Tuesday 16 September 2014
(and a bit of Wednesday 17th, to keep Moynaq together)
Welcome to Moynaq, the small town with the big fart.
I’m not at all sure how many people live here, but it’s probably fewer than live in my current hometown of Kirkby-in-Ashfield (which is about 30,000). It’s almost a ‘linear village’ in the sense that there is one very long road (probably a mile, mile and a half maybe) in the town, where most of the traffic and amenities are, with a couple of side-roads running parallel, but not much width – a bit like Dili in Timor-Leste but with even more dust.
By ‘amenities’ I may be over-exaggerating; there’s a small stadium, a town hall, a museum, a couple of schools, and that’s about all. There are a couple of local corner shops down the side roads but it’s not a good place to stock up on provisions.
The town is predominantly monotone; creams and greys, very little colour at all. Partly this is to do with the aforementioned dust, mainly sand, which blows in from the desert surrounds and layers itself on the stony uneven roadways, but also it’s because most of the houses and buildings are built without colour themselves, so every wall, every building, is a fairly uniform off-white.
It is very much ‘the end of the road’, although technically the road does continue further NW into the desert, and eventually reaches the Kazakhstan border. However it’s pretty desolate for a few hours on both sides, and it’s not generally a route between the two countries that’s often used, except by long-distance lorry drivers and really eccentric backpackers.
It was not always thus; within living memory, Moynaq was a thriving fishing town on the shores of the Aral Sea, in the Amu Darya delta, and the centre of a lucrative fish canning industry. However with dubious Soviet Agricultural policy leading to over-irrigation further upstream, diverting too much of the water out of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to feed massive farming projects (including creation of large non-native cotton plantations), the Aral Sea shrunk, the rivers dried up, and Moynaq slowly died. It was, in effect, a ‘double whammy’, since not only did the drying up and desertification kill off the local industry, but the changing from a marine to a desert environment changed the weather too – summers became much hotter, the climate much drier, turning the fertile landscape into what’s become known as the ‘Aralkum’ desert.
There was also a secondary effect; industrialisation elsewhere in the Aral area meant a large number of polluting factories dumping their loads into the Aral Sea and surrounds. With the shrinking of the sea, although most of the factories have closed, their residue is still largely present and no longer being washed away and diluted. The dust in Moynaq has larger quantities of chemicals and toxins than normal, adding to the dying of agriculture and contributing to Moynaq’s higher-than-average incidence of cancers and premature deaths. Those that can have generally already left – Moynaq’s made up of the elderly and the very young.
The extent of the shrinking of the sea is widely-displayed around Moynaq, but the most visible evidence is on the Northern side of the town, where a huge expanse of sand dune and shrub is all that remains of Moynaq harbour. The road there ends at the top of a cliff, and there are stairs leading down to the old shoreline. Just beyond what used to be the waterline are the rusting hulks of old fishing vessels, some in situ where they became beached, whilst others have been moved here from further out in the sea where they’d been originally abandoned.
None of the ships are seaworthy any more – bits of them have been ‘recycled’ by the locals, other bits have fallen off and simply rotted or rusted away. Most of them are covered with graffiti; it would be nice to think people had written heartfelt messages deploring what happened here and expressing sorrow that humanity could change the environment like this, but to be honest most of it was of the ‘Ahmad was here’ and ‘Leila loves Sergei’ variety.
Unsurprisingly, Moynaq sees few tourists, although probably more than you’d expect; it’s perhaps surprising just how many people (mainly of the backpacker-type of traveller) want to see the environmental catastrophe that is the Aral Sea for themselves. It’s not a town that’s geared up for tourism; the small, casual, museum in town gives an overview of the Aral area and the environmental disaster in particular, but apart from the ship graveyard this is the only thing in town to cater for tourists – there may or may not be a hotel in town (one allegedly exists, but it might be closed – I didn’t notice it), and the only café/chaikana I saw also looked very closed – so generally people take homestays with local families, often arranged as part of an unofficial ‘tour’ that sees the host also driving the backpackers to the shoreline of the Aral Sea itself.
Which is what we did. Marta had arranged pretty much all of it all previously, so all I’d really needed to do was to turn up and pay. We met the driver in the city of Nukus, a seemingly unimpressive yellow-grey city with virtually no foreigners; we’d come in by shared taxi from Urgench, which (after a phone conversation between our driver and our host) dropped us off at the back end of a housing estate, where we had to hang around for 10 minutes in the searing heat and have photographs taken with passing teenage schoolgirls who looked at us as if we were some kind of megastars.
The host had a single-storey home but which contained several buildings surrounding a stony driveway bordered with blue/purple flowers– we stayed in a block with a large living room and two bedrooms; there was also a separate building for a kitchen, and what I assumed to be the family living area. At the far end of the driveway was the outhouse – a small wooden shack with a hole in the floor and some Soviet-issue toilet paper that resembled sandpaper. I’m not used to squat toilets, though I appreciate how they ‘work’ on the body – though I prefer them when there are handles on the wall to hold on to, as I don’t really have good balance, and the once place you don’t want to fall over is in a dodgy squat toilet cubicle.
The host family gave us food and drink – mainly bread, cheese, sliced sausage, and salads. Marta, being vegetarian, had a ‘discussion’ with them around whether chicken and fish were vegetarian foods or not –it really is quite strange to think that some cultures still don’t think of fish as meat. We also had a bottle of local (Karakalpakstan) vodka, smooth and a little sweet.
Apart from a little while mythering in Nukus whilst Marta checked to make sure we were being picked up by the correct driver, the whole journey was pretty easy, if a bit dull. We started by taking the ‘trolleybus’ (a bus run on overhead electric wires, like a tram) to Urgench from Khiva – cheap but ridiculously slow, taking well over an hour to do 35km. After catching a local bus across Urgench, we caught a shared taxi to Nukus – Marta doing the negotiating and pretty much demanding the price she wanted. The later journey up to Moynaq took around two hours, through some flat, sandy, bushy land – a relatively unscenic semi-desert, as much of Western Uzbekistan is.
So tomorrow we hit the Aral Sea itself, which is a bonus – when I was plotting this trip I was only ever expecting to get as far as Moynaq. Maybe it’ll be an anti-climax.