A trip to the shores of the Aral Sea

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The water is shallow, and the ground covered with soft mud. On our trip to the last remnant of the Aral Sea, we sink into the sea bed with a slurping sound, sometimes up to our knees. And finally, about 30 m into the shallow water, we are able to lie down and drift. But swimming is still not possible. After losing 90% of its surface area, the Aral Sea ecosystem collapsed completely. Because of the high concentration of salt, our arms and legs bounce out of the water as soon as we try to make some swimming stroke. So we only end splashing ourselves (and our fellow-travellers) with salt water.

Trying to swim in the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea is actually an undrained inland lake, which is why all the water coming into the lake evaporates at some point, leaving behind lots of salts and minerals. Just like the Dead Sea, the remaining water in the Aral Sea has a very high salinity. That’s why human bodies don’t sink into the water so much.

No fish survived

The extremely salty water is also the reason why no fish can survive in the lake (and not a lot of other animals, either). But the Aral Sea is not only dead, but also dying. The enormous lake used to be about the size of Ireland. Massive irrigation and the diversion of water from the two rivers replenishing the lake – Amudarya and Syrdarya – led to a shrinking of the surface over the course of the 20th century. By now, the two small arms left of the former lake have only a total surface of about a tenth the original size.

One of the cars broke down during our trip to the Aral Sea.

To reach the water, we have to take a tour from the regional capital Nukus, sharing the cost of a 4WD with other travellers to cross the desert now covering the former sea bed. Even when the Aral Sea was still a prospering fishery location it was surrounded by the Karakum and Kizilkum deserts. Roads led along the delta of the Amudarya River to towns at the seashore. Nowadays, the river bed is dry, and we follow sand pists along the Ustyurt Plateau on the western shore of the former lake. Below us, occasional saltwater ponds dot the Aralkum Desert – Aralkum meaning literally Aral Desert.

Ruins in the Aralkum Desert

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Along the journey we come by the site of a former labour camp, where Tsarist Russia sent prisoners to work in the fishery industry.

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Apart from a ruined factory building, the orthodox Christian graves are all that remains. Elsewhere, we pass a nomadic cemetery overgrown with wild thyme. There is a mix of Arabic inscriptions and shamanist runes and totem signs. The local population is Muslim in name, but many pre-Islamic customs are still common practice.

A dip into the Aral Sea

Eventually, a large body of water comes into view, more than 300 km from Nukus. Our drivers stop a little distance from the lake, occupying themselves with the cars (for privacy, presumably). The tourists strip and head into the water. As we happened to arrive in Nukus in a heat wave even in terms of Uzbek summer, the Aral Sea felt pleasant and refreshing. Actually it had almost bathtub temperature – quite the spa experience.

Afterwards, we had a (quite water-saving) hand-pump shower in the tourist yurt camp, not far from the shores of the Aral Sea, where we spent one night.

Yurt camp on the shores of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan

The next day, we took a different route along the dry bottom of the former sea bed, arriving at Moynak, a former sea shore town. The old port town is famous for its cemetery of ships – stranded fishing trawlers. The rusty boats (those that haven’t been pilfered for scrap metal) are lined up near the Aral Sea Monument. Thus, they serve as a memento to the doomed Aral Sea. They are now a major tourist attraction.

Moynak ship cemetery, in the desert that used to be the Aral Sea
Ship cemetery in Moynak

How to take a trip to the Aral Sea

We went on a Two-day/one-night trip with Ayimtour in Nukus. It included 4×4 transport, accommodation in one of the yurt camps, and food. The tourist camp has only opened recently and was very clean and comfortable and the food was really tasty. We are vegetarians and that did not pose any problems. Ayimtour tries to match your visit with other tourist to share the costs. Have a look at their website: www.ayimtour.com.

If you start your trip from Nukus you will need accommodation before and perhaps after the tour. Most travellers will stay at one of the Jipek Joly Hotels that work with Ayim Tours. A decent and cheaper alternative is the Art Hotel (Turtkul Prospekt,behind Restaurant Versal, +998 61 222 46 46). 

Camels encountered on our trip to the Aral Sea

Aral Sea trips from Khiva

However you have to make your way to Nukus first. Another possibility is to take an Aral Sea tour from Khiva. If you are looking for other travellers to share the costs it might be easier to find someone in Khiva. In that case the tour operator sends you by normal car to Nukus, where you change to a jeep. Surprisingly, some of the sightseeing tours from Khiva are slightly cheaper in spite of the longer distance. You will have two very long days. But on the other hand also save the costs of getting to and from Nukus. You can organize your trip to the Aral Sea in Khiva for instance via the Tourist Information Office, Hotel Old Khiva, or Hotel Silk Road.

