Dreaming of the sea, or a holiday in Moynaq


by Daniel Metcalfe

Daniel Metcalfe’s book ‘Out of Steppe’ describes his journey through Central Asia. In this excerpt he describes the Karakalpak landscape around the Aral Sea. The Soviet tourist destination, previously the centre of a successful fishing industry, is now depopulated, polluted by the chemicals used to prop up the failing cotton industry and by a landscape of devastation and desperation.

There can’t be many places worthy of the epithet ‘former seaside town’. Indeed, Moynaq, now miles from any water, hasn’t moved an inch. What has happened is the shoreline has simply receded by 40 km. Along with Aralsk, Kazalinsk, Uchsai and Bugun, the only reminder of the sea is in the ubiquitous remains of the good old days: the beached boats, the rotting tackle and the eerie placards hailing the goodness of water and the importance of fishing to the Soviet economy.

Once a thriving seaside resort, Moynaq now only attracts tourism of a morbid nature.
Photograph (cc) Giladr

Once Moynaq was more than just economically prosperous.

It was a famous holiday resort, the Crimea of Central Asia. In summer, several flights a day brought Soviet citizens to the beach. At the time, writer Viktor Vitkovich described the Aral Sea as ‘exceedingly pure, as deep and delicate as aquamarine, but without the touch of green, as intense and bright as Badakhshan azurite, and as translucent as sapphire’. The entire town lived and worked with the sea and its related industries, packing and canning. Without the sea, the town was as good as dead, and I did wonder how a town with no means of livelihood and almost 100 per cent unemployment could be anything other than that. The only vague hope for Moynaq was tourism, but even that wasn’t exactly the healthy kind.

‘May I ask,’ enquired the driver, ‘what are you doing in Moynaq?’

‘Business,’ said Bohodir.

‘Oh,’ he said, knowing full well there was no business in Moynaq.

Bohodir and I found a yellow Moskvich at the Qongirat taxi rank. The engine growled, then died. A sigh, a clatter of instruments, and soon we were gliding through cotton flats and scrub.

‘May I ask,’ enquired the driver, ‘what are you doing in Moynaq?’

‘Business,’ said Bohodir.

‘Oh,’ he said, knowing full well there was no business in Moynaq.

As we drove along the cotton petered out and the farmed flats turned to wasteland. The salt patches weren’t so prevalent here. These were cotton plantations, desperately watered, leached and watered again and the air was humid with evaporation. On the approach to Moynaq we spotted some artificial lakes, great dug-out bowls that had been filled with imported water and fish to give the fishermen something to do. It was a stab at rescuing Moynaq, but it wasn’t enough.

At last the sign came: ARAL KHOSH KELDINIZ (WELCOME TO ARAL). This was the part I’d been waiting for. We’d scarcely glanced at the town before the taxi driver had skidded off with a spray of sand. There were no customers in Moynaq. Bohodir and I stood together in the main street. As we hoisted up our bags, we noticed the deathly quiet. There was just no one around, no cars, no sound. It was like a Sunday afternoon in mid­summer, when everyone should be away – but holidays were a luxury no one could afford. Everyone was still here. So where were they? The wind swirled the sand and the odd bit of metal clacked, increasing the silence. But there was no birdsong. The road ran straight ahead between two rows of run-down housing, the tarmac obscured by drifts of sand that crept silently.

Bohodir and I started the trudge to the hotel, passing one or two bent-backed women with babies.

‘Where are the men?’ I asked him.

‘In Kazakhstan, mostly,’ he said. ‘They send money home. Keeps Moynaq alive. Same in Qongirat.’

The population of (supposedly) 9,000 had been whittled down to a few mothers and children. The only men I could see were a crowd of puffy-faced drinkers at the taxi rank.

It felt like walking through a film set: a broken tractor on its side, a train carriage rotting on the street, miles from its track, bleached skiffs parked on the pavement, their wood split and tackle rotten. I recalled that Morrissey lyric, ‘This is the coastal town. That they forgot to close down . . . Come, Armageddon! Come!’

Most astonishing were the placards. These were a fixture of Central Asia, it seemed. All of Karakalpakstan was hung with signs, messages from Karimov, pearls of wisdom on nation­hood, happiness and unity, as if only the father of the nation knew the answer. This was an enduring legacy of the Soviet era, and it was patriarchal and patronising at the best of times. But here, in the context of what had happened, it was unbelievable. Every few metres hung another placard. Bohodir translated as we passed: ‘WATER IS THE SOURCE OF LIFE’, ‘LABOUR LEADS TO JOY’, ‘MOTHER’S HAPPINESS IS PEOPLE’S HAPPINESS’, ‘FISH OUR WEALTH’. Why no one had torn them down I never understood.

