(latest entry, I. The Americas -- beginning of journal, II. Africa, III. Europe, journalism, videos, map)JOURNAL:
A Journey Around the World
IV. Asia: Naked and Excessive
(warning: raw thoughts, rough draft, to be plundered for more polished pieces; facts, spelling, piquancy not checked)
Well, that's a relief! I asked one of the conductors, through someone who speaks English at the station, whether this train I've just boarded is safe. The train goes from Europe to Asia, from Moscow to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. I'll be getting off a bit earlier -- in Samarkand. It will take a few days, and from the looks of it, I'll be the only foreigner on board, the only English speaker. The conductor's answer? The train is "almost safe."
But, after the last-minute okay of my Kazak transit visa, I was mad-rushing to get here. So It's a comfort to lay my backpack down in this "lux" compartment on this worn-rug, dirty-windowed, Uzbek-staffed train. May 22. It's a comfort to be sitting and watching out a window, once again. It's kinda fun to be, once again, the only American around and, consequently, to get invited to visit the chief conductor's house when I make it to Tashkent. And it's exciting to be going where I want to go, once again, which is to where I haven't been. Besides, I'm pretty sure that conductor was only warning me to keep my door locked at night. No problem there, I'm thinking. I do, however, deploy my recently purchased chain to at least slow down anyone with a notion to pinch my precious stuff.
The World Movie begins to play, once again, as I push aside the curtains on the train's windows. It features, right now: spring-green, thick-grassed lands; little ponds, some of them colored by moss; herds of shiny-white giraffe birches; lilacs -- lavender and, a first for me, white -- blooming and (presumably) perfuming; petite Christmas-colored villages; babushkas in black robes and white kerchiefs, carrying wooden farm tools. Dark-gray clouds make the case for the futility of human existence. It's lucky it's only a movie, or I'd be getting wet. It's lucky it's only a movie or I'd be losing my optimism.
I can see (best seat in the house) everything -- a constantly changing everything. For soundtrack, I have a speaker, crackly-loud, in my compartment, pumping in Russified, violined versions of American pop. The volume-control knob...broken.
I almost know where I'm going. I can almost communicate with the other people on this train. I almost brought enough food and water. I'm "almost safe." But at this moment I'm entirely happy to be here.
This train may not exactly be making tracks, but it is using them rapidly.
I'm thinking -- looking around the train, now -- about those rectangular, reddish-plaid, cheap, plastic suitcase bags into which many of these Uzbeks, like so many Russians, have stuffed their stuff. I'm thinking that I saw the same bags in South America, in Africa, in the poorest corners of Europe. Here, as with those plastic, between-the-toes sandals, is a nonwestern, rarely discussed example of globalization.
I have friends in Russia, but I know that Russians who have not become your friend can be rather unfriendly (in some circumstances; I'm not foolish enough to take this too far). A lot of not-nice emanates from behind counters, behind desks. And on Russian trains I often went without a "hello" (a word I'm actually capable of understanding in Russian). There's a historical explanation for this: czars, serfs, gulags, wars and more wars. It's a persuasive explanation: They've really had good reason to guard their own loaf of bread. But one problem with that explanation is that the folks in Central Asia haven't evaded much of that horrible history, but, on this Uzbek train, I am assaulted by -- mostly nonverbal -- friendliness: People coming in to sit beside me, even though we can't do much more than smile at each other. Foods of all sorts are offered and shared. Warmth is exuded. Invitations extended.
Guy I don't recognize comes into my compartment, wearing a tie. Asks to look at my passport. Looks at my Uzbek visa, looks at my Russian visa. Asks for something: Is it money? Holds up his hand and says "five" in Russian. I say I don't understand -- a Russian phrase that often comes in handy. Here it seems better than handy: He seems, somehow, satisfied. Gets me the blanket I need. Gives me his business card. Then I seem to be being offered another place to stay in Tashkent. Later I learn he's just a fellow passenger. Point is I so often have so little idea what is going on.
Indeed, there seems to be a kind of relaxed understanding of what's happening on this train that others possess, but I don't -- where, for example, we're stopping (and the further we get from Moscow the more frequent and lengthy the stops become), what's being sold on or near the train, when we're entitled to communal food, who is responsible for what where. I suspect this understanding is connected in some way with language. Is this purified befuddlement contributing to my spiritual development? Such opportunities being rather uncommon back home.
A whole two-bed sleeping compartment to myself until 2:05 a.m., May 23, when I awake to someone knocking on my door. "Who's there?" ain't gonna do it here. Who'd understand? Instead, I watch all the security procedures I'd worked out in my head (along with the chain, I'd even purchased extra door-locking wire with this long and deep train ride in mind), I watch them evaporate. I succumb to the basic human impulse toward amicability. I simply open the door. The knocker, blessedly, proves to be one of the friendly conductors. He points to the other bed. He points to himself. I nod my head. We lock the door again. He goes to sleep. (I suspect that the beds supposed to be reserved for the conductors have been sold on the side.) At 7:55 a.m. they change shifts, and conductor number two -- a man of greater girth -- stretches out across from me and immediately falls asleep.
When, a bit later, I cautiously, trying to let that sleeping conductor lie, open the curtain a bit and take a peek out the window, I see nothing but flat, grassy steppe. Cossack-horse-feeding steppe. Barbarian-horde-horse-feeding steppe. This is the grass eaten by the magnificent war machines that overran civilizations from China to Rome. It stretches too far on the too big continent I am once again entering -- this time without turning back. It has caused too much trouble.
