Aralsk, Kazakhstan – The slow death of a fishing town

Aralsk (Aral), Kazakhstan

Aralsk, or Aral as it is also known, is a small town in western Kazakhstan. It was a once-thriving fishing port that is now a dusty, desert outpost miles from the shrunken Aral Sea.

The town is in a sad state with the only thing lapping at the shore, the scorching desert where boats have been replaced by camels.

Aralsk is in a very remote area some 1,000km from the capital Nur Sultan and 1,400km from Almaty.

Rusting railway car
Rusting railway car

Aralsk could be considered a dark tourism destination for a few reasons. The slow decay of a once thriving town, the dusty and rusting architecture and its location far from the rest of civilization.

However, one little-known fact about the place is that in 1971 there was an outbreak of smallpox after a weaponized batch was accidentally released from a nearby biological weapons testing centre.

Visiting in July 2019

A sailing boat marks the entrance to the town

I took the train to Aral from Shymkent in summer 2019. After exiting the small station, I walked into the bright desert sun. A white concrete sculpture of a sailboat above an anchor sat in the centre of a small, well-kept garden. I noticed a bus stop across the road and made my way there to escape the sun and find transport into town.

A young street cleaner in blue overalls and face scarf came over to inspect the newcomer. Her English was surprisingly good and she asked what I was doing in Aralsk. I explained I was a tourist and she smiled politely, giving me an inquisitive look. It seems Aralsk doesn’t see many tourists.

After a long wait, I managed to flag down a taxi which took me to my hotel. We passed over railway tracks and along dusty roads alongside disused factories. The town had a run-down feel to it but there was life on the streets. Camels searched for patches of grass on the dusty roadsides beneath rusting metal structures.

Camel in the desert
A camel in the baking Kazakh desert at Aralsk

Upon arriving at the hotel, the first thing I saw was three large motorcycles parked outside. The large BMW’s included flags of New Zealand and Australia. Perhaps tourists weren’t so uncommon after all. I entered a cool and dimly lit marble hallway. There didn’t seem to be a reception as such.

Inside the hotel were three guys in their fifties or sixties who were on a round-the-world motorcycle trip from London to Tasmania. I got cleaned up in my room and met them downstairs for a beer in the bar/restaurant.

Trucks in the town square

After a pleasant dinner (the company more than the food) I went for a walk around the dusty desert outside the hotel, but there wasn’t much to see apart from rusting metal and a few camels.

The next day I explored the small town, but there wasn’t a lot to see. The fisherman’s museum was closed, but I went down to the old port area where there were a few old fishing boats that had been preserved.

Rusting fishing boat
A rusting fishing boat at the old port in Aralsk

I explored the few monuments and statues that were dotted around the town and stocked up on a few supplies from the local supermarket.

Later that day I tried to purchase a ticket to Aktau, but the only train I could get a ticket for was to Aktobe where I would need to change, and that didn’t leave until the next day. I decided to change hotels and booked into the one next to the station. It is probably the most basic hotel I’ve ever stayed in in my life, but this wasn’t exactly Hong Kong or London so it didn’t matter too much.

Railway tracks
Railway tracks

The next morning, I walked past the old docks to some salt-flats that I had noticed. The desert sand was mixed with white crystals that glinted in the hot mid-day sun. I became dehydrated pretty quickly and sat down to rest and drink water. It must have been over 40c and sweat dripped from my brow. In the distance I could make out shimmering pools of water which must have been part of the returning Aral Sea.

Salt flats in Aralsk
Salt flats in Aralsk

In the evening I packed up and made my way to the station for the long ride west. The trains covering this section of Kazakhstan are the old soviet ones and not the modern, air-conditioned trains that ply the more popular routes. Within 30 seconds of entering my cabin, sweat was falling from my head. It was going to be a long, hot ride.

Things to see and do in Aralsk

Soviet War Memorial
Soviet War Memorial

There isn’t much to see in the way of tourist attractions in Aralsk. There is a small history museum and a fishing museum dedicated to the town’s past. It was possible to see boats and ships rusting in the desert up until a few years ago, but these have now been removed by Chinese scrap metal merchants.

The town square has a small monument to the fallen of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). There are a couple of howitzer guns, a fading “I love Aral” sign and a few benches.

There is a small statue of Kazakh hero Bekmyrza Khan on the way to the railway station and close to the local mosque.

Bekmyrza Khan Statue
Bekmyrza Khan Statue

There are a few large salt-lakes on the edge of town which are worth a quick look.

Salt flats
Salt flats

The Lonely Planet guidebook mentions an NGO by the name of Aral Tenizi which can help arrange 4X4 trips into the desert and home-stays, but I could find no evidence of this being in operation during my stay in 2019.

Where to stay in Aralsk

There are a few small hotels in town, but they are very basic. I spent one night in the Kerney Sarani Hotel on the outskirts of town. It was clean, comfortable and had a large dining hall with a small bar that served cold beer. I later moved to a hotel next to the train station and instantly regretted the decision as it was very, very basic.

Banks/ATMs in Aralsk

There is a BTA Bank with ATM on the small square across from the Soviet Memorial on Abulkhair.Khana.

How to get to Aralsk

The train station is called “Aralskoe More” and is 1km northeast of the centre. There are daily trains to and from:

Aktobe, Kyzylorda, Turkistan, Shymkent and Almaty.

Buy train tickets from the ticket office at the station. Best to get a ticket in advance (I had to wait an extra day to get the train west to Aktobe).

Where to next?

Check out my new guide to backpacking in Kazakhstan for more top destinations and great money-saving tips! If you have come from Almaty or Nur-Sultan then you can head further west to visit the Caspian Sea at Aktau. From Aktau it’s possible to take a boat to Baku in Azerbaijan.

Dunhuang, Gobi Desert, China

About the author:

Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has traveled to over 60 countries, lived in Armenia, China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.

Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of the world by train, bus and boat. He has been interviewed multiple times by the BBC and recently featured in the documentary Scariest Places in the World. See the About page for more info.

Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲

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