Central Asia Travel Diary

Today was a long day of travelling (10 hours, 600 kilometres), well off the beaten track and with almost no "sights" on the way.  And yet our destination – Moynaq – was certainly worth all the travel for the rare experience it offered.

We left Khiva at 8 am in a long-distance taxi, a Daewoo Nexia.  Daewoo (a South Korean car company) seems to have been spectacularly successful in western Uzbekistan, with all the new cars being Daewoos (mainly Nexias, which are in turn re-vamped versions of old Opels from Germany, quite an interesting globalisation sequence!) – in stark contrast to the many Ladas, Moskviches and Volgas (but no Zhigulis visible for some strange reason) that still ply the roads here.

We drove north through Nukus and on to Moynaq with only two stops.  The first was for petrol.  In this area there are no regular petrol stations, so petrol is bought from bottles and jerry cans beside the road.  We stopped beside the road, and the driver poked his index finger into the top of the jerry can, sniffed it, and apparently decided that the quality was sub-standard, because we drove on to another person and bought petrol there.  The second stop was at one of the many police checking points, where we were stopped randomly and our passports were scrutinised at great length before being allowed to proceed.  Andy slept most of the way.

Upon arrival at about 1:30 pm, we had lunch at a private house, I guess the son and daughter-in-law of the driver (I could not be sure as the driver spoke no English).  It was a great meal, comprising tomato and cucumber salad, a hot vegetarian mixed dish, bread, jam, sweets and tea, all for 1000 sum (about $US0.90) each.

After lunch, our real sightseeing began.  Moynaq used to be a fishing port on the Aral Sea.  Over the past 40 years, the Aral Sea has been shrinking, mainly because of water management policies designed to expand the area of irrigated cotton, policies that began during Soviet times but which (for financial reasons) are continued today.  As a result of the over-allocation of water to irrigation, less water is entering the Sea through its two tributaries and the sea is shrinking.  Today, the coastline of the Aral Sea is 150 kilometres from Moynaq.  The remains of the fishing fleet now sit rusting in the desert sands that a few years ago were the bed of the Aral Sea.  These rusting ships were what we had come to see.

We began with a visit to the War Memorial, located at the top of a hill that used to have great views across the Aral Sea.  Today, the war memorial overlooks a sea of sand with the remains of a few rusting ships, while the memorial itself is sadly neglected with graffiti and broken glass from beer bottles surrounding the names of the soldiers from the town who died in the Great Patriotic War (1941 to 1945).

From the war memorial we drove down onto the sands of the former sea bed and spent over an hour walking around the remains of the ships.  This must be one of the most surreal and grotesque sights in the world, and a testimony to the perils of environmental mis-management

In fact, the environmental disaster is worse than meets the eye.  As the sea has retreated, the exposed sands of the sea bed have begun to blow across Uzbekistan, carrying a cumulatively lethal dose of pesticides and industrial chemicals that flowed into the Sea over the decades from Uzbekistan's and Kazakhstan's cotton fields and riverside heavy industries.  It is said that the remains of Soviet Army biological warfare experiments also lie under the Aral Sea, raising real dangers if they become exposed and blow across the countryside.

After the sobering environmental experience of the Aral Sea, we drove back over 220 kilometres of the road we had used to get to Moynaq, back to Nukus.  Andy seemed very tired and once again slept most of the way back, although he did wake up when we made a stop to see some local people using camels to graze on golden wheat stubble.  The countryside between Moynaq and Nukus is very dry and so settlement is sparse, with the arid countryside being punctuated by just a few very plan, single-storey mostly mud brick dwellings.

We reached Nukus at about 7:15 pm and checked in to the Hotel Nukus.  This hotel is a living remnant of the old Soviet Intourist hotels (which this hotel was), with dim corridors, poor plumbing, no plugs, surly service, closed restaurant, pillows that weigh more than my fully packed suitcase and dilapidated tatty rooms.  The hotel did not even have a sign outside to identify itself as a hotel; at first sight it looks like a housing block with an abnormally large, but empty, car park.  It is, however, the top hotel in Nukus.  To be honest, the city of Nukus is like an urban version of the hotel; a run-down dilapidated dump with rusting cars (quite an achievement in this dry climate), unimaginative blocks of flats with broken windows, abandoned buildings and footpaths covered with glass from broken bottles.  The city is clearly in decline since the close of its main industry, a Red Army Chemical and Biological Research Institute.

The hotel's restaurant being closed (of course), we strolled down the street about 200 metres and came to a small café.  The Uzbek owner was so keen to help us that she phoned a friend who spoke English to make sure she was giving us the right order, even though I had pointed to the picture on her photographic menu – how easy is it to confuse a cheeseburger for a hot dog?  Anyway, Andy and I enjoyed great hot cheeseburgers, which with a 1.5 litre bottle of Fanta to share cost is just 4100 sum (about US$3.80) for the two of us.  At least one aspect of Nukus will leave us with a favourable impression!

Monday 10 July 2006

Khiva to Moynaq & Nukus

Like a cruel joke, the emblem of Moynaq is a fish!
A fishing boat, stranded 150km from the Aral Sea
Another victim of the shrinking Aral Sea
Residential area of Nukus