Long, increasingly slow, train. Starts cold and gets hot and then hotter. That gift of a blanket loses value. The fact that the window in my compartment doesn't open grows more frustrating. Leave the door open and everyone stares in; close it and whatever motion the train lends the air my air must do without. I laze and read and write -- six new essays before we arrive. I can take heat; I just crawl inside myself, putting some distance between me and my skin. (Same trick apparently unavailable to me when it's cold; I can't take cold.)
I visit the dining car. Eat a meal. My name there is simply "America" -- "here America," "you're welcome America." The uneasy rider. But this will be America's last visit to the dining car. When I head that way this evening for a beer, the chief conductor catches me, directs me back to my compartment and insists on providing a liter-and-a-half bottle of beer for me himself. When I head that way another time in search of a meal, he sends me back and has someone bring me a meal. On the way back I shake a couple of hands. Hereabouts Mr. America is something of a celebrity, or a conversation piece, or a mascot, or the butt of jokes. Hard to tell.
Got on the train with that Kazak transit visa finally in my passport, feeling like I got this border thing aced. But then I start picking up disturbing hints -- hints that we're also passing through another country. Uh oh. Goes by the name of Turkmenistan. Nothing to do now but laze, read, write and occasionally try to communicate my problem to some of my new friends. The chief conductor assures me that he'll take care of this border crossing snag.
I'm seeing, out my window, the occasional village; yet another version of the shack -- this time wood-board (for animals or people?); a wood-wheeled cart; few trees; no hills; a seemingly limitless flatness, with just occasional dark shapes floating in the heat-haze on the horizon (clumps of bushes or trees? clumps of further-off human settlements?). I'm seeing forever steppe, on-and-on-and-on steppe. And I'm thinking -- struggling, in fact, to cobble together this theory -- that traditional life is similarly unvaried: from day to day, from continent to continent. Forever. On and on. Isn't life with chickens life with chickens whether it's done here or in the Amazon or next to the Sahara or in some province of ancient Rome?
One thing, though: Steppe grasslands, like Sahara deserts, come in colors: green, brown, tan, olive, yellow, rust, off-white. Aren't human lives -- Mr. Theory Maker -- undoubtedly equally variegated?
More people coming on board and it becomes clear that America will not be alone for long. Friendly conductor -- winking and smiling the whole time -- directs a blond, female college student to the other bed in my compartment (exact compartment reservations are clearly being ignored). Turns out to have a bad cold (which she cleans up after, in this paper-short part of the world, with her hand). Turns out to speak more English than just about any other adult I meet on this train. Turns out to be not enough English to carry on a conversation (even with help from my pitiful shards of Russian) that extends much beyond recitals of where-from, what-do and how many children -- in her case: Samarkand (but of Russian ancestry), journalism student (of all things) and, not surprisingly, none. Everybody I've met around the world has heard of "New York," which helps in my case. (New Jersey is another matter.)
I am, I notice, surrounded on this train by mostly Asian faces -- people who live in Uzbekistan and have had some reason for being in Russia. Apparently aren't a lot of people living in Russia with reason to spend a few days traveling to Uzbekistan. (Many people of Russian origin have been exiting these countries.) The females -- passengers and hawkers on the platforms -- are wearing a wide variety of clothing from Western to the kerchief-skirt-sock look, variously cut and colored.
And I've been watching, out my dirty window, the faces outside turn darker and rounder. I've been watching Europe blend into Asia. When this formally happens, I don't know. When we leave Russia and enter Kazakstan, I don't know, though at some point customs people do get on. In fact, where I am at any particularly time, I usually don't know. Handing fellow passengers, or even conductors, one of my maps, accompanied by quizzical looks, doesn't seem to help much.
Laze, write and read -- still, and for quite a while to go, the Brothers Karamazov. (Dostoyevsky's famous Siberian exile was in fact, I read elsewhere, to a corner of Kazakstan.) And, of course, I watch the World Movie.
Sand starts to appear amongst the grasses. Then more sand, less grass. The steppe has been blending into desert. In the evening a few two-humped camels get a walk-on role in this flick.
Woken for Kazak exit customs, May 24. Get stared at a lot here when people learn where I'm from. I ask one customs guy who speaks some English how often they see an American. "Once a month," he replies. My clip-on sunglasses prove a particular attraction. Acquaintances on the train try to help out by explaining to these curious guards what I don't have the language to quickly explain but have been able to get across to them through various word salads and pantomimes . It's nice to have a bunch of friendly faces supporting you. (Oh, the places in which you can make friends!) However, when one neighbor from the train starts explaining to a guard that I'm a journalist, I get nervous. That hard-won transit visa, like all the other visas I've gotten to date, is a tourist visa. But there are no snags for me here. And I've got the visa for Uzbekistan. It's Turkmenistan that's the problem.
Two frustratingly incomplete stories: There are, apparently, snags for others at the Kazak-Uzbekistan border. We're stuck here for two hours (though no one grumbles in any manner I can understand). First story: At one point a military type and the chief conductor escort a crying woman through the car. I don't have the language to learn more.
Then a train, perhaps grungier and more crowded than our own, pulls up on the next track. "Tajikistan" a few people separately indicate to me while staring at the crowds of hot, tired individuals who fill its compartments and who are often in the process of staring at hot, tired us. Tajikistan is spoken of (in these attempts at communication) disdainfully -- there being always somewhere someone from anywhere can speak of with disdain. "Drugs," the disdainful Uzbeks manage to say. (These attempts at communications are not easy.) Second story: At one point I see a couple of guys with boxes jump on board the Tajik train and attempt to shut the door behind them. A border guard who had been standing nearby makes sure they don't and goes in after them. Then a guard leading a dog, presumably drug-sniffing, follows. I hear that dog barking somewhere in that train. I don't have time to see more. We leave. I always leave. You're used to more complete stories.
