Uzbekistan is a double landlocked country, one of only two in the world. But despite this seemingly major setback, it used to have a great fishing industry, and a whole community and workforce set up to provide the fish and then put it into cans for the general population.
This community lived in a village called Moynaq, and its fish were sourced from the Aral Sea, a huge inland lake with an area of 68,000 square kilometres, making it the fourth largest in the world. It was used for commerce, exploration, and war.
It was also surrounded by desert that was difficult to farm in and hard to travel through. So in the 1960s the Russians decided to divert two of the major rivers that flowed to the sea, and use this water for irrigation in the desert either side. This would allow melons, rice, and cereal to grow, as well as cotton, the crop that the Soviets hoped would become a major export. The canals used to feed water to the new fields were poorly made, but that didn’t mean the water continued to the Aral Sea; it just got lost elsewhere along the way.
Twenty years after the irrigation plan was first begun the Aral Sea had noticeably started shrinking. By the end of the 20th century the sea had shrunk volumetrically by 80%, and had now split into two smaller seas. Despite leaving the Soviet Union the heavy cotton production had continued, and the Sea had not been re-sourced by the old rivers.
Recent estimations now put it at 10% of its former size, with a massive increase in salinity causing the deaths of once abundant flora and fauna. Disease and sickness ran rampant at the same time, killing thousands and destroying the landscape.
And where did that leave Moynaq? Once a seaside town, now over a hundred kilometres from the shore. Once a fishing community, now with nothing to fish and nothing to float on.
Well, it left it pretty screwed.
Today when you visit Moynaq you see a poor, small town, made up of two major roads. The one hotel in the town has been out of action for years, with seemingly no intentions to reopen. A bus runs a couple of times a day, down to the next town, several hours away.
If you go in winter, the wind bites and the snow comes down heavily in gusty waves. It’s not an inviting place.
I arrived at midday on such a winter’s day, tempted to refuse to leave the bus when I saw the weather outside. But I steeled myself, and stepped out into the chill.
I was travelling with two others that I had met on my trip through Uzbekistan; a Frenchman called Maxime, a veteran traveller of several years; and Rebecca, a Taiwanese girl taking a short break from work. Early that morning we had caught a public bus from Nukus all the way up to Moynaq, a four-hour journey north along bumpy roads and snowy desert, to see the effects of the shrinking sea.
We’d decided that we would spend the night in Moynaq, in order to see as much of the sea and abandoned cannery as possible. If we wanted to return on the same day we would only have two or three hours to find the places and wander around. This way we could take a bit more of a relaxed approach.
Unfortunately the tourism industry in Moynaq is far from booming, especially in the harsh winters. The Lonely Planet strongly advises avoiding spending a night in the town, and there are no listed hostels in the place. The only mentioned hotel has been undergoing refurbishment for about a decade, and when we passed it it looked more like an abandoned building than a hotel undergoing an upgrade.
We wandered on however, with a hostel name on our lips: ‘Temur Guesthouse’. This guesthouse wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the guides, but it could be found on an offline maps application I had on my phone. The location didn’t seem to be quite correct though, and for five or ten minutes we wandered around the block, knocking on doors and calling out, until a small child came up to ask if we were looking for somewhere to stay.
Apparently we hadn’t shouted loudly enough, for the guesthouse was one that we had walked by. However, it was currently full; Temur had his wife’s family visiting, and couldn’t take guests. But luckily his sister lived just down the road, and could offer us a space to sleep if we fancied. With the only other option being a nice sheltered doorway we accepted, and were then led by the same child down the road to Temur’s sister’s house.
This turned out to be a large, relatively modern house, with a huge room for guests. We were ushered in and immediately offered bread, tea, and pastries by a smiling Uzbek who I could only assume was Temur’s brother in law. No English was spoken by anyone in the house, so my meagre Russian was relied upon to get by. I didn’t know the word for brother in law however, so I never found out.
