Thinking now of the Aral sea, the first two words that come to my mind are dry, camels. Now normally when one thinks of a sea, the word dry shouldn’t come to mind but Kazakhstan is an exception to almost everything and this is no exception to that rule. Recently, myself and four other Peace Corps Volunteers made an adventurous trek to the Aral Sea in the south-west of Kazakhstan that involved kind women, a middle-aged man reading a book entitled How to make your man more sensitive, scary hotels, rusty ships, camel’s milk, a where’s Waldo hunt for a dam, stolen water and much much more.
Our little adventure began as soon as I arrived in Aktobe to meet up with two other volunteers there and then later continue on to Aralsk. They met me at the train station and one of the first questions to me was—how is your Russian? Pretty good, I answered and got whisked off to the ticket counter at the trains station to deal with the wondrous joy that is trying to get tickets in the summer. The problem was that we needed a return ticket from Aktobe to home for one of the volunteers. We chose a line and tried our luck. The woman at the counter was a middle-aged Kazak woman, obviously annoyed at life and people by the perpetual scow she wore, who worked with soviet like efficiency telling everyone the same thing. What’s that you say? There are no tickets on any train going anywhere until the 31 of July (it was the 21 of June)! That can’t be right, let’s ask someone else. We try another place and find someone more agreeable. Oh, so there will be tickets but those only go on sale three days before the train leaves, you can only buy them there, and at that time we would be somewhere else. By the time we got back to Aktobe to buy the ticket, they’d probably be gone. Don’t worry, she says, you can always just bribe your way on to the train. Thanks for your help. The poor volunteer ended up having to fly to another city and then take a train from there to where she was from, costing way more in time and money and effort than it ever should have. It wasn’t the first time and I am sure it won’t be the last.
Later that same day we got on the train to go to Aralsk. There were three of us and koupe compartments on the train hold four people, so we were all wondering who the fourth person would be. It turns out that there is a god. After the train had been underway for a few minutes, the door to our compartment opens and a kazak boy says to us, “This his place,” gesturing to the middle-aged man he was escorting. The man puts his bag down and then sits down on the bottom bench with a smile on his face. The first words out of his mouth: “There is a god!” The chances of an American man (works for the Haliburton oil company) landing in a compartment with three American girls in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Kazakhstan is extremely thin. For the next four hours we shared stories of home, of Kazakhstan, of travels and generally enjoyed each others company. We were sad when he left, but quickly locked the door behind him. There was no way we’d be that lucky twice. We arrived in Aralsk, the city that used to be next to the Aral Sea (more about that later), without incident where we met our escort. It was 2:30 am and this nice woman who works at the NGO (non-governmental organization or non-profit) with whom I made arrangements was missing her sleep to pick up three strange Americans and kindly take us to her house where we slept till morning.
In the morning, we had some tea and then Karakus (from the NGO) took us to find a hotel for our stay. There were two in Aralsk. The first we went to was like a converted house, though from the grandmother sleeping in the living room watching tv I think it still was a house. It had maybe four rooms in it, none of which locked or had bathrooms or running water. We asked where the bathroom was and they showed us the scary looking outhouse; where is the shower—you see this pipe coming down from the ceiling in the laundry room, that’s it (oh, and you can only use it in the afternoon). She wanted 700 t. a person. Um, Karakus, can we see the other hotel please. I know you told us it was three times the price, but I think we’ll be willing to pay it. I think that was the worst hotel I had ever seen. We walked across the street to the second hotel, Hotel Aral, a four story structure with these suspiciously air-conditioner like things sticking out from some of the windows. We liked it already. We went up to the front desk lady and asked to see a room. What, semi-luxury…ok! It was on the third floor down the end of the corridor, and when she opened the door we could see an air-conditioner—now if only it worked! After we entered, the hotel lady turned the AC on to show us it worked, then the hot water in the shower (ok so it drizzled out from a dangling tube, I’d seen worse), and then to flush the toilet. All the important things worked, we’ll take it! How much? Oh, 3000 t. for the room, not per person. There were going to be three of us in the room so that’s 1000 t. per person, only 300 more than the other lady wanted! We were sold. (to put this in perspective, 1000 t. isn’t even 10 dollars, but then PC only gives us 24 dollars a day for vacation). Our escort left us to get settled and meet the other two volunteers at the train later, inviting us all to an English Club at her NGO at 6pm.
