• Aaron

The Aral Sea and back to Kazakhstan

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

For some peculiar reason I've long aspired to get a photo of the trusty Pajero alongside a rusty shipwreck. We tried in vain to accomplish this in Morocco (North Africa) in 2014, and again in 2015. But we failed to find the ship, said to lie along a remote stretch of coast, where the Sahara Desert meets the North Atlantic Ocean. But here, in a relatively 'new' desert in Uzbekistan, and with no sea to be seen for miles around, we were spoiled for choice of rusty shipwrecks.

In this blog post

  1. We go to see for ourselves what remains of the Aral Sea

  2. An update on how we got on with finding sufficient diesel in Uzbekistan

  3. We exit Uzbekistan and make our second entry into Kazakhstan

The Aral Sea... or is it the Aralkum Desert?!

The Aral Sea first began mysteriously disappearing in the 1960's, a slow process that continued for decades. In 2014 NASA presented a satellite image that showed for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the Aral Sea had completely dried up - it's now known as the Aralkum Desert.

Today, the slowly rusting hulks of ships embedded in the sands of a 'new' desert serve as a reminder of the significant fishing, fish canning and maritime industries that once thrived here. The Aral Sea once provided 1/6th of the Soviet Union's fish catch and was ringed with prosperous towns - home to 40,000 workers. Even a secret Soviet weapons testing facility was built out in the Aral Sea between 1948 and 1954. Built on an island (there were once 1,100 islands here!), initially this facility was protected by a natural coastline. But as the Aral Sea disappeared, so too did the island. Eventually the disused biological weapons test site found itself just out in the 'new' desert, complete with containers leaking improperly stored anthrax... oh, the good old Soviet era!

A desert littered with ships: Standing at the old lighthouse and with a little imagination, I could mentally picture the once bustling sea port that existed at Muynak, on the Uzbek side of the Aral Sea. Muynak still exists, but you could hardly consider it a port town today, this given the nearest remaining shores of the Aral Sea are now many miles away across the new desert. Like the nearby Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea is/was essentially a large lake, with no outflow into any other external body of water. As the sea slowly disappeared there was nowhere ship owners could relocate their ships to avoid the problem, hence why this desert became the ship graveyard that it is today. I think it worth noting a subtle distinction between the ships you see here vs a 'shipwreck'. These weren't 'shipwrecks' in the normal sense - not at the time at least - the sea just disappeared. It's a moot point now though. The local fishing industry had become unsustainable long before these ships finally touched down on the sand.

How did this happen: The disappearance of the Aral Sea is considered one of the world's worst man-made environmental disasters. Soviet engineers of the 1960's desired to establish large scale agriculture projects, mainly water intensive cotton (Uzbekistan) and wheat (Kazakhstan). To accomplish this, two rivers that flowed from the Pamirs, across the desert to the Aral Sea, were diverted into massive, inefficient and 'leaky' irrigation schemes. It doesn't help that glaciers in the high Pamirs (one in Tajikistan and another in Kyrgyzstan) have also been receding due to climate change and today produce 25% less water volume than they did in 1960.

Tough going in places in the thick combination of dust and sand that is the former seabed

The two photos above are of our overnight campsite on the way to Muynak. I had to set this camp up late at night, in about minus 10 degrees - I'm used to it! We always said we wouldn't drive and look for places to camp after dark, but our day can be difficult to optimally plan when we're constantly travelling though new and unknown places, often with poor infrastructure. In the photo to the right Sylwia is walking on the thick lake ice.

How We Got On Finding Fuel in Uzbekistan

Our GPS track in blue. The Aral Sea circled in red.

