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.)

Ghosts of the Sea (Part 2 of 2)
Ghosts of the Sea (Part 2 of 2)

Available, Contact Artist Sumi Ink on Water Color (2015, 15″x20″) The mural in the Aralsk train station depicts the once productive port of Aralsk during its heyday the early Soviet era. Today the shrinking Aral Sea lies 20 miles from the port. Lenin looks on the fishermen with an omnipresence, as his commands are being read by the Communist Party leader of the town. The words read: “A letter from Lenin for 14 train wagons of fish.”

Ghosts of the Sea (Part 1 of 2)
Ghosts of the Sea (Part 1 of 2)

Available, Contact Artist Sumi Ink on Water Color (2015, 15″x20″) The mural in the Aralsk train station depicts the once productive port of Aralsk during its heyday the early Soviet era. Today the shrinking Aral Sea lies 20 miles from the port. Lenin looks on the fishermen with an omnipresence, as his commands are being read by the Communist Party leader of the town. The words read: “A letter from Lenin for 14 train wagons of fish.”

Fish without the Sea (Рыба без Моря)
Fish without the Sea (Рыба без Моря)

Available, Contact Artist Sumi Ink on Water Color (2016, 12" x 9″) While taking the train to Aralsk, we traveled through the Karakum/Kyzylkum Desert. This elderly woman went back and forth through my train wagon yelling "Riba! Riba!" (Fish! Fish!). The fish she sold were dried and stinky.

The President's Faucet
The President's Faucet

Available, Contact Artist Sumi Ink on Water Color (2016, 9" x 12″) Propaganda posters are endemic in Aralsk. Many of them picture the father-like president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan A. Nazarbaev. In this poster he ceremoniously turns on the “faucet” of the Sea as his posse looks on with approval.

Shepherd
Shepherd

Available, Contact Artist Sumi Ink on Watercolor (2016, 16" x 12") Driving along the former seabed, our jeep came across this old shepherd. Our driver slowed his car, rolled down the window and shouted “Asalam wuleykom!” (Peace be upon you). The man greeted him back with an obliging “Wuleykom asalam” (And also with you). With those words, we drive on.

Shipwreck
Shipwreck

Available, Contact Artist Sumi Ink on Water Color (2016, 15″x20″) The discarded hulls of fishing vessels scattered the boat cemetery. Boats were laid to rest here in the late 1980s/early 1990s where they got stuck in the mud from the receding waters of the Aral Sea. People have come along and picked and pulled apart many of the boats for scrap metal.