The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Yesterday, upon the steppes, I saw a sea which wasn’t there…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Aral Sea ship graveyard near Zhalanash used to host a dozen beached fishing trawlers. They had fled from the port of Aralsk as the sea dried up, but then, with nowhere else to flee, had been abandoned at Zhalanash. Most of the ships have long since been broken up and taken for scrap, but there are still the partial remains of one larger ship and two small ones. All the hulls and most of the deck have been removed, but the decayed superstructures are largely intact. The larger ship in particular is quite striking and I clambered cautiously up to the rotten higher deck and the bridge. Although the ships are just skeletons they are great fun to see; suitably eerie and alien on the dry salty sea bed, which is covered with sand, grass and small sea shells.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is in Kazakhstan, at the Northern end of the Aral Sea. The Southern end of the sea is dying, but while the Northern section of the sea is still much lower than in the past, its level has been stabilized and has even partially recovered due to the Kok-Aral Dam, which keeps the Northern water boxed in to a small manageable area. Freshwater fish have now returned and displaced the saltwater flounders, and there is even hope that sturgeon may return.

After visiting the sea itself, we stopped at the nearby village of Tastubek, which lives by fishing and livestock farming. My guide, Serik from Aral Tenizi, had arranged lunch with a Kazakh family. This was fun. The young wife had prepared a fine meal, with a tasty dish of horsemeat and potatoes; good bread; apricots in syrup; and much else. I enjoyed a cup of shumat, fermented camel milk, which tastes like a very sour and slightly bitter yoghurt. Half way through, the husband returned and struck up a conversation in mixed Turkish/Kazakh with a Turkish visitor. I was amused when a Turkish suggestion of “… Instagram?” was rebuked with a vigorous Kazakh assertion of “ … Whatsapp!”.

The next day we drove to visit the Kok-Aral Dam. Visually this is very tame, merely a low ridge on a concrete core. We stopped at a large set of sluice gates, currently open, which allow excess water to drain South. By allowing fresh water to enter the Northern sea from the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River while sending overflows of mixed semi-salty water to exit South, the wise Kazakhs are also freshening the Northern section. Unfortunately none of the exiting water makes it to Uzbekistan or the Southern section of the sea. It all dries up within 70km at most. There is a plan to raise the height of the dam, thus expanding the stabilized Northern area, with work planned to start next year. So the Aral Sea may yet return to Zhalanash and its beached ships, and to the currently high-and-dry fishing port of Aralsk!

Quito: Equatorial Spin

Water spinning at EquatorI’m at the little Museo Intinan on the equator, near Quito, Ecuador.  Our guide is enthusiastically demonstrating exciting scientific facts about the Equator!  She positions a basin on the Equator line, pours water in, pulls the plug, and we watch the water drop straight down without spinning.  She moves the basin a few feet North, refills, and the water spins counter-clockwise as it drains out.  Then again a few feet South of the line, more water, and now it drains out spinning clockwise.  The audience is enthralled.  The Coriolis Force at work!  A scientific wonder!

There are, alas, two tiny flaws in this charming demonstration.  First, the “museum” is actually about 100 meters South of the true Equator, despite its brightly painted “Equator Line”.  Second, the Coriolis Force does indeed influence spin, but only on the scale of oceans or hurricanes, not on the scale of water basins!

So how does the “demonstration” work?  I initially suspected a trick with the plug hole, or how the plug is removed.  But no.  The trick appears to be in how the water is poured in.  By choosing which corner to target, the guide can impart an almost imperceptible swirl to the water within the basin.  The guide can also accentuate this while apparently fishing out floating leaves.  As the water drains, the swirl is picked up and accentuated at the drain.  It’s a fine trick and I congratulated the guides on how skillfully they executed it!

Equatorial ScotsmanThere is also a demonstration of how it is easier to balance an egg on end at the Equator, because of the lack of Coriolis force.  Hurrah!  It’s all very silly, but taken as a harmless magic show, it’s quite fun.

Nearby, is a much more serious, official, Equator park at Mitad del Mundo, with a commemorative tower and an official yellow Equator Line.  But alas, although this is charming, it is even further South from the true equator!

Using my pocket GPS I was able to navigate a few hundred meters North and cross the true Equator line, untarnished by any painted lines or markers.

Antarctica: Graham Land

Graham Land: A Land where Grahams roam proud and free!

Graham Land: A Land where Grahams roam wild and free!

I finally succumbed to temptation and took a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula.

I saw a great range of wildlife: many, many humpback whales, a pod of killer whales, a leopard seal, great hordes of swaggering Gentoo penguins, some shyer Adelie penguins, many chinstrap penguins, wandering albatrosses, petrels, and more.  The scenery, with ice bergs, ice cliffs, jaggy snowy crags, was truly striking – alien, forbidding, beautiful all at once.

