Published: October 21st 2005July 29th 2005
First tea of the day
Washing away the memories of a sleepless night.
Morning comes and again relieves me from the agony of unsuccesful sleep. I am very much glad to pack my gear and move on, even though I know that our next night will be spent somewhere in the desert. We have a simple breakfast consisting of (you guessed it) tea, bread and noodles. Rustam arrives with the UAZ jeep and we pack our belongings and remaining water back into the trunk. We also bring along two matresses and some bedsheets from the hotel. It is a beautiful sunny morning, and already it is starting to get hot.
We begin the day by inspecting the sights in and around Moynaq, starting with the nearby fish canning factory. It used to employ several hundred, running three shifts around the clock, canning and distributing various kinds of locally caught fish, but with the disappearance of the lake its fate was sealed. However, we are told by the caretakers that an outside company has recently taken over the facility and are planning to use it to once again can fish that has been caught elsewhere. Indeed some reefer containers can be seen in the courtyard.
Right now though the factory is in need
of a major overhaul. It has been home to hundreds of pigeons, their feathers still drifting in the wind, and more clearly, their droppings all over the floors. The local caretakers show us around the plant past oily and dusty conveyors and gigantic vats and boilers. Some electronics have been supplied from the former German Democratic Republic. We also visit the workshops were the disc shaped cans are manufactured and assembled. We walk past the infirmary and the canteen, guess what the workers used to eat here? That's right - fish. It is regrettable that I am not allowed to photograph this rather fascinating place.
Our next stop is the Great War memorial, a rather spartan concrete spike on a cliff overlooking the vast sea, now of course only staring out into a barren and dry seabed. Local soldiers were ferried from here to Aralsk in the northern end of the Aral Sea (which is now located opposite of the disputed border, in Kazaksthan) from where they continued to the frontlines. Not very far from here a dam project has been initiated, to keep some of the water close to the city. It is near here that we find
Glory of the sea
Memories of an era now gone.
the last remaining ships of the desert. One ship has disappeared since Rustam's last visit in September last year, it's materials scavenged by the locals. Apart from the still rather magnificent looking Qaraqalpakstan the remaining vessels are in pretty bad shape, many of their features having been completely stripped.
We return downtown for a planned visit to the Aral Sea museum but our plans are changed when we meet up with a second UAZ jeep outside. It also belongs to the Aral Sea Fund, and the driver is ferrying four people, a local from Nukus and three photographers from Tashkent, apparently here to write a report on the lake for some academy of science newsletter. However, their driver does not know the way so it is decided that they will tag along with us. We skip the museum and visit the local bazar for some final preparations, stocking up on more water and other essentials. We leave Moynaq around noon and we expect to be on the road for some 8 hours or so. The journey ahead is estimated to be some 230 kilometers. However, the local administrator of the Aral Sea Fund has warned us that the seabed
The great war reached Moynaq too. Many a soldier were ferried from here to Aralsk to continue to the front.
is unpassable following yesterday's rain and informs us that we need to make a 90 km detour to the west. Considering our average speed is something around 30 km/h you can do the math. Oh joy...
Things do not start that well. As we leave the main road and continue on a bumpy dirt road I am happy that I got the veteran driver and the brand new car, and not the other way around. As the car digs up a lot of dust it is difficult to keep track of our companions (they should have little trouble following our cloud though...) and we have to stop at regular intervals to make sure they are still following. They're not... We're hardly twenty minutes out of Moynaq in a plain full of small bush and some wild horses, and we've lost sight of the second jeep, so we sit around and wait for maybe 15 minutes. We scruitinize the horizon using binoculars, but the only dust that can be seen is the one that erupts from time to time in the form of sudden small whirlwinds of sand, something that is known locally as dust devils.
When nobody shows
Staring into the void
View from the WWII memorial, which was situated on a cliff overlooking the water.
up we backtrack, and after some detective work by our skilled driver he finds their tracks having veered of in the wrong direction at an early stage. Since there is no cell phone network in this area we have to continue playing detectives and after a while it becomes clear that they have found their way forward again. We have already lost an hour when we find them up the road by some houses, out taking pictures.
We make haste and continue forward. The road now turns to a long straight path of gravel on a bank. I am amused by the fact that the scenery on the left side of the road is green and healthy, the righthand side being arid and devoid of most life. As we continue forward more reeds and puddles of water start to appear on the lefthand side, and where there's water there's birds - lots of waterfowl. We see hundreds of herons, egretts, ducks, seagull, pelicans, you know the drill by now. Qaraqalpakstan must be an interesting location for ornithologists for sure.
