We had been driving in Kazakhstan for a few days already; kind of tired of crossing hundreds of kilometers without anything in between – just desolate landscape.
But, today was going to be an interesting day, we were heading towards what would be the highlight of Kazakhstan (in our trip, at least) – the ship graveyard at the Aral Sea.
Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometers (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.”
While it’s sad that the Aral Sea is in such condition, we were all quite excited to see the ships, yet we weren’t too sure how or where to find them. As you would imagine, a sea is quite big… well, this one was.
We got to the town of Aralsk, located next to the sea, in hopes of finding the exact location of the ships. After a brief research through the locals, we found out that they are actually located about 64km away from the town and the only way to get there is by taking a single 64km dead end dirt road.
We really wanted to see them, so taking that dead end road was nothing to us… Hey, we are driving over 16,000km in the rally, so what would 64km more would do to us?
We started the tortuous drive and soon realized it would be two hours of rattling over gravel and random potholes. Nothing new to us, though.
Our four teams -The Thunderyaks, The Great Danes, The Cads and Bounders, and Gobi or Go Home- mastered the first few kilometers without any problem. That is until our car, The Thunderyaks, blew the first tire. A quick stop to change the tire and we were off again!
Along the road, since it is not transited at all, we decided to get out of the cars and sit on the windows and the roof. We were convoying rally style! We jumped between cars, drank vodka while sitting on the roof, and raced each other almost as if we were on a smooth race track.
We were living the moment and making the best of this “off-roading”.
When we reached the end of the road, we noticed that it didn’t actually reach the ships, but ended in a small village called Zhalanash. We were a bit confused at first and started asking the locals about the ships.
None of them could understand us, but as soon as we used body language to represent ships stuck on the sand, they understood and pointed us to go about a mile or two further into the desert.
We were cool with that and planned to camp next to the ships since it was quite late already.
But before we left towards the ships, we decided to do something special for the kids in the village. The Thunderyaks had been carrying a box full of donated toys all the way from London, so they decided to gift it to the kids.
As soon as the kids noticed the box of toys, they reached the car like piranhas and ate the box of toys with all their fury. They grabbed toy cars, ping pong sets, water pistols, keychains, and all sorts of different toys.
The toys were finished, yet the kids still wanted more. Still, we understood their desire for more. There is absolutely nothing in this village, so they don’t have access to toys and many other resources.
We felt really good that we could help at least in a small way.
Then, it was time to finally head to the ships. We made our way further into the desert for about 3 minutes, until Gobi or Go Home’s car got stuck in the sand.
No worries, we’re well prepared for this. As we reached towards their car to rescue them, we got stuck too. No biggie, there are two more cars to rescue us.
But, as expected, those two cars got stuck too!
All 4 cars were crippled on the sand. We struggled for a while; pushing with our own hands, pulling with other cars, and even putting camel bones under the tires for traction. None of these worked.
Still, we had one more “secret weapon” in our hands – waffle boards. These are holed boards you put under the tires so they can act as the perfect traction to get any car out of any sticky situation.
And voila, the Thunderyaks car was out of the sand! And with the Thunderyaks car, we carefully pulled out the other three cars. We were the heroes of the day! (well, we needed some pulling too!)
As we enjoyed the glory of rescuing all teams, we realized that the ships were far from our reach. We could do nothing but see them from the distance. Should we try again, we would get all stuck in the sand again.
Oh well, we admitted defeat and headed back a few kilometers to set camp along the road.
We had an amazing camping night with all 15 team members drinking and enjoying the night like no other.
To our wonder, the Kazakhstani desert had a small surprise for us – a moonless night with absolutely no luminous pollution. We could see countless stars, the Milky Way, and even Mars with our bare eyes!
The following morning we woke up to witness a few double-humped camels walking past the campsite and a few village boys walking their little goats and lambs. I couldn’t contain myself from holding one of them!
At about 11 am we packed our camp and headed back to the road, as usual, yet a bit sad that we didn’t accomplish the main reason we headed this way – to see the ships.
Still, ships or no ships, this was one of the most fun rally days since we made the best of every moment we had and enjoyed the misadventures of getting stuck in the sand as a convoy of four cars.
Who would think such an unaccomplished day would be so fun?
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