Visiting human disaster: Our journey to the Aral Sea.

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Up until the last part of the 20th century, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest saline lake in the WORLD. Now, the Aral Sea is known as one of the biggest man made disasters; in the WORLD. So what happened to the Aral Sea? Can you get there to visit? And can you visit the Aral Sea, with kids…?

Firstly, where is the Aral Sea?

The Aral Sea is situated in Central Asia, between the Southern part of Kazakhstan and Northern Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea is within the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan; a once fertile area, now the poorest and most desolate region in the country.

The Aral Sea disaster. What happened?

More than 90% of the Aral Sea has disappeared. Evaporated. Gone.

It’s hard to believe, but this area of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was once a popular holiday destination in the old Soviet times; it had beaches, seaside restaurants, fresh seafood and hotels. Now, there is just the ruins left in evidence of that.

In the 1960’s, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were still part of the Soviet Union. The Russians were bold with this empire, and set up huge scale irrigation projects to divert the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers that fed into the Aral Sea. The plan was to irrigate the desert land to feed the cotton fields and become the world’s top cotton exporter.

This ambitious goal was achieved, and by the end of the 1980’s Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

But this dream came at a huge cost. The irrigation projects pumped out almost all of the water to feed the cotton fields. Fisheries and communities that depended on the Aral Sea collapsed, and this part of the Silk Road literally dried up.


[Picture from the internet] Satellite photos showing the disappearing water in the Aral Sea since 1990.

I had never heard of the Aral Sea before, but we watched this on a documentary prior to leaving New Zealand and we were hooked, and fascinated. [How could something like this be so damaged by the hands of humans?!]. We decided to add the Aral Sea to our growing list of must-see destinations for our trip.


The journey there

It took an entire day and over seven hours of driving to reach the shore of the Aral Sea, 400km away. But it was so worth it.

You can definitely visit the Aral Sea with kids. The boys rocked the journey out there, and it was so cool to see them in explorer-mode. The deserts, camels, off-road 4WDing, and camp cook-up definitely suited two little boys!

Setting out in our 4x4 vehicle to the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan with kids.
Heading off road in Arnold’s 4WD.

Along the way we made several stops at historic sights and ruins of the communities that had once lined the the Aral Sea region.

Exploring the ancient ruins of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan with kids.
Exploring the ruins of an old lighthouse that used to guide ships into harbour on the Aral Sea.

And then, there wasn’t any more highway. The rest of the road was overland by 4WD and included the odd stop at sights for things like camel herds, and the very last ‘village’ more than two hours from our yurt camp for the night.

[At one, we stopped to try some fresh camel milk, which turned out to be quite a memorable event… As well as for our first taste of camel milk, Harry lost his first tooth which had been wobbly. Unfortunately, he swallowed it, and was absolutely devastated! We told him it would make for a pretty darn cool story to share later on… I mean, how many kids lose their first tooth whilst drinking a bowl of camel milk in Uzbekistan!?].

Drinking camel milk en route to the Aral Sea with kids. Travel in Uzbekistan with kids.
Harry’s first tooth came out while drinking camel milk en route to the Aral Sea. [True story!].

From there, the drive is long but we found it interesting and the wide open spaces bring plenty of time to think. The sand dunes are covered with sparse plant growth, and the road out there is not officially a road. Rather, the road could be better defined as never ending tire tracks stretching out ahead through the sand. But somehow our driver Arnold knew which ones to follow. In some ways it’s a beautiful landscape, yet the overarching feeling is depressing as more so than the desert can represent freedom, here it boldly symbolises the terrible impact humans have on the environment.


Arriving at the shoreline

It’s hard to describe the feeling of finally standing there and feeling what literally was once the sea floor underfoot. It’s beautiful, but overwhelming; and SAD.

The damage is IRREVERSIBLE. 

We sat watching the sun go down thinking the dried up sea itself was kind of metaphorical. Almost like looking out at the grand plan of the Soviet, and all the dried up dreams and abandoned ambitions for the mass empire that was once planned…

Visiting the Aral Sea with kids.
Sunset at the Aral Sea.


Swimming(?!) in the Aral Sea

It can be done!

