Ghosts of the Sea
As our Lada jeep sped along the crumbling road to the Aral Sea and its ship cemetery, we passed desolate villages—long ago sustained by the once-fruitful bounty of the Sea. Now, they stood in a state of decay, forever stranded in the middle of the desert.
We eventually arrived to the old seashore, but our car did not stop here. We drove over what was once the beach and continued onto the seafloor. Dry, brown tuffs of grass were now growing on the mounds of sand which had once formed below the water’s surface. The engine revved with fury over every sandbank we traversed. The loud clatter from the pistons blasting and gears shifting was muffled by bizarre, Arabic-inspired music roaring from the stereo.
As the Lada went on, we came across a grimy, old Kazakh man watching over his herd of sheep and camels. He was like a specter from a time long forgotten by the receding waters of the Sea. “Asalam aleykum” (Peace be with you), shouted our driver, as we slowed down to pay respect to this old gentleman. The man replied with a congenial wuleykum asalam (And also with you), and we continued on our way.
Across the wasteland of what was once a harbor rested the ship cemetery. Only three boats remained of the once dozen or so that had been left behind by the retreating waters. Like vultures, people had come to pick apart the hulls and inner mechanics of the ships, selling what scrap metal they could in China or Russia. Our car stopped at the biggest of the ships, berthed forever in the shifting sands. The wind howled as it blew through what was once the stern of the vessel. What was left of the hull had turned a deep, rusty red. Whatever traces of majesty and dignity this boat once possessed were stolen ten or twenty years ago when the Sea finally receded away from this lonely place.
We left the boats and pressed on towards the Sea with a maddening fervor. Our driver furiously drove over every hill like a madman. We bounced up and down violently—slightly amused, but mostly frightened for our lives. It was while we went recklessly airborne over one large hill, when we first caught a glimpse of the Sea. There it was stretching out along the horizon—enchanting, yet, unsettling… (Read more about my journey to the Aral Sea in Peace Corps Kazakshstan's Vesti.)