Listed long ago as one of the largest lakes in the word at 68,000 km squared, the Aral Sea is now a desert. Leaving the car we walk to where the port once was and look down the 500-meter drop into the dry wasteland. A row of rusted fishing boats remains on the sea bed floor, forlorn and vulnerable in the face of this human-made disaster. It is the worst kind of spectacle. A surreal and wild scene, it’s as if Fellini just left the set. We climb down into the desert and clamber over the rusty hulks which have been graffitied with hearts and initials of local youngsters since the 1970s. Seashells are still visible under scraggy bushes, souvenirs of a time long gone.
From the early 1970s silly Soviet irrigation projects, largely for the growing of cotton, sucked the sea dry. There is now only 5% of the sea left and the 100,000 people who’re lives depended on this sea life are near destitute. To see a human-made natural disaster chills you to the bone even more than a natural disaster does. You have to wonder what kind of government would allow this to happen. Was the money worth it? At the site, there are huge photographs documenting the shrinking lake over the years and a board ‘explaining’ this phenomenon politely avoids the truth.
In a tiny museum in the abandoned heart of town, a stern lady opens it up for us with a key, we find log books filled with black and white photos of the busy workers who once canned fish, piling them up for export.
Disintegrating taxidermied birds and animals stare at us with pleading eyes. Old fishing ropes hang without purpose on the wall. Beautiful paintings depicting sea life and the thriving community are now nostalgic pieces of evidence of what once was. Just like so many unexplained things in this strange country Uzbekistan we feel we are being looked at with suspicion and are soon ushered out once again, the door locked behind us.
Our train trip to Tashkent takes 2 days and there is not a dull moment on our carriage. Paloma and I read, draw and annoy the other passengers with Play School songs and laughter. She bolts up and down the compartment singing and telling everyone her name. An Uzbek grannie takes us under her wing and offers us some greasy Plov for dinner, giving us her dirty teacups to drink from.