Now, a little about the NGO Aral Tenizi. It was founded in 1998 by some Danish men in order to revive sustainable fishing on the Small Aral Sea (the northern part) and improve the lives of the fishermen and their families (most of whom turned to Camel breeding after the sea left). The Danish and other international organizations have supplied nets and other fishing supplies to teach the fishermen how to fish, and eat, the main kind of fish left in the sea—a bottom dwelling perch that their typical fishing methods and supplies couldn’t catch. This NGO gets a good number of international volunteers, including two PC volunteers who had left about six months before we got there. Now, it’s not unusual for volunteers to start an English Club where locals can meet and practice their English. What is unusual is for a local to start one on their own, or maintain one after volunteers have left. There were three members there when we got there, Karakus, an 18 year old boy named Rustem, and a middle-aged male doctor whose name I can neither pronounce nor remember. The English Club gets under way with introductions. Rustem studied English on his own and is just finishing a welding program at a local technical school; he wants to get a job with one of the oil companies. Very nice kid and very good English, especially for being self taught. The doctor was a wonder. His English was good, he had been to Israel several times for seminars about his profession (he was a pediatrician), and to practice his English he was reading a book called How to Make Your Man More Sensitive. This cute little shy kazak man reading about what to do when your man’s a keeper, but a little rough around the edges. It was hilarious and we had to take a picture. Poor man, nothing else in English to read. We then learned a little about the NGO and what they do, being cajoled into buying membership into the NGO for 150 t. a person; we couldn’t say no, it was only a dollar. After that, it was off to see a little of the town and to get some dinner.
Not ten minutes walk from our hotel can be found what used to be the harbor to the Aral Sea. Huge rusted cranes jut out over the desert, winds with nothing around to stop them kick up huge dust storms, laughing at the beached ships and filling them slowly with sand. What had once been a thriving port was reduced to a graveyard of the bones of the Soviet Union. So was the town. What was once a thriving port city with a good economy based on fishing was now little more than a town, and not a very prosperous town at that. Everywhere we stepped seashells crunched and shattered under our feet like so many hopes. Made my village, Chapaevo, look real good. We went for dinner to Café Astana, the nicest looking place in Aralsk. We sat down and looked at the menu; it had everything a typical café in Kazakhstan usually has. We decided what to order and the girl came over. After they didn’t have the first four things we ordered, we gave up and asked what they did have. Shashlik (kabobs) and Montey, two salads, no soup, no side items. Wow. So most of us ordered the kabobs, a few salads to share, and some soda. We eat our food, and most of agree that we’re still hungry—the salads were small and the kabobs were mostly bone and fat. So we ask for the bill and the girl brings it, 3000t. for the food and a 2000 t. charge for coming in the door!! We were, needless to say, outraged. Something had gone wrong with the math: 200 t. a person cover charge X’s 5 people = 2000 t.??? No, I don’t think so. We’re all used to prices magical increasing because we’re obviously foreigners and we weren’t having it. Thankfully, my Russian is pretty good. I called the girl over and said that we wouldn’t pay the cover to get in: they didn’t have ¾ of the things on the menu and anyway the math didn’t add up. How about 100 t. a person? No, besides, we were going to another café because we were still hungry—look at the kabobs, all bones and only three little pieces to begin with and the salads were really small. I was really very polite, usually the locals are screaming when they do this kind of thing. So she takes the bill back and returns in a minute. The cover’s knocked off the check and 1000 t. off the price of the food. We agree to pay that and leave the money. It was a sign of things to come. Just as a note, we’re used to cafés not having things on the menu, that’s just the way things are; but not having most of the things on the menu is extreme.
Next we walked out on the town square a little to the WWII monument (which every city, town and village has). Surprisingly, it was a statue of a woman. After some inquiries as to who she was, we found out that she was a symbol of the motherland, the natural mother of Kazakhstan. The statue was very austere and simple; the woman stood tall in national clothes and held a bowl of food before here. She was much more soft than the usual soviet style of sculpture full of hard angles and cubist tendencies. We all took pictures. We walked around after that a little more, looking in some stores for some water and food for the trip to the Aral sea the next day. The stores also were pretty empty, but they did have water, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, and cookies so we bought them for the next day’s lunch. One thing Aralsk did have in supply, thankfully, was ice-cream! The best kind was in a wrapper that looked like a dollar bill and was called “backs,” (they meant bucks). It was vanilla covered in chocolate.