We have crossed, presumably, into Uzbekistan. And now it's all desert, and I get an eerie blast of Mauritania vibes, like I'm going backwards. Mauritania was the scariest part of my trip, the weirdest, the most intense. But I had escaped it. I've also escaped and then returned to many other common earth landscapes: forests, rivers, streams, seas and countless habitats of women in kerchiefs. But this second desert (because deserts are more foreign to me, more haunted for me?) fills me with the feeling -- an "it's over" feeling -- that this oversized, incomprehensible world is beginning to repeat itself. Has my trip ended?
No. Got big, old Asia to go. Our car gets more crowded. Four in some of these "lux" doubles. Some are sleeping on the floor of the corridor. (More side business, I surmise.) You step around them on the way to the john. We spend a lot of time stopped and unable to use the john. I root for the train to move again -- so we can get where we're going, so the Movie will play, so the toilets will reopen, so the air will circulate. And eventually we do move but -- this being, although its not the Sahara, real desert -- it just gets hotter.
I lose the small sleeve in which I keep my attention-getting clip-on sunglasses. I hate losing things. Five or six people eventually get involved in a futile search -- traveler's aid? or just a chance to kill some time?
I'm usually real good at guessing the time -- within, say, ten minutes. Now I have no clue. I may never, as an adult, have been so out of touch for so long with the passing of the hours. I may never have been so unconcerned by it. Days are all that matters.
Six or seven different Uzbek border guys look through my fat American passport. ( I won't pretend I'm not proud of its girth.) They peer into my compartment as if they were looking into a cage in the zoo. But nothing proves amiss.
The Karakalpakstan Republic is among the smaller and more miserable of the jigsaw-puzzle pieces that make up former-Soviet Central Asia and that may become better known if this place ever succumbs (or is allowed to succumb?) to the anti-attractive forces that expressed themselves in the former Yugoslavia. What this "Republic" is doing, with vague hints of autonomy, in Uzbekistan is not all that clear. People from Karakalpakstan apparently don't feel very Uzbek. Lots of people around here don't feel very whatever their passport says they are supposed to be. (This trip -- though I ain't no flag lover, though I ain't no champion or, even, defender of "the world's only superpower" -- has made me feel more of what my passport says I'm supposed to be.)
Looking for the failings of centralized planning? Karakalpakstan was ground zero. The Soviets' idea, in essence was to pump water into the fields to support a monocrop -- thirsty cotton. Water that had once fed the Aral Sea. Our train is currently exploring the KR, at its usual leisurely pace. I see desert that sure seems not to have wanted to become cotton fields. I see some odd water patterns. I see some irrigation systems: a canal, outside of Qongirat, running through some desert that does seems to have been persuaded to give cotton a chance. But the flooded fields, the shrunken Aral Sea, the chemical pollution, I learn of only from my guidebook. The Lonely Planet calls this "one of the saddest places on earth." How could you see something like that? Would there be an unusually large proportion of frowns?
We stop at Qongirat and actually get off the train for a while. And there, spread out on the platform, are the members of my little situation-comedy family, familiar to me now amongst the unfamiliar. Our gang is quickly surrounded by mostly women, in mostly bright-colored, mostly flower-patterned dresses, a few with light pants underneath; mostly wearing similarly patterned kerchiefs -- tied so there's a bit of a flow in the back; mostly not frowning. These women (to revert, for the moment, to a more normal sentence structure) are holding and selling large fish, apparently from the local river, dried bronze and split in half lengthwise so they look unusually wide.
I take some characteristically tentative stabs at buying something -- a bottle of water would be nice: It's hot and I've run dry. But the the liter-and-a-halfs held up by others of those women look dusty, their labels worn. Guidebooks everywhere warn that such bottles can be refilled. I carefully examine the caps and decide, always the easiest decision for me, not to buy. And remain thirsty. And then I'm offered -- rather insistently -- some of one of those fish. I learn it was not only dried but salted. Stop lasts two-and-a-half hours.
Eating more too-salty fish and a bit of improvised salad in a little dinner party that floats between a couple of compartments. Some coke in a shared glass. My first swigs of vodka, remarkably, in almost a week in the former SU. My compartment-mate is trying to remember a bit more English. And I'm being taught (Sisyphusian task) some Uzbek (everyone also speaks Russian). We're almost communicating. Often laughing. I'd be a lot more comfortable back home. I'd likely be more consistently happy talking to family and friends, eating my food, in my house. It is, after all, sweltering -- no breeze, long-busted air-conditioning, busted ventilation system, windows that don't open. But I'm hanging in there (one of my skills). And it is really interesting (one of my words). And I am, it ain't just the vodka, so glad to be here.
I could dance, I imagine, with people in any part of the world. One (not tone-deaf I, alas) could sing with anyone. And now I am actually laughing, sometimes deep, belly laughing, at things said mostly without language, with a gang of Uzbeks on a train in Karakalpakstan. I think I could do this with gangs from anywhere in the world. Tell me, diversity lovers, am I to find this rather profound element of global connection, of global sameness, of humankind-wide humanity, cause for regret?
A man in my car asks me, somehow, if I know Spanish. Not sure which of us knows less, but we get some words out.
The lowering sun provides the train with a large and clear shadow. As we leave one Karakalpakstan town, I see shadow forms running atop this shadow train.
While reading about religion in Central Asia, I find the solution, if not the point, of a story I told about Africa: You are not supposed to walk between an Islamic person who is praying and Mecca. In Senegal I had done that. He had lashed out.
More scurrying shadow forms. And around a particularly sharp curve I see actual human forms riding outside, on top of nearby cars. I point. The chief conductor dismisses them with a word I hear used to similarly dismiss people living in tents outside some of these desert towns. Gypsies.
