Almost everything is painted blue and white in Moynaq, and you can still spot the occasional fish or marine-themed design decorating signs and buildings. But everything is faded by the sun, rust bleeding through the cracks from underneath. Sand and tumbleweeds blow across the road from the surrounding desert. The ground is sprinkled with seashells—tiny bits of evidence that this used to be the shore of the fourth-largest lake in the world.
Moynaq was once Uzbekistan’s only sea port, a prosperous industrial fishing town on the Aral Sea. The town supplied fish to much of the central U.S.S.R., and even today Uzbeki cuisine still reflects this nautical heritage. In the 1930’s, however, the Soviets began diverting the sea’s main sources of water in order to irrigate to the region’s growing cotton industry, which they prioritised as more valuable. The sea began to recede in the 1960s, and the waterline around Moynaq gradually dropped. When their one precious natural resource finally disappeared in the 1980s, the economy collapsed. People moved away in droves; the ones who still remain cling to the land as some of Uzbekistan’s poorest citizens.
But Moynaq’s suffering isn’t limited to the collapse of their fishing heritage. Today the remaining residents must also battle with the ecological ramifications of desertification; with no body of water to moderate the weather, the climate now jumps between extreme heat and Siberian cold. The people of Moynaq are also afflicted with a host of respiratory problems caused by agricultural pesticides and residue from a Soviet chemical weapons testing site, which get blown with the dust across the desert and into the town.
To see firsthand the disturbing and monumental result of human’s tampering with nature is very moving, although it was very difficult to imagine that the endless desert in front of us was once one of the largest lakes in the world.
We’d read beforehand many comments online from people who had visited, saying they almost felt like a visit to Moynaq was poverty tourism—sightseeing other people’s misery. But the locals turned out to be friendly and sociable, and it didn’t seem like they felt they were being exploited. Instead we got the feeling that they were glad for the attention, not only for the influx of tourism, but also to draw attention to their situation as a warning to the world about man’s destructive capabilities.