dows were too caked with dirt to
As the Soviet-built train chugged
and belched northwest along the
steppe, I realized that most of the pas-
sengers who weren’t sleeping had gathered outside our compart-
ment—one of the last ones in the last car—to smoke unfiltered cig-
arettes while gazing at the night through an open door. In search
of fresher air, I wandered the other way, past a cook nonchalantly
frying onions in the dining car’s tiny kitchen and an elderly man
sitting facing his wife, peeling potatoes for their evening meal.
In the dining car, decorated with plastic red roses at each
table, a waitress with gold teeth named Shireen served meat
and vegetables. Before joining the railway, she said, she had
taught journalism in her native Uzbekistan. Of all the pas-
sengers, the only ones who didn’t appear to be locals were a
young television reporter and his cameraman assigned to cover
a three a.m. rocket launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome, which
lies between Kyzylorda and Aral.
After eight hours, around daybreak, we pulled into Aral,
now a gaunt little town that once thrived on fishing. A local
representative met us at the station, and together we walked
the few blocks to Aral’s modest city hall.
“When the sea started to dry up, of course everybody
was pessimistic, and people started moving away to other
districts,” said Tanirbergen Seytzhanovich Darmenov, the
(mayor). “This was a very big problem for
Kristopher White, an associate professor of economics at
University in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, agreed.
He’s an expert on the Aral Sea, called
“Certainly, this is an environmental disaster. We’re talking
about [what was once] the world’s fourth-largest inland body
of water,” said White. Since 1960, he explained, when the
commercial fishing catch exceeded 43,000 tons, the Aral Sea
has lost as much as 88 percent of its surface area and 92 per-
cent of its volume. In 1996 only 547 tons of fish were caught,
much of it contaminated with pesticides. Meanwhile, salinity
had jumped from 10 parts per thousand (
essentially fresh water—to 92
in 2004—some three times
the salinity of most oceans.
This, he said, destroyed fish habitats and, with the reces-
sion of the sea, “there was also what we call desiccation, or
encroaching deserts. An entire desert landscape has replaced
much of where the sea was.” This has been a humanitarian
Flowing into the North Aral Sea from headwaters in mountains more than 2,000 kilometers to the
southeast, the Syr Darya River,
is lined here on both banks by irrigated crops.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union's hunger for cotton—sometimes called “white gold”—
inspired the building of 30,000 kilometers of irrigation canals along both the Syr Darya and Amu
Darya rivers that diverted replenishment of the Aral Sea, which began to evaporate. This cotton
field in Kazakhstan is shared by three families.
: Arid steppe stretches for hours outside a
dusty window along the rails from Kyzylorda to Aral.