With surprising ease, I contracted a driver and English-speaking guide to take me to see the Sea. The guide did speak good English, and he answered all my questions, but he volunteered almost nothing. The driver, a gaunt Arabic-looking dude in an embroidered skull-cap with skin lesions and a chronic hacking cough, who drove barefoot, basically treated me like cargo. (The entire Aral Sea region, hundreds of square miles in three countries, is a case-study in environmental health damage: rates of cancer, respiratory disease, reproductive problems, and other ailments soar.) At the end, when they dropped me at the train station, barely a farewell or word of thanks was passed, and neither made the slightest effort to help me into the station with my obviously difficult burden of luggage. To some extent this is just how things are done in the former USSR; to some extent perhaps the locals are too desperate to care; to some extent they just don't know what to do with tourists.
Nonetheless, I'm glad I went, though it's almost disappointing after all the infamous pictures. The ship cemetery has been decimated (eight hulks to four) by locals cutting up the remains for scrap metal--you can hardly blame them for exploiting such a tragic situation, but it's sad to lose what is essentially a monument to the absurdity of environmental manipulation. The former seabed, as far as we got (45 km from town) could almost be described as verdant, far from the desiccated salt pan I was expecting--this exists, but it's farther out. And the new fishing harbor proves that there is indeed water not all that far from town, albeit shallow and muddy and brackish. The "good" news is that if you didn't know where you were, you'd never guess all the destruction that's gone on. I traipsed around merrily taking pictures of the ship hulks for at least fifteen minutes before I noticed that the strange crunching sound underfoot was not brush but seashells.
I would like to have seen the dike, and the cliff where the former sea got deep, and the salt flats that have replaced it. Oh well: at least I saw something, in what was, logistically speaking, one of the wildest travel stunts I've ever pulled. The whole excursion, about 18 hours from arrival to departure on train, cost $200-400 (hotel, driver and guide, food, extra train ticket and conductor's "tip"), enough to survive for nearly a week in most places I go. How odd that one should pay such a high premium to visit what Sergei, the eagle-trainer in Almaty, described as "a kind of hell." I think this bespeaks a paradox of travel in general: the most popular spots are over-priced, but so, often, are the least popular, because they don't even have the infrastructure to support what few tourists they might receive.
Aralsk is in many ways the most bizarre, fascinating place I've visited on this entire trip, and I urge readers to get "google-y" on it. (Notice, when you do, how out of date many of the pictures are, depicting huge intact ships run aground in sand. There are only pieces of ships left now, and the ground is heavily vegetated.) For me getting there was the fulfillment of an almost lifelong quest, dating back to when I first heard of it in the late '80s in Al Gore's book (not the recent, famous one, An Inconvenient Truth; the old, forgotten one, Earth in the Balance, which I suspect I'm the only person ever to have read) and thought, Surely it isn't possible to destroy a sea! It seemed so far away and exotic, I all but dismissed it. But around the same time I read The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, in which he argues that the fundamental environmental crisis is not scientific or political or economic, but philosophical: humans simply can't fathom that things like the sky and the oceans are finite, and can be--and have been--significantly altered by their own activities. There are many who would pillory McKibben, and Gore, and any serious concern for the environment, but when you drive for an hour through the desert that used to be a seabed, their case seems pretty ironclad.
Visiting Aralsk also gained a particular significance for me because earlier in the trip I'd swum in the Amu-Darya, one of the two rivers diverted to drain the Aral Sea, and seen bales of cotton for sale on the street in Fergana, and eaten fish from smaller lakes that used to come from the Aral.