After a kilometer or so the climate makes a sudden shift again and now we are driving among dunes
Some water still remains at Moynaq.
of fine white sand that explode in gigantic clouds of dust as we pass through them, which means reluctantly having to close all windows again. Fortunately this only lasts for a short while, before I know it the landscape shifts back again. Occasionally we pass drilling towers courtesy of Uzbekneftegas and happen upon yet another dam project. The countryside is gradually becoming more and more rocky. Up ahead we can sea a distant plateau. The colour of the ground now turns orange red, much like the sands of the Qyzylqum desert, inidicating iron deposits. We continue towards the plateau, having to stop constantly to wait for the second jeep. Their passengers are eager to stop the car and take pictures, but it also means that we are getting delayed and Rustam doubts we will make it to our destination before nightfall.
Even though we are out in a dusty pit of sand a quick venture outside of the car will have you attacked by extremely persistent flies and mosquitoes, constantly getting in your face.
We've been driving for some three or four hours when we follow a ridge and find the road that takes us up on the
plateau. The landscape doesn't change much here, but now we are driving on what used to be the coast of the lake, and the big depression which we crossed to get here used to be full with water, but that was decades ago. Rustam is annoyed because we have spent hours on a detour that proved unnecessary. There are indeed no indications of any muddy conditions anywhere in sight.
If you squint into the far distance you can almost make out a thin blue line. Once again the Aral Sea is beckoning, but she is still so far away. Erosion has created some spectacular cliffs and as the sun is playing in and out of the clouds the scenery is extremely beautiful. The excuse for a road is not getting any better, my hands are constantly gripping the available handles, and the sun is boiling my arms and legs, yet still it is a marvellous experience to be here.
From time to time we encounter small man-made pyramids of rocks, similar to some nomadic burial grounds, but Rustam explains they are used as locators for the local shepherds. Kind of like postal codes if you will. The sun
The ships of the desert
Not only the fish is gone, so is the water.
has started its descent and we are nowhere near our destination and we ponder on whether to stop for the night or press on. Meanwhile the second jeep is far behind again so we stop for supper on a blanket in the shadow of the jeep. With the exception of the depression of the then Aral Sea the landscape is absolutely flat, and with no trees or ridges about this means a very grand and epical view of the sky. The weather has been nice (but hot) and the few featherlike clouds dance above our heads. There is something very special about being under an uninterrupted sky, one of these magical moments in time for me.
Finally the other jeep appears and they stop nearby for an evening meal. We go over and join them and learn that they are planning to camp here for the night. As both groups are relaxing for a while we can see more dust clouds on the horizon coming from the north. The Aral plain is quickly becoming congested. As the vehicles come closer we can spot a car and a truck, but before they come close enough to inspect they break off
Stripped for metals, not much remains of this hull.
and head down from the plateau and into the valley. Rustam suspects they might be smugglers, eager to avoid what to them must look like a government patrol.
As we are departing we have convinced the other crew to keep up with us. Sun has come down now and it is gradually getting darker. We make haste yet soon darkness is all around us. In the far distance I can see a star close to the horizon. But before I can inqure about it Otabek tells me it is the lights of our destination for the night, a weather station. We drive a bit further inland from the coast (well, the cliffs anyway) and the road is getting severly muddy. Potholes and tricky ditches start emerging and it takes a whole lot of concentration from Rustam to continually keep picking the best path through the maze. The second car has some problems keeping up but fortunately they have not got stuck anywhere. All the day we have been scaring up perching birds from the road, and not even in the evening do they get to sleep in peace. The road is also littered with dozens of jumping mice that
Rough seas ahead
Nobody knows how long the ships will remain here.
scurry out of the way like tiny kangaroos.
Rustam is not only keeping an eye on the road, but is on the lookout for wildlife. More than once he is convinced he has spotted a desert wolf and starts twisting the car left and right, hoping to catch it in the headlights. If he can spot it he explains, he will hunt it down with the car. Local shepherds will pay one sheep for each dead wolf you bring in. This amuses me a bit and I think about what such a chase could mean in these treacherous fields. Then suddenly he cries out Saiga!
and I can see a reflection in an eye on the righthand side, something is crossing the road ahead.
