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September/October 2015

9

are very grateful that

our president hasn’t

forgotten about this

problem, and that

he’s trying his best to

revive the sea.”

The sea’s decline

is chronicled in

stark detail at Aral’s

municipal museum on

Tokey Esetov Street,

right off the main

drag, Abulkhair Khan

Street. Established in

1988, the museum

collects an entry fee

of 200

tenge

(about

$1.10) from each of

the 15,000 people

who visit annually.

Here, stored in three

glass display cases, are

animal teeth, shells,

glass shards and ceram-

ic fragments—all found

on the dry seabed

after the lake began

drying up in the 1970s.

There’s also an 1849

map of an obviously

much larger Aral Sea,

credited to Commander A. Butakoff of the Imperial Russian Navy, as

well as a painting made in 2003 that shows, a bit nostalgically, what

Aral’s port looked like in the 1960s.

Remote the museum may be, but its guestbook is full of

comments from Dutch, French, Spanish and American visitors

.

Yet to the museum’s director, Madi Zhasekenov, the museum is

not just for tourists.

“We want to show our generation how life used to be

here,” Zhasekenov said as he locked up his collection of arti-

facts to go out for his lunch break.

The 53-year-old walked across the street to a park where

as a teenager in the 1970s, he said, he would hang out with

his friends. The concrete benches where they’d gaze out on the

shore of the Aral Sea are still there, but these days there is no

sea to be seen. Instead, children frolic on a rusted merry-go-

round. The feeling of nostalgia and loss was palpable.

“My children don’t want to live in Aralsk,” Zhasekenov

said quietly, using the common Russian name for the town,

“but I grew up on the shores. I don’t want to leave. This is my

home, and I believe the sea will come back.”

He then invited me to lunch at his wooden shack across the

street from the aging Hotel Aral. To my surprise, the museum

curator opened the door to a storage room, sat down and

started to play a rickety old piano. Not one of its 88 keys was

in tune. Then he took out a rusty German trumpet lacking a

mouthpiece and pretended to play.

It’s easy to understand why Zhasekenov misses the old days. In

1976, according to a historical marker at the once-thriving port, Aral

As the largest of the towns along the North Aral Sea, Aral was

also a light manufacturing hub based on sheep-grazing: A

historical marker notes that in 1976 the city exported 5,000

metric tons of wool, 340 furs, 3,000 sheepskins, 1,500 pairs of

woolen gloves and 1,200 pairs of woolen trousers.

RIGHT AND OPPOSITE, LOWER: LARRY LUXNER; TOP: CHLOE DEWE MATHEWS

“We want to show our generation how life used to be here,”

said Madi Zhasekenov, director of Aral’s museum.