Why have T-shirts become such an international medium. I see one on this Uzbek train that says, "Venice Beach, California." I see one that says, "Rio." Or has the world of clothing in general become international, a fact which T-shirts, since they can speak through more than just their labels, proclaim.
I blink. I -- the great watcher -- find myself closing the curtains in my compartment on this dirty-windowed train. The desert sun is so hot. The desert steppe so unvarying. Though at some point someone points out to me a whirlwind, a round cloud of sand, off in the distance.
One measure of how little I have to do and how little I have been able to say is how much I write in this journal. For example, I'll tell you, since I can tell no one else, that a woman has been walking back and forth through this train demonstrating a toy that screams, in American, "Fire!" and then adds some electronic shooting noises.
Another border. We are about to begin drifting, though not very deep, in and out of Turkmenistan. This will be my first attempt to enter a country without the required visa. But I got people on this train. I hope.
Time zones change without me knowing it. I have reason to believe this has just happened again.
Every time the chief conductor walks by we exchange hand over heart signs -- friends, brothers, undying something-or-others. Funny how easy this pantomime is for me. I'm kinda pleased to be the American. I'm more pleased -- and let's hope this is as jejune as I'll get -- to be a human among humans.
1:55 a.m. (give or take an hour), May 25. Shook down. One thousand rubles. More than thirty bucks. (Okay, it doesn't sound like much, but I'm used to eating for a couple of bucks.) I'm steaming -- angry, in part, at myself. Guys-- Turkmenistan guys -- knocked. Woke me. Spoke some English. Looked through the passport. Noticed absence of a visa. Bet that made them real sad. I tried to explain that I didn't know the train passed through here. My compartment-mate tried to help out. You have to have a visa, they insisted. We were stuck. Eventually either a guard indicated or I indicated the possibility of money. I pulled out, after some deliberation, five hundred rubles. Border guard says, "What about him?" -- pointing to another policeman outside the door. I, too quickly, removed a second such note from my wallet. That certainly did it. Cheaper, most likely, than the visa would have been; didn't have to get the right papers or wait on line; but the whole thing feels ugly, and, what's worse, I feel I went too high, too fast. And what happens now at the next border station? So I'm pacing outside my door for a while, and someone tries to calm me down. Later the chief conductor indicates that he took care of things. Did we pay a double bribe?
10 a.m. We're in Turkmenistan again. More border police. Bags searched. Antibiotics studied. Various potions, lotions and power cords examined. I'd been keeping my video camera and laptop locked and hidden. Now some of my train acquaintances have the opportunity to observe the contents of my backpack. It feels if not unsafe, at least undignified. I've been watching a selection of Central Asian lives, in a sense, stripped naked -- from the window, on a train. Now it is my turn to figuratively disrobe, to be examined by curious foreign eyes. Still, I'm pleased that the conspicuous absence of the visa in my passport doesn't phase these border guys. No shakedown. I reassemble my stuff. Head guy, after calling off his hounds, does inquire how I intend to travel in this area without speaking any of the local languages.
Looking out on the scene at some Turkmenistan station, at which we spend too much time -- seeing the variety of costume, the omnipresent military, the swarms of peddlers, the river-greened lands, the desert heat -- I realize once again that my eyes are not wide enough, my brain not strong enough, for this big continent on this big planet. There's too much.
But I am able to note and perhaps digest the fact that an awful lot of houses here in Turkmenistan, which is currently ruled by a particularly far-gone megalomaniac, have satellite dishes. That means they can get information from elsewhere, right?
I pull out my world map and indicate the path I've been following to a few curious fellow passengers. Hard to know how much they understand. No indication that any of them have been outside of the former Soviet Union. (Chief conductor, I will later learn, was once stationed with the Soviet Army in East Germany.)
3 p.m. Bit of a nap ended with yet another border check. Turkmenistan? No, this time we're back in Uzbekistan. I'm okay. But they take me off the train, which has become a steam bath, and march me into headquarters -- concerned or maybe just entertainment-starved fellow passengers watching from the doors and windows. Woman in another room is wailing (yet another frustratingly incomplete story), as a nice soldier writes down my info and asks to keep my business card -- memento of the Merican. While walking back to the train, with an audience, I decided to jump youthfully to the track, slip a bit. Feel like a fool. Feel like an aging fool. I resolve to step more carefully hence. Retreat?
I read that changing $100 into Uzbekistan money will give you a stack of 225 notes! Feeling that ole traveled-out weariness. I need to talk to some other travelers!
We stop and someone gives me a taste of a dumpling purchased on the platform. Chinese-like. China's gotten a lot closer in the past few days.
People here, and just about everywhere I've been, continue to live with animals, which provide food, labor and a sense of life's birth-procreate-die course. I live with machines, which provide ease, entertainment and information. Nothing else.
Best English-speaker I've found on this train is thirteen. He and I hang out together by the window. We point out a dog and then each say the word in English, that sort of cool thing. Nice, not-shy kid. I give him my card before he leaves. He asks for my autograph.
We approach Samarkand -- after 81 hours (9 hours late), after the longest dumb period of my adult life -- three-and-a-half days of saying, "I don't understand" in Russian.
My college-student compartment-mate cannot believe I am going to land in Samarkand, her home town, without speaking any Russian, let alone Uzbek. So when we finally arrive, in the dark evening, she guides me to where her mother and aunt have been waiting and asks them to wait some more as yet one more policeman decides he must write down my information. Then she finds a taxi for me, haggles until I get what she finds a reasonable price, gives him the name of the hotel I've picked and demands that I call when I arrive. (I try but she's given me a friend's phone, and we never connect.) Her kindness made being dumped off the train much easier. But, I brag to myself, I could have done it myself. A lot of English is spoken, as I suspected, at the hotel.
