Moldova occupies much of Bessarabia, a small chunk of