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Into the Aral Sands (8/6/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Packing in the grey of night. Camels crying out. The barking of a dog, a slither of moon rising. After two hours of packing I saddle up, thank my hosts, and again I am out there on the steppe. The sandy steppe is so calm and gradually turns from grey to blue, and finally orange with the rising sun. Over a slight rise and I startle a herd of horses. Tigon takes chase, the horses bolt, and soon there is a burning cloud of dust rising with the sun. After a couple of hours I pass a hamlet. There is movement- an old babushka stoking a samovar. A young boy washing his face at a well. We don’t stop. By 10am we reach the top of a knobbly little hill. It is littered with old Kurgan graves of ancient nomads. Next to them are the more recent Moslem graves of Kazaks. Below a blue lake stretching thirty or forty kilometres is ringed by luscious green. I am overcome with a sense of joy and we soon bound our way down to the shore. After some time I find a nice campsite near a sandy beach and lie on the grass to the sound of waves lapping the shore. It is now 35 degrees or so, but the cool breeze coming across the water makes it bearable. Tigon rolls about in ecstasy and the horses munch away. It is a year to the day that I left Australia. This must be a good sign. Who would have thought that out here in the desert, next to the ever-receding Aral Sea one would find a fresh water lake? Soon later I am startled by a volkswagon that abruptly appears and becomes stuck in the sand. They happen to be a group of people from Shymkent roaming the steppe selling cookware and home goods to villagers. Later they return with others, and as they happen to have tents in the boot they join the camp. The sense of company is something of a novelty, as is the chance to listen to fluent Russian language. Of course being primarily Russians they bring vodka, and a remarkable ability to argue about nothing. There is one little fight, and at some point one of the guys stole off in one of the cars only to crash into the sand-dunes (hauled him out the next morning with a tractor). Tigon lived like a King- stealing the fish and meat that they had brought with them. I was offered an electric fan, iron, and other goods as gifts, but eventually settled for a kettle. Two rather unsettled nights passed until again we were left alone. The next evening I was lifted from my holiday mood. The stallion was spooked by the packsaddle that I was testing on him and he bolted. At first I thought nothing of it. However the other two horses also panicked, ripped out their stakes, and soon all three were out of view bounding through the sand dunes. It was sunset, my food was on the boil. With little choice I took chase and only after about four kilometres caught up and met them head on. By this stage my bare feet were burning with hundreds of splinters and thorns. “You silly bloody buggars!” A day later I arrived in the far flung village of Aralkum (island sand). It was a village that to me was overwhelmingly white: white sand dunes, white camels, white houses, white salt pans, and what’s more, my host-to be, ‘Dayletbas’ had a huge windblown crop of silvery-white hair. I had been given Dayletbas’s name by a woman in Almaty who had visited his home to study camel milk as part of her PHD. Anyway, he met me on the street with a grin of crooked teeth and hearty greetings. “Tim! Welcome! Stay as long as you like! Be our guest! Lets go and eat!” It was a relief to unpack the horses just as the furnace of day was cranking up. Then I was sitting under some grape vines in his backyard on a bench, breathing heavy signs of relief and being offered some fresh camel milk. Dayletbas used to be the director of the local railway station, and had lived in this village since a child. He can clearly remember how he and his friends used to go swimming in the fishing port of Aralsk before the sea receded. He also recalls how Aralkum used to be just a sand pit. He proudly shows me his garden of lettuces, cabbage, grapes, onion and other vegetables that he grows in soil that he orders in by truck. He has eight children, three or four of whom still live at home. He likes to tell me stories. One is about the ‘importance of dogs.’ There is a legend that long ago a turcoman tribe came and ransacked a Kazak village near the Chu river. The men and children were murdered, the village burned to the ground, and the women stolen. One man survived and soon took off in chase with his dog in search of his stolen wife. Where the bandits had slept, he lunched, and where they had lunched he slept. In this way he followed their tracks all the way into Turkmenistan where he however lost his way. For a year he searched the villages and cities of the country but could not find his wife. Then one day he saw a village on the horizon that he had not earlier known of. Sure enough there he found his wife living with one of the bandits. In the secrecy of night they met and planned to escape on the bandits horses. However when they came to steal the horses the best horse refused to let him sit on it. They were forced to steal the poorer horses and soon the bandit caught up with them on the steppe. A fight ensued and eventually the old man was pinned to the ground beneath the bandit’s knee. The bandit then asked the wife to bring him a knife which she did. Just at the moment that the bandit was about to slit the old man’s throat, the old man’s dog raced forward and ripped apart the bandit’s testicles. This enabled the old man to rise and kill the bandit. He then journeyed home to Kazakstan with his wife. However at hearing the tale, his mother in law decided that the wife had betrayed the old man in bringing the knife for the bandit. She (the wife’s mother) arranged for the wife to be killed. She then gave