Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Swimming in the Aral Sea

‘You weren’t worried about swimming in the Aral Sea?’ our fellow travelers, a group of three from Poland, asked us.

Wading through the muck

At first I thought they referred to the knee-deep stinky sludge we waded through to get to swimmable, clear and buoyant water.

‘It wasn’t that bad,’ I told them. ‘Besides, when else will we get a chance to swim in the Aral Sea?’

‘Not much longer,’ Anya said. ‘This part of the sea will be gone in three years.’

You can see the sludge along the shore

The Polish group, especially Anya, knew more about the sea than I (not a notable accomplishment given my tendency to wing it, i.e. avoid research) and even more than Flounder, an accomplished and relentless researcher.

I soon realized that, far from referring to unpleasant muck, the group was concerned about toxic chemicals in the water. During soviet times, an island in the Aral Sea had been used to test anthrax and other chemical weapons. Now, with the rapid and unprecedented shrinking of the sea, that island is gone. What’s more, with evaporation, the toxic chemicals have surely concentrated. No one knows how much, as the government is not keen to allow testing nor to bring more publicity to what is often called one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time.


Swimming in the Aral Sea is a bit like swimming in the Dead Sea in Jordan and Israel. Even Flounder, who finds floating difficult, could sit back in the water as if relaxing in a recliner. See, along with (theoretical) toxicity, salinity has concentrated and will continue to do so until what’s left of the Uzbek Aral Sea is gone.

You can see how much is gone in just three years


To get here, to the western, deepest edge of the rapidly shrinking sea, we took a caravan of two SUVs on a smooth road that turned into a pothole-filled road that turned into dusty tracks through low shrubs populated by twittering birds escaping the heat of the desert sun. As we drove we approached a broad expansive plateau—the Ustyurt plateau, a tectonic plate that was thrust upwards about 150 meters, causing the Caspian Sea to separate from the Aral Sea.


We drove onto the steppe, on dirty, dusty tracks cutting, crossing, forking, branching, and rejoining across miles and miles and miles.

The plateau

For hours we saw no one and the landscape, flat and sage green, changed little save for the hastening birds and the occasional glimpse of glimmering grey-blue water in the distance beyond and below the plateau.

Flounder near the edge of the Ustyurt plateau

The first structure we passed, and indeed the first sign of human life aside from tire tracks, was a cluster of ancient-looking low buildings and a smattering of graves. The buildings, our driver told us in a staccato of Russian, Uzbek, and English, had been a fish cannery only 70 years ago and the graves were occupied by Poles and Russians who had worked and died in this desolate place, once a soviet gulag.

Graves, our fellow travellers, and our SUVs

We descended further down the plateau and saw a hulking army green truck parked near a smoky fire. Next to a concrete archway attached to nothing was a row of cots upon which slept a few men, shaded from the brutal sun by a thin cloth draped over them. They were fisherman (balıkçılar in Turkish and Uzbek, our driver confirmed) who slept during the day and fished at night. They came to this remote spot, once near the Aral Sea, now near a small isolated lake, for ten days at a time before returning to the nearest town, some hours away.

The next signs of life we passed were two trailers, one belonging to an Uzbek petrol company and the other belonging to Malaysia-based Petronas. An economic upside (and yes, I know that’s a contentious and complicated statement) to the devastation of the Aral Sea mismanagement was the discovery of gas- and oil-rich deposits beneath the now arid land. The economy, once dependent on the sea, is now dependent on oil, though the profits seem spirited away with precious little money staying in the depressed region.


When at last we reached the western shore of the Aral Sea, flat and shining, the sun setting behind us, an American in our caravan who had just finished his military service looked out and declared, ‘The soviets really fucked that up, didn’t they?’

No one responded. The question seemed rhetorical after all, but I wondered if anyone else was thinking what I was: Will not some future generation, looking at the environmental wreckage of pollution and climate change we're enacting, ask rhetorically, ‘We really fucked that up, didn’t we?’

A ship sits where the shore of the Aral Sea once was


We camped that night near the western shore of the sea, under a clear sky and an umbrella of stars.

As we sat around a dinner of plov, salad, bread, and french fries, the Polish friends asked us if we weren’t worried about swimming in the Aral Sea.

No, I wasn’t worried about swimming in the rapidly disappearing sea. But the trip through a swiftly altered and devastated landscape, caused by human choices, left me worried about a lot of things.

2 comments:

  1. Great blog!!! Did the fishermen really eat fish from the Aral Sea?

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    1. The fishermen we saw were fishing a lake near the sea. Not sure the Aral still has fish, at all.

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