Visiting the Aral Sea

Catching a glimpse of the notorious Aral Sea’s receding southern shoreline holds no small amount of appeal for adventurous travellers. It’s a very remote area so it's essential to go with an experienced driver with a good 4WD vehicle and an intimate knowledge of the route.

From Moynaq the route heads west along the sea’s former shoreline and then sets out across the dried-up seabed, where oil refineries belch fire and black smoke in an eerie scene reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. The former seabed has been dry for so long that it is already a forest of sage brush, which soon peters out into a stretch of interminable salt flats receding into mirages in every direction.

From here you can see the Ustyurt Plateau, stretching into Kazakhstan to the north and all the way to the Caspian Sea to the west. At the end of the asphalt road dirt tracks climb the plateau, past cliffs and canyons, to eventually reveal your first sight of the intensely blue Aral Sea. Against the barren backdrop of the dried-up seabed and the rocky Ustyurt Plateau it looks profoundly beautiful, all the more so for what it represents – the dangers inherent in human's attempts to subjugate nature.

It's possible to drive to the water’s edge where the sea's eternal tide exposes bits of seabed rendered in various shades of grey. There are a couple of beach areas, otherwise swimming here involves wading through knee-deep muck. The water is salty enough to suspend a brick, giving you a similar feeling to floating in the Dead Sea. Every approach to the sea is different as the waters are moving approximately 200m further away each year.

Most people visit the Aral on an organised two-day trip from Nukus, camping at a spot overlooking the sea or staying in the yurt camp of Bes Qala Tours. It's also possible to do a three-day trip, driving closer to the remote Kazakh border and overnighting on the second night at Sudochie Lake. It's not a cheap trip, at around US$250 per person in a group of three for a two-day trip.

Whichever way you do it, this is the trip of a lifetime, and one that you should see, while you still can.