The Aral sea bed lies naked ahead. Its shells jingle like a million bells, freezing in the winter winds and boiling in the summer heat. We stand on the deck of a rusty old Russian ship that will never sink. Cows look for fresh grass in between the piles of rubbish scattered among a few toxic ponds, leftovers from the water that no longer washes the shores of Aralsk. Drunken men and rough women pick on anything passing by them, while pretty kids chase each other in the dust. Its children’s day, celebration is in the air and carnival costumes adorn the main square, while the back streets keep silent, away from the children’s hassle. We spent a couple of nights in the cabin of an abandoned ship anchored at the dry salty shores of Aralsk, getting ready to roam the vicinity.
Smashed in between boxes of eggs, oil, chocolate, pampers and a puking baby I sit on an old sweaty bus fulfilling one of my childhood dreams – driving on the bottom of the sea. Bizarrely, my limited swimming skills are not required though – the sea is just a tale of the recent past. Only the oldest ones can remember the time when fishermen boats sailed the path that cars drive right now. Marta sticks her nose to the window, and in an almost tensed excitement silently sighs at the vision of a blue line that reminds her of water. But the sea does not come front on our way; it’s a mirage, a delusion of her mind. A grandfather sitting behind us consistently tries to convince us that the sea is on its way back to Aralsk – German tourists will be spending here their summer holidays and fish export will reach as far as Europe. The president billboards announce solemnly the return of the sea and, moreover, a Japanese company has undertaken the challenge of reviving the Northern part of the salty lake (Little Aral). ‘Clearly, this is a guarantee for success’, he insists. The greater body of water that once inhabited neighbouring Uzbekistan, in the way our outdated maps still tell, though, is terminally destined to succumb to the desert. While his vivid dreams pour over in abundance, several questions bother my mind in disorganized fashion: how come the bus doesn’t crack in these bumps and holes? How does the driver know the way in such a web of paths with nothing to guide him? How do humans inhabit this forgotten land? And how on Earth does a Sea disappear? Less than a hundred years ago the Soviet government, tempted by the possibilities of large-scale agriculture, embarked on a precarious project – turning the wastelands into a fantasy garden that could support the Eastern Block in abundance. Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the main arteries pumping water from the snow capped Pamir peaks into the Aral sea, were diverted into canals, mainly supplying cotton production. However, the majority of water was being soaked up by the desert and blatantly wasted. The grand plan failed, dragging disastrous consequences. The Aral Sea was drained to a point of no return, during consecutive years of irrigating the steppe. Its waters were not sufficient and the engineering miracle collapsed by miscalculation. Instead, the steppe took over new lands and expanded further, while the Aral sea became a synonym of environmental catastrophe – albeit not the only one in the world or in the region. In recent years, the oil rich neighbouring Mangistau province thrives with companies of foreign names, that hungry for profit, accelerate the desertification of the steppe. Resembling dark, ominous statues, oil and gas towers burn day and night fires from the depth of the Earth, leaving behind hollow underground caves and increasing the temperature of the air. It seems that no lessons have been drawn, although just few hundred kilometers East lies a sad monument of an environmental disaster. Meanwhile, dollars march towards the Kazakhs pockets and new houses garnished with flashy cars, rise up from the ground.
We drop off the bus after two hours drive that closely resembled a camel ride without a saddle. Its late afternoon in the tiny village of Zhalanash and the sun casts caramel light over the steppe. Here the human world certainly rotates on a camel’s hump. It is this queer giant that firmly supports the entire population, and measures the pulse of life. Camel meat is the staple food. Seasoned with an occasional carrot and onion that travels by bus like us, and accompanied with rice or wrapped into dumplings it necessarily features on every table. Camel milk takes on a hundred shapes, making most of the drinks. The animal’s excrements warm the water in the bathrooms, and are the only source of heat in the freezing continental winters. Gas is free in the area, but it does not reach Zhalanash. What would men do/parasite on in a place without roads, minimal water supplies and no gas pipes, if the camels revolt?
Standing at the edge of the village we stare at the distant remnants of a few ships scattered in the grass several kilometers away. The memory of the sea feels soft under our feet as we walk towards the invisible waters of the Aral and the skeletons of the metal whales that fed on its fish years ago. There is a bizarre beauty in the sea cemetery. Life adapts and goes on. Magnificent camels trot amongst the sea shells around Zhalanash while thousands of rodents build tunnel homes and wake up at night to chase tiny lizards. Fading away murals, a tribute to the sailors, melancholically observe the changing landscape from the corpse of a rusty ship, converted to a shelter by a family of horses that graze peacefully underneath. We still secretly hope to glimpse at least the whitish haze over a far-flung blue line. But maybe we are too late. Could it be that the sun and cotton flowers have already thirstily drunk the entire lake? A day later and we know the answer. The Aral Sea is still there. It hides shyly in the empty grass lands far away from human sight, 60km inland from where it used to reach. The nearer its shores we get, the greener the steppe. Impressive hills and oddly shaped cliffs overlook the swampy beaches. The only sign of human existence are wooden doors leading to the hobbit-like winter dwellings of local fishermen, excavated under the ground like the mice homes we saw before. The mud slips in between my toes, tickling my feet. We jump into the sky blue waters, swimming in what we thought might be just another mirage. Neither sweet, nor salty, the shrinking lake imprints its boggy flavour into our senses.