Croute de sel à l’ouzbèke

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.28.39Karakalpakstan was once a prosperous region thanks to the fishing industry. It even received the Lenine medal twice, for supplying fish tins to soldiers. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has obviously resulted in unemployment and economic hardship.

In Moynak, the former epicenter of the local economy, and now only 8000 inhabitants, a local museum has opened and very old-style tells this story. You will find below a mix of my images and some footage from the film… It’s worth watching…

The Aral Sea region is also heavily polluted, with consequent serious public health problems. The retreat of the sea has reportedly also caused local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, and winters colder and longer…

Moynaq, 210km north of Nukus, encapsulates more visibly than anywhere the absurd tragedy of the Aral Sea. Once one of the sea’s two major fishing ports, it now stands more than 150km from the water. What remains of Moynaq’s fishing fleet lies rusting on the sand, beside depressions marking the town’s last futile efforts in the early 1980s to keep channels open to the shore.

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One of the most amazing things about the Aral Sea disaster is that it was no accident. The Soviet planners who fatally tapped the rivers that fed the Aral Sea, in order to irrigate new cotton fields, expected the sea to dry up. They also wanted to bring water to Central Asia by a huge canal from Siberia, not to replenish the Aral Sea but to expand cotton production still further.

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When camping on the shore, the guide offered me to have a swim. But knowing that residues of pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants used on the cotton fields found their way into the sea… I skipped.

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In addition, the soviets had a military base on an island in the middle of the sea –  Vozrozhdenia Island – on which they were keeping many samples of bacteriologic weapons. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, they left the base hurriedly, leaving their shit behind…

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… In 2001, when the US got under the attack of anthrax, the government even thought it might have been sourced there, on this Aral Sea abandoned base. As a result, the USA worked together with the local authorities to clean the place for good… Ironically, in pious Russian language, Vozrozhdenia means rebirth… So reassuring…

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To restore the Aral would require irrigation from the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya to cease for three years, or at least a slashing of the irrigated area from over 70,000 to 40,000 sq km; in other words, a complete restructuring of the economies of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. No-one is seriously considering this.

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In 2003 the little channel still connecting the northern and southern seas was blocked by a 12.8km-long dike, preventing further water loss from the northern sea (on the Kazakh side), but condemning the southern sea to oblivion.

Apparently, Russia has been talking about feeding the Aral Sea with a Russian river but from the talks I’ve had locally, I can tell you that here, in Moynak, no-one believes it.

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Any future ? I don’t think so…

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Camping by the Aral Sea – Portfolio

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.23.34The last kilometer of dirt tracks…

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.23.23This is where we will settle our camp. Nobody should disturb us – But scorpions may be. As the driver said, “be cautious when you move a stone”. I am so much not planning to move any stone…

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.23.43 Tents, pillows, sleeping bags, even gas, I think we have everything we need.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.23.53 Even a fireplace and kind of a table. that’s gonna be perfect to boil our pot-au-feu.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.24.06 Some meat, potatoes, onions, carrots. And also a tomatoes and cucumber salad.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.26.01Desert nights are cold but I’ve absorbed so much heat during the day that I’m not going to be able to enter my sleeping bag before midnight. My mouth still feels dry, I wonder if I’m gonna be able to rehydrate !

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.24.59 Tomorrow morning, I guess the sunrise should be impressive.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.25.40And indeed, the driver wakes me up at five to make sure I don’t miss it.

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I slept like a babe, I’m ready to explore the shore and to keep driving a this salty sand. Though, when the guide says : “Yesterday was a cool day, wasn’t it ? But today is gonna be hot”, I am puzzled. Is that even possible ? Oh Gee…


D266. May 26. Let’s find the Aral Sea shore !

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.19.46This is the Yaz car that is going to bring me to the Aral Sea – The actual Aral Sea, meaning the actual shore, where water is still visible. It will take us one full day to reach that point. The temperature reaches 50 degrees and there is no air conditioning in the car. The windows cannot remain open, so I’ll figure something out with a rope and some rubber band…

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.19.29 I see sand storms for the very first time. Difficult to catch on a picture but I guess you can see it, above, in the middle of it : a sand tornado…
Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.20.13 We drove Northwest along navigable dirt tracks, from Kungrad via birdladen Sudochie Lake to the desert backwater of Kubla Ustyurt.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.20.22 In the afternoon, we reach a shore. But this is not the Aral Sea, it is the Sudochie Lake, filled via udnerground flow and giving some water to the Western Aral Sea. It looks so beautiful, even birds are coming back to this area. You cannot figure out than less than one hour drive from here it’s gonna be a complete different story.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.21.23The reward of our long drive is impressive : cliff top views of the desertified formed seabed and the thin blue lie of the Aral’s new shoreline in the distance.

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.20.51 The Aral Sea formed about 5.5 million years ago due to a fall in sea level and the uplift of Caucasus mountains. Later, it got the flows from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers, born in the Xian Chan and Pamir mountains…

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.21.41In the early 1960s, USSR  decided the two rivers would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and above all cotton… That’s how the Lake, formerly one of the 4 largest lakes in the world (after the Caspian Sea, Lake Superior and Lake Victoria) with an area of 68,000 km2 , declined to 10% of its original size…

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.21.01 A few kilometers East, rough tracks lead down from the plateau and on the new shore line, where we camped >>> To be continued

D266. May 25. Welcome to Karakalpakstan !

What ? You don’t know what Karakalpakstan is ? Hum… It is an autonomous republic, within Uzbekistan, on its West part.

The Karakalpaks, who today number only about 400,000 of the republic’s 1.2 million population (it’s also home to about 400,000 Uzbeks and 300,000 Kazakhs), are a formerly nomadic and fishing people, first recorded in the 16th century. Today they are struggling to recapture a national identity after being collectivized or urbanized in Soviet times. The official language of the republic, is Turkic,  close to Kazakh and less so to Uzbek.

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Karakalpakstan was probably at its most prosperous in the 1960s and ’70s when the fruits of expanded irrigation from the Amu-Darya were being felt. But today the destruction of the Aral Sea has rendered Ka- rakalpakstan one of Uzbekistan’s most depressed regions. In the capital city, Nukus, I couldn’t even find a place to have dinner. I had waffles and Nesquik.

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Though, before discovering dying towns and blighted landscapes, I got to see Toprak-Kala, a first century BC fortress…

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No need to say that going through that hill, at noon, under 50 degrees, was kind of painful… But it was worth it. Beyond the ruins, this shamanic altar. And the sudden visit of a few Karakalpaks women, in shimmering dresses…

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Capture d’écran 2014-05-25 à 19.42.32Waiting under this shelter, a man. He tries to sell music instruments to the visitor. But there are probably not more than twenty visitors a day in this desert place. This looks like hell to me. The real one, with heat and stuff…