As mentioned in previous posts, we ventured across Uzbekistan aware that finding diesel could prove an issue. The first place I looked for diesel was in Samarkand. Samarkand isn't actually that far from Tashkent and so we weren't in desperate need of diesel just then, but I took the approach that I'd get what I could, where I could. Better to be spoilt for choice, than later to have no choice... but as it turned out, we were not going to be spoilt for choice in Uzbekistan! To better my chances of finding diesel I was guided by a list of GPS coordinates where other overland travellers had reported having success in recent months. At the first of these sites in Samarkand we found a small station operated by a friendly Russian woman who wanted to assist us, but she had run out of diesel and had no idea when a truck would arrive to replenish her tanks. It could be a long while! She kindly offered to switch on the pump and see if any diesel would come up from the tanks, but I declined. This would be very risky - the dregs at the bottom of the tank can contain all sorts of engine wrecking contaminants, and so it was on to the next set of GPS coordinates on my list. There I hadn't even quite gotten out of the Pajero before I spotted the station owner shaking his head at me. At this point we were nearby the guesthouse where we'd stayed the previous night and decided it would be worth stopping in there to ask for a recommendation. The guesthouse is called Casa de Higos and they were friendly and helpful - so much so it turned out that the breakfast chef hoped in the Pajero and guided us to find diesel. It still took another couple of attempts and a drive right across the town before we finally found what we believe may have been the only fuel station in Samarkand with diesel. The diesel was a slightly odd yellow colour, though the engine didn't seem to mind it. One thing to note for those thinking of coming this way is that often you are permitted to fill your tank only and not any jerrys/containers. So again, the auxiliary long range fuel tank proved its worth here.

Beyond Samarkand we were able to refuel at Bukhara; again possibly at the only available supply in town. The issue we had there was that we couldn't buy any diesel until we first managed to find an ATM with any cash in it, which took some searching! This is actually a fairly common occurrence in parts of Central Asia - Tajikistan especially, but also parts of Uzbekistan. Beyond Bukhara we found more diesel not far from Urgench (nearby Khiva). It didn't come from a conventional pump, more just a pipe coming out of the ground really, but the quality proved to be fine (I should note that I double filter all of this diesel and add a lubricity additive just to be sure). With this fill of diesel our passage through the remainder of Uzbekistan and out into Kazakhstan was assured. I estimated we had sufficient touring range, with a suitable safety margin, to make it out into the Aral Sea and on to the first town over the Kazakh border. I actually managed to buy a few more litres of diesel just outside Nukus - I wasn't permitted to fill right up and was restricted to the few litres they were willing to sell me. It didn't matter, since this was only to bolster our backup reserves. But it's worth noting that even if a station has diesel it doesn't mean they want to sell it to you - they may prefer to retain it for locals.

I feel that our ultimate success in finding diesel in sufficient quantities benefited greatly from our being later than originally planned through Uzbekistan. Had we come through in September/October, as I had intended, the peak cotton harvest would still have been in full swing. Agricultural machinery used in the cotton harvest is among the only motorised equipment here not converted to run on LPG, and is said to consume all available diesel in Uzbekistan during the all-important harvest. I'm not sure how we'd have gotten on finding enough diesel at that time to make it through; something to bear in mind for those contemplating following in our footsteps. I also cannot mention Uzbekistan's massive cotton industry without noting its continued reliance on the use of forced labour, including adults and children. I suppose it's one more thing that a slowly liberalising Uzbekistan needs to address in future.

Exit from Uzbekistan and our second entry into Kazakhstan

This part of Uzbekistan (and Kazakhstan) is barren and arid. Just miles of desert all the way to the horizon. At least it's easy to find somewhere to make camp - pretty much anywhere you can leave the atrocious road and head overland for a bit of privacy will do for a quick overnight stop.

Our exit from Uzbekistan went far smoother and quicker than our entry had been. But there were nonetheless a couple of things about this border crossing that I think worth mentioning here. Firstly, the road through the desert on the Uzbekistan side was thoroughly atrocious for many long, slow miles. There's nothing really unusual about that, as we're accustomed to being completely off-road, or on bad roads, more often than not. But suffice to say that the road was so bad that it was actually more comfortable driving on the dusty dirt tracks running alongside the road. These tracks might be bumpy, but at least they don't have the horrendous car swallowing pot holes that you get with broken tarmac. At one point a man flagged us down and we stopped. He ran over with a couple of empty 1.25 litre bottles, hoping to take some petrol from us. He didn't speak English, but he understood when we indicated the Pajero runs on diesel. Whilst there is traffic along this route heading to/from the border with Kazakhstan, I couldn't help but wonder why he would venture out here running so low on fuel?! Perhaps he didn't have much choice.

