A visit to the desert where the Aral Sea used to be got added a little extra excitement when my driver wasn’t able to find his way.
“Yup, we are lost,” my driver, Zhambyl, laughs. I can’t really tell whether the laughter is sincere or the nervous kind one put up when you don’t know how else to react… I smile, “We’re not lost we’re in the Aral Desert.” He doesn’t really understand me, but my smile seems to loosen some of the more tightened muscles in his face. “OK, this way!” He replies before choosing yet another random dirt track in the former seabed.
Zhambyl, my driver
I’m visiting the Aral Sea or rather the desert where the Aral Sea used to be. The sea used to be one of the largest lakes in the world, but a Soviet agriculture scheme in the 60’s dammed the two big rivers feeding the sea. The result; the Aral Sea almost disappeared.
And so did we race off along the tracks of soft sand, which used to be the seafloor. ‘Race’ seems to be an honest description of Zhambyl’s driving. He clearly preferred to attack the dirt tracks at a speed between 80-100 km/h, only slowing down if he absolutely had to. This resulted some truly emergency breaking, not to send the jeep to airborne, in which a less alert passengers head could easily have kissed the inside of the windshield.
It’s almost improbable that we didn’t get into some kind of accident. Plenty of times did the wheels scream and Zhambyl would clearly lose control of the car once in a while. Half the time because he was paying attention to something else than where we was going (rather dangerous doing 80 in a snaking, bumping dirt track). To his credit he did do an outstanding job getting the car back in its preferred tracks.
Bouncing along like this I actually considered grabbing for the seatbelt. Then again, I wouldn’t insult his driving – so in a circumstance of traveller’s logic I endangered my life unnecessary not to insult a guy I’m never gonna meet again. Guys I figured that I might as well sit back, take a firm grip on the seat and enjoy the rollercoaster ride. If I had to go, I might as well go out smiling.
The former Aral Sea
Which brings us back to the getting-lost-in-a-desert: Bumping along the same dirt track for the third time, I was trying hard to remember if the Aral Sea was a fresh water or salt water lake – just in case we were going to spend the night(s). The dust storm surrounding the car gives me a hit, since it’s not so much dust storms, but salt storms. Where the Aral Sea retreated, the last bit of water vaporized and left the dirt coloured white by the water’s salt. When that try dirt is winded up, it now creates big white clouds of salty dust, tornadoing around in the air.
In general the salt storms are a rather nice sight to behold – at a distance. In the middle of it, it’s as painful and ill-desired as any other dust storm. And just to add injury to insult; the Aral Sea not only used to be a sea, but also a chemical dumping ground, the salt-dust is known to be highly toxic. Thus making this area a rather unpleasant place to get stuck.
It did, however, come with a few nice surprises. Normally you can’t visit the flamingo’s inhabiting the shores of the current lake, but being lost we stumbled across a flock of them. And I got to see some local fishermen in action, as Zhambyl had to ask them for directions – not that they proved very helpful.
Asking for directions
All in all did the crazy driving, the getting lost, the fishermen and the flamingos justify the rather steep 80 US$ price tag. Otherwise would the dried out seabed, the few rusting boats left in the desert and the lunch of Aral fish (full of toxic sand) have been overpriced. Not that I think it was particularly overpriced in terms of getting a driver and the gas being used to get to the sight. Though, once you’ve gotten out there it might be a bit disappointing.
All that said, and since I’m still able to post blog updates, you’ve might have figured out that we finally, crossing a corner of the Aral Sea in the process, made our way out. Eventually it took five hours to find our way out, from Zhambyl’s nervous laughter till we actually knew we were going in the right direction.