After lengthy procedures at the Uzbek border we manage to sort out our papers and exit to a wide empty wind-swept field. We meet Axel, a French engineer traveling by Ural side-car, but the sand storm prevents us from spending the night together. While we decide to pitch a few yards off the road, Axel returns to a shelter of some sort closer to the border. We park our bikes so that we have a bit of protection against the strong winds and go to sleep haunted by our last year Turkey mishap, when our tent got damaged under similar inclement weather conditions.
We don’t get much rest. And wake up covered in a fine layer of dust, blown into the tent by the relentless wind. But we feel lucky to still have a tent to clean and fold back into the bag.
Around noon we are reunited with Axel, who catches up with us and stays ovr at this tea house for a brief lunch. Because the toilet in the back of the yard is not working, we are told we can use the one inside the building. We discover that they are fitting what it looks like a hostel of some sort. In the toilet there is a shower, Ana cannot resists to use the opportunity to wash the sand and sweat off.
I say I’ll wait until we get to the sea.
What see am I talking about? Why, the Aral Sea, of course. But where in the world is the sea? It’s been dieing out since the 60s, its waters pumped out to irrigate the soviet cotton fields – the “white gold” of the former union. As we make our way to this sad environment disaster, we pass decrepit settlement and more soviet cadavers scattered in an expanse of sand and fog.
100 km more to Moynak, where we will spot the first rotting shells of the former boats. We change some money, share a frugal dinner and organize petrol. Because of the inflation our 75 bucks gets us a brick of soiled banknotes.
Axel leaves for Nukus, we hit it hard to Moynak. We want to camp on the dry sea bed so we drive under dwindling sun across silent villages and empty fields, until the first ships rise under a pale moon.
As we set camp and try to take some night shots, we are interrupted by a guard. First he tries to scare us with stories of wolves and scorpions, than to extort a bribe, and finally he is just happy to chat with us.
In the morning everything is different. It still feels like a cemetery, but less lugubrious. The ships look like toys abandoned by a careless giant. If there were no shells in the sand, we would never guess that this was once one of the largest seas in the world.
There’s a bit of tourist infrastructure: info boards, a viewing platform, even a monument. It’s a confronting place, inspiring a mix of pity, sadness, revolt, curiosity, acceptance…
But it is too late to save this place. So why should I not ride a bit these dunes while I’m here?
In the meanwhile Ana packs up our luggage. Our guard is back to see what we are up to and to check that we will split as we have said we would.
Moynak is a bit depressing, it looks devoid of people and purpose.
We have breakfast in Jana’s restaurant: eggs and tea. Jana is a retired English teacher. Her customers are all coming from families of fishermen, now disillusioned into a destiny of alcoholism and purposelessness.
We notice a small crowd gathering across the restaurant. A bus has arrived, so Uzbek women in colorful dresses and matching scarves rush out of the market trying to fetch a ride out of the town. I can’t imagine that there are many opportunities like this in a day.
The bus station is right in front the bazaar, so we cannot miss the chance to take a peek inside an Asia market.
The market has plenty of goodies: from food to textiles, from local produce to Chinese products, from livestock to imported dry fruits and cosmetics. It’s a heartwarming sight. The Aral Sea may be dead, but the Silk Road is alive and kicking!
See 2013 – Uzbekistan on larger map