Wednesday, 14 January 2015

What Was Once Gone Will Come Back Again

Aralsk & The Aral Sea

There are three very separate phases to the adventure we embarked upon to visit the Aral Sea, three phases if you will. The four days we spent travelling and exploring can only be described as eye-opening. 

Phase One: The Train

Aside from the very crammed and sweaty train experience in Morocco last year, I genuinely enjoy travelling by train. It is a wonderful way to see the landscapes change, see parts of the country that you may not get to see otherwise, and a good way to talk to locals. When Gypsy Lady and I were planning this impromptu long weekend, the thought of an 18 hour train ride immediatly made me cringe. 18 hours, in a cabin with the same four people...let me just say that it wasn't my idea of heaven - Flower Girl and The Playwright were joining on our adventure. However, I must say that I very much enjoyed the long trip with my travelling companions. The time, on both journeys, flew by. We snacked, chatted, read and wrote our way through the Steppe. Believe me when I say that it was hardly worth looking out the window, the landscape did not change one iota in the 500 miles we travelled. However, I did take some photos for your viewing pleasure. 

The two train rides were very different experiences. On the way to Aralsk we had a cabin for the four of us, this I believe is first class on some trains and second class on some others. While it was nice to have our own space and a door that locked, we felt very secluded from the rest of the people on the train. It did not feel like a genuine experience.

On the way back to Atyrau, we were only able to score tickets for a "third class" cabin. These are not so much cabins as they are community cars. There are no doors, no private areas, and there are a ton of people - this felt much more like a gathering of a community. I must say that I prefer travelling as a community, you get the feeling of authenticity rather than a cold, stale experience. We met many people, some who we could communicate with and others who exchanged nods and smiles.

Phase Two: The Town

Aralsk, a small town that used to be a bustling port on the Aral Sea. Due to the draining of the Aral Sea, Aralsk doesn't even come close to be a port town any longer - the nearest coastline is 70 KM away. Can you imagine that? In the span of about 30 years the town has transformed from a bustling port with a steady economy from the fishing and canning industries, to a down on the verge of economic despair. You can visibly see that there isn't much economic activity in the town, there is only one small market where you see people doing their weekly produce and meat shopping - most of Kazakhstan uses markets rather than grocery stores as we know them. 

There are only two hotels that are accessible to tourists coming into the town, and only one we could find the phone number for...Hotel Aralsk. We were warned ahead of time that the locals are not the friendliest towards tourists as they believe that we are finding amusement in their despair. Can you blame them? I certainly do not.*

The Hotel was...a disaster. We had phoned ahead to reserve two 'luxury rooms' (rooms with a shower), the woman on the phone spoke with one of my local colleagues so we were sure that they understood what we needed. Those of you who know me, know that I am a planner. I like to have everything, or at least a rough outline of everything sorted out before I arrive somewhere. So when we arrived at 5 AM to find a disgruntled receptionist repeating "nis nayo" (Russian for I don't know) regarding any information about our reservation...I became a bit stroppy, eventually we were sorted out withe one 'lux' room for the four of us to share - read: one bed. It became immediately apparent that we were not so welcome in this town, and the animosity was visible at the surface with some of the hotel staff (read: one grumpy grandma). Among other issues to colour our experience of the town were a bloody sheet, an argument to get more blankets to use as sleeping mats, and a shower that only produced boiling water.  All we could do was laugh and go with it -- there is no sense in getting tangled up into a ball of nerves over such things which are out of our control. Once we started laughing with the whole thing, things brightened up!


Phase Three: The Landscape

I found an NGO online that is working with the World Bank in the construction and maintence of a dam to bring back the water to the Aral Sea that provides guided, english speaking, eco-tours through the area. As none of us speak Kazkah and have limited ability with Russian, we thought it best to book the tour to ensure that we could see all the points of interest along the way and learn a little something about the restoration along the way. 

The tour was broken into 2 days  - on the first we drove out to the Ship Graveyard, through the dried bed of the Aral Sea and visited the local museum.
Such a pretty blue!
Ship in the Desert
I love the graffiti on this one!










Day two was spent driving out to the Dam-site, Fishing factory and wandering around the banks of the Aral Sea (where the water remains). 

The Dam!
While the ships in the desert were certainly a site to see, haunting, my favorite portion of the trip was spend wandering the banks and the dam of the replenished Aral Sea. 

The Aral Sea


Beautifully Desolate is the only way I can describe the landscape. The only noise comes from the dam. Fishermen were putting their small boats into the sea where it had yet to ice over. The lapping of the sea under the ice that started to form along the bank. The crunch of the frozen grass under our feet. 





All along the way, you could see that people in the smaller towns and villages live a much simpler existence, one that is uncluttered by the sounds and worries of the city, in such a harsh landscape. I don't imagine that such an existence is easy, and I have romanticized it in my mind as being free of city-dweller stresses. To live such a life takes great strength and perseverance, I am floored by these people. 


*While it is true, tourists flock to the town to see the "Ship Graveyard" and to see the environmental degradation of the shrunken Aral Sea, my group also went to learn about the rehabilitation of the area. 
Close Up of the Dam

Boats beached for the Winter