The Aral Sea Ship Graveyard
Updated: May 11, 2020
"We'll see you at Nukus airport in the morning," said the Whatsapp from my Dad. He was messaging from Khiva, and I was about to board the Uzbekistan Airways flight from Sharjah to Tashkent. A few weeks earlier I'd never even heard of Nukus. Nukus isn't famous for much, other than being the gateway to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters the world has ever seen. But this is what travel is made of, journeying to places far away and unfamiliar, with travel companions who are always up for an adventure, and my parents are the absolute best at this.
And it worked. We did meet at Nukus Airport. I arrived in Tashkent the previous evening, checked into the Hotel Uzbekistan, one of the best examples of brutalist architecture anywhere on the planet. You'd be forgiven for thinking the Soviet Union had never ended here. I queued up at a small window to change my dollars into Uzbek Sum (a word of warning to anyone heading to Uzbekistan - they will not accept your dollar bills unless they are absolutely perfect in every way. No folds, no ink stains, no stamps, which a surprising amount of US bills seem to be covered in. The German lady in front of me was soundly berated by the teller for not having clean enough bills, and walked away empty-handed. I, on the other hand, instantly became a Sum millionaire, walking away with wads of notes so large that I couldn't even fit them in my bag. And that was for the princely sum of USD100). I handed my passport over to the receptionist to be told I would get it back "later", and was vaguely waved away. My room was awash with shiny fabrics and dark velour, with gold valances and cushions on the bed, a slightly squishy carpet, and the dimmest lights I've ever seen (the resplendence of the gold polyester somehow managing to offset the gloom). I loved everything about it.
Nukus is a 90-minute flight from Tashkent, and is the capital of the semi-autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic. On the morning I arrived, the sky was blue, the earth yellow, and my parents were waiting for me as planned, waving to me as I exited the terminal of Nukus Airport as planned. Travel is a such a magical thing. You can look at a map, point to a spot, and then converge on it at the appointed time from two completely different parts of the world. I still find it miraculous. My parents had travelled three hours by car that morning from Khiva on roads so bumpy that their teeth bashed together and they had to hold onto their seats to stop their heads from repeatedly hitting the ceiling of the car. And we still had a couple more hours of this ahead of us. Our first stop was to refuel. In Uzbekistan cars run on propane gas, and all passengers have to get out and stand far away from the vehicle while it's being refuelled in case it explodes. Judging from the ancient Moskvitch cars that you see all over the country, this mustn't happen very often.
Our destination was the town of Moynaq, famous for its beautiful lakeside location on the shores of the Aral Sea and its bustling fishing industry. At least, it used to be famous for that. But that was before one of the world's worst man-made ecological disasters took hold. Now it's infamous for its ship graveyard and the horrifying story about what led these ghost vessels to languish in the sand. AA Gill called Moynaq "the worst place in the world" which seems a little harsh, although there was a TB epidemic when he visited back in 2000, and the air that was filled with toxic chemical dust that led to a multitude of health conditions, and to a tragically sad 30% infant mortality rate at the time.
The Aral Sea was the fourth largest body of fresh water in the world until 60 years ago when the Soviet government decided to divert the waters from the Amu Darya, better known as the Oxus, and Syr Darya rivers. Rather than feeding the lake, the rivers would irrigate thousands of acres of fields that had been given over to the production of cotton. And cotton required a lot of water, sucking up every drop it could get, with much of the river water evaporating before even reaching the fields due to badly built canals. Deprived of its source, the Aral Sea started to dry up, and Moynaq is now marooned more than 100km away from the new shoreline and the little water that remains. To put it another way, that's just slightly less than the distance from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and about the same distance from London to Oxford. At its worst, in the late 1990s, the lake shrunk to less than 10% of its original size. The boats that used to catch the fish that went into the 22 million cans of fish products coming out of Moynaq every year now sit abandoned in the sand. It looks like a desert, but actually used to be the bottom of the lake. You can still find seashells in the sand. An estimated 10,000 workers lost their jobs. It's fascinating and tragic in equal parts, but at the same time it has a haunting beauty.
And it's absolutely silent. For the first time ever I experienced the true deafening power of silence. There's not a sound - no birds, no cars, no breeze, just silence. You can feel it in your eardrums. It's as if they create their own sound to compensate for the void outside.
There are signs of optimism over the border in Kazakhstan where programmes are in place to revive the North Aral Sea (so called because, as the waters disappeared, the lake split into two much smaller entities to the north and south), and the fishing industry is starting to get back on its feet. But here in Uzbekistan, if the Amu Darya continues to be over-exploited for agriculture, the South Aral Sea will never be a sea again. The fishermen will never return to their boats. And these ships will remain here in the sand, miles away from the waves they once felt splashing against their bows, bearing witness to a terrible folly that turned the fourth largest lake in the world into nothing more than desert.