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Published: December 25th 2005
Coming up on Moynaq
Getting a first glimpse of tonight's destination.
After giving up mosquito swatting around 2.30 and fruitless attempts at coherent sleep in this bake oven I am finally rescued by the first morning light. Otabek has had bedside visits by the little suckers too, and he looks about the way I feel. We moan and groan a bit before getting some sausage and eggs for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Today's agenda has one item; we are to meet up with Rustam early morning for a drive to the airport. We'll then do the survey flight over the southern part of the Aral Sea that I have been fantasizing about for months. Getting to the airport is a simple job, and as soon as we arrive the derelict parking lot outside slowly starts buzzing with officials of various caliber from the airport and Aral Sea Fund, all eager to go through my permits. I am amazed at how many people have a photocopy of my passport. Formalities aside we can begin the most outrageous item on my itinerary, the chartered flight over the Aralskoye More is solely responsible for about 40% of my trip cost.
We are greeted by the two pilots and quickly walked through the empty
airport to the tarmac where an Antonov An-2 in the colours of the national carrier is parked outside. Apparently it used to be the personal transport of the regional communist party official. For a brief second everyone's eyes are on me. It is a truly bizarre sensation, and for a moment I am having a megalomaniacal seizure of hybris. Fortunately my modest Swedish upbringing is more than able to contain it before I start laughing like a madman, we board in short order and before you can say "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard..." we are airborne.
We cruise at 600 feet following the Amu Darya river north towards the mysterious and epic Aral Sea. Otabek and I crawl back and forth between the windows in the small cabin and from this angle I can see just how wrong my perceptions of Qaraqalpakstan really are. There is an ocean of green fields, plains and marshland about. Admittedly much of the region still is a barren wasteland, but the river is surrounded by plenty of fertile soil. Our pilots make for an interesting flight and we pass by villages and small towns as we continue downstream. Gradually I notice the landscape
Not exactly hustle and bustle at this hour.
becoming more and more barren. As we reach Moynaq I can have a first glimpse of our next destination, it looks rather disheartening.
Moynaq is famed for being one of the fishing industry cities which were devastated when the Soviet plan-economic madhouse decided to turn off the tap that replenishes the Aral Sea and redirect some 90 cubic km of water annually to nearby cotton plantations. In the 1980s the resupply for the lake was a mere tenth of that in the 1950s. Today the coast has crept some 40 kilometers north of present Moynaq, effectively turning it into a desert oasis. The meaning of "the ships of the desert" gets a redefinition in Moynaq, and Aralsk in Kazaksthan. Read more about the horrors of the Aralskoye More at UniMaps.com
The pilots take us in a circle around some of the remaining hulks of the fishing fleet rusting away in the sun before we continue towards our main objective. From here we fly over dry seabed, covered by occasional bush and shrubbery and soon the water beckons up ahead. The weather is somewhat cloudy, so the impression is rather muted, greyish water and greyish sand all around. But
as we continue I am once again forced to re-evaluate my impressions. The landscape continuously and surprisingly keeps changing colours from grey, brown, red, orange, yellow to blue and green tones, it is all rather amazing. Good thing I brought plenty of film rolls.
As we swing south again we fly over the Jyltarbas Lake area and you could be forgiven for thinking you were flying somewhere very far away from here. Lakes and waterways covered with vast amounts of lush green reeds provide some spectacular habitats for water fowl. Our pilots take us down for a closer look and we scare up all sorts of birds; egretts, herons, ducks, seagulls, pelicans, even some storks. Suddenly Otabek and I begin to realize that it is not birds flying high above us, it is our plane flying rather low. A confirmation with the pilots brings the altitude reading to 15 feet!
We continue to sniff low over the region as we make our way back towards Nukus, dodging the power grid as it comes and goes. One stretch of the river has evidence of powerful erosion, jagged contours of tall river banks being ripped to shreds by the water.
Our pilots do some more barnstorming stunts and I can see horses, goats and cows running for their lives below us. The flight has lasted a bit less than three hours as we are brought back around noon and I decide not to think about how much money that has just literally disappeared into thin air. Next time I will be even more outrageous and try to charter a helicopter...
Rustam picks us up at the airport and as we head for lunch we confer about the onward trip. We decide to skip on the Nukus "sights" and head directly for Moynaq in the afternoon. We have a light lunch at the hotel, check out and pack our bags into the car and head downtown to the local bazar for supplies for our three day journey north. I now realize where all the people of Nukus have been hiding so far, the area is crowded with merchants and customers browsing around. We buy lots of bottled water and a boiler, grab some essential foodstuffs; tea, bread, sugar and canned meat. I also buy a smelly Uzbek antibacterial soap and a stupid towel that bleeds blue all over me the
Marshland and open water
The Jyltarbas area south of Moynaq offers plenty of accomodation for tired seafowl.
first (and only) time I used it.