May 26. I'm walking down the street in Samarkand thinking email and satellite telephone (upon which I called home late last night for $4 per hour), while a few babushkas I see on the street are burdened with wide stacks of dry, beige branches tied into bundles. Soon I watch them haggle with the owner of a little grocery store, where I'm buying Ultra-Fresh toothpaste, made by a company in New York, and bottled water. They are trying to sell their homemade broom bottoms. The world is hopelessly out of phase.
Some percentage of the world is still enthusiastically smoking, some percentage hasn't had the opportunity to start yet. Some are illiterate, some postliterate. (The largest concentration I've seen of those in between is in Moscow.) Some are thin from the discipline of aerobics, some from hunger. Here in Uzbekistan I see cows and goats grazing in front of apartment buildings that, otherwise, wouldn't seem out of place in Westchester. Is there, for that matter, a single block in any single city where all the residents can be said to be at the same stage of development? Sometimes I think that the only clear and clearly significant world-historical event of our time will be the disappearance -- more or less now -- of the last of the hunter/gatherers. Everything else threatens to collapse into, to borrow a word from E. M. Forster, muddle. But muddle is not my point. How about a theory of out-of-phaseness? It would involve Communists and postmodernists and teenagers. It would muse on the power of the Internet. And it would note that diversity flows from the (growing? shrinking?) gradations between phases.
In the center of the roundabout more or less in the center of this city stands a statue of the locals' favorite conqueror and mass murderer: Timur. He recently replaced in this spot a fellow who probably divided human history into stages as industriously as anyone. I hope I am not doing too much violence to the power and subtlety of Karl Marx's thought if I note that theoreticians of his ilk -- grand -- tend to require a relatively flat, relatively neat world upon which to construct their magnificent structures. Out-of-phaseness can bedevil. It represents a kind of bumpiness. Marx's followers made a major effort to lift everyone in this part of the world into what they considered the appropriate stage. That was good, for a while at least, for education and health care. It wasn't so good for political freedom or the cultural traditions (variegated or not) of, say, Central Asia's nomads.
My story in Samarkand, I've decided, is the Internet. (Always fun to be able to choose your own story.) The teenaged, computer-loving, English-speaking fellow I get to give me a tour of Samarkand's handful of Internet cafes and its one Internet provider grows increasingly perplexed: Why would a professor from New York City come to Samarkand in Uzbekistan to write about the Internet? I note that Samarkand was once a center -- by some measures the center -- of world trade, a place where the world's various cultures and ideas collided. I note that those days ended many centuries ago -- killed by a new technology: the oceangoing ship. I note that electronic media seem to be expanding (redefining?) the world's center, perhaps expanding it enough so that Samarkand can find a place there once again. I ask him how often he is on the Internet. He replies, once a day. I note that that is about how often I'm on in New York City.
This young man's parents don't do the Web -- out of phase. But this young man knows the Web about as well as a couple of young men I have spawned -- in phase. Enough for now. Guess I have been going through some kind of phase.
Samarkand, of course, has its huge and lovely mosques -- the three best, from three different eras, face each other. May 27. I visit. I even pay to climb an officially closed minaret. (My legs will ache the next day.) Samarkand has tombs. I visit. It has bazaars. I stroll through. But I'm afraid I'd give the most stars -- and you might detect a touch of professional bias here -- to its Internet cafes -- with lines of people waiting their turn, with their ability to bring in missives from far and wide, with their connection-hungry young people. Lovely.
While we're being pretentious, how about a few words on happiness. I'm not so interested in it, I want to say (which may just be a way of dealing with the fact that lately I have been walking and dining mostly alone). If I wanted simply to be happy I'd have stayed home (which may just be a way of asserting that I wasn't running from anything). I'm after interest (so was Shylock). I want to say that I yearned for a bite of the world as a chocolate lover yearns for a slice of Black Forest (which sure takes all the angst out of the motivation for this trip, doesn't it?) I needed to get some more world inside of me. (Wasn't I going to try not to be jejune?) Happiness is not the only measure. (Okay, so go have a beer with yourself, then.)
I get stared at a lot because of my shaved head and odd little, faux-hipster beard. But I'm content to be looked at as foreign, as a creature exotic to this ecology. That's how I feel.
Around me a whole generation -- wait, it's my generation! -- with gold teeth.
And I leave Samarkand in my usual hurry. Find, although I don't speak Russian or Uzbek, a van to the bus station. But before I even see a bus, I accept a good deal on a private car -- all numbers written out to avoid confusion. Soon we're pushing 130 Ks per on the road to Tashkent. Driver cell phones my chief conductor, and in about three-quarters of an hour he's there to meet me, with a fourteen-year-old daughter who speaks some pretty good but timid English and who they all want -- here's the point -- to send to the US.
I accepted this invitation because I thought it would be interesting, not fun (no comment). But it is actually kind of fun. A drive through the city in a late-model Daewoo. (This chief conductor clearly does well -- side business?) Arrival at their rug-lined, recently renovated, one-Western-table, one-table-on-the-floor apartment. (They are Moslem, no-alcohol, Uzbek-speaking Uzbeks; no conflicts on the country to which they belong.) A neighbor who is fluent in English is called over to help us converse and translate some of my latest visa worry: Seems the bus I want to take to Bishkek passes through -- yikes! -- Kazakstan. Will I need tickets in order to get the transit visa? Not to worry, I'm advised. Then drinks and snacks at the floor table, followed by a more complete evening tour of broad-avenued, tree-lined, history rediscovering Tashkent. And then we stop, without warning -- this reminds me mightily of being taken out in Russia -- at what turns out to be a restaurant, for what turns out to be a larger than necessary meal. Then it's on to an aunt's house for a birthday party and more food, though I thought I said, when asked, that I was tired and ready to go home. The American being shown off.
