a miserable place
Aral'sk Travel Blog› entry 72 of 86 › view all entries
Very early we left Taraz and the mountains behind and pedaled towards the steppe. People who plan a journey to this part of the world should probably not read this blog. There are better blogs for that... But then again most people don't go beyond Turkestan. However even before Turkestan even the shepherds turned redneck and a particulary bad Hitler like one stared and grumbled at us and treated us like a bad movie he just couldn't stop watching. Usually we can soften up people like him with tea or cigarettes and a few friendly phrases. But for this guy nothing worked. Eventually, tired as we were, we packed the tent back down and rode as far as we could out onto the steppe and hid behind a little windblown shrub away from any people...
Shortly after Turkestan the nights became cooler which was pleasant, but also a sign that we were back in the desert.
Sucessful but exhausted we struggled the last 50 km on a corigated dirt road in strong headwinds. Kasakh villages here are spread out and Josali was no different:a network of wide dusty streets, simmering silently away in the heat. At the hotel we were immediately jumped on by a corrupt police man. The area is 'closed' because of bykenor 75 km further on.
We left to another hotel, which was cheaper but unfortunately enough right next to the police station. The owner instructed us to go there to register. We did, and sat out a language barrier, oblivious to the fact that we were supposed to offer money. No use though as in the evening when Daren tried to watch an England game on a terrible television the immigrations officer returned with an interpreter, continously asking for a 'gift' because we had broken the law. Daren protested, then for a while they all united in trying to fix the tv connection. But the unity was short lived: "How much money do you have?" they nagged "If we pay you we can't eat!" Daren said. etc etc etc. Again he wriggled out of paying but we were told to leave the next day.
However as I realized we had another 350 km in heat ahead of us I broke. The sur darya valley consists either of hot and treeless marshes or desert. We couldn't take a day of because of all the restrictions and with my head still spinning and the police jumping at us at any occasion I couldn't find positives enough to justify pushing on through the intense heat: I wanted to take a bus to Aralsk. This was a very difficult decision for us as we have done the whole 26 000 km together; I cried and Daren felt let down, it was hot and somewhere along the way another policeman felt we ought to give him Daren's bike computer, but somehow, over the next two days we talked through it.
We left the sur darya valley and it's miserable people heading towards an area which should have been even more miserable but wasn't; The road to Aralsk leads away from the river and suddenly the vastness is stricking. The desert here and the windblown villages reminded me of Mauritania and the sunset turned everything light pink and light blue. As the shrubs and long grass of the steppe returned herds of Camels and horses roamed, giving the illusion of an untouched lifestyle.
Aralsk itself is a small once-upon-a-time fishing village now surrounded bu desert. Reckless Sovjet planners and uncooperative Uzbeks and Turkem took away their sea and with it most peoples livelyhood. Most spiecies of fish died out as the lake became smaller and saltier and now boats lay 45 km from the shoreline, rusting away. As we walked in the empty seabed the call to prayer was carried to us with the dry wind. Apart from us there was only a small naked boy climbing bare foot over the metal wrecks in order to splash in a black puddle...
What was once islands was used as biochemical test sites, illnesses were released and even more species died out. The effects on the population were obviously disasterous and I expected to be meet by haggered jobless fishermen and drunks fighting in the dust. But this was not the case: Aralsk has one old sovjet style hotel. It's rubbish but no one wanted undue money from us. The village has squares, a busy bazar and the people are proud and well dressed. The teenagers here speak the best english and people smile. At night it cools down and neon lights twinkle on the old buildings as people stroll the approximately 50 meter long promenade and here in Aralsk, in what should have been a desolate backwater, I felt safer than I have done in any other kasakh village. Maybee it is because Aralsk is not hopeless: Due to a dam built with international aid, toddlers will grow up to a sea much closer to their doorstep, to possibilities of a revived fishing industry. But more so people here seem very proud of their town inspite of the environmental disaster the're living through. At the tiny museum not one, but two eager men with minimal english showed us the history through stuffed animals and old photographs and documents. "Bye bye bird" the man said smiling, explaining the big stuffed bird extinction. Then Grandparents, parents and family friends were pointed out and their role in the town life explained. The pride these men had in their town and life was obvious!