Aral Sea Adventure

We kicked off 2010 with an insane, spontaneous trip to the Aral Sea. Before I tell you about the ridiculousness that was the trip itself, I want to give you a little backstory about the significance of the sea and why we went. For those who don’t know, the Aral Sea is arguably the biggest ecological disaster in Central Asia. It used to be one of the world’s largest saline bodies of water, spanning 26,000 square kilometers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan…that is, before the Soviets decided to start using the sea as irrigation in its massive plan to grow and export cotton from the southern republics. As cotton production increased, especially in Uzbekistan, the sea kept shrinking – and as of today, it is 10% of its original size, its northern section in Kazakhstan completely split off from the southern section in Uzbekistan.

[Aral Sea from space in 1985, v. 2009]

The effects of the Aral Sea’s virtual disappearance has been devastating on the region. Salinity rose to over 100g/L (35g/L is normal for seawater), causing most of the native marine life to die out. The local fishing industry was destroyed, leaving behind eerie ship graveyards where old vessels can be seen stranded in the desert sand. But the worst problems extend beyond wildlife and unemployment: as the water disappeared, leftover pesticides and fertilizer were spread by the wind in toxic dust storms, resulting in high rates of cancer, lung disease, and child mortality.
Some progress has been made in the North Aral through building dams, but the South Aral has been largely left to its fate. The former port city of Aralsk used to be the center of the fishing industry from the Northern Aral, and happens to also be a 15-hour train ride from Shymkent, wth a train that goes through Kyzylorda the next oblast over. The NGO Aral Tenizi seems to be doing good environmental education work there, and also running a thriving(?) tourism business on the side (or perhaps in order to fund their activities and build awareness…let’s hope!). The following is a How-To that the four of us PCVs put together about our trip to Aralsk. Enjoy, as it is much more humorous than the actual Aral Sea.

A PCV’s Step-By-Step Guide on Getting to Uralsk A-ralsk

1. Spontaneously decide to meet friends in Karaganda for New Years break.
2. Look up train times online and realize the train leaves in two hours. Definitely still possible.
3. RUN to the travel agency.
4. Ask many questions to a mean travel agent.
5. Find out there are no tickets that reach Karaganda until two hours after New Years Eve.
6. Decide it’s still worth it.
7. Find out there are no return tickets.
8. Go back dejected to start Women’s Club.
9. Brainstorm new travel destination with Women’s Club attendees.
10. Come up with the genius idea to go to the Aral Sea.
11. Test Women’s Club attendees’ geography skills by asking where the Aral Sea is. Get various answers.
12. Lonely Planet tells us our plan is possible – Let’s go!!
13. Go back to travel agency and find a nicer agent.
14. Go over every possible combination of busses/trains/dates/stopovers.
15. Join forces with two fellow volunteers in Kyzylorda.
16. Celebrate new years with host family and stay up all night in order to get to the train station by 4 a.m.
17. Show up to find the train station under construction, and try to find a way in.
18. Successfully take the train to Kyzylorda and try to catch up on sleep.
19. Meet fellow volunteers at the train station and begin a 1-hour tour of Kyzylorda (i.e. a delicious lunch at Cairo Café).
20. Find out from a PCV’s host dad that all roads to the Aral Sea are iced and closed. Decide to take a train instead.
21. Go to train station IMMEDIATELY!
22. Drop freshly crocheted scarf in Kyzylorda, which means it’s now covered in an inch of mud.
23. Go to ticket counter and wait in mob.
24. Look at departure sign and see a train from Almaty to Uralsk – perfect.
25. Ask for ticket to Uralsk but find out there are no trains going there tonight.
26. Freak out and try to find out about busses, despite warnings.
27. Find out roads actually ARE iced over, and no busses are leaving until mayyyybe tomorrow?
28. Call crazy bus ladies for more information on tomorrow’s busses and discover that Uralsk and Aralsk are 2 DIFFERENT CITIES!!??!?!*[1] Decide to rename Aralsk “A-Ralsk.”
29. Go back to train station and realize we probably asked for tickets to the wrong city. Train to the right city leaves in half an hour.
30. Rejoin the mob and ponder bribing others to get to the front of the “line.”
31. Have a local friend save the day by elbowing his way to the front. Get yelled at by rest of mob.

