“Ochem zharka, da?” friendly locals were asking us from time to time in the streets of Aralsk. “Da!” we smiled and waved back. Our shirts were sweaty and faces red, but the enthusiasm to explore the small port city in southwestern Kazakhstan won with the heat. Finally, after 4 intensive but long days in trucks going continuously for around 2500 km through the steppe, we were at our destination. At first glance the city seemed pretty empty, sand was everywhere, like waves trying to break into wooden houses. In small shops there were only a few products on the shelves making grocery shopping easy: bread, tomatoes and cheese. When we stopped under the shadow to have a break, out of nowhere a group of young curious boys surrounded us. We had a small chat, it turned out that they had a summer holiday and most of the day they went to the swimming pool to cool down. There’s no natural body of water nearby, in the past, this area faced one of the world’s worst man-made ecological catastrophes. It has left a once great Aral Sea dry, the land polluted, and the locals inundated with the diseases.
The official history and development of Aralsk begun in 1905 after the Orenburg-Tashkent Railway was being constructed and the railway station built (it’s still operating). At the time, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest inland sea having rich fish resources. Russian merchants attracted with a possibility of a good business, created large fishing companies and formed a joint-stock companies. It was the start of the industry, which was quickly followed by the ship building plants. Aralsk grew fast to be an important supplier of fish and other products of the sea to the neighboring regions keeping its population busy in fish-processing.
Meanwhile, in the early 1950s, the Soviet Government decided that two rivers that fed the Aral sea (The Amur Darya and Syr Darya) would be diverted to irrigate the desert in an attempt to develop their cotton industry. The plan to become the major “white gold” exporters succeeded temporarily, but after some time the aggressive irrigation projects started to have an adverse impact. The water level dropped 20 meters between 1960s and 1980s exposing sea beds and increasing the salinity levels of the Aral until the fish population died off. During the following years the continuing shrinkage split the lake into two separate bodies of water, creating the Aralkum Desert on the bed of the Aral Sea. To make the already horrific situation worse the toxic waste which was dumped into the sea has turned into dust and flew freely with the steppe winds. These salt storms are common in the area leaving a white dust on farmers’ fields. They have ruined many crops and caused serious health problems for the local population. People suffer from abnormally high cancer rates, tuberculosis and anemia. The poverty caused by the death of the formerly lucrative local fishing industry doesn’t ease the situation.
The boys that we met, energetic and full of life, are part of the new generation that has to face the effects of the ‘old time’ disaster in their everyday life. At the heart of the deserted city this growing youth will have to make a living. Some locals told us that they live with hope. After several recovery programmes the water level of the North Aral sea started to rinse with the help of a dam bringing also fish from the river. Fishermen are driving over 20 km to get to the shore of the sea and dreaming that in the future they could hear splashing waves again in their home port. When we looked at the dry land (that remains of the harbour) from the top of the rusty ship, this beautiful dream seemed far away. In the distance huge cranes soared out from the old docks and only small dirty puddles of water depicted the harsh reality.
On the same day we visited another museum in which the time seemed to stop completely. The old, blue, wooden house hid inside fascinating belongings leading us to an intensive historic tour. A huge colourful painting with all the Kings of Kazakhstan welcomed us nobly with an interesting feature in the middle of it: proudly riding the horse – Nursultan Nazarbayev , the first president of the country who recently resigned. Behind the corner we found the exhibition of the Aral sea fish preserved in the formaline glass jars. Next to it stuffed Saiga antelope looked at us with its dark empty eyes, reminding that its species is critically endangered. This beautiful mammal has been a target of hunting for years as its horn is one of the main ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. Together with massive hunting, climate fluctuations and illnesses large numbers of saigas have died. Nowadays a small population is trying to survive in the steppe of Kazakhstan, Kalmykia and isolated areas of Mongolia.
The boat, on which we stood, was part of the exhibition in the Aralsk history museum. Actually, there you can find the last fishing vessels that are left in Aralsk, since in the previous year the mayor of the city ordered to remove all the rusting boats from the waterfront. In the museum there was no information in English, so instead of reading descriptions we focused to watch various pictures on the wall presenting the area’s past. The man, museum curator, was very talkative, explaining in Russian (we could understand a bit) how he remembers the glorious days. In the past he used to spend his summer holiday at the port swimming and interacting with fishermen trying to bet on their daily catch. There was no doubt that food out of fresh fish would wait on the dining table!
The museums increased our thirst to explore more and we continued our tour to the abandoned harbor, where the rusty cranes were located. The area was huge, full of old buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Here and there cranes darkened by time creating a selectable metallic sound. The hot air was waving in the horizon, sand itched in the eyes and the railway was shimmering under our legs. Further away a fence sprang up and behind it laid structures of factories. Classicaly, we sneaked under the fence to get to know better the secrets inside. In front of our eyes were ruined storage buildings, inside piles of broken glass and bricks. As we walked through them with great tension, the old wooden houses started to appear. We glanced at corpses of dead cats, somewhere a dog started to bark and suddenly we ended up in some kind of abandoned park where the main decoration was a Lenin bust statue. Here and there among vegetation gleamed white statues of soviet sportsmen without a limb or two. During the next few minutes our adventure was interrupted by a security man that started to shout and run towards us. He first hold Marek’s arm quite aggressively, but after some calm talk from our side he softened. He apologized but still wanted to know the exact spot of our trespassing. Together under his attentive gaze we walked the same way back, pointed the hole and were surprised when he then presented a much easier way to go out. With his face minutes before serious now smiling, he helped us to jump over, “ Bye bye, and never come back!”
The incident made us think of all the wonders that the closed buildings and whole place kept inside, maybe untouched, in secret. The thought of hidden treasures haunted us when we later admired the Soviet era mosaic that still adorns the wall of the Aralsk train station. We can only hope that this precious art, the evidence of the past won’t be destroyed.
As soon as the evening began to arrive it was time to continue our journey. When we put our thumbs up, the car instantly stopped offering a ride. The hospitable young man took us to the main road, offered a place to sleep (to which we had to refuse) and gave his number if something would happen to us. The warm meetings with friendly locals together with the whole day full of events will stay in our minds for a long time. Under the starry sky on the steppe, we finally laid mattresses and the quiet sound of snoring filled our tent.