Aral Redux: Documenting the Aral Sea’s Resurrection

A Not-So-Warm Welcome

We arrive in Aralsk on time, at 1:25 am, looking forward to seeing Zauresh, the bubbly director of the Barsa Kelmes nature reserve. Nikolai Aladin, a professor at St. Petersburg University, the organizer of the two-week expedition around the Small Aral Sea, had assured us she would meet us. The train stops for only two minutes, just enough to get your luggage down, and soon Wilfrid Humbert and I we are alone on the darkened platform. Wilfrid, a French pianist and conductor, harbors a lifelong fascination with the Aral Sea and had joined the expedition essentially as a tourist. His main ambition is to do a side trip to VozrozhdeniyeIsland, site of the Soviet bacteriological weapons testing range and abandoned in 1991. I had spent four days there in 2002 and described it in the New York Times magazine, which is how Wilfrid found me.

We wait, but no Zauresh appears, so we take the lone remaining cab to the only hotel, 10 minutes away. After waking up a surly old lady who spoke no Russian, we check into a “lyux” two-room suite, which, we’re told, is the only one with a warm-water shower. Cost: 7000T a night, about $45.

The windows are covered with white sheets, themselves hidden by two layers of curtains: a local summer custom to keep out the blistering heat, which you wouldn’t expect in a place located at the same latitude as Maine. The bathroom is bleakly lit by a feeble long-life bulb. One room had a conference table and a single bed, the second a double bed. Nothing on the walls except peeling paint, with a rich Rohrshacht of fungus on the shower wall. The shower is just enough more than a trickle to wash away the dust from the two-day trip from Almaty.

The next day, no trace of the expedition, so we head for the port at the end of the hotel street. The streets are deserted, Wilfrid calls the atmosphere sinister. The Lev Berg, a scientific ship stranded on the sand, is now being repainted and a wooden structure, soon to be a museum, is being built alongside it. The docks have collapsed, but a pair of cranes are still standing, as is the skeleton of the old cannery’s warehouse. There is broken glass everywhere from tossed beer and vodka bottles, along with lots of whole ones;Kazakhstan is a good candidate for a money-back policy.

That night, we walk around the block to the vast central square, with Halyk Bank, the ubiquitous national savings bank, on one side and the Akimat, or city hall, on the other. It’s Constitution Day: we’re celebrating a document that’s been changed multiple times to suit the political needs of the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. In the latest version, he can’t ever be prosecuted for corruption and is basically president for life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: he’s done a better job than most and has built a vibrant economy in a country whose last business model, before it was occupied byRussiafor over a century, was raiding caravans on theSilk Road.

On the far side of the square is a stage with multi-colored lighting. It’s karaoke time: inKazakhstan, bands and even single accompanists have long ago been dispatched to oblivion, even on Independence Day concerts on Almaty’s main concert square. A concert now consists of a singer, even a locally famous one, with a microphone, singing to a recording. The music is purely Kazakh pop, with the female singers dressed in beautiful traditional gold-embroidered costumes of black and red velvet, with conical hats bordered with fur. The male singers wear suits. The crowd is sparse. The are fully made up and bejeweled in fashionable Western dresses: no traditional costumes there. The men are drab and awkward in stovepipe pants and white shirts. Everyone smokes, many men puff on thin Virginia Slim-style cigarettes that in the West are reserved for women. 

Wilfrid, who is cursed with perfect pitch, remarks that the singers are off-key pretty much all the time, which suggests they are not professionals – how could Aralsk sustain a musical class? – but simply the best amateurs in town, or, more likely, the children of the friends and supporters of the Akim, the mayor, who is appointed by guess-who.

No one applauds, but most listen raptly. The singing is strangely nasal, the melodies are simple and the harmonies basic: the Kazakh roots are audible, but the complexity of folk music has been degraded into a predictable montage of computerized imitations of Western instruments. Wilfrid laments the demise of traditional Kazakh music, which has some haunting melodies that accompany epic narratives and nostalgic love stories. His wife, Baka, a Kazakh cellist, often sings them to their baby son, Dastan.

