Space and the Lake

Aralsk (Russia), 22.10.2013

Today I saw two soviet relics in the desert of what today is Kazakhstan. The first one of scientific and technical significance, the second one a an ecological disaster on a staggering scale. The morning started with no water and a “shower” with a small bucket of water plus the 5 liter tank I had bought the night before. Shortly before 09:00 the phone rang and somebody asked me something in Russian. I just understood “lunch bag”. Then the phone rang again while I was in the bathroom, then again. Now it was Yana, my translator: “Do you want breakfast?”. “Of course, but I was told to be downstairs at 09:00, and I am leaving the room now.” I walked down the stairs to the hotel restaurant. The corridors smelling of cigarette smoke in the morning, the big empty halls with cheap sofas and decorations, the concrete stairs in rough cement and bad manufacturing, the restaurant with fake privè corners and real disco lights – this place was a fine example of a soviet relic adapting to modern times without hiding its past.

DSC_0043We were three guests in the restaurant and two waitresses in nylon uniforms. I had to wait 15 minutes to get breakfast served. One waitress stood all the time behind the counter of a bar with mirror cupboards and all types of alcohol bottles neatly lined up. Then came two fried eggs, fried rice with meat and carrots, red cabbage salad, a packaged chocolate cake and a small cup of Nescafé. In the background Russian TV was blasting morning comedy at full volume. The table was covered in plastic and laid for dinner, incl. the Vodka shot glasses. As I wanted to leave after eating, I was asked to wait five more minutes. Then the lunch bag came with salad, rice, bread, fruit juice. I also got a bottle of mineral water and a “Kazakhstan” blue chocolate bar.

DSC_0046In the lobby I met Nonna again and Yana, the translator for the tour. I had thought that “visiting Baikonur” meant seeing the Baikonur Cosmodrome, but only this morning I realised that the guides had understood I wanted to see the town of Baikonur. My mistake, I should have been clearer. But how should I have even imagined that someone wants to come and see an average Soviet town in the desert, when there is a world famous cosmodrome there? Anyway, I was shown the local museum that features an exposition on the Soviet soldiers that came to build Baikonur after the war, then a part on the spaceships and evolution of activities over the decades since Yuri Gagarin first entered outer space in 1961. Throughout the entire tour I wondered how a country like the USSR, with its limited means, poverty and low degree of evolution could have achieved such spectacular advances in space technology. Next I was shown some rockets, the Gagarin monument, the garden of the hotel where the Cosmonauts stay before their missions, and two memorials to missions gone wrong that had cost lives of mostly young men in their 20ies. Driving through Baikonur I learned that a quarter of the town is not used, with buildings just shut down and falling apart. The sunny day helped a lot to paint the city in a good light though.

DSC_0050 DSC_0052 DSC_0056 DSC_0062DSC_0070 DSC_0073Shortly before lunchtime I left, stopped out of town to prepare food for the road (the lunch box didn’t inspire too much confidence and was not possible to eat while driving). The road to my next target was good and in a few hours I reached Aralsk, a former major fishing town on the Aral Lake when it was still at its original size (today it it just 10% of that). I barely made it with my fuel, and was critically low as I stopped at a gas station at the entry of town. “Diesel, njet!” OK, next gas station. “Diesel, njet!” OK next one. “Diesel, njet!” With my last drops of fuel I reached finally one station that agreed to sell me 50 liters, not a full tank.

DSC_0067There was no diesel in town, and I started to worry how I would get out of there. Well, I still had two spare tanks. I visited the train station with a mosaic depicting the local fishermen sending their produce to starving Russians many decades ago. Then I found the old port, where cranes and storage halls stood empty on the former docks now overlooking a desert. There were a couple of fishing boats preserved as monuments nearby. I drove through the city, that seems to be partially reclaimed by the sand that is covering the streets everywhere. At the gate of town the road converted into a stone track, and it took me almost 1,5 hours to reach Zhalanash, a small dusty town close but not on the remaining lake. From there it was a 20 minute drive through sand dunes to reach the “ship cemetery”, or what was left of it. Most parts of the ships have been taken away, there are just 3 parts of wrecks left in the sand, covered with shells and litter. Still, it was an impressive sight, with rocks in he background and the sand of the former bottom of the lake in between. The sun was going down, painting the entire landscape in a golden color. Decades ago, there was water all around, meters high, and a thriving fish industry. Today there was just sand and dust.

DSC_0078 DSC_0096 DSC_0107 DSC_0108DSC_0153 DSC_0152I took pictures and then wanted to drive around a hill to see what was behind it and if maybe I could spot the water of the lake somewhere. The ground became softer and softer, the sand slipped under the wheels, and I decided to turn around before getting stuck. As I turned the car, between two tracks in the sand, it happened. The car got blocked, I couldn’t move. Again stuck in the middle of nowhere. Since by now I know how to handle these situations, I got my things (documents, drinks, flashlight, money, cell phone, car keys, swiss knife, chocolate, picture book), closed the car and started walking towards the last village, that I could still see once I had passed the hill. As I was about to leave the tracks and cross the former seabed, I noticed a vehicle standing close to the first boat. It was closer then the village, so I went there. Two Ukrainian tourists with their guide and driver were taking pictures. I explained the situation, the driver got into his Russian UAZ commercial vehicle and together we drove back to the Evoque. This guy speeded so fast through the sand that I got thrown around all the time. As we reached my car, there was another UAZ jeep standing on the track, hood opened, and four guys around it fixing the engine. My Evoque got freed from the sand in 5 minutes. One of the metal snap hooks I had at both ends of the rope broke, then we fixed the rope without hooks and I got towed out. The UAZ jeep crew took a while to fix the engine, and since they were standing in front of me I had to wait. I offered them a beer as we left, taking pictures, and then we speeded back to Zhalanash. They also drove through the tracks like crazy and I had a hard time to keep the speed in the sand. After the village, I lost them as I speeded back to Aralsk through the dark on the stone track.

DSC_0128 DSC_0134 DSC_0142I had thought to camp tonight, but at almost zero degrees that seemed not a good idea. Also, there was no place to pitch the tent if not the open desert beside the road. I didn’t want to risk driving the car down there, I wouldn’t have gotten it out again. So I went to the only hotel in Aralsk, the “Aral Hotel”, a run down building with just one floor in use, the other higher ones had barricaded windows and no lights. For 4000 MNT I hot a room with hot water but no shower. It smelled of fresh paint, but the place was as run down as it could get. Across the street in a building without signs was a café that served hot Solyanka, a chicken with mashed potatoes and a cold beer. What a day! Space town, desert, lost lake, stuck in sand, and saved!

DSC_0159 DSC_0153 DSC_0157

Trip data

– Km driven: 383

– Hrs on the road: 7,5h

– Diesel l/100km: 9,5

– Daily high: 21 degrees Celsius

– Daily low: 2 degrees Celsius

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