The engine roar eased as our Ilyushin Il-114 dropped into Nukus Airport in the north-western corner of Uzbekistan. Under a crisp blue sky, heat shimmered across the arid plain beyond the runway; a vast, grey flatness stretching all the way to Siberia. In a spartan arrivals hall I was greeted by Dilya, our guide for the 210km journey to the Aral Sea. In 40 years this inland sea has shrunk to a quarter of its size, but despite an international talkfest since the Soviets abandoned plans to divert Siberian rivers to replenish the sea in 1987, no rescue plan has been formulated.
We were headed for Muynak, once the sea’s largest port, but now stranded by the retreating tide. In the carpark, Hman, our taciturn driver, opened the door of his Daewoo taxi and we piled in. Out of Nukus we crossed the Amu Darya River, which Alexander the Great’s army took five days to cross in 329BC; it’s now a sluggish stream in a cracked riverbed. Despite weaving between potholes, Hman kept up a steady 130km/h.
Dilya, slim and immaculate, reeled off statistics that hurt my head, so I asked her about herself. She was 22, married to a banker and with a five-month-old son. They live in a traditional three-generation household with her in-laws and her husband’s older brother’s family. Although a Muslim, she said “going to the mosque is only for old people”.
Irrigation channels crossed endless fields linked by villages of large houses with outbuildings and vegetable gardens in walled grounds. Dwarfed in the landscape, blue three-wheeled tractors tilled fields for cotton planting. Dilya explained that once the cotton is planted, labour for weeding and harvesting takes students from schools and universities for four months each year.
At Kungrad, a town of shoddy concrete apartment blocks festooned with microwave dishes, crowds of men waited for shared taxis to Nukus and beyond. North towards Muynak the road narrowed, the potholes grew and a sandy desert, white with salt, stretched into the distance. Hman stopped for Coca-Cola at an isolated store where dark, rangy men, their worldly goods in cheap striped nylon bags, smoked as they waited for a bus to take them to jobs in Russia.
After two-and-a-half hours we noticed shallow water on the plain. Was this the Aral Sea?
“Artificial lakes,” Dilya said. “Made by the Government.”
Soon, freshly painted white houses and walls, their doors and gates a duck-egg blue, heralded our arrival in Muynak. Severe angular public buildings had been tarted up, too, but off the main road plaster was peeling off crumbling mud bricks.
“Painted for the visit of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,” Dilya explained.
The new paint made little difference. I discovered later that Ban Ki-moon had said, “The depletion of the Aral Sea is one of the planet’s most shocking disasters.”
In Muynak’s museum, off the decrepit civic hall, I saw faded paintings and photographs of bountiful fish harvests and thriving canning factories. All this was now gone, with the shrinking sea killing every fish and half the bird species and bringing the town’s inhabitants rampant respiratory illness. Despite the grim statistics, Muynak’s past vitality was clear to see. Now, I presumed, these rugged souls survived on the largess of the state.
Outside town, a graveyard of rusting ships lurched across the former seabed of the Aral Sea, where a 300-vessel fleet once employed 1000 fishermen. In the distance, more hulks lay at awkward angles in the scrubby desert sand, left behind by the retreating sea. I clambered over the haunting wrecks to peer into holds now full of sand. Beyond the ships, and with sweat dripping from my brow, I wandered among spiky shrubs and kicked sea shells across the sand.
“Wait,” Dilya called. “The shore is 180 kilometres away and growing more distant every day.”
Dodging shrunken cows, tiny beside the towering rusty ships surfing on motionless waves of sand, I took the photographs required to prove I’d been there.
Down a track, Hman stopped at a stark white building in a square of compacted sand. He disappeared inside to where boys and men in crumpled suits cheered as two young boxers waltzed around a ring. Outside, schoolboys whirled about free for the day; a motorcycle and sidecar swayed out of an undulating lane, past a girl wearing impossible heels and heaps of bling. Small girls in pink tights and frilly white bows, with shiny schoolbags on their backs, turned away at the sight of me. Although the fishing industry had run aground, Muynak still looked a thriving town.
On our way south again, Dilya revealed more. Despite her family’s social standing, they had no bank account. Would she understand credit cards? As a daughter-in-law, she was the family cook. We laughed, exchanged recipes and talked with pleasure of eating with our hands. Across the distance of culture and geography, food was common ground.
I was famished when we finally stopped for lunch at Kungrad. The bread and salad of tomatoes and cucumbers were fresh. I even bolted down greasy Uzbek mutton soup. Over lunch I asked about the cause of the shrinking Aral Sea.
Dilya paused, then suggested, “They dam the Amu Darya river and take the water in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”
This sounded wrong to me. Like other Uzbeks, Dilya saw the cause as beyond the vast network of canals that drain their rivers to flood cotton fields. Back in Nukus, I was confused by what I’d seen. Was the wealth that cotton brings Uzbekistan too high a price to pay for the loss of the Aral Sea?