***We paid the full price of the tour ourselves (170 $ p/P) and we did not receive any sponsoring from Ayimtours. Our group got invited to a vegetarian dinner after the tour, though.*

If you are interested in off-the-beaten track travel destinations in Uzbekistan, check out our posts about an old Soviet solar furnace at Paikent (near Tashkent) and a visit to two forgotten Silk Road towns near Bukhara.

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  1. What an experience to float at the Aral Sea! I’ve done it at the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake in Utah. I hope I can do it here, too.

    1. Dear Umiko, swimming in the Aral Sea was quite an experience. But it is also sad as the Aral Sea is one of the big human made environmental catastrophies. I would not recommend going there for the splash!

  2. What a fascinating place to visit! I’ve never heard of the Aral Sea but its remoteness and unique qualities makes me want to visit one day. I also enjoy reading about lesser known places so this is now on my list.

    1. Dear Lisa, I am not sure about the unique qualities of the lake. It is really one of the greatest natural desasters in the area. But you learn a lot on a visit to the Aral Lake.

  3. The Aral Sea sounds quite exotic to me. It’s a remote region. You have had a wonderful and adventurous trip. Ruins in the Aralkum Desert seems very exciting. Also, the Ship Cemetery in Moynak is so intriguing!

    1. Dear Agnes, first time we visited the area in 2004 it was quite adventerous. I think it still is a far-flung place, but it has become much easier to organize a trip. If you visit Uzbekistan try to find time to go to the Lake Aral area too!

  4. This is quite a unique experience. The Aral Sea is fascinating and I never heard of it before. Staying in a yurt must be cool and a little different I’m sure.

    1. Dear Lisa, yes a trip to the Aral Sea is quite an experience. It is shocking to drive for hours on the dry sea bed. After all the shrinking of the Aral Lake is one of worst environmental disasters on our planet so far.

  5. What a fascinating place to visit. Floating in the highly salty water sounds like the experience of the Dead Sea, where the salt makes you too bouyant to swim! Would also like to see the desert ruins and the ship ruins too.

  6. This looks like a brutal landscape with ruins and the rusty shipwreck and it’s sad that the size of the lake is decreasing. It is good you have experienced it and I can only imagine what it must feel like to float on a salt lake, something I am yet to experience for myself.

  7. I have never heard of the Aral Sea but I must say, what a fascinating place to visit! The landscape looks rugged, I would really like to visit the place before the lake size diminishes further. Lucky you already experienced this!

    1. Dear Shreya Saha, Kazakh scientists were able to stop the shrinking on the Kazahk side. They built a dam and are even refilling a part of the lake.

  8. Aral sea is quite an amazing place to visit and nice to learn it’s actually an undrained inland lake. And it’s sad that it’s ecosystem is gradually collapsing.
    Nice that you got to float on the Aral sea and enjoy its surrounding area. The ship cemetery in Moyank is truly an extraordinary destination to explore.

  9. Wow what an experience. I can’t believe it used to be the size of Ireland, that is so crazy that the landscape has become so dry so quickly.

  10. I only learned about the Aral Sea because of this blog, and I’m saddened by the fact that it’s already vanishing. However, you should be commended for continuing to promote this location. Rusted boats and ruins in the Aralkum Desert also drew my attention.

  11. Sorry to hear about its current state. Is there a way to keep it from totally drying? It’s sad to know that it’s going smaller in size. Hope we can “save” it.

    1. Dear Clarice, I think it is too late to save it. The shrinking of the Aral Lake causes massive climate changes in the area. Desertification leads to erosion and less agriculture.

  12. We visited the Dead Sea and it was very strange to float in such salty water. But I had not heard about the Aral Sea before reading this post. I am not surprised that there would be no fish in this salty water. But sad to read that the lake is dying as water is diverted. Interesting to actually go on the dry bottom of the former sea bed and see a former sea shore town. I am not sure we would take the 2 days or so to visit while it is still in existence. But interesting to read more about the Aral Sea.

    1. Dear Linda, the dying of the Aral Sea is one of the biggest environment catastrophes of the 20th century. Doing a trip to this place made me really sad.

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