The heat is sweltering as usual and I am glad to finally get on the way as we depart Nukus at 4 pm. The road to Moynaq is in good condition and paved all the way. Crossing the Amu Darya across a very long bridge the effects of the thirsty upriver plantations can clearly be seen, as the actual river is a mere trickle in the middle of the riverbed. The traffic is light and the roadside surprisingly alive with vegetation. Gradually the sky turns dark in the distance and we can see a powerful rainshower in the distant north, which is where we are heading. A few drops find their way to us which is a momentary relief from the heat but they soon evaporate. The sun is beginning to come down as we near Moynaq. The road now appears to be following a bank across sparsely vegetated plains, we are driving along the path that once connected Moynaq to the south. There is still some water left on one side where we can see local children playing in a damb. The sky has turned very dark again, yet changes colour
to a rusty grey and as we drive into town a salty dust storm is engulfing us. Gentlemen, welcome to Moynaq!
Although visibility is limited we quickly make our way to our destination, the Oyabek Hotel. We drive past a few derelict buildings and some roaming goats and park outside a two-story house looking more like a dormitory. The dust has disappeared and a gentle rain is falling in its place. Otabek and I carry our equipment into the building as Rustam takes off to some local friends where he intends to spend the night. We examine our rooms which are situated in the middle of a long corridor. There are no other guests but us, which is just as good, as there is only one bathroom still working on the entire floor. The rooms have nice balconies though, which open to a yard that has lots of plants and a big tree in front of the house. The bedsheets look like they travelled with Captain James Cook on the Endeavour in the 18th century and the general decorating leaves a bit to be desired, but I am happy knowing that I have finally reached this mythical spot in
A salty, dusty and barren wasteland.
As the rain has stopped the sun is coming out again, the yellow disc slowly turning golden-red and throwing eerie and creepy shadows around. I look out through the stained windows, past the flies and the cobwebs to see a turned over charred and rusty hulk of a burnt out bus in the hotel backyard. Some cows are standing around it. I love this place, and it screams for me to take its pictures. As Otabek sits down to chat with the hotel manager I venture out into the neighbourhood to make use of the last light of the day. Some children playing in the distance are waving eagerly and shouting Hello!
every 30 seconds. The cows have moved on but the bus is not going anywhere. The area looks like as if a civil war had raged through here a decade ago and nobody really bothered to tidy it up.
I walk up to the main road and two of the local boys have noticed exactly what it is I like to photograph and offer to escort me to the remains of two ships in the nearby river. The sky is turning magnificently red and
There is life still in the Amu Darya.
the fresh air after the rain is comfortable. We reach the ships after some five minutes, not that there is that much left of them. Apparently locals have already cannibalized some of the vessels for the metals in the hulls. Understandable as it might be, this region is very poor, it also threatens one of the greater tourist attractions (and thus potential source of income) of the area. As the giant red disc slips beneath the horizon we walk back to the hotel and as Rustam returns we sit down in one of the rooms to drink tea and have some bread and noodles. I feel the tea I have drunk in Moynaq will rank as some of the best in my life. Cheap raspberry flavoured black tea with brown sugar, but man what a treat!
Night comes quickly in this part of the world, and in a pitch black environment, a lone illuminated hotel room with an open door quickly becomes the favourite shelter for the local wildlife. Those bugger mosquitos have started to appear (so much for this being a desert area) and Otabek makes an interesting discovery on the balcony. He asks me to come have
Brush and shrubbery abruptly giving way to the finest white sand dunes.
a look, and I am suddenly jumped by a praying mantis. I can see more of them in the tree outside. That's it. No more wildlife for me thank you. I close my door and switch off the light. Lying down on the bed it gets rather hot. I decide to leave the door to the corridor open to get some circulation of air, it is not exactly as this is pick-pocket-o-rama anyway. And besides the lock does not work, mainly because the door looks like it's been hit by a truck.
Twisting and turning, sweating and cursing. I sprinkle myself liberally with a water bottle yet the water evaporates quickly. Oh no, not another night like this, I will turn into a wreck tomorrow. Suddenly I hear a low, growling sound. What the... I remember the stray dog roaming the hotel grounds. Has it got into my room? Great. Now what should I do? Run up and beat it with an empty non-recycleable plastic bottle? Great... No, false alarm, it was the sound of a distant moped. My rest has been disturbed, so I get up and close the door to my room as well. At least it
might keep some of the larger local beats outside. This doesn't exactly improve on the climate in my room, and I think I am about to burn up. I don't really remember how I pulled through this night, and how much sleep I got, but it will be remembered as one of the more miserable ones in my life.
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