The world was gray without any visible contours of clouds, making it impossible to see where the horizon separated the earth and the sky. It was a depressing start to our off-road journey across the Aralkum Desert and the Mangystau Plateau to the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan.
Driving Around and Across the Aral Sea
Our starting point was Aralsk, once a main port on the Aral Sea. Known to be the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea became one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union started using the water of rivers that fed the lake for irrigation projects. Twenty years ago, only 10 percent of the original 26,300 square miles of the water surface was left, divided over four small lakes.
In the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed. The South Aral Sea became part of Uzbekistan and the North Aral Sea part of Kazakhstan (where we are). In 2004, the North Aral Sea had shrunk to the point where the Aralsk Port was located 62 miles away from the shore. The construction of the Kokaral Dike in 2005 changed the fate of the North Aral Sea and stopped its depletion. Today, Aralsk is only a mere 12 miles away from the shore, and the water level is still rising.
Hopeful as that is, a large part of the Aral Sea still is—and will remain—a dry sea bed. It is called the Aralkum Desert. We had no clue what to expect. How long would our journey take? Was there a way out on the west side, or would we have to turn around? How much diesel did we need? Water? Food? Driving 400 miles isn’t a particularly long distance but may become so if there is no exit on the other side or you get lost, bogged down, or are stuck with a broken vehicle in the middle of nowhere.
Why go to the trouble, you may ask? Well, from Aralsk, we had two options to get to the Caspian Sea: either we drove 1,200 miles of asphalt or 400 miles of trails. With our sense of adventure dormant in our minds awaiting the right opportunity, the latter option was the necessary trigger.
Who wants to drive 1,200 miles on asphalt when you can have an adventure?
We searched on Google, inspected satellite images, and watched videos of salt plains that looked amazing. Was this indeed where we were going? Information was contradictory, confusing, and inadequate. So we did what we do best, prepared as best we could, started driving, and found out for ourselves.
Stage 1 – Aralsk to Dike Kokaral
Leaving Aralsk, the trail zigzagged through dry vegetation. It was November, and we wondered whether in summer the landscape would be all green, or was this simply desert—brown and yellowish all year round? Thankfully, it had rained the day before, so we didn’t have to drive through a dust bowl. The puddles were easy to navigate, and we were more challenged by the ruthless washboard.
Using satellite images from Google, Coen had drawn a map on his iPhone, which saved lots of time and confusion because there were tons of sidetracks. The iPhone map gave us a sense of direction. On our right stretched the Aral Sea in the distance. Cows grazed around a handful of small cemeteries. Farming settlements that were once located along the shore now lay in the middle of the desert. We passed haystacks, wells, and troughs, a couple of new houses with white walls and blue roofs, and cemeteries with brick graves.
The Syr Darya River is the Aral Sea’s major tributary. The elevated path alongside the river suddenly turned into thick, black mud, and we carefully fishtailed ahead, feeling like Bambi on ice. This quagmire stopped at a short stretch of perfect asphalt road in the middle of nowhere. How weird was that? It was comfortable driving for a few minutes until we were back on sand.
We reached Dike Kokaral during twilight; it was only 5:00 p.m. We set up camp right on the lake, which had ice along its edges and large patches of yellowish reeds. At night, we got a couple of visitors, fishermen who asked Coen to join them for a drink. As it was past midnight, Coen thanked them for their kindness, but no.
Stage 2 – Traversing the Aralkum Desert to Akbasty
When we got up at 8:00 a.m., the world was covered in a thin layer of snow. Crossing the Kokaral Dam was no problem, but then it became a gamble as to which sidetrack to take as the main road was leading away from our direction. The snow made it harder to judge the quality of the tracks, some of which looked worryingly muddy. Maybe they all were, but the one we took was soft indeed, and our 3-ton Land Cruiser sunk into deep ruts, fishtailing. Even if we had wanted to turn around, we no longer could as the Land Cruiser would doubtless get bogged down. All we could do was keep our momentum and go wherever the ruts were taking us. They were caused by big trucks that have a wider axle track than our Land Cruiser. Sticking to both left and right ruts was impossible, and the challenge was to pick the right one and hope the differential wouldn’t dig itself in.
We work well as a team when facing such challenges. The driver focuses on what is right in front of the vehicle; the passenger calculates what is needed further down to maneuver around mud pools or which track to take when it splits into different directions. We were now driving across the dried-up Aral Sea, which was a weird idea. Parts of the plains were pitch black, others covered by a layer of snow.
We climbed out of the seabed onto the Mangystau Plateau. In the afternoon, we reached the village of Akbasty, passing a ship that lay rusting away in the desert. This came as a surprise as we were told these ships had all been sold as scrap metal. The village, however, had wanted to keep the memory of the disaster alive, and an explanatory panel stood next to the wreck. The village appeared deserted with three more small ships on the main (sand) road standing as a testimony to their past.
Coen entered a school building, asking for directions to the banya (hot spring). I had seen an image of it on the internet, and the winter temperatures were a good reason to visit it. We were sent to a house across the road, where somebody kept the key.
“How did you know where to get the key?” the homeowner asked.
“From the school.”
“Do you know how to get to the hot spring?” she asked.
