Day 21 – The Other Dead Sea

Wednesday 17 September 2014

It appears the hardest part of living in a remote community by the shores of the Aral Sea is the lack of women. This was revealed to me late this evening when one of the local men, who’d come in to answer the phone, wondered what I was doing on my laptop, and then (through the medium of charades) wondered if I had any porn on it. With this, and the border guards on my first entry into Uzbekistan, it makes me wonder if the country is full of horny desperate men.

So here I am at the Aral Sea. It’s pretty cold; the sky above is very clear and full of stars, which makes a considerable improvement on the journey here where we went through a bit of a rain shower that had the potential to make us turn back – not because it was affecting our travel there, but rather because it would have made the Aral shore a huge mud-flat; not amenable to camp on. As it turned out, the rain was just passing over and apart from by the edge of the sea itself, the conditions underfoot were pretty dry, sandy, and good.
The campsite is nothing more than a couple of yurts and a tent. My bed is in the main yurt, where we’ve been eating and also where the fridge and the phone are, whilst Marta and the driver are in one of the other tents. As yurts go, it’s not actually that well-constructed – there’s pieces of carpet/rug lain over gaps in the wickerwork, but these gaps are still big enough to let in the wind, and the occasional mouse which is after the sugar which I’ve now moved to an inaccessible place. There’s also a pile of ‘stuff’ (including a mattress) laid on its side along one wall, deep within which there’s an incessant buzzing which I’m none too keen to explore. All that said, they’ve supplied enough blankets and a thick sleeping bag so I won’t be too cold tonight. I am, controversially, also wearing socks; my walking sandals coming off worst in a battle with a mud-flat.
There’s a couple of other encampments in the area – on our drive along the shoreline we passed a few – but they’re all quite spaced out. It’s not like at Song Kol where the yurts were all in one small ‘conurbation’; we do feel quite isolated here, and it’s really very quiet.

Our drive in took around four hours from Moynaq; we left just after lunchtime. I’m not quite sure how far we drove, probably around 100km. Once we left the roads, we were driving pretty much on nothing more than trails that existed only because previous vehicles had done the journey. The first part of the route took us directly over the old sea-bed of the Aral Sea – flat, but with more shrubs/bushes than I’d have expected for something that was undersea just a couple of decades ago. This part of the ‘sea’ was now dotted with industry – mainly gas wells to access the resources under the sea bed; although not necessarily an ideal industry, at least there’s something here that may well cause a mini local boom in the economy and encourage people back.

The weather as we were driving across the sea bed was quite volatile, but did get steadily worse. A couple of times we were driving and a dust/sand storm came out of nowhere and reduced visibility to absolutely nothing. The clouds gradually closed in and by the time we drove up the old cliffside it was starting to drizzle.

The rutted track that ran along the cliff was incredibly bumpy and started to get a little muddy. The views from the top however were pretty impressive; both along the top itself at the wild desolate hills, and out over what used to be the sea. The bushes had faded away by this stage so the seabed was as bleak and empty as I’d imagined it to be; nothing but sand, rock, and the occasional weed – we stopped once to take a look and a few pictures, and the wind was of course biting cold. The falling rain started to make the trail a little trickier to navigate, and we did get briefly stuck in a small puddle of mud on one of the ridges. By the time we reached our sharp descent back to the seabed however, the clouds had started to dissipate and the sky was getting steadily brighter.

There was quite a bit of mud around the edge of the sea – when we stopped on the way to the yurt, we walked over a large mud-flat, and then once we reached the yurts I had a wander to the shoreline and had to go the long way round because the mud got pretty deep. In a way the mud isn’t surprising – as the sea continues to shrink, the sandy sea-bed turns to mud first before it dries out and becomes ‘desert’.
Although we did pass a few yurts en route, there was virtually nobody else around – a group of four 20-something Uzbek men were playing with a 4×4 at the very edge of the water, and at our yurts there were a couple of helpers (including the chap after porn), but apart from that it was pretty deserted. I guess there’s no reason to come all the way out here except for tourism, or the craic.

There wasn’t much to do at the site, aside from walking and exploring; the important aspect for me was to have simply been there. We kind of all went to our beds not long after the sun went down, although once it got dark we did see some local wildlife – a small desert fox lurked around my yurt, feasting on small animals like the mice who kept wanting to invade me. It’s quite cool to have your own guard animal.

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