The Commedia dell’Arte Characters

The next day we run into Nick, the expedition leader, at the hotel. He hasn’t changed a bit: the belly is still huge, the face pudgy, the eyes beady, the gray ponytail ever-present, the erudition impressive, the tone still breathtakingly pompous: a man from another age with a strong resemblance to Oliver Hardy, in appearance if not in humor. I will later emit the theory that Nick is so theatrical in speech and manner that he is really an operatic character – Falstaff, surely. He never showers during expeditions and emits a powerful smell that he is obviously unaware of, as does his assistant Igor Plotnikov, a friend since school days whom he clearly adores yet treats like a slave. Igor rarely speaks except to snap at Nick when the latter’s bossiness gets to him. He carries Nick’s money, receives the expedition member’s cash fees and doles out handwritten receipts in pages torn from a small notebook.A St.Petersburg biologist specializing in zooplanton, he takes samples from most places we visit, yet has nothing to say about what they might reveal.

Completing the St. Petersburgdelegation is Nick’s son Ivan Aladin, who spends most of the trip in a bathing suit, perfecting his tan and showing his gym-swelled muscles. He is smug and aloof. His father, who brags that Ivan has a Ph.D. in camera work, says he will film the expedition for a documentary.

I’ve been fond of Nick for years despite his flaws because of his unmatched vigor in first analyzing the consequences of the sea’s desiccation over the past half-century and then in tirelessly campaigning for its rehabilitation, for which he claims much of the credit. I wrote a positive profile of him in Science, highlighting how in the Soviet days the Aral Sea desiccation was a semi-taboo subject and, sinceKazakhstan’s independence in 1991, neither the Russians, the Westerners or the Kazakhs are interested in funding his research because he is Russian. This is my thirdAral Seatrip with him, and the second that he is organizing. We are friends.

He proffers no apology at all for our lack of welcome and seems only moderately pleased to see us. Just how much we need to pay for the expedition is still unclear, and I’m nervous I won’t have enough. We sit down around the conference table in our suite and he draws a line on a copy of an Aral map. Instead of simply going around the sea, we’re doubling the distance on hot, bumpy dirt roads by making two trips. In the first, we will go with Zauresh half-way around the sea clockwise in three days, stopping in the Barsa Kelmes reserve, a former island, and coming back for a night in Aralsk. In the second, we will go to roughly the same point anti-clockwise in six days, with Zaurkhan Ermakkhanov, the director of the local fisheries science institute. Nick tells Wilfrid each trip will cost $600, with all proceeds going to the organizers, Zauresh and Zauarkhan. Initially, he had told us about one trip that would cost somewhere between $1,000 and $500.

Finally, I corner him about money, and he says simply, “Pay what you can.” I give him $350: it’s all I have, I’ll have to borrow $200 from Wilfrid to survive until Almaty, because Aralsk ATMs only take Visa, and I have a Cirrus card. I’m deeply relieved and grateful.  The next day, we visit the deputy Akim (very long speech by Nick, short reply from the deputy), the cannery (director enters a freezer with a lit cigarette; a new way to smoke fish? wonders Wilfrid) and Zauresh’s office, where we watch an old film on how the kulan, a kind of wild ass, were taken to Almaty reserve, Altyn Emel, when the sea around it became too salty.

Phil Micklin arrives. A geographer atWesternMichiganUniversity, he is the only American scientist to have taken a sustained interest in theAral Sea, starting in the 1970s. He’s 72 now and Zauresh calls him “Aksakal Micklin,” Aksakal being a wise, respected elder in Kazakh. This is our second expedition together. The previous one was paid with a $20,000 grant from the National Geographic, in 2005. Phil is kind, polite, and scrupulously honest.

Then comes Gunilla, a sweet, infinitely courteous Swedish geographer who is the only woman beside Zauresh; and Mihael, a Slovenian limnologist.

