The road north along the Caspian coast from Turkmenbashi is so old and pitted that the constant swerving around holes and ridges adds miles to the trip. But taking them straight bounces our heads off the ceiling. We stop at a small cluster of Kazak yurts - gray felt tents at the edge of the Kara Kum Desert.
Here, life has changed little in thousands of years. The Arabian (one-hump) camel tethered in the camp is nursing a calf whose velvet snout is as delicate as a feather duster. Ana Bibi's family uses the milk, the wool, and the meat from their camels. They pasture sheep and horses as well in this soft sand and scrub. Inside their yurt, all is cool comfort. Wool felt carpets cover the floor in bright red, blue, and yellow rounded patterns older than Christianity. Long swaths of tightly woven, intricately patterned kilims swathe the ceiling. Mrs. Bibi offers us some fresh clotted cream, very close to what Americans call cottage cheese, from a wooden chest along the wall.
Outside, the Caspian Sea is Caribbean blue, with whitecaps from the cooling breeze. We drive on.
At least 100 miles from any other town, Bekdash rises like a sprawling ghost-factory city across a white lake of salt. Giant cranes and whole trains sit rusting in the sun. A cow occasionally ambles through the scene. A watchman sitting by a gate does not know what enterprise he is guarding.
The sulfate factory here used to fill two 2,500-ton cargo ships a week. Since the Soviet Union shrank from these shores, that weekly tonnage is all the factory has produced in the past six months - about 4 percent of its old productivity.
Bekdash's sewer and heating systems are no longer working. Fresh water is piped from Kazakstan for two hours, twice a week, and arrives the color of light tea from the rusty pipes. It takes two weeks for the color to settle out.
In a strange, Candyland touch, scattered about are poison ponds in Kool-Aid colors with white, frosted banks. There's a cherry-drink pond, an apple cider, a meandering lake the color of Welch's purple grape juice grown choppy from the stiff breeze, a limeade lake with craggy rock islands, and another the rusty red of weak tomato juice. Each contains the leachings of a different toxic extract from the sulfates.
We turn inland toward the Kara Bogaz Gol, a shallow gulf the size of Belgium no more than 50 feet deep, and only 8 to 10 feet deep in most places. We round a couple desert hills and run into a blizzard. A white sulfate storm as fine as flour whips off an open quarry and coats the village of Ozero. People, stucco buildings, a few yurts like igloos - all are heavily dusted with a billowing powder that tastes like detergent on the lips. It seeps into the car through cracks in the doors and windows.
The road is dirt by now. We come to the border station for Kazakstan, but that road leads north. We drive east, choosing unmarked forks in the road until we round a promontory to a four-mile beach of the shallow gulf and an encampment tucked into the hillside. There are army tents, an amphibious vehicle, trailers with satellite phones, faxes, computers, rows of microscopes, and burbling beakers. Sandbags are everywhere.
In traveling around the Caspian Sea, we have seen many visions of pioneering outposts of Western commerce beginning to colonize the ruins of the former Soviet Union.
We have seen the chain-link compounds of Tengizchevroil, with its air-conditioned portable buildings, Chevy Blazers, and cafeterias - so modest and low-profile, so practical and efficient - in the dusty rubble of an outback city like an "Escape from L.A." set long after the cameras had gone. We have seen the bustling, tasteful headquarters of the Azerbaijani International Oil Consortium, a mini-United Nations of oilmen standing in a city whose former glory is smudged and crumbled nearly beyond recognition.
But we have never seen a starker example of the dying Soviet idea and its toxic remains. And we are about to see an example of the busy but precarious new efforts to produce something in their midst. As we approach, a figure in jeans and a T-shirt strides toward us like Chuck Yeager out of a fighter crash in the desert. "How ya doin'," he says, speaking American.
Ali Kurtulus is in fact a Turk who had worked for the US Army for 25 years. He now runs this outpost on the edge of Kara Bogaz Gul for INVE Turkmenistan, a Belgian corporation that harvests brine shrimp as feed for the world's growing fish-farming industry.
The gulf, connected to the Caspian by only one inlet, is a 117-mile-by-57-mile evaporation pan under the desert sun. When the Caspian water level was falling to frightening levels in the late 1970s, the Soviets dammed the gulf, letting it dry out for several years. Now that the Caspian is rising - to very inconvenient levels - the gulf is full again, and the microscopic eggs of the shrimp have floated back to life and reproduced by the millions.
New eggs wash up on this beach from December through March like sand as much as a yard deep. INVE workers shovel them into sandbags.
INVE has been here a little over two years. It is still trying to figure out why some of the shrimp don't hatch under the same conditions as others. The salinity of the gulf has lately risen dangerously past the comfort level of brine shrimp. The quantity is up, but the quality is too low to sell. INVE has shipped some of the shrimp out to markets, but found that the truckers turned off the refrigeration en route to save money, and shrimp died.
Mr. Kurtulus speaks bitterly about the local population. After so many years under communism, he says, "they cannot hatch." As for the shrimp eggs, they can lie dormant in the hot sun for more than 25 years and still pop back to life when the cool water floods back in.
We drive back to Turkmenbashi, and later that night pile into the same Russian Lada for an eight-hour drive across the Kara Kum to Ashkhabad, the Turkmen capital.
Along a road at the edge of Ashkhabad, facing open fields, is a row of 24 hotels. They are architectural extravaganzas, but strangely quiet. Few cars stand in the lots, and taxis almost never pull up. All were built in the last five years by the government and are now managed by the ministry of tourism. We check into one.
The vision behind this hotel wasteland is difficult to imagine, except as a field-of-dreams hope for an impressive, cosmopolitan capital: "If you build it, they will come."