her youngest daughter to the old man… Anyway not sure that the story was entirely about ‘the importance of dogs’ but there must be a message in there somewhere. His son also like to tell tales, among which is the idea that Ghengis Khaan’s body is buried on the Kazakh steppe. He thinks this is so because his body was rotting quickly after death, and they didn’t get him back home to Mongolia on time. He also tells me wild tales about how Ghengis Khaan’s wife had a few flings with Kazakhs, and about how Ghengis went about murdering his oldest son. Every village has a different spin on Ghengis Khaan. Despite the fact that Kazaks didn’t emerge as a distinct nationality until after the Mongol empire there is the assumption that Kazaks were warring against Ghengis Khaan, and that Kazaks were not a part of his cruelty. In actual fact the steppe nomads were all in it together when it came to conquering and looting. Its all a bit of a confusing mess on the steppe, and in reality you can create your own truth because no one really knows the details of nomad history. One of the things which strikes me is that due to the common nomad way of life Kazaks and Mongols have a very similar culture. Whats more many Kazaks appear identical to Mongols. It is then amusing when Kazaks look through my photo album and falsely believe that the photos of Kazaks are Mongols, and that the Mongols in my album are Kazak. Yet the Kazaks have a strong belief that they are better, more civilised, and generally far and away different to their nomad brothers. To call someone a Mongol is a huge insult. And of course vice versa Mongols have a seething dislike for Kazaks and believe that they are unfriendly, inhospitable, and generally pretty savage. This probably dates back to tribal conflicts, but more importantly the moment in history where the nomads of the steppe where split on religion- the Kazaks adopting Islam, and the Mongols Buddhism. Anyway, the last couple of days I have visited the Aral Sea. I paid a driver and we set off in a Russian jeep across beds of shells and sand eventually arriving at the shore about 50km from where it was originally. There I shared a bottle of camel milk with the driver and a couple of guides from a local village and later had a swim. This sea is known to be home of one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters. It has shrunk to a mere puddle of its former self within fifty years or so. This is due to hydroelectric schemes, and irrigation for cotton and rice fields. The southern part of the lake will eventually become ‘a salty swamp’ according to Marat, part of a UN project team based in Aralsk. In Aralsk itself which used to have a thriving fishing industry you can see a few relic old ships docked in the sand. Where the port once was, camels roam about in the salty sand. This year however Nazarbaev, the president has promised that by October or November, a project to dam up the northern part of the sea will be completed. This will mean that all of the Syr Darya’s water will enter the northern part of the sea locked off from the larger southern sea. This should ensure that the water will slowly return towards Aralsk, but will no doubt be to the detriment of the southern Aral Sea. ‘The problem is that there is no agreement between Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and Kyrgyzstan on water issues. We don’t really know anything about the ecological situation of the Uzbekistan side of the Aral Sea and only concentrate on our edge. Maybe the dam will work, but maybe it will worsen things. The natural balance has long been upset’ says Marat’s colleague. For now the issues facing me are a little bit more local- finding grass, grain, and a way of moving on. Ahead lies a pretty dry section of steppe that in the past was infamous for its roaming thieves and terrible climate. I am now on the path of a famous English adventurer who passed this way on horse in 1874 from St Petersburg to Khiva and back. Frederick Burnaby spoke of a desolate landscape where fodder and water were absent. He almost froze to death on this steppe and was saved by the hospitality of the local nomads. It was also across this steppe in 1838 that the Russian army experienced a colossal tragedy. They set off to the Aral Sea under the guise of a ‘scientific expedition’ with 10,000 camels and 5,000 men. In actual fact their aim was to reach Khiva in present day Uzbekistan and overthrow the despotic leader. Seven months after setting off they returned with less than 1500 camels and 4000 men…. and they had not fired a single shot or even made it past the Aral Sea. The incredible harshness of winter had gobbled everything up. They had anticipated this, but still deemed it a better time to travel the steppe than during the extreme heat of summer. And of course that is where I find myself, in the furnace of the sandy steppe-desert in the most extreme environment (climate-wise) on earth. Perhaps this tale from a central asian traveller in the early 1800s is more relevant for now. This traveller describes what the Baluchis call the ‘flame’ or ‘pestilence’ in the desert during summer. The furnace hot wind could not only kill camels but could flay alive an unprotected human being. Those who witnessed its effects relayed to the traveller that ‘the muscles of the unhappy sufferer become rigid, the skin shrivels, an agonising sensation, as if the flesh was on fire, pervades the whole frame.’ The victims skin, they assured him, cracked ‘into deep gashes, producing haemorrhage that quickly ends this misery.’ (Read more about Central Asian tales in the stupendous book ‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk). For now, had better get back to work with the horses. Another huge thanks to this family. Dayletbas has decided that I am his ninth child (as if he didn’t already have enough!). (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)