I particularly want to mention an unusual conversation I had with one Uzbek border guard, while simultaneously trying to keep a close eye on another, who was examining the contents of my phone while making himself comfortable in the Pajero; I was required to unlock my phone for him! Searching the contents of devices was once a common occurrence at border checkpoints in Uzbekistan, but I didn't think they did this any longer - or at least not to foreigners. The English speaking guard with whom I was having a discussion seemed rather puzzled indeed - he wanted to know what my employer thought of my travelling in this way and how I could do this. I explained that we had been travelling this way for many months and that I don't presently have an employer. He didn't seem entirely satisfied with my response, but continued on with his next question regardless. What about my country's government - did they know where I was, and how was I going to avoid getting into trouble with them? It really struck me just what a difficult time this fellow was having in comprehending our ability to travel freely. Recall that Uzbekistan is still ultimately a police state - it's supposed to be slowly liberalising, though I note the Government just released its updated list of all that Uzbek people are banned from doing, watching, reading etc, and the list is said to be longer than ever. I attempted to explain to the curious border guard that my government really didn't have any particular interest in where I was, which it was clear he had some difficulty accepting.

This reminds me of another issue worthy of mention, which is that I was unable to establish a VPN connection to the internet whilst in Uzbekistan. (Very briefly for those unfamiliar, a VPN gives a private tunnel like connection to the internet, whereby no one can watch what you do online, including would-be hackers, and/or certain governments). After quite some trying to connect to my VPN provider I eventually realised my access was being deliberately blocked from within Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan... again

Buying vehicle insurance on the Uzbek side of the border... Kazakh police need no encouragement to find a reason to fine (bribe)!

As the only foreigners present at the border, and perhaps benefiting from the kids presence too, Kazakh border guards brought us directly to the front of every queue, causing some uncomfortable friction I might add. Some border crossings are far more confusing than others, and this was one of those. There is often limited to zero signage directing you where to go. Even in parts of Europe I've noted that where multilingual signage is present, none of the displayed languages include English! In this part of the world we are still very much the minority.

Once across the Kazakh border checkpoint we were pleased to find ourselves on new, excellent quality roads; a far cry from the roads that had brought us to the Uzbek side of the border. Kazakhstan's extensive road building programme has evidently already attended to the country's southwest.

Our first campsite on the Kazakh side of the border

Coming up Next - Disaster Strikes!

With the roughest, dustiest and most remote parts of our Central Asia journey completed, you might think the biggest challenges of our trip were now behind us. But it certainly didn't turn out that way. In one respect I'm pleased that the blog is running behind, because when I first started to write about the disastrous chain of events that I'll begin describing in the next blog post, we were still very much in the middle of it all and without a clear resolution in sight. A trip like this is not without risks, something I was well aware of from the outset. These risks simply go with the territory and must be accepted if one wants to embark on a journey like this. I don't want to give it all away here just yet, but suffice to say the final stages of our trip presented some significant challenges to deal with.

UZBEKISTAN - WHAT TO EXPECT • disorganised border crossings. Just like in Tajikistan there were no signs to follow nor people to direct us. We had to figure out for ourselves what to do and where to go and on top of that to convince passport control officials that we didn't require a visa to enter Uzbekistan! • very helpful people. Every time we stopped someone to ask a question, we got help much beyond what we were expecting. • registration at local hotels is a must and is taken seriously by everyone • NZ$72.50 - four hours of labour (car repair) including wheel alignment • 9000 som for a casual gym workout in Bukhara. That's about NZ$1.5! • a high number of uniformed police officers everywhere • amazing breakfast in guest houses and B&Bs • very impatient drivers who honk constantly, drive fast and often run a red light • US dollars widely accepted

UZBEKISTAN - WHAT NOT TO EXPECT • to wear seat belts in a taxi • a variety of dishes in restaurants. Most likely you'll find plov, samsa and mince meat with rice in a number of combinations (stuffed in peppers, wrapped in leaves). They can be very tasty, though. Horse meat dishes too. • information signs. Finding a way to a recognised town or a tourist attraction is simply difficult without your own reliable navigation system. • don't expect the silk route cities to be the same. Each of them offers something different and each and one of them is worth a visit • to make card payments. Cash is necessary. And cash may or may not be in a nearby ATM!

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