“Well, I know it is in that direction,” I said, pointing vaguely southward.
She tried to explain where to go, and had my Russian been perfect, I would probably have understood her. But alas, I could only grasp the bare basics of her instructions. My rapidly blinking eyes and questioning look made the woman change tactics.
“Oh, okay. Here, my daughter will show you the way. Please, do bring her back immediately,” she said.
And so it happened that in a village in the middle of nowhere it was possible for a five- or six-year-old girl to get into a car with total strangers to guide them to a hot spring on the other side of the village. I climbed in the back, and Siva climbed on the passenger seat, pulling herself up on the dashboard in order to look over the hood. On the other side of the village, she pointed at a dilapidated white building. Coen checked the key; the door opened. We brought Siva back and returned once more to the banya. Outside, hot, steaming water ran on the ground from a thick pipe, but with the option to bathe indoors, our choice was quickly made. The inside was like a dark, damp, and humid cave. Condensation was everywhere, and finding a dry place to put our clothes was a challenge; I wrapped them in a plastic bag. The walls and ceiling were all covered in thick black deposits of minerals in the water. The pipe we had seen outside ran through the building and had holes in it with water pouring down from them in abundance—it was the simplest shower ever, but it was bloody hot and reinvigorating.
Stage 3 – To Benue
Once out of the dried-up Aral Sea, driving had become much easier. Sandy tracks cut, meandered, and zigzagged through endless open desert. Parts of them were frozen, making for particularly easy driving. We spotted camels and herds of horses, all seemingly undisturbed by the freezing temperatures and fierce wind. After camping in the wild in total solitude, we woke up to a blue sky and a bit of sunshine. What a difference the weather can make in how kind or hostile your surroundings look and feel.
We passed a town, Bozoy, which had a couple of small grocery stores where I bought eggs, bread, and biscuits. The people were distant and not interested in a chat. Finding the one gas station was not a matter of course, and we were sent from pillar to post—at least we got to see the whole town. Bozoy must be a terrible dust bowl in summer and a quagmire when it rains. Now, with freezing temps, the surface was more like an ice-skating rink. People heat their houses with gas (the good fortune of living in a gas-exploiting region), and pipes around 9 feet high crisscrossed the town along the houses. Nine feet is (more or less) the height of our Land Cruiser, so at some points, I got out and checked when Coen drove underneath the pipes to make sure we weren’t causing any damage.
With a full tank of winter diesel, we moved on south, confident that there would be a road all the way to Beyneu. Monotony set in. There were long hours of driving through empty spaces, only being shaken up if the frozen ground suddenly turned into a quagmire that required our attention for a while until, just as suddenly, the ground would harden again. However, as we know only too well, never take an easygoing ride for granted. Right when the journey was progressing smoothly, and the last 150 miles to Beyneu seemed to slip by without any hiccups, Coen suddenly uttered a soft expletive, followed by louder versions.
No more brakes! He let the Land Cruiser roll to a standstill and opened the hood.
A quick inspection showed that one of the two brake-line flares of the brake master had broken off. Not having the right tools to make a new flare on the line, we opted to drive on, without touching the brakes. Keeping moderate speeds and downshifting in time was the way to drive until we could get to a workshop with a flaring tool. At least the road was flat and straight, so there was no urgent need for the brakes, apart from the sudden bumps that did require a low speed. Coen didn’t want to use the brakes in order to preserve the brake fluid. Although we did carry a small container with extra brake fluid, we knew we’d need it in Beyneu, where we’d have to find our way to a workshop.
But, lo and behold, in the vast emptiness, we suddenly spotted a complex of buildings springing up on the horizon. We decided to check it out and see if people there could help. They were building a new pumping station for the gas pipe running from Kazakhstan to China, almost 2,000 miles long. At stations like this, they make sure the pressure is maintained on the gas. Remote as these places are, the workers have to be self-sufficient in many ways. Maintaining their gear and equipment is part of this, and behind the office building stood a large maintenance station and a fleet of heavy machinery. The mechanics immediately spotted an opportunity for some distraction and flocked around the Land Cruiser, fascinated by the vehicle as well as our journey. One man immediately knew what to do. He had the exact right tool and fixed the issue in a jiffy. Instead of asking for money—which they refused when we asked how much it cost—they offered us food, a shower, and even a bed!
Our energy recharged, and with perfectly working brakes, we hit the road once more. We were about halfway to the Caspian Sea and curious as to what adventure was waiting for us around the corner. That part will have to wait for another story.
Karin Marijke-Vis and Coen Wubbels
Freelance writer Karin-Marijke Vis, along with her partner, photographer Coen Wubbels, combine their love for adventure with work they enjoy. Sometimes described as being the “slowest overlanders in the world,” they believe in making connections and staying in a place long enough to do so. In 2003, the couple purchased an antique BJ45 Land Cruiser and began a three-year trip from their home in the Netherlands to Asia. Terminally infected by the overland bug, they traveled in South America for nine years, and in Japan and South Korea for two years. They are currently making their way through Russia and Central Asia. They’ve been published in magazines around the world, and in 2013, Expedition Portal awarded the pair the coveted Overlander of the Year award.