After dinner at the restaurant across the street, owned by an industrious ethnic Korean, I leave W with Chris (American, prof of geography at an Almaty college called KIMEP), Alfred (German, works at the International Fund to Save the Aral Sea in Almaty), Ivan (Nick’s son) and Peter (Swiss German, part-time journalist and full-time legal writer) at the bar downstairs and head for the tiny Internet café around the corner. After a few beers, I’m later informed, Igor, Nick’s sidekick, shows up, stands at the end of the bar and watches Ivan reproachfully. Visibly embarrassed, he asks Ivan to go home and, unsuccessful, leaves.

This happens two more times as the others toss back another half-dozen lagers. Then, it wasn’t 11 yet, right after the group was bent over in alcoholic hilarity over an earlier remark of Alfred (Peter had ask him how he liked his goulash, and Alfred had looked at it dubiously and said, “It tastes like it looks”) when Aladin walked in. In the tone of a senior officer reprimanding an enlisted man, he told the group: “Gentlemen, tomorrow will be a difficult day, so please, could you go to bed as soon as possible.” The immediate response was a fresh burst of hilarity, causing him to frown and to ask, “Are you laughing at me?” Peter mumbles a denial, provoking more mirth, and Aladin, who never drinks alcohol, raises his tone. “I am not joking, stop drinking and please go to bed now!” Into the ensuing silence, Alfred turns to the bartender, raises his finger and says loudly, “One more beer!” Aladin turns and leaves in a huff, triggering more laughter. The object of the whole operation was to get Ivan home relatively sober, and throughout Ivan remained silent and stone-faced. The Quintet stayed for several more rounds.

Two days later we head out to Barsa Kelmes with Zauresh, stopping at the Kokarral dike, whose construction led to the rebirth of the northern part of the sea.

Our driver is surly, drives too fast, ignores our requests. I have a deep, dull loathing for our vehicle, a Russian jeep called a UAZ. Whether riding in front or in back, all seats are uncomfortable. The trip is long, bumpy and hot. Our first stop is Karaterin, where Aladin berates Zauresh so much that she loses her temper and screams at him for 10 minutes. He doesn’t apologize. She later says she’ll never work with him again.

Our host that night is a fisherman, flush from profits from the again bountifulAral Sea, who is finishing a spacious house – seven rooms downstairs, four upstairs. We dine in typical local style, sitting or lying on our side at a low table big enough for a dozen. We eat beshparmak, the local staple of boiled mutton and big home-made pasta leaves. Grilling here is unknown, as are most vegetables.

After a long day of driving, we get to the Barsa Kelmes island reserve. As Gertrude Stein said, rather unfairly, ofPhiladelphia, there is no there, there: the sea long ago withdrew from around the island, which once had a thriving population of kulan, saiga antelopes and gazelles. I went in ’05, and never saw the point of going back. There is nothing to see, except for a cupboard filled with old papers and some sun-bleached saiga skulls with the horns cut off.

But at night, an unexpected treat emerges: on a moonless night, the desert air rewards the handful of us who choose to sleep out with the spectacle of more stars than we thought existed. The sky is unbelievably dense with them. I’m lying next to Alfred, the German, and we talk for two hours while looking straight up: a new and unusual form of social discourse, interspersed with exclamations about shooting stars and arms pointed to creeping satellites or blinking planes.

In the morning, I consult with Phil on where we want to go from here, and he suggests we stop by theSyr Daryaon the way back. This is the river that feeds the northern Aral. I ask Zauresh, and she says she’ll need 6000 T ($40) more for gas. I ask how much she got from Nick for the expedition and she says $1,600. I go back to Phil, we calculate we gave him $4,000, and that’s assuming the three Russians aren’t paying their share. Phil’s face darkens: an old wound has been reopened. This is fraud. He brings it up with Nick, who denies wrongdoing with theatrical indignation but offers no coherent explanation. I join in and get no better results. The shouting becomes public. I warn him he is ruining his international reputation.

On the way back, we stop on the south shore of the river and some of us go swimming. I ask Nick why stuff doesn’t grow even right next to water, and he says because air is too dry. I lose all faith in him as a source. The reason is that the earth is steeped in various salts toxic to plants, notably calcium sulfate.

We get home hot dirty and tired and have dinner with Zauresh who confesses she’s afraid of Nick. I tell her he needs her more than she needs him.

