriously amiss. On the edge of what was the town’s pier, stands a monument dated 1960; it proudly displays the drawing of a lake which no longer is.
Riding through the village is heartbreaking. Every second house is abandoned and there are still a considerable number of fish signs on dilapidated shop awnings. Everything about Moynaq feels old, worn out, defeated. Old men stroll along the main, sand-ridden street. They were all born into well-established fishing families but all will die into rubbles of sand. Grandfathers who spent their youth sailing, swimming and fishing must now retell stories to children who have probably never seen a mass of water in their lives. This is eerily reminiscent of the DRCongo, where grandparents sit around log fires in the evening, in the middle of the jungle, recounting the days when highways, trains, cars and airplanes where everywhere in their country. Nowadays, there are still plenty of Congolese communities who have no access to clean water or electricity, when merely a generation ago the country was thriving immensely.
Devolution is, to me, one of the most unnatural things in the world. Lives of people all over this planet are supposed to get better (to varying dregrees), not worse.
We head down to the ‘beach’ to admire, both in awe and sorrow, the sight of a long line of rusted old ships now cemented in the sand dunes. I admit to one thing though…they are awfully photogenic.
I am not about to pass up the chance to climb up on a fishing trawler, stuck in a desert, which used to be a sea.
We decide not to spend the night in Moynaq, preferring not to bring attention to the fact that we have, in one way or another, come to admire their misfortune. Instead we head for the tarmac road once more; the one which will take us to an entirely different side of Uzbekistan.
As we cross the invisible border between Karakalpakstan and Central Uzbekistan, we can’t help but feel an enormous amount of sadness. Both nature and man thrived here for eons, yet countless invading forces have managed to reduce it to an endless and totally useless plain of nothingness. People are still trying to survive here, in one way or another. Perhaps they live in hope that water will flow in once again; that maybe fertility will return. Whatever the case may be…the world may have forgotten all about Karakalpakstan, but our experience has ensured this be the one Stan we’ll remember the most.