Tomorrow's assignment includes that daunting Kazak visa and finding a bus. But I sleep well, as usual. Happy finally to be able to stop trying to communicate and to lie down on a comfortable bed. Happy, as I drift off, to be alive and roaming the planet. The nice thing about traveling with myself is that I'm easy to please.
May 28. Kazak embassy here turns out to be pleasant as can be. (I recommend that you try to take care of all you Kazak business in Tashkent from now on.) It probably helps that the man in charge of the visa line is looking to get his brother to the US. I have the fourteen-year-old girl along to help me. We meet some US diplomats, so I'm able to help her begin thinking about her US visa. And I get the damn transit visa -- just like that, on the spot, without showing them tickets! The chief conductor has a friend who has been driving us around in a 1974 Volga ("the Russian Mercedes"). And now we're off in search of the Bishkek bus. I keep the side vents (remember side vents?) open to thin out the Volga's fumes.
Police guard pulls us over and decides to search through my entire pack. Further figurative nudity. I take umbrage. Occasional lapses into umbrage taking being among my weaknesses as a traveling companion.
About this bus business, there are a couple of things I didn't know: First, that the "bus station" from which one departs for Bishkek or Almany is a rather ad-hoc, funky place -- not that dissimilar to what I've seen in, say, Senegal. And second, that said "bus station" is, in fact, in Kazakstan. Tashkent turns out to be close to the border, very close. Crossing this border will not prove fun.
The border guides descend as soon as the Volga gets stuck in what I don't yet recognize as a border line. They promise to lead me too a bus that departs at 2:30 p.m., arriving in Bishkek at midnight. If that's not enticing enough, they promise a Mercedes (and I do like the sound of that) bus at 3 p.m. arriving at 10. Twenty-five dollars. Seems high but... I'm theirs. My driver, my young "interpreter" and some of these guides get into their car with me, and soon we're at the Uzbekistan border post. Need to exit the country.
Passport. Visa. Customs declaration form. Wait. When I crossed into Uzbekistan -- by train, not through the airport like everyone else -- I was given no such form. Can't I just fill one out now? No. My guides suggest a bribe: twenty dollars. I choose to stand on principle. Umbrage squared. Silly, riled up me! Entreaties are made. Entreaties fail. I take out the twenty dollars. More entreaties. Stern looks. Conversations. Are my guides making my case? Are my guides, who work with these border guards every day, saying I think we can get more out of this guy? The driver and the fourteen-year-old girl prove no help. Time is clearly passing. I imagine the Mercedes bus getting ready to leave. The guides suggest that another ten may do. I have only a twenty. It is grabbed. More time. Eventually, the offer -- if all the money I gave was actually offered to the guards -- is accepted. I'm waived through.
I didn't, you won't be surprised to learn, like this. Of course, it's the feeling -- or feelings -- more than the money. I note that it doesn't encourage tourism to Uzbekistan. I suspect that right now that is not a major concern of the guides or the guards. For them, of course, it is the money. Actually crossing into Kazakstan, transit visa in place, proves easy.
I have, I realize, just seen the past: Corrupt border guards. Suspect border guides. Saw it in Central Asia, too. Past not that different around the world. Something to remember when the future starts looking frighteningly uniform.
The bus, the only bus going to Bishkek, turns out to have been made in Poland, quite a long time ago. It won't leave for another hour. It won't arrive for about another twelve hours. And I probably have paid -- that's where the guides make the rest of their dough -- ten times what everyone else on board has paid. I wait. We leave.
Kazakstan (again) -- this time out of a bus window. One of the most sparsely populated areas on earth. (Not that any animals appear to have stepped in to take up the slack.) But what do we see here, smack dab in the middle of Eurasia? California gold hills. The world has a number of tricks...but a limited number.
And people -- even folks in those much vaunted traditional societies -- have and had a limited number of tricks: markets, bazaars, souks, for example. All the clothes sellers are here; all the vegetable sellers there; and each flower-seller presents a remarkably similar array. Now we have supermarkets, which are, arguably, more regimented, which are, certainly, less ragtag; and which also are, undeniably, cleaner and more efficient. But does the transition from market, bazaar, souk to supermarket really embody a significant loss of diversity?
And while I'm plumping for the present: Unless you're prepared to compare Pizza Hut to the Foreign Legion or Soviet efforts to force Kazak nomads onto collective farms, it is hard to deny that this is the least imperialistic age the world has know in quite some time.
Looking south from this road through Kazakstan, I see a range of snow-covered mountains. Guess that's why this road from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan had to loop to the north, through Kazakstan.
Russians, I had learned when I lived there, had this odd belief that drafts cause illness. Central Asian apparently do, too. Sweltering bus. Closed windows. These people also prove, to the extent that this old bus load of them is representative, to be among those who prefer to keep away all traces of a view by closing all possible curtains.
Between my curtains -- as open as I can get them -- I see men on horseback herding cattle. It's 7 p.m. They know where their animals are.
Oh, it's not just the desert. It seems any flat piece of land (Steppe -- is this still steppe? -- will do) glows, as if releasing stored light, as the sun disappears.
Night falls upon this old bus. Once again it contains just one foreigner, no other apparent English speakers. Feel like I keep reaching new levels of aloneness, of lostness. Don't really know when this bus arrives. Don't know what I'll find when it does. I definitely am moving east -- my direction -- as fast as this creaky Polish machinery can carry me. "But I sure got a long way to go."