The Moynaq canning factory was once a mainstay of the region’s economy. By 1986, ecological changes had taken their toll on the region and fish had to be shuttled in by desperate Soviet officials from thousands of miles away. Photo (cc) Martijn Munneke

Finally, we passed the canning factory, the city’s pride and one-time mainstay of the economy. We poked our noses through the chicken wire and saw inside a mess of rusted machinery and broken glass. The security guards shooed us away in sharp bursts of Karakalpak. But what were they protecting? The last native Aral fish had died in 1986, drowned by the noxious waves.

By 1986, 50 years of the Mengele school of ecology had taken their toll. New fish were shuttled in, but they too died. Moscow panicked. They had to keep the canners canning, whatever the cost. Fish caught in the Caspian and Baltic were hauled thousands of miles to remote Karakalpakstan just to keep the factory open. This was clearly unsustainable. Wild schemes were hatched to replenish the sea. One idea, the Sibaral Project, was as mad as it was expensive. The plan was to take the Ob and Irtysh, two massive Siberian rivers that flowed north into the Arctic, then dam, reverse and direct them south into the Aral Sea. If this were successful, cotton wealth could be enjoyed in perpetuity.

In Soviet times, wild schemes were hatched to replenish the sea. One idea was to reverse the Ob and Irtysh, two massive Siberian rivers that flowed north into the Arctic, and direct them south into the Aral Sea

Orpheus was said to have piped so beautifully that he could change the direction of the River Styx. But by now the USSR could barely feed itself, let alone turn back nature. Even in the Forties, Viktor Vitkovich refers to the idea in his book. ‘If the plan goes ahead,’ he writes, ‘Central Asia would then have so much water that it could wipe the desert off the map for good.’ Thankfully, Siberia was spared this assault by massive popular criticism and lack of funds, so nothing was done. The canning factory closed, the fishermen hauled in their boats and the Aral Sea was sententiously proclaimed to be ‘Nature’s error’. When the damage was deemed irreversible the authorities cried, ‘Let it die a beautiful death.’

At last we arrived at the hotel. On the edge of the town, where the low buildings seemed to disappear into the scrub, stood a small, white-washed building decked in lush, trellised verdure. A tubby man in a string vest and flip-flops was splashing the greenery liberally with a hose. Heaven only knew where the water was coming from. He greeted us with a smile and led us through the lobby – walls stencilled with rowing boats and fish. Bohodir and I, both uncomfortable at this wanton display of plenty, walked up to the desk, where a pair of German travellers were waiting. They were in their mid-thirties, urban types with stylish haircuts and hemp bags. Anywhere else in the world we might have struck up a rapport, formed a temporary friendship built around our experiences. But not here. There was something each of us recognised in the other: a morbid curiosity in the disaster that was taking place. We confined ourselves to a nod.

As Bohodir and I were led upstairs, we peered from the staircase window to see a scrap-metal dump, a horizon of creeping scrub, and barefoot children making mud pies among the mess. The hotelier beckoned me to follow, loping around in his boxer shorts and vest. He was probably the richest man in Moynaq. Two or three guests a week and he was probably tied over until winter, when the place turned into a gulag.

Bohodir knocked at my door at eight.

‘You will need sunglasses, sunblock and a hat,’ he said.

I noticed he had none of the above, as we set off to the beach. The sun screamed down now and steppe winds were blowing sand in all directions.

‘Cover your eyes,’ called Bohodir, ‘don’t get the dust in your eyes.’ He was right. The yellowy soil wasn’t natural. It was infested with DDT and anthrax. We marched against the wind for a while, pushing against a flat and scrubby horizon. We weren’t far now. The sky was scraped an awesome blue by the scouring winds. A jogger panted past, with sweatbands and a visor. We stopped him, half to check if he was real, half to ask where the ‘ships’ graveyard’ was. The ships’ graveyard was the lodestar of Karakalpakstan, the point of visiting Moynaq: an eerie assemblage of beached boats on the dry seabed.

‘No more ships,’ he said, jogging on the spot. ‘They’ve taken them away. Don’t bother,’ and jogged off. I also wanted to ask him what he was doing exercising by a toxic seabed. It was like going to Chernobyl to ‘take the waters’, but he’d already vanished.

Soon, on the right, a finger of concrete appeared, an obelisk to the Karakalpak contribution to the Great Patriotic War.