But for me the high point was our landing at Neko Harbour, in Graham Land, on the Antarctic continent itself.  I promptly declared the Independent Republic of Graham Land.  By viewing this website you are hereby declared an honorary citizen.  You may expect your first tax bill shortly.

Caracas Supermarkets

Long displays of Chocolate Muesli (!) at a government supermarket

A long display of Chocolate Muesli (!) fills out the shelves at a government supermarket

Venezuela has a mix of nationalized and private businesses, but all with strong state controls.  So I was curious to visit some Caracas supermarkets.  I started at a large private supermarket.  This had a decent range of imported and local foods, but there were many surprising gaps: no milk, no basic flour, no basic cheese, no chicken, no fresh meat. But there was plenty of yoghurt, expensive sausage, preserved meat, fancy cheeses and special “improved” flour.  The difference is that the non-available goods are all price controlled, with the prices set to artificially low levels, well below the true market price.  So naturally demand is high and supply low, and shortages the norm.  And since yoghurt is not price-controlled but milk is, there is yoghurt but not milk.  Sigh.  As I commented to my guide, Adam Smith would have said “I told you so!”

Socialist Rice!  From state-run farms to a state-run supermarket.

Socialist Rice! From state-run farms to a state-run supermarket.

We next visited a government supermarket, selling mostly price-controlled goods. The state runs nationalized farms, distribution systems and supermarkets, giving it complete control of the supply chain.  The supermarket had an oddly limited range of goods and the long ranks of shelves were often stocked with long ranks of identical packages. Some of these were basic staples from government controlled farms, but there were also things like Pepsi, or Del Monte canned vegetables, or other imported brands.   There were the same gaps for milk/cheese/flour/etc as in the private supermarket.

Venezuela has vast oil reserves and should be a wealthy country.  But even beyond the supermarkets, Caracas felt subdued and even shabby, with even the supposedly high-end malls in the Las Mercedes district looking tired and surprisingly quiet just before Christmas.

The government has several different official rates, starting at 7 Bolivars to the dollar and  running up to 96:1.  The black market rate is around 180:1.  The government allows imports at these different rates depending on the perceived priority of the use.  Medicine and food get the best rates.  The supermarkets are allowed to obtain some foreign currency for food at the lowest official rate, meaning they can offer a supply of imported goods at low prices.  But the rules are of course arcane and there is much scope for corruption.

Gas in Caracas costs 0.9 Bolivars per liter. So it’s dirt cheap. Prices have not been allowed to rise since the 1990s, partly as the last attempt to remove subsidies had been the final straw that had provoked widespread popular unrest in 1989.

Tibet: Everest Base Camp

Everest from RongbukTibet has been on my target list for many years. I finally made it!

I took the train in from Lanzhou to Lhasa and then overlanded out to Kathmandu, with a short detour to the Chinese Everest Base Camp, up at 5180 meters (16990 ft). We drove up from Shegar and got to EBC shortly after dawn, on a wonderfully clear day, and were rewarded with an epic view over the mighty mountain. Hurrah!

Scotsman at launch controlsYou enter through the basement blast doors and then ride the tiny elevator 11 levels down into the armored control silo. You and one of your comrades man the launch control consoles. A quick consultation, then 1-2-3 you each turn your launch key and simultaneously push your launch button. And the SS-24 ICBM roars into the sky!

Well, fortunately there aren’t any missiles in the silos anymore, but otherwise it was an authentic USSR missile launch sequence, in a real cold war Soviet ICBM silo. The consoles we were using were the originals and really could have launched nuclear doom back in the day, so pushing the launch button made for a very eerie experience.

Launch control consoleI’d been down a US ICBM silo (at the Titan Missile Museum) and simulated a launch there. So I was excited to have a chance to launch a retaliatory strike from inside the USSR. The Pervomaisk Missile Museum is in Southern Ukraine and is based in an old Soviet launch complex. We were told that the site had hosted SS-24 missiles targeted at the US East Coast. The missile silos themselves have now been filled in, under disarmament treaties, but the control silo has been preserved as part of the museum.

The complex has a surface museum, with models of the various silos, and there are also a few old missile and giant transporter trucks. But the high point is definitely visiting the control silo, playing with the controls and then lounging in the small crew room. As with the Titan command silo, the Soviet command silos are heavily shielded and the command structure is suspended within its silo to resist shock.

The Museum is near Pervomaisk about a 3 hour drive South of Kiev. I visited on a day tour run by SoloEast (aka TourKiev).

Into the control silo...Scotsman in the silo crew room