Asia, Karakalpakstan, Newsletter, Trip Reviews, Uzbekistan

Journey To The Aral Sea. Karakalpakstan

30/08/2023 by .
Aral Sea

Rupert Parker Sets Out For A Dip In The Disappearing Aral Sea.

I’ve done a lot of wild swimming over the years in salt water – the North Sea, Red Sea, even the Dead Sea. But the wildest of all, still on the list, is the Aral Sea. It was once a vast and shimmering expanse of water, known as the “Blue Jewel,” of Central Asia. Journeying there today I’m greeted with a vast salty desert where water once dominated the horizon. It’s a harrowing tale of human folly and ecological disaster.

I’m in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the west of Uzbekistan, a strategic location along the fabled Silk Road. Cities such as Nukus, the present-day capital of the republic, flourished as important trading hubs. The Russian Empire’s expansion into Central Asia led to occupation in 1873 and later an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union. Industrialization and agricultural collectivization followed which sowed the seeds of the disaster.

Aral Sea

The Aral Sea’s downfall began in the 1960s when ambitious Soviet irrigation projects diverted the water from the Anu Darya and Syr Dayra rivers feeding the sea to irrigate vast cotton fields in the region. As a consequence, the water levels began to drop at an alarming rate, and the once-mighty sea began to shrink.

Fishing communities were left stranded, and the once-thriving ecosystem collapsed, with many native species facing extinction. The exposed seabed, once covered in water, became a toxic desert, laden with salt and agricultural chemicals. Today the Aral Sea is less than a tenth of its former size and scientists predict it will be gone in twenty years. If I get to swim here, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Three Pillars

I start in the capital Nukus and it’s a day’s journey across the Ustyurt Plateau on bad roads to Munyak. At its height, the city was home to over 40,000 people, including some 10,000 fishermen, and canneries that annually processed up to 20 tons of fish. The sea’s rapid disappearance devastated the fishing industry, plunging the community into poverty and hopelessness. Now the population is around 13,500 and the seashore is a distant 150km away.

­A lighthouse still stands on the cliffs above the harbour, but the ships on the dry seabed below stand as a memorial to bygone times. Thirteen rusting hulls lie eerily abandoned in the sand, arranged in a row like coffins on the seabed. I walk around them at sunset as local kids play hide and seek inside the corroded shells.

Nearby is the Aral Sea Museum, a solemn testament to the tragedy that lives in recent memory. Photographs and paintings detail the region’s environmental decline and its profound impact on the lives of the locals. There are models of the boats they sailed and even the fish they caught still in their soviet era cans.

Ara Sea Museum

Leaving Muynak I say goodbye to civilization and set out in a 4×4 across the vast scrublands that make up what was once the seabed. There are no roads here, just faint dirt tracks, no settlements and nothing to see apart from the occasional drilling tower – the seabed is a rich source of natural gas. It’s a monotonous journey of around five hours.

Finally on the horizon, the landscape seems to change. As I get closer, I can see it’s a barrier of steep cliffs, probably once the shoreline. The 4×4 negotiates the rough climb up to the plateau and we follow the clifftop. A solitary worker’s caravan is the only sign of life, but suddenly the view opens up. There it is, the Aral Sea spread out in front of me, something I thought I’d never see. On either side are stunning rock formations, cathedrals of stone, known as the Aral Canyons.

Cars climbing Cliff

A rough track leads steeply down to the shore and the BesQala Yurt Camp where we’ll spend the night. Even in a 4×4 it’s a perilous descent and not to be attempted in the wet. We park as close to the water as possible, baked quicksand making the foreshore treacherous. Another yurt camp is being constructed here and the workers stop to watch.

I change into my swimming costume and make my way gingerly to the water’s edge, careful not to slip. As I step into the murky water, I’m suddenly knee deep in slimy black mud. Fortunately, it’s also very shallow so I sink on my hands and knees and propel myself forward through the murk. The water’s so salty that it provides extra buoyancy and, 100m from the shore, I finally get to float.

Aral Sea Bathers Lighthouse and Yurts

I must say it’s not the best swimming experience I’ve ever had, not least because when I get out of the water, I’m coated in thick black mud. Still there can’t be too many Englishmen who’ve taken a dip in the Aral Sea. It’s now in the last chance saloon despite recent environmental efforts to save it. Soon wild swimming here will be ancient history.

All images (C) Rupert Parker

Tell Me More About A Journey To The Aral Sea, Karakalpakstan, Central Asia

Turkish Airlines flies to Nukus via Istanbul.

Peopletravel  offers multiple itineraries in Karakalpakstan, including the 12-day Eco Tour in Uzbekistan (from £735pp) and two-day Aral Sea Tour (from £160pp).

Uzbekistan Travel has information about the country.

Bradt’s Karakalpakstan by Sophie Ibbotson and Stephanie Adams is an indispensable guide to the region.



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