Temur turned up a half hour later, to negotiate pricing and ascertain what our plan was for our time in Moynaq. We were asked not to mention that we were staying in the town overnight, for a reason relating either to a government tax or a shakedown by the police, I’m not sure which.
He also couldn’t offer us registration; a strange but necessary requirement of all hotels and hostels in Uzbekistan that allowed the government to both tax guesthouses based on their foreign visitors, and track foreign guests as they travelled the country. Technically you were supposed to be registered for every night that you spent in Uzbekistan, although you were allowed up to 3 days of blanks over the length of your stay. Not being registered could lead to long questions and detainment at Customs when trying to leave the country.
Or it could go completely unpunished, with no registration cards being checked. It depended on the boredom of the border guards and the business of the day. Still, in general it was better to be safer than sorry. But tonight, we were throwing caution to the cold, cold wind.
We headed out shortly after that, hailing down a taxi to take us the mile and a half to the Aral Sea. Five minutes and five thousand som later we found ourselves left on a road bordered by grey, snowy sand.
It was a short walk to the ship graveyard from there.
These ships have been left to rust where they stand, any internal electronics ripped out to be sold before the carcass slowly crumbled away. They all appear to be fishing boats of various sizes, dotted around a small portion of what most likely used to be a harbour.
This was all that remained of a fishing fleet that supported a town of thousands and a country of millions. I climbed onto a few of the ships just for fun, avoiding some of the less stable parts of the hull and prow. We were still battling icy wind and snow however, and so decided that the ships, whilst beautiful in a way, should be left to rest.
We headed back towards the village by way of the cannery. This was the counterpart to the fishing fleet, a large complex of buildings that existed purely to process all the fish that were pulled in from the sea.
The cannery was abandoned; in fact, it was perhaps the most abandoned looking building I’ve ever seen. The majority of the windows were gone, half the doors were missing, and there were random piles of tin cans, wood, and machinery just left around the place. Wandering around, climbing up half destroyed stairways and along questionable walkways, it was a haunting bit of urban exploration mixed with a bit of risk. It was a bit of a thrill to see just how quickly fortunes can change, and almost literally how fast the tide can turn. The amount of destruction in the place seemed to be more than just vandalism, but it wasn’t for the purpose of reclaiming materials either, although this was being done in a small part of the complex; I think someone was both really angry and the owner of a sledgehammer.
We spent a good 45 minutes walking around the complex, trying to find our way and get to grips with the place. It seemed pretty endless, with roof accesses, cross building bridges, and missing bits of floor. We eventually found ourselves back on the ground floor, walking through detritus that was being collected by a team of Uzbeks that had a professional air about them. Maybe some of the resources in the buildings were finally about to be reused.
We hailed the first car that passed us and offered him 10,000 Som to take us back to the guesthouse. We were welcomed back into the house with the standard warm enthusiasm that we were used to in homestays of Central Asia. By this I mean we were given bread and tea and then asked questions in a language we didn’t understand. After answering them to our host’s satisfaction we were given a solid dinner consisting of pasta, soup, and vegetables.
Beds had been set up for us while we were out, and the lack of WiFi, the early sunset, and the freezing temperature outside had us in asleep early. With Moynaq squeezed dry of things to do, we would be taking the first bus back to Nukus the next day.
The next day was warmer and the sun actually made an appearance. Nevertheless, it was still well below freezing, and the inability of the doors on the bus to fully close ensured that we shivered our way back. If that weren’t enough, rules regarding refuelling meant that when the bus went in to the petrol station we had to stand outside and wait for the driver to fill up. They close the gates so you can’t see in, and they take so long that I’m pretty sure that they’re actually having a quick sit down meal while the rest of us wait. They’re in league with the single stall shop owner who sits outside wrapped up in thirty layers of clothing selling chocolate. By the time the bus emerges you’ve spent all your money, trying to build a natural base layer of fat to survive by eating your bodyweight in Snickers.
We got back on the bus after somewhere between fifteen and two hundred minutes waiting in the cold and found ourselves a seat. Less than 24 hours after we left, we were headed back to Nukus.