Day 447: The Aral Sea Disaster


The train arrived at the town of Beyneu at about ten minutes to five in the morning, enjoyed a cup of tea in the little station cafe and after about an hour, I clambered on board the train for a place called Kungrad in Uzbekistan. We got to the border about midday, and the border process was quite alarmingly swift and painless. The stamp guys got on the train, grabbed everyone’s passports and after half an hour, gave them all back – I didn’t even need to get up from my seat.

Which means…. I’M IN UZBEKISTAN! Wooooo! 149! 149! 149!

Soon enough, I found myself snoozing as the pitiful remnants of the Aral Sea sped by far to the east. The Aral Sea disaster. I have to admit, before I read about it in the Lonely Planet I had never even heard of the Aral Sea, I guess compared with global climate change it’s not a top priority, but it’s one hell of depressing tale about the consequences of humans toying with nature.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union in all its wisdom (and, let’s face it wisdom in those days was in short supply) decided to exploit the dry arid near-deserts of North-Western Uzbekistan and South West Kazakhstan to grow cotton. People always need clothes to wear eh? Now to do this, they needed to divert a considerable amount of water – water from the mountains that was destined for the Aral Sea. In fact, it would divert so much water that the sea would dry up. Yes you read that right – the SEA would dry up. They knew this would happen, but justified it on the grounds that the Aral Sea was ‘nature’s mistake’. Now I can see nature making mistakes… the Elephant Man, I suppose… Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, Michael Jackson being born black and Pete Doherty being born at all. But a SEA?

I mean, once you take the sea away, what can you do with what’s left over? You know, the muddy salty mess which is prone to flooding? Not great real estate, I have to say. There are beached ships scattered about the landscape (apparently, I was too far away to see) because the poor old Aral Sea is (was) not connected with any other body of water – no place to escape…

Sad isn’t it? But that’s what you get when you have lunatics in charge, and they didn’t come much more loony than the Communist Party of the USSR – with the possible exception of David Ike and every African government ever.

Anyway, the train is the BEST way to enter forbidden Uzbekistan – easy as pie. I got to the town of Kungrad at about 7pm, but because the borders around here as mad as Rasputin trying to eat his own head, everybody has to take road transport to the next town, Nukus – the railway line passes in and out of Turkmenistan and the Turkmen have a nasty habit of boarding the train and fining anyone without a visa.

Nukus is the capital of this region of Uzbekistan, which I’ve just been informed is not only a region, but a nation-within-a-nation called Karakalpakstan. Honestly, I not making this up! Maybe Durka-Durkastan really exists after all. Karakalpakstan has it’s own regional government and language, but is internationally recognised as a part of Uzbekistan. That’s probably for the best – this region has suffered massively from the loss of the Aral Sea, and I doubt that it could survive on it’s own.

Talking of survival, it’s my sad duty to inform you that Al, my plucky little camcorder that’s stuck with me through thick and thin, has joined my Amstrad PCW8256 in Silicon Heaven.

I’ll miss you, little pal.

Javier, his twin brother, is being Fed-Exed over to me as be speak. However, like Karr and Lore, Javier is the cranky older model that only works when he feels like it and has machinations for taking the world. He keeps going on about himself being the prototype and all others being cheap production models. But as long as I keep him from hooking up with the Crystalline Entity or Sebastian from Blade Runner, I’ll should be fine.

I got to Nukus around 9pm, checked into the Nukus hotel and crashed out for the night in a dorm that I was sharing with two Uzbek guys.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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