And there in all its horrific majesty was the great Ok Kum, the White Sand Desert formerly known as the Aral Sea, a clumpy seabed that seemed to stretch forever. There were thickets and tough bushes that could probably survive in a post­-nuclear world. Here and there were scattered the detritus of a huge maritime industry, engine cast-offs, bolts and rowing boats like bath toys on the horizon.

The area that was once known as the Aral Sea is now called the Great Ok Kum Desert,
Photo (cc) Martijn Munneke

We scrambled down the scree on to the dry bed to feel it under our feet. It felt hard and brown, pitching in small troughs, and disconcertingly moist underneath. Bohodir shoved a twig into a hard, glazed hummock. A gelatinous ooze slithered out like crème caramel.

It seemed the jogger was right, the tugs and trawlers really had been taken away. From where I stood, there were only the indentations of their hulls on the mud, as if some warm, full-bellied beasts had sloped off to die. I felt cheated of my prize. I stood on a bluff and looked into the distance. A shepherd was towing a line of cattle across the seabed. Their coats were matted and their udders deeply sagged. This toxic soil served as their daily pasture. I began to feel sick.

Far out of view, in the middle of the sea, was the island of Vozrozhdenie, or Resurrection. Karakalpaks had always been wary of it, and folklore claimed that an enchanted castle stood there, surrounded by flaming quicksand. They were half-right. The castle was a major Soviet bio-weapons plant called Aralsk 7, built in 1954 to study the dissemination patterns of biological weapons. Unluckily, the prevailing winds blew south to Karakalpakstan, carrying a cloud of toxins: anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, plague, typhus and smallpox. The plant was abandoned in 1991, leaving the live anthrax spores to fester until in 2002, when the US Pentagon, fearing the use of this anthrax-laden soil by terrorists, sent the Threat Reduction Agency to decontaminate the anthrax dumps. Which they did, leaving the rest of the site untouched. Today any visit without full body protection would be tantamount to suicide.

As Bohodir and I eased out of Moynaq that afternoon, we spotted a man by the road. He had tattoos on his thin white arms. We offered him a lift as far as Qongirat. His name was Roger and he was an American Peace Corps worker. On the ride back he told us that he’d illegally put a group together to work with schoolchildren over the summer. President Karimov wanted NGOs as far away from Moynaq as possible, said Roger. He didn’t want foreigners to see how little was being done.

‘See,’ he told us in his deep Virginia drawl, ‘the official population here is nine thousand. But the real population is more like two. A lot of people think that Karimov is just watching and waiting for the last of the Karakalpaks to die off or disappear into Kazakhstan so it can then be repopulated by “ethnic” Uzbeks who will then make use of the mineral wealth lying under the ground. This is the rumour. But it doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, because they’re already drilling for oil on the seabed. That wealth is not for Karakalpaks.’

Roger, a doctor by training, despite his unhealthy pallor, was a passionate activist. But there was something hard in his voice, a protective shell he’d developed after staying too long out here.

‘I don’t believe the republic will survive in the long run,’ he continued. ‘Perhaps another twenty, thirty years. They’re going already. They’ll go even quicker if HIV takes off. It’s a known fact that areas of high emigration, drugs, alcoholism and hepatitis like this are just waiting for an AIDS explosion. That should just about kill off whoever’s left.’

Roger got off at Qongirat without much of a goodbye and we carried on to Nukus. I tried to think what I’d gained by seeing all this. My desire to witness a dying society had been fulfilled. I’d observed the drawn-out suffering of a people without the resources to change their fate. Bohodir, who’d understood every word Roger had told us, sat watching the horizon without expression.

The midday heat had passed now, leaving the salt flats rippling to the horizon. The knots of telephone wires thinned into a line that pitched and fell by the side of the road, the plains opened and I stared, blankly, into the distance.

Few Karakalpaks I met – not even Bohodir, who was educated – showed any nostalgia for their historic nomadic days. That time was gone, and its significance lost. Today they mourned the Aral disaster and the losses that came in its wake – their livelihoods, pensions, factory jobs, farm jobs, office jobs, all of which vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But I couldn’t help feeling sadness at the end of the nomadic way of life, and the loss of the deep understanding of the natural environment once possessed by the now-settled Turkic peoples. There was a wealth of ancestral knowledge that the steppe-dwelling peoples could have taught the USSR, but they were never given the chance. ‘Only by turning to their way of living can we make our way out of the bogs in which we vainly stumble,’ said Ella Maillart. But it was already too late. Today’s Karakalpaks watched the steppe as uncomprehendingly as I did.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy Russia | Creative Commons

About The Author:

Daniel Metcalfe is an travel journalist, specialising in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.