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
$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.