Why you should care
Because visiting a secret former biological weapons testing site is extreme tourism at its best.
There is an eerie, absolute silence. I am in a dead city in the middle of a dead sea. It feels like I’m standing in a postapocalyptic movie set: no people, no animals. Zombies? Probably. Sand everywhere. But this is real, and I’m one of the first people allowed to set foot in Aralsk-7.
You won’t find this chilling ghost town on a map — this secret city was well guarded by the Soviet Union. But now you can visit Aralsk-7 on the mysterious island of Vozrozhdeniya — if you can stomach the journey and what you’ll see when you get there. Because not only is the island situated in the environmental catastrophe that is the dried-up Aral Sea on the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but it was also a former Soviet testing site for biological weapons. Visiting here is a shocking glimpse into Cold War history and a stark look at the damage industry can inflict on the planet.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Vozrozhdeniya Island was a fully equipped fortress, ready to strike back at “capitalistic sharks,” as Soviet newspapers called NATO countries. But before that, in the 1940s, the Soviet government began testing anthrax, the plague, tularemia and other biological weapons in preparation for a possible third world war. And it was all stored underground — in the middle of nowhere in Uzbekistan. A great place to hide secrets.
The city of Aralsk-7, planned for 1,500 inhabitants, has a school, restaurants, a military base, a laboratory, an airport and a harbor. “There was a disco and a cinema,” plus food supplied directly from Moscow, recalls Dmitriy Istomin, who was a soldier on the island from 1987 to 1989. “We took part in biological weapons testing at the island. We thought we were making a useful thing. Serve our homeland. This is what our political instructors were telling us.”
During a 24-hour period in 1992, Russian soldiers left Vozrozhdeniya Island. The quick evacuation meant that much was left behind: equipment, facilities, trucks, cars and documents. However, they took their Kalashnikov rifles with them and burned the tanks and armored personnel carriers.
It’s a 200-mile drive through desert with no water resources or mobile phone coverage.
Visitors to the island will see these burned-out shells of military might, plus abandoned buildings where Cold War–era relics exist, such as the menu of a local restaurant or a list of soldiers going on vacation. (Don’t forget to take a selfie under Lenin’s slogan, “Together to the victory of communism.”) As for people, you might spot scavengers hunting for old equipment and metal. Meanwhile, nature is reclaiming the island — like the native shrubs overtaking buildings and concrete roads — and erasing some of the human tracks from its surface. Environmentalists are calling for the protection of the unique fauna, which includes about 127 species, such as the rare pink flamingo, Central Asian turtle and saiga antelope.
Uzbekistan started to open its formerly “secret” places for tourists after the death of President Islam Karimov in 2016. Vozrozhdeniya isn’t an official tourist destination yet, but it “could be,” says Yusup Kamalov, a local scientist and president of the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea and Amu Darya. He compares it to other popular extreme-tourism locations like the Pripyat ghost town in Ukraine.
If the thought of checking out an abandoned Soviet military base gets your heart racing, you can try to arrange a personal visit. Officially, there is no ban on visiting the island, but you won’t find ads for it either. It’s a 200-mile drive through the desert with no water resources or mobile phone coverage. Vozrozhdeniya is no longer an island — the surrounding Aral Sea has dried up. A cotton production company in Central Asia drained much of the fourth-largest lake in the world; by 2001 it had lost 70 percent of its water surface, connecting the island to the mainland. You’ll also need a local guide, available in the closest cities: Nukus or Muynak.
Should you worry about those biological weapons? Officially — according to the U.S. Pentagon — there were no traces on the island in 2002. In August 2018, Kazakhstan, which owns half of the island, announced that Vozrozhdeniya is safe to visit (the Uzbek government has not said this). But if you listen to local rumors — people are still very afraid of the place — you’ll hear a different story: that biological danger remains a reality, that there are still anthrax warning signs.
Don’t want to visit the island? Visit the closest city to it: Muynak, a former Aral Sea harbor with a famous ship graveyard. An annual electronic music festival, Stihia (also known as the “Central Asian Burning Man”), is held here every September, where DJs spin tracks on the bottom of the former sea to hundreds of dancers. It will at least give you some of that postapocalyptic feel — stark evidence of what catastrophic harm human activity can do.
In June 2018, Nikita Makarenko was the first journalist, along with photographer Elyor Nematov, to visit Vozrozhdeniya Island with cameras.