The next day found us bouncing out of Aralsk in a jeep: the five of us, Karakus, and the driver. It was an hour and a half to the ship cemetery (the ones by the city were just to whet our appetites) and then another half hour to the sea. Amazing for something you used to not have to drive to. Driving along the “road,” we could see endless expanses of desolate waste (not even cactuses), soviet ruins, and camels! These are real, two humped camels! I’ve never seen anything sadder, I don’t think, than looking at these camels some of whose humps hung flopped over for lack of water. I didn’t know they did that, and it just seemed to echo the emptiness all around. Their big, doe-like eyes pierced all our hearts and camera’s went flashing. Next, after some off-roading in the jeep, we arrived at the ship cemetery. About 10 large, rusted ships were scattered around, not seeming to mind the various cows and camels grazing about around them. We went and explored the ships, climbing up and around the ones we could, looking out from the bridge, playing Titanic off the bow. From their size, there had once been a lot of water where we were walking and crushing shells. So, now for a history lesson. Beginning in 1975, the Aral Sea began to rapidly disappear at a rate of 4 meters a year from the North side alone. The fishermen and those who owned the ships thought the loss temporary, due to a drought, and so left the ships there for when the water would come back the next year or the one after. It never did. Little did they know, the Soviet’s were using the water to irrigate Uzbekistan and grow cotton in a desert that couldn’t support anything naturally except for some lizards and tumbleweed. It took a lot of water. The people in the nearby villages who depended on the sea for their livelihood were suddenly at a loss. Those who could either left or took to camel breeding. The poverty in the area is astounding as is the spirit of the people who count wealth differently and still force camel’s milk on all foreign visitors whether they want it or not.
Next to the Sea itself. It was another 45 minute ride to the sea where all appearances of a road were gone. Those in the back suffered most and we were all glad we had decided not to eat lunch yet. There was the remnants of another village we passed by and we decided to stop at a house with people Karakus knew. We went inside while our drive and a local man went to try and find us a camel to ride (it’s one of my PC service goals to ride a camel). We had some tea, relaxed, and ate meager lunch, all glad to get out of the dust. Our hostess was an older Kazak woman, and Karakus informed us that whenever foreigners came to the sea (mainly volunteers with the NGO) they stayed at that house. The hostess showed us a West Point coin left by one visitor, and pictures of some others. We didn’t have anything as a gift on us, but left a bunch of fruit for the family. We all doubted that they got much, nothing could grow out there and it was so far to the city. No camels could be caught, they were all out in the desert for the day and wouldn’t come back till the evening, so we thanked our hostess and headed out to the sea. There weren’t anymore big ships out there, only little fishing boats left stranded as though their owners had given up on fishing there. It was very obvious there that the sea was still receding: there were some stranded pools of water and lines of shells from where the tide used to reach. None of us were too inclined to swim, but I wandered up and down the shore for a bit looking into the water that stretched as far as I could see. Occasionally, I would reach down for a pretty rock without thinking and get my butt drenched by a wave, admonishing me for taking anything from the sea that had lost so much already. A few more pictures and it was time to head back. The trip back was much more enjoyable, we played car games and the ride went quicker.
That evening, after we relaxed in our room for a bit, we decided to try another café for some dinner. Walking to every café we saw, we must have asked at about 8 cafés before we found one that was serving anything hot (I guess it was alcohol only at the others). The one we did end up finding something to eat at was nice, the smell of Shaslik was in the air (it was cooking outside) and we got to sit on the second floor with a small view of the street. The tables were wood, the seats a bench, and fake plastic greenery hung down from the ceiling forming a fake half wall. Once again, the only choices were Shaslik and Montey, two salads. We ordered and ate, chatting away in the cool evening breeze. The food was good, bigger than the other place and cheaper too. We went back again the next night. Later that night, we saw off two of the volunteers and it was just three of us again (we weren’t able to get tickets out any earlier). The next day was Sunday and we just relaxed, did some laundry in the hotel, played scrabble, and at ice-cream. Two of the girls had agreed to help the boy Rustem learn how to find a contact with oil companies on the internet (they worked as business volunteers and knew much more about that than me) and so left. Later that day I met one of the most interesting people, but more about her later. On to the elusive dam.
The next day we got in another jeep to go and see the dam they were building to try and bring back the northern part of the sea. Karakus didn’t want to come with us, so it was just us three girls and the driver (different driver than the last time) on what I think will be the worst road I’ll ever ride on in my life. We knew that it was 4 hours each way, but Karakus had told us that the road was better than the last so we didn’t think it would be that bad. Oh no were we wrong. 4 wheeling can be fun, for ten minutes a half hour; but not for four hours. We were each of us carsick and I think my head hit the roof of the jeep at least 8 times. Nothing to see but endless desert out the window and the occasional camel. I couldn’t bear to hold my bottle of water in my lap because looking at it shaking and jostling reminded me of what was going on in my stomach at that same moment. I had found a road worse than the one to my village; no more could I complain. So, we arrive near the dam and see this spill-way looking structure being built. Then we come to some flat area with some big trucks and bulldozers and our driver stops. We’re here. But where’s the dam? Oh, it’s right there, he says pointing. I don’t see anything but don’t want to say anything either. We’ll find it. So, why’s the World Bank paying millions of dollars for this to be built? Oh, we’re blocking this river, the only one going into the sea, from sending it’s water south and instead it’ll go to fill the northern part again. But won’t that take the water from Uzbekistan and cause there what happened in the northern part? Uzbekistan doesn’t need water? Money, Money came the answer. I understood. Kazakhstan has more money than Uzbekistan, therefore more need so steal the water from the poor and give it to the rich (ok, not rich but richer). Capitalism at it’s finest. Where’s Robin Hood when you need him? Don’t get me wrong, it would be very good for many people if the northern part of the sea came back; but now it will just be equally hard for a different group of people. They really haven’t solved the problem, just shifted its location. Perhaps a different solution would be to stop the irrigation in Uzbekistan (they still do it, even after the soviet union fell) and let nature bring it back. Well, here we were.
