The water is shallow, and the ground covered with soft mud. Wading through it, 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: Because of the high concentration of salt, arms and legs bounce out of the water as soon as we try to make some swimming stroke, and we only end splashing ourselves (and our fellow-travellers) with salt water.
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, and that’s why human bodies don’t sink into the water so much.
No fish survived
The 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.
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, but 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.
Along the journey we come by the site of a former labour camp, where Tsarist Russia sent prisoners to work in the fishery industry.
Apart from a ruined factory building, the orthodox Christian graves are all that remains. Elsewhere, we pass a nomadic cemetery overgrown with wild thyme, with 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), while 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 although 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.
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, at lunch time. 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, as a memento to the doomed Sea. They are now a major tourist attraction.
How to take a trip to the shores of the Aral lake
We went on a Two-day/one-night trip with Ayimtour in Nukus, which included 4xe4 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).
However you have to make your way to Nukus first. Another possibility is to take a tour from Khiva. Especially 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 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 Buchara.