The water that serveth all that country is drawn by ditches out of the River Oxus, unto the great destruction of the said river, for which it cause it falleth not unto the Caspian Sea as it hath done in times past, and in short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water, when the river of Oxus shall fail.
Anthony Jenkinson, 1558
Hidden in one of the most obscure corners of the former Soviet Union lies one of its darkest secrets; the disappearance, in a single lifetime, of the Aral Sea (Orol Dengizi), once the fourth largest inland sea in the world. Moynaq (population 12,000), 210km north of Nukus, encapsulates more visibly than anywhere the absurd tragedy of the Aral Sea. Once one of the sea’s two major fishing ports, it now stands some 180km from the water. What remains of Moynaq’s fishing fleet lies rusting on the sand in the former seabed.
Muynak (Moynoq, in Uzbek Latin, Mojnak in Karakalpak) was once the largest port on the Aral, a finger of coast where a significant part of the Aral catch was processed and canned. In 1921 as the Volga region suffered a terrible famine, Lenin appealed to the Aral fleet for help and within days 21,000 tonnes of fish had been dispatched, saving thousands of Russian lives. Today it is a nightmarish town of stagnant, corrosive pools and deserted factories, the victim of a Soviet crusade to overcome nature. Not a single fish can survive in the sea, 10,000 fishermen have lost their jobs and the port of Muynak has lost its ratson d'etre. The only reason to visit it is a macabre one; to witness the death throes of the sea and the dramatic sight of dozens of deserted fishing boats rusted at their moorings, submerged in sand, riding the crest of a sand dune, 160 kilometres from the shoreline. Many of the ships have been sold off for scrap in recent years so you might have to hunt around to find some.
The mostly Kazakh residents have moved away in droves, and Moynaq today is a virtual ghost town populated by livestock herders and the elderly looking after grandchildren whose parents have left to find work elsewhere. The few who remain suffer the full force of the Aral Sea disaster, with hotter summers, colder winters, debilitating sand-salt-dust storms, and a gamut of health problems.
Moynaq used to be on an isthmus connecting the Ush Say (Tiger’s Tail) peninsula to the shore. You can appreciate this on the approach to the town, where the road is raised above the surrounding land. The town itself consists of one seemingly endless main street linking the bus station at its southeast end with the Oybek Hotel and the ships graveyard to the northwest.
A solitary taster of the debacle ahead lies on display at the bus station and a wider view of the area can be gained from the northern promontory. A ship's graveyard has been created by relocating several of the beached fishing boats to a spot five minutes' walk from the Hotel Oybek. Surrounding the town is a crunchy, white top soil of salt and sea shells. The town has a small museum (closed Sunday) with photos and paintings of the Aral's heyday. Only in Moynaq can fisherman's nets, anchors and cans of fish be considered displays from history.
Coming to Moynaq is, perhaps, what you'd term disaster tourism': there are parallels to be drawn with the Polygon or Chernobyl. You come to see where the sea used to be, and the suffering it has left behind.
Poignant reminders of Moynaq’s tragedy are everywhere: the sign at the entrance to the town has a fish on it; a fishing boat stands as a kind of monument on a makeshift pedestal near Government House. The local museum in the city hall has some interesting photos and paintings of the area prospering before the disaster.
The beached ships are a five-minute walk from the Oybek Hotel, across the main road and beyond the collection of homes. Once difficult to find, most ships have now been moved to a centralised location beneath the Aral Sea memorial, which occupies a bluff that was once the Aral Sea’s bank. There were at one stage many more, but most have now been sold off for their scrap value in a desperate bid to compensate for the loss of income from fishing.
From the memorial you can spot a lake southeast of town, created in an attempt to restore the formerly mild local climate. It didn’t quite work, but it’s at least given the locals a source of recreation. The lake was filled to the brim in 2009, as a dam in Tajikistan came close to bursting, prompting a massive release of water, some of which made it all the way to Moynaq via canals linked to the Amu-Darya. The Amu-Darya itself peters out in the desert southeast of Moynaq.
The Moynaq Museum on the main road has photographs of the town in its heyday, as well as fishing nets and cans of long out-of-date fish. Admission, should you choose to enter, is US$1.