Before I can say "Neat!" Rustam puts the pedal to the metal and decides to give chase blasting away into the terrain at full speed. I take a firm grip with both hands to the handles and brace for the inevitable pothole or malicious trench, but Rustam is in full control, although my head is dangerously close to the windshield a couple of times.
We catch up with the terrified animal and follow
Puddles like these...
...are scattered around some parts of Moynaq.
it so closely its hind legs are not visible behind the bonnet and I wait for the terrible sound of impact. Otabek is inquiring from behind: Are you going to kill it? Are you really going to kill it?
Just at the last moment (I can barely see the head now) he breaks and the deer shoots off sideways into the night. Before I can let out a sigh of relief Rustam quickly turns the car and gives chase. Again we reach up on the hind legs and Rustam breaks again at what must be the last possible moment.
We've been chasing it for half a minute or so and the little deer is getting tired, the speed drops to 30 km/h and Rustam finally lets it run away before it is exhausted, and it quickly scurries away into the darkness. Meanwhile the light in the horizon has grown a bit larger, and I can see now that it is at the top of what appears to be an array of sorts, yet the distance is still quite far. We press on ahead, and suddenly a number of razed buildings come into view. Chemical Battalion
Rustam explains, or rather
what used to be some sort of military base, now firmly reduced to rubble, TNT style. The facility was abandoned some years ago and was demolished using explosives.
As we finally drive up towards the tower a number of small barracks and buildings come into view. I can see now that the light comes from a large array looking more like a drilling tower. There is light flooding out from the small windows of a bunker style concrete building underneath it. Peeking inside I can see plates and dishes drying on a kitchen bench. Nobody is around until a big dog starts barking and playfully chasing the car, almost getting itself run over. All I can think about is the movie The Thing
We drive around the complex until two shadows appear in the night. We drive up to and greet the men who turn out to be miners from the Uzbekneftegas company. Apparently this is a drilling station and obviously not the destination we had in mind. Not to worry though, they explain, the weather station is only 15 kms to the north. They have been working here for a little less than a year when the
Preserved in the main square near the government buildings.
station was set up.
The second car has not yet arrived but we make some signals to them with the headlights and press on north. Of course they do not follow up but stay over at the mining station so we have to return back to collect them. A discussion takes place. They do not want to continue and to stay here for the night. Finally our argument that it is only another half hour to go sinks in and they reluctantly get back into the car again. The time is now some minutes past midnight.
The last leg is uneventful and quickly passes and we soon come up on yet another complex in the shadow of a large tower. This time it is the weather station for real, and it is brooding and dark and we begin to wonder if anybody is home. The main gates are torn open and we drive into the yard past two big concrete buildings their windows all sealed with wooden planks. On the far side of the spooky yard are some contours of instruments and a smaller wooden building which is the lodging. Two skeletal beds are standing in the middle
One last check
Rustam prepares for the long haul into the desert.
of the courtyard. Rustam makes vigorous use of the horn and after a minute or so the door opens and a very tired looking guy is coming out in his underwear.
Going outside the air is very fresh and comfortable, and gazing into the sky I can see so many stars it is overwhelming. The milky way is shining so bright tonight, and whereever you look you will soon see a shooting star cross your field of view. Even more mesmerizing is the large towering black array that stretches into the sky. It must be at least 8 stories high, and even though it is completely dark it stands out as a black shadow in front of the nightsky. The generators that power some of the electronics emit a gentle and soothing hum and I am madly in love with this place.
While we wait for the second car Otabek and I decide to make use of the makeshift beds in the courtyard. Rustam will recline a seat and sleep in the jeep. The second resident has also come outside while the first guy is bringing us some hot water for our tea time. As the second group
Yalla, let's go!
Expedition Aralskoye More on the move.
arrives everything becomes a bit messy and they are not happy about the place, wanting to go back to the mining station. After another discussion they pack their things back into the car and drive back south, and Otabek and I smile as peace settles over the camp again.
Using our bedsheets we make the beds and jump into them for what will be the best night I spent in Uzbekistan. Finally some fresh air and no bloody mosquitoes pestering me. I lie for a while watching the constellations of the nightsky, the shooting stars and the dark tower, wanting to make the most of this moment, but the long day gets to me and before I know it I sleep like a brick. Another one of those precious magical moments in time has just passed by.
There are more photos below