[And, if you are making the hours-long overland 4×4 drive to get all the way out there; it really should be done!].

Kids swimming in the Aral Sea. Visiting the Aral Sea with kids.
A cautious swim in the Aral Sea.

As a heads up, the reduced water in the Aral Sea has led to a huge increase in levels of salinity (like the Dead Sea). Not only is there no marine life left; but, on a more personal note, it can sting to swim in if you have any cuts or grazes… And *ahem, if you are planning your swim in the Aral Sea with kids then make sure they don’t have any obvious cuts or grazes… Poor little Oscar nearly leapt out of the mud in shock as it stung a graze on his knee (courtesy from climbing the beds during our overnight train trip to Nukus!).

Drinking Uzbek Vodka at the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.
Gavin relaxing and watching the sun set over the Aral Sea – with an Uzbek Vodka (of course!).

Muynak and the Ship Graveyard

Because we were visiting the Aral Sea with kids in tow, we wanted to stretch our adventure to three days long. In doing so, this included both a stay at the sea shore itself and one night at Muynak on the way back. This turned out to be another great adventure, as we literally stayed in a local house (maybe a guesthouse!?) with an Uzbek family!

Muynak used to be a busy fishing port, and a wealthy town. Visiting now, it feels closer to a deserted ghost town. The streets are empty and buildings are in ruins. There is a tiny market but it quite literally consists of a few tables selling old fruit. There isn’t much to be seen at all.

What is heartbreaking and the most tangibly understandable sight in Muynak is the ship graveyard. The ships that used to bring wealth to this once-booming fishing town are now standing on the sand; 165km from the actual seashore.

Looking at the ships in the Muynak Ship graveyard on return from visiting the Aral Sea with kids.

165KM FROM THE ACTUAL SEASHORE!

This really showed the scale of the disaster, and was both an eerily interesting and heartbreaking sight to explore.


Getting there

Its a tricky place to visit as an independent traveller… Most simply because there aren’t any roads that go all the way. We booked our trip the Aral Sea with Sanat Travel Experts, and I would highly recommend using them. Timur came and met us in Tashkent the week before our trip to Nukus, and organised train tickets for other legs of our Uzbek journey for us. We were picked up from our hotel in Nukus after two days resting and exploring Nukus and the Republic of Karakalpakstan.

Our driver out to the Aral Sea was called Arnold. If you book and happen to get Arnold as your driver, then you are in serious luck. Arnold drove beautifully the entire way (I am mentioning this in particular because if you have visited many places in out-of-the-way Asia you will know why this is important!) and looked after us like family. At every stop he made sure we were all ok, and we were eternally grateful for his understanding and patience with the kids!

All our meals and drinks were provided; and were delicious. We needen’t have worried beforehand, but weren’t sure what to expect and so stocked up with a few snacks at the bazaar in Nukus.

Nukus Bazaar. Nukus, Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan with kids.
One of the Bazaar streets in Nukus.

The journey to the Aral Sea is not cheap. In fact, it was probably the biggest splurge as far as cost per day on our whole trip. But for us it was worth it, and completed an adventure that had been growing in importance on our travel bucket list…

[If you are travelling alone, check with Sanat Travel if there are others also going alone as it is sometimes possible to join up and create a group to travel together].


Where we stayed

One of the most enticing parts of the journey to the Aral Sea, was the chance to stay in yurts on the shoreline. There are now several companies that have basic yurt camps set up by the Aral Sea. Each camp caters to the few that do visit by providing yurts to sleep in, dinner and breakfast again the next morning.

Breakfast at the Aral Sea with kids. Travel in Uzbekistan with kids.
Breakfast by the sea shore was AMAZING! We all felt incredibly spoilt, but the boys were especially treated with chocolate cereal for breakfast.

The camp we stayed at was run by a friendly Uzbek family who do an incredible job of creating what felt like to us an absolute luxury adventure stay! [Note, it’s not technically luxury – as you can imagine there isn’t running water available in the middle of the desert…].

In the morning when the few others had left, the boys played with their daughter and son who were very excited to find other kids to play with! Can you imagine the remoteness of their lifestyle living in a yurt by the Aral Sea with kids? The nearest road is literally two hours drive away!


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