The women -- babushka women -- on this bus find me a curiosity. Stop at "rest area" -- collection of stalls on dirt like I've seen on a couple of other continents. Here they all feature one dish: shoshlik. (How far around the world does the kebob belt extend?) About twelve buses stopped here. Don't see another foreigner. Group from the bus gathers round me. Big laugh when I try to say, in Russian, that I have three children and end up saying that I have three wives. I hear the suggestion, not for the first time, that I require a Russian wife.
Back on the bus I'm asked if I'm Christian. Find myself nodding my head, on the theory that that's weird enough for them. Not proud of this deception.
Bus arrives, about 4 a.m., May 29, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Taxi to hotel. Knock loudly. Sleepy-eyed women. Even manage to call home.
Okay, I like this city -- green and open and slow moving -- even though the English bar is filled with gov and non-gov-org types, and I, too long away from fellow travelers, fail to connect. I like this city -- with a big old Lenin gesturing forcefully (if now futilely) toward its backdrop of snow caps -- although my canvas of just about all extent travel agencies in search of someone to share the high cost of traversing the next border comes up, by May 30, empty. One measure of my immersion is the number of business cards I dispense. Went through a dozen or so on that long, slow train, another dozen or so in Samarkand and Tashkent. Not one here in Bishkek. Still, I like this city.
Listen to Russian radio station (out of Moscow) playing American songs. Move from floor to floor in my hotel and see folks gathered on couches watching a Russian version of the Millionaire show. Guessing along with the contestants, of course. Top prize only one million rubles.
The traditional hat in Kyrgystan -- worn by old men and busboys at fancy hotels here in the city, by men of various ages and occupations, including riding horses, in the country -- is high, white, felt, with black embroidery and a thin, split-in-front brow. Looks like something a woman in Kansas City in the 1940s might have considered but rejected, looks so odd, idiosyncratic and purposeless -- pure unhomogenized culture -- that I resolve to make one my only, after six months, souvenir.
There are, of course, many paths around the world. One might connect all those areas in which women cover their hair, for example. (An obsession of hairless moi, you'll note.) Probably could draw another through those areas where they -- less restrained and with more access to dies and shampoos -- don't. The latter line will, presumably, get easier and easier to draw. I'm not bemoaning. The quaint kerchief thing does grow less charming once you've see it practiced in about a dozen countries.
To prepare for a radio report on Marketplace, I write in my notebook: "Kerg is stan." And then stutter the first time I have to say it.
My mother is not doing well. My sister is concerned, annoyed at my absence, wants me home. Make a new schedule -- somewhat curtailed.
Will have to pay four hundred dollars to cross alone from Bishkek to Kashgar in China. This includes a car (bribes included) to drive me (two days) up to the Kyrgystan side of what was once the tense Sino-Soviet border and is still a bid tense. Told that car will be a Mercedes. Price also includes, and you have to have this carefully arranged in advance, a car which will be waiting on the Sino side. Foreigners are not allowed to take a bus. Could have joined a group if I were willing to wait a week. Fat chance. I move fast. My trip is already curtailed.
Mercedes turns out to be another Volga, circa 1990, I'm told. May 31. The fake wood paneling bubbles up. Ignition requires a key and touching a couple of wires together. Road dust pours in around the edges of the left, rear door. Whenever the driver fails to dodge a significant bump, he stops, and he and his copilot get out to examine all four wheels. A moment of thanks for capitalism.
We stop early on at a market. Driver and his assistant buy lots of vegetables. I buy some bread and water. We also stop early on -- right on the edge of the Kazakstan border -- for apparently cheap gas. I'm watching the horse carts go by.
And then I'm moving again: Asia on the fly. Around the white-topped mountains of Kyrgystan. They could turn this whole country (as they could Switzerland) into a national park. Gradually into the mountains of Kyrgystan. Thin trucks with Chinese characters coming in the other direction. (I read somewhere that the Chinese are threatening to build a highway to Europe -- to increase non-US trade. Exciting thought for a Kerouac-besotted fellow like me -- rest stops in the middle of Russia.) After the Dolan Pass: A fertile grazing valley, with sheep, cattle and burdened horses (unlucky enough to fit so well between men's legs). Yurts -- round, white, covered with skins. Sometimes with a trailer next to them. Those wonderfully odd Kyrgystan hats: They do at least add height. And all this lovely, fertile, though undoubtedly frozen in the winter, land. (No, we don't want to squander it or trash it or abuse it, but I'll tell you a secret: We've got a lot of it.)
Stop for the night in a mountain valley, Tash Rabat, with an old, stone building that is supposed to be the attraction, a "fortified caravansary." I pay to examine it in the growing dark, dutifully. But the valley and its few inhabitants and their current structures are in fact the attraction. Your reporter -- in his dedication (or desire to have more stories to tell) was prepared to sleep in a yurt. But when the driver notes that temps within said yurt (I'm already wearing all available layers) would hover around freezing, I opt to join him and his assistant in a room, one of two, in the adjoining house. The cooking going on -- our dinner -- in the other room will significantly ease the chill.
This house, in itself, proves worth describing: No electricity. No telephone. No toilets inside or out. Kids around. They don't go to school. (Nearest school would be fifty kilometers away, I'm informed.) Oil lamp. Wood stove. Old photos. Battery operated clock. Old portable typewriter -- though I don't think anyone around can read or write. Three members of the family that lives here (whose members earn money by putting up passing-through tourists) sleep together in one bed in the kitchen, cause the three of us have occupied the other room. Outside an animal pen and three outlying yurts. Around us in this already high valley: still higher green mountains.