32. Board the two-wagon train, which is full to the brim with people and disgustingly muggy.
33. Are told there are no more spaces on train and wonder if this really is the right one.
34. Show tickets marking our seats to the conductor and the mob of other passengers occupying said seats, to no avail. Stand around in the aisle with drunk people pushing by.
35. Start searching for 5 seats together – quite a mission to undertake. Are told this train is “general seating only.”

36. Ask the following questions to old man:
Q: Why do they sell more tickets than seats?
A: What would you have them do? Leave people at the train station?
Q: Why is that lady laying there taking up three spaces?
A: Maybe she’s sick….or tired.
37. Take picture of crazy train situation for proof, only to be told by the old man, “You can’t take pictures of Muslims.” Overhear another passenger saying: “Let them take your picture. They’ll probably send it to Obama!”
38. Watch as fellow passenger takes camera phone pictures of the same old man as he poses for them.
39. Remain steadfast as rude man tries to take bed already occupied by a volunteer, hovering excessively and trying to read (?) the volunteer’s Economist.
40. Step out of suffocating train for fresh air, only to be physically pushed back by conductor in preparation for the fresh hoard of fur-wearing, heat-exuding passengers to board.
41. Wonder if that man actually was the conductor, due to his track suit attire.
42. Sweat like it’s a banya. Try to figure out ways to strip with so many people around. Wonder how all locals are STILL in their furs.
43. Realize the toilet is actually the best place on the train, as you can actually breathe in there.
44. Get invited to lay down on a vacated bunk, only to be screamed at by old woman already occupying another bunk. Old woman physically tries to pull volunteer down from bunk, claiming she has “dibs” on that space.
45. After sleepless night, FINALLY arrive to A-ralsk at 6 a.m.! Trudge through the snow to get to the only hotel.

46. Pass out for an hour.
47. Successfully hire a jeep to take us across the frozen tundra.
48. See herd of Bactrian camels!

49. STAND on the frozen Aral Sea.

50. Take pictures with stranded boats, and see seashells in the snow!


51. Go to train station to get tickets back home. Get shoved back to end of line mob by crazy ticket lady.
52. Eat Korean dinner accompanied by loud music.
53. Return exhausted to hotel, only to find the hall has been rented out for a birthday party and is BLARING music. The entire hotel is literally shaking from the bass. We will not sleep.
54. Board 5 a.m. train and get out of A-ralsk. Enjoy a nice and uneventful train ride (with our own actual bunks), and be grateful to be going home.


[A-ralsk “Port.” All that used to be the sea…now it’s just sand and snow.]

[1] [Note: we had been pronouncing “Aralsk” with the English “a,” which sounds more like a schwa (ə)..hence the confusion]

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About beccazsky

NGO Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan
This entry was posted in adventure, Aral Sea, insanity. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Aral Sea Adventure

  1. Roxanne says:

    This sounds so familiar – considering I am in Bogota, Colombia, that is saying a lot. I love your adventures, Bex, difficult travel and all. Keep writing!Love from Colombia,R

  2. What an adventure! Probably not as funny at the time. I wrote about the Aral Sea on my blog (http://anunexpectederror.blogspot.com/2009/10/aral-sea-disappears-in-cloud-of-toxic.html). I seem to be obsessed lately with the damage we are doing to our planet.

  3. I read just now that Bactrian Camels can smell a human from four miles away — a result of the train ride?

  4. Adriana says:

    Becca, Im a healthy pcv in Moldova. For this summer Id like to travel to another pc country and help a pcv there on their project for a week or so. Would you be interested or could you put me in contact with someone in Kazakhstan that would be. I'll be learning Russian from now til then.

  5. Becca says:

    Sure Adriana; leave your email and we can talk more.

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