The Road Less Travelled (or Itinerary Unplanned)

Phil and I demand to have a meeting with Zauarkhan, the fisheries director and organizer of the second leg of the trip, to determine the itinerary and cost of that expedition, so that the same overcharging doesn’t happen. Nick says he’s arranged a meeting for the following evening, but I insist on the morning, and so it’s done. Phil and I and Igor and Zauarkhan meet up, and we discover to our horror that Zauarkhan hasn’t given the slightest thought to planning the expedition, a day before we were to leave. So we set the itinerary, decide on two jeeps and one tabletka, the more spacious and comfortable minivan version of the UAZ jeep. The total cost of the six-day trip: $4,200, minus $2,000 that Nick was forced to admit he still had from the first trip. That comes out to $220 each. I have just saved everyone $380 and must now pay $220 myself, which Phil agrees to front me. I also have the pleasure of having forced Nick and Co. to pay their share, which they evidently had had no intention of doing. That’s when it dawns on me that the whole trip is designed to finance Ivan’s TV film, for the fast pace is neither good for Phil’s science nor for the pleasure and education of the other participants, though it yields plenty of the scenery shots that Ivan favors (“I don’t like talking heads,” he says.)

At the end of the meeting, since Zauarkhan is starting from scratch, we decide to stay and extra day and leave the following morning. We now have three cars for 10 people plus drivers: the Russians in one UAZ driven by a pleasant, smiling young driver who will quip that the Russians’ BO is a new form of bacteriological warfare launched up the innocent, peace-loving Kazakh people; Gunilla, Chris and Phil in Zauarkhan’s private UAZ, driven by a young obnoxious driver, and Peter, Wilfrid and I luxuriously laid out in a new tabletka van with Mihael, the solovenian, in the front seat. Our driver is slow, careful, pleasant and funny. Things are looking up.

Nick changes into a gray sleeveless T-shirt, from which one of his breasts occasionally escapes, especially when he lies on his side during dinner, slurping tea and wolfing down prodigious amounts of food. He will wear it the whole trip.

First stop: Jambul village. We pass a ship cemetery, with only the bridge remaining of one large vessel, the Alma Ata. The hull has been soldered into pieces and carted toChinaas scrap.

After stops in Tastubek and Akispe, both fishing villages that recently received electricity, we finally reach the sea. It’s quite a sight: more than 100 camels are simply sitting there, occasionally munching on some seaweed. The salinity, Phil finds, is below 8.4, almost drinkable. Bobbing a few yards offshore are a dozen small fishing boats. Behind them, we see the cliffs of Kulande.

At sunset, the fishermen arrive in their jeeps (a few years ago, they had cranky motorcycles with side-cars) and go out to lay their gillnets. I go with Abelkhan, a fisheries scientist working for Zauarkhan, and Igor and Ivan. Even outside, I find sitting downwind from Igor unbearable. I edge away from him, drawing a suppressed smile from Abelkhan.

We eat in the back of the truck that serves as both transportation and home for the fisheries officials, delicious breaded fried fish and strong, milky tea and bread, then we all go for a first swim. Igor, who says his wife forgot to pack his bathing suit, swims naked. We’ll see him in his underwear on other occasions.

Peter, Wilfrid, Phil and I sleep outside, near the truck. The others go back to the village. Zauarkhan sternly wars us to avoid sleeping away from the truck because of the danger of jumping mice, so we come closer and fall asleep giggling about the rodents we never see.

Next morning, we go out to pick up the nets, quivering with a rich cornucopia of fish, have lunch, drive to Akispe, pass a very hot spring in desert and interview an old, decorated fisherman. That night, another beshparmak after a 3-hour wait. Zauarkhan never calls ahead. Kazakh hospitality requires patience and good humor.

In a village that’s the picture of misery, we pass small kids in impeccable uniforms returning from to school.

The next morning, we go to Akbaste to eat birthday beshparmak after showering at a particularly foul public shower fed by warm, slightly sulfurous groundwater. Still, we feel better and cleaner.