June 1, 2001. The Volga fords a stream, regains the main road and we push on -- heading for the tallest ridge of white mountains. A few 4 by 4s, presumably filled with other border-crossing tourists, just ahead of us. It's time for me to begin wondering where we'll find the pass.
Car trouble. My two chaperons are busy fiddling. I'm busy videotaping the gravel road that seems to lead straight into those mountains. (For a photograph, see home page.) But a delay is a problem. The border, I've read, closes at about noon. We don't have much time to get there and through. And it's Friday. The border, this still-a-bit-tense border, is closed on Saturday.
Finally see something, besides birds, that is wild out here in the increasingly high, increasingly cold, increasingly uninhabited wild: ground hogs? (I'm a little weak on rodents.) They must not be edible.
The driver and his partner, both Russians living in Bishkek, are efficient and organized but not particularly friendly. I've begun to enjoy the curiosity, occasionally surprise, elicited by my presence in places where I'm not expected to be present. There is none of that here in the Volga. (Perhaps this is because we're in mountain climbing/trekking country, where Americans ain't that rare: fifty percent of his business, the driver says.) I'm embarrassed to admit that I've gotten used, when paying (especially a lot), to a certain amount of deference. There is little of that here in the Volga. The driver does speak some English, but he and his friend mostly have their conversation. They mostly listen to their music. (One English tape is mixed into their collection of Russian tapes: Cher's greatest hits. I'm liking it.) I have to ask for any guidance or explanations. Alone, you're more sensitive to these things. Alone, you're more vulnerable to these things.
First Kyrgystan border post. While waiting, I sneak out the door of the car to videotape a particularly cool-looking white-hatted horseman who passes by. Uh oh! Here comes a rifle-carrying soldier. No photography at military sites! (This rule, of course, obtains all over the world.) Foreigners must remain in their vehicles! He's taking umbrage. I'm looking my most apologetic. My driver is talking fast. I'm signing that I'm sorry and won't think of doing it again. Any delay this time would be my fault. The soldier is eventually mollified. The great video artiste chastened. We get through.
And the driver begins to go fast. We pass, with a trail of dust behind us, most of those 4 by 4s. Nervous about the border, I cheer him on. The road, still looking for a break in the mountains, turns to the left. Running alongside us on the right is a wire barrier -- an electrified fence, built by the Soviets, presumably to contain the Chinese. It presumably is no longer turned on.
Main Kyrgystan border post, and the top of the Torugart Pass, 3574 meters, which may very well be higher than I've ever been. My driver hands a couple of packs of cigarettes to a border guard here. A couple of more to one there. At other times it's newspapers (more my kind of bribe). I do my part by asking a border guard and the leader of the group of a couple of dozen French tourists who pour out of those 4 by 4s if I might go through ahead of them. Okay. Just two more people to bribe: the guards in charge of searching our luggage. A large bag of vegetables for one. Another large bag also full of carrots and greens for the other. We go through without waiting for a search. The guards used to ask for cash bribes, my driver explains (He's getting a little more friendly). But some tour guides began to complain. Cigarettes, newspapers and vegetables they can, apparently, get away with.
I didn't pay (directly). And we're on our way (directly) to the arch where the Soviet Union and China used to meet, where Kyrgystan and China now meet, where my Chinese car and driver are supposed to be waiting.
They are waiting. We made it. Everything worked. Feels like an arch of triumph. Snow is falling lightly. (This border is usually closed until May.) Goodbye jury-rigged Volga. It did get me through. Hello to a securely capitalistic VW Santana. I catch myself before saying hello to my new driver in Russian, which I've now been (not) speaking for two-and-a-half weeks. Chinese? Gosh, I've finally made it to China.
Chinese border stations do require an excessive amount of passport showing and form filling. They do not require bribes. A border guard asks me to allow a border something-or-other to ride in our car. I respond with the universal "no problem." He then says, "Welcome to China, friend." I like the sound of that. Wish I'd had more such welcomes on this trip.
Welcome to China. Not only a very populous country, a rather large country, I'm learning. The mountains are, not surprisingly, just as high going down here on the Chinese side. But they do not, surprisingly, shelter verdant (That is the word you're supposed to use here, isn't it?) pastures. On this side, the south side, of the pass, the mountains are red and brown and gray and dry. A few yaks chew on what little green is to be found.
I'm arguing with the Paris anti-globalization guys in my head as we follow a more dry than wet river bed through these striped canyons. Seeing some small Chinese villages along the way, filled with kids in jogging-suit-like school uniforms. Thinking about the American suburbs. Is it possible that what seems so ugly about the American suburbs is in part their diversity? One house, one store in a strip mall, often seems to belong to a different movie than does its neighbor -- while old villages display that pleasing homogeneity. Le Traditional Village Uniforme.
And aren't there (I'm following Harvard Prof. Michael Blake here) two types of diversity: Diversity among cultures and diversity within cultures. Type one only benefits those of us fortunate enough to wander among cultures, and there can't be too many of us or we might spread ideas and weaken distinctions. Type two benefits everyone. Don't modern cities and suburbs contain much more type-two diversity than traditional cultures? The only question is whether this diversity within cultures -- different ideas, different architectural styles, trying to coexist on the same block -- will eventually fade, benefiting no one, whether we'll be left with a vast, gray suburb. This particular nightmare scenario seems based on the assumption that without long-lived, high-walled "traditional" cultures diversity production will cease. That strikes me as an unlikely scenario. And given the potential benefits, isn't it worth chancing?
But such conclusions will have to remain tentative. I still have China to see (or glimpse).
To come: Holy men and hunter-gatherers.
Beginning of the Journal: The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 1)
Beginning of this part of the Journal
"...Because there was nowhere to go but everywhere," J.K., On the Road.