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October 3, 2002

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At 6 AM we pulled into Aralsk, a town that once stood on the edge of the Aral Sea as a thriving fishing port, now reduced to an environmental disaster zone of dust, 30 kilometers from the receding Aral shores. The Aral Sea disappears into the desert because its source waters have been diverted for irrigation projects elsewhere within Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world, after the Caspian, Lake Superior, and Lake Victoria. Now it's a puddle of its former self. Our train doesn't stay here long, it carries us southeast at a rickety pace. By noon we passed as close as any traveler can get to the Baykonur Cosmodrome, the launch site for all Soviet and Russian-crewed space flights since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit in 1961. At this point, our eyes straining in the desert to see anything interesting, a passenger asked if we were 'spions' (the Russian word for spy). Yes, we nodded.
Kazakhstan's population is 16 million, one of the least densely populated places on earth. Only 50% call themselves ethnic Kazaks, the rest are a bewildering mix of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Uyghurs, Tatars. The Kazakhs look like a mix of Turkic and Mongol stock.
Train traders - a watermelon for a Nike shoe.