Zauarkhan, who doesn’t drink, offers cold beer that night for his birthday. The next day Wednesday, we go to a gorgeous beach just north of Akbaste, facing theKulandePeninsula, and some of us sleep there. At this point, the shubat, or slightly fermented camel milk yoghurt that is as ubiquitous as tea, has taken its toll, and that night we clinically list the components of the Shubat Shuffle: shoes unlaced, worn sockless; pants around the feet, underwear in place; a flashlight in the mouth, TP in one hand, trying to get as fast as one can to the nearest bush. Since most bushes are under a foot in height, this is a challenge. I am spared, but most others are not.

I take a walk with Phil down the beach and we discover a huge wetland full of reeds, ducks, swans and other birds. Zauarkhan brings us fried fish and beer for diner. Just as the sunsets is at its reddest, a flock of flamingoes fly by us, wowing everyone. The wind comes up but the bushes shelter us.

We learn that Nick has approached four expedition members (Kris, Mikhael, Wilfrid and Peter) and got 50 euros out of each except Peter, who stalled. Nick told them he needed it for tips (Kazakhstanis not a tipping culture and the drivers never got any tips).

On Thursday, we leave late for Kulande, giving a ride to a couple of camel herders (they take care of 200) and a five-year-old little girl, and drop them off at their tiny isolated house. At the top of a cliff, a spectacular view ppears, a part of the sea that what has become the very saltyChuchibassLake.

After another night in Kulande, we go to theUzumCanal, which links both seas. We see lots of flamingoes and other shore birds, feeding on the brine shrimp that thrive in the water, which is almost four times as salty as the ocean. As guides we take two old geezers, one of which was in the group that took me toVozrozhdenyeIslandand recognizes me. On the way home, we lunch at a spot with another breathtaking view of the lake, then we pass gorgeous cliffs. The Aral has greatest tourist potential: not only is the scenery gorgeous (I once tried to talk a film producer into filing “Waiting for the Barbarians” there), but the absence of anyone, tourist or other, multiplies the pleasure of experiencing it. It’s a case when “A pleasure shared is a pleasure enhanced” doesn’t work.

At a stop back at in Kokarral dike, on the way home, Phil and I confront Nick on his hitting the others for 50 euros. He changes his story, saying it was really for a birthday present for Zauarkhan. The tone rises, he tries to bully everyone, and, surprising myself (I’m usually averse to conflict), I tell him, “You lie all the time.” He walks away, howling, “I am crucified for the third time.” I realize he is a false bully, a bluffer who will back off if he meets strong resistance. Phil tells him it’s worst expedition ever. It’s sad to see a 33-year-old friendship dissolve between the two leading authorities on theAral Sea, all the sadder because no one is stepping up to replace them.

Afterward, he gives Wilfrid, Chris and Mihael their money back, demanding the tiny receipts back and dramatically tearing them up and tossing the pieces in the air. Nick hums the tune from Fantomas, a fictional French sadistic killer, and calling me Juve, the detective who vainly chases him. We laugh at his outrageousness. Thanks to Nick, it’s my most entertaining expedition ever: we spend endless hours in the van going over his more outrageous doings.

At one point, I hear him say “Tips never included in budget,” and I jump on him. “What are you saying? Tips are always including in all expedition budgets. Why do you say these outrageous things you know and everyone knows are not true?”

Later, his driver, who can’t stand him, tells me that in fact, Ivan doesn’t have his diploma yet. What we’re financing is Ivan’s diploma film: this expedition is really a form of student aid.

The last night is at Bugun and Phil and Wilfrid and I sleep in a yurt: not as nice as looking at the stars, but we’re in a village and have little choice. At dinner, Nick tells Wilfrid that if he weren’t a Christian (he claims to be deeply devout), he would have hit me.

When we get home to the hotel, Nick stays in his car and drives off, saying goodbye to no one. After a shower, we head to the big restaurant across the street where it’s Saturday Night Fever: the Kazakh girls are dressed to the nines, many of them are gorgeous and they dance with magnificent abandon, a far cry from the submissive wives and daughters who silently served us tea and dinner at our stops around the Aral. We join them, they smile but keep their distances. Zauresh, despite her meager salary, treats everyone to beer – lots of it.