We could see part of the Aral Sea but still hadn’t figured out where the dam was. I suppose the fault is party with my imagining something like the Hoover dam. Some local men were sitting around in a boat and offered to take us to the other side of the little lake where we could see more men with trucks working. We agreed. The dam had to be over there. He took us over and we went walking with our lunch, looking for some kind of structure. We stood at the top of this little ridge and looked out at the little series of islands and lakes that made up this part of the sea. Still nothing. So, we head down the ridge and wonder out to find a nice place by the water to set up lunch. We settled down, ate and relaxed by the water. After about a half hour, our man from the boat comes up and talks a little. Finally, perplexed, I ask. Where’s the dam? His face instantly displays his shock. It’s right there, he says, pointing behind him. You were standing on it. OOOHHH, the little incline thing was the dam. But that’s just dirt?? NO! There are rocks there too. Ok, that makes it better, you’re right. It kinda looks like a dam now that we think about it. Our where’s waldo dam hunt had come to an end. Minds at ease, we could now go back. We had seen the dam…The guy reassured us that in four months that whole area would be under water again. I smiled and said good, but couldn’t help but think of the ships left stranded because they were certain the water would come back.
The way back was more bouncing and tumbling and head hitting. At one point, there was a motorcycle and three guys stopped by the road. Our driver stopped and asked if they needed help. He gave them a liter of our gas and we were off again. Later, we came upon the most frightening moment of the trip. A jeep was flipped over in the road in front of us; a little boy was the only person visible, standing outside the jeep as though dazed. I looked for other people but couldn’t see any. Were they in the jeep still? Had they gone for help? Were they alive? These thoughts ran in my mind but we remained silent as our driver just drove around the flipped jeep and continued on. To this day I wonder why I didn’t say anything; why none of us did, and why he stopped for the guys with the motorcycle but not the child outside of the wrecked jeep. I can only hope the parents had gone for help.
We were all silent as we got back to the hotel and ate ice-cream and ramen noodles, not wanting to go to a café. The next day was our last as the train left at 10pm. We had been invited that evening to go to the English Club again and later to dinner. English club was more of the same, so on to dinner. The girl who invited us is named Aiman and she’s in a wheelchair. She’s one of the strongest, calmest, satisfied people that I’ve seen. Being handicapped here is a nightmare, no ramps or convinces and utter dependence. Most can’t go outside for months at a time, especially in winter. This girl is a wonder. She volunteers at the NGO, then for 3 or 4 months a year she goes to Aktobe (I don’t know how she gets on the train) and works for an NGO there that specializes helping those with disabilities, and she speaks great English (self taught) and knows how to use the internet. She had been friends with the PC volunteers who worked for two years in Aralsk and they had come to her house apparently every week for beshbarmak, the national food. We all sat outside on a little carpeted raised platform as a short table was laid before us and food put down. We ate and talked, her mom coming out to ladle large portions of salad on our plates, her little sisters peeking shyly at us from around corners. The little kids were cute and sweet, one was a girl maybe 3 years old and wore only pink shorts and ran around the dirt yard barefoot, hair in little black pigtails and dirt on her hands and face. She looked sweet and I could see she was well cared for, but nevertheless I couldn’t help but think that she also looked like one of the poster children for the Neediest Kids of All. After the meal, the mom served us tea and I spoke to her of her family and her life. She was a very kindly woman, slightly chubby from childbearing (had 6 children) but with smiling eyes. She was very pleased as she began to teach us some words in kazak. We learned the command eat, drink, and I’m full. We said goodbye and they brought around the car (we didn’t know we were getting an escort to the train station). Her brothers helped her in the car and put her chair in the back, then we headed off waving and promising to visit if we ever came back to Aralsk. We said our goodbyes at the train station and exchanged contact information.
I went to my train car, and the other two went to theirs (weren’t able to get them together) and I watched the city fade into the distance with my head hanging out from the window like a dog for air (air conditioner wasn’t working), sad ruins and camels jogging by, a shirtless drunk man practicing his English with me (if I needed anything I was to come to his koupe and ask, I had no intention of doing it), and a mysterious spray of water hitting my out hung hand bringing into mind how the train toilets worked as I quickly decided it was better to be hot and settled into my bed on the train.
That, was the Aral Sea.