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Tipping Our Hat to Karakalpakstan

Most landscapes are similar to ones we have seen before. Northern Turkey looks a lot like the Southern Bavarian Alps. Southern Morocco looks a lot like Eastern California. Eastern Iran looks a lot like Death Valley. This is not to say that these landscapes aren’t worth visiting, but there is always a reference point. We think of new places with these reference points- a new place is drier, hotter, higher, bigger, steeper or more forested than what we have seen before. This is what we thought until we crossed Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The landscape on our 21-hour train ride from the Kazakh coast of the Caspian Sea to the Uzbek border was a completely new experience. We had no reference point or place for understanding it. Hour after hour the exact same plain passed by our window on the train. The land is perfectly flat. There is no soil, only sand. One could call this a desert, but the sand does not form into dunes. Nevertheless, the sand is loose, not hard-packed. There also isn’t any sagebrush or salt flats one might find in the desert: just evenly laid sand everywhere without a single distinguishing feature the entire ride.

At the Uzbek border, we weren’t actually entering Uzbekistan, but the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan is where the Karakalpaks live. We made the mistake of calling them Uzbeks, so as penance we’ll give them a quick paragraph in this blog. This 400,000 person ethnic group gets its name from the hats they used to wear, called karakalpaks. Situated right in the middle of Asia, the people look as if everyone on the Eurasian continents got together and had one child. The features, eye, skin and hair colors of both continents are all found in a single person.

From this border we pushed north into Karapalkakstan by bus and shared taxi to Moynaq on the Aral Sea. “On the Aral Sea” is a euphemism since the Aral Sea has receded more than a hundred miles north of here in the past twenty years- the greatest ecological disaster recorded. Soviet efforts to reverse the problem ranged from the crazy – building a 2,000 mile canal from Siberia – to the futile – making lakes outside of town. None of these plans ever worked and the water level continues to drop at a rate 3 feet per year.

Looking on the bright side, Moynaq does have the first distinguishing geographic feature east of the Caspian Sea – the rim of where the Aral Sea used to be. At the edge of town, the steppe slopes down about ten feet and then becomes flat again into infinity. You know that there was a sea here because hulls of giant fishing boats lay stranded and rusting in the steppe. With fishing and sunbathers gone, it is not clear to us what people in Moynaq do. The streets are filled with sand and buildings lay in half-eroded and half-inhabited piles of concrete. But 8,000 people live here! There were no stores where we could buy water or food. We spent the night in the only hotel in town- an unmarked Soviet-era building with no running water or electricity. We left shortly after dawn the next day hungry, thirsty and really dusty.

A lot of people blame the Aral Sea disaster (if you are not familiar with it, here is a link with more information) on Soviet planning stupidity. Unfortunately for all of us, this is not the root cause of the disaster. The over-irrigation of desert lands and over-use of water resources is really popular among politicians and lobbyists worldwide. Taking advantage of water creates jobs, export crops and wins votes. However, over-watering a desert eventually brings salt in the ground to the surface and drives existing rivers underground- making the land unproductive forever and destroying the ecosystem. In the United States, we have our own Aral Sea disasters at Mono Lake (where, to add insult to injury, the Navy did nuclear testing near the LA county water supply) and the Colorado River. I wish I could hold out hope for the future here, but if we can learn anything from the Aral Sea disaster, it is that these catastrophes are easily created and really hard to reverse.

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