The sea that turned to dust in Kazakhstan

Aral Sea Kazakhstan photo by Arian Zwegers

Some places in the world are stunning in their starkness and too emotional to fully comprehend, as Intrepid Group Leader Masha Rogozhina discovers on her Central Asia adventure

“I’m awakened by the sun streaming through the train window as we travel across the steppes of vast Kazakhstan. My destination is the small town of Aralsk, which used to be the major port of what was once the biggest sea in Central Asia, the Aral Sea. After whole day in transit we finally roll into the small station and go straight to our homestays, where we meet our host Gulmira and her children.

Gulmira is a teacher of Russian language in this small Kazakh town. She has been living here her whole life, which we find out over a delicious dinner that’s served outside the house on the big topchan (sofa). She never travelled outside Kazakhstan and her dream is to visit Astana, the Kazakh capital, to show this big city to her kids one day. Before we go to bed she warns us that tomorrow will be another very hot day and asks what we would like for breakfast.

At the crack of dawn, to escape the heat of the unmerciful Kazakh sun, we board our Russian 4WDs to travel on the former bed of the Aral Sea. Our caravan of cars is travelling in complete isolation for about an hour and a half, not seeing a single hill and any sign of other human activity. Emptiness, vastness and razing sun are following us all the way till we make a stop at the so called ships cemetery.

This is when you actually start believing that there was a sea here. When your foot kicks the seashell buried deeply in the sand, while a group of camels walks off disturbed by the rare presence of people.

I ask our driver, a young Kazakh fellow, “Do you actually believe there was a sea here?”

He smiles back, “For me it’s like a fairy tale. I’ve never seen a big sea in my life. But my grandmother remembers running just across the road from her house for a swim when she was a girl.”

Every citizen of Aralsk tells a similar story. Gulmira and her mother, their friends and many others remember blue cool waters of the Aral Sea, the sea that is now turned into dust by someone’s dream to become the greatest empire in the World.”

To find out more about this extraordinary part of the world, see our Silk Road trips through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan or Beijing to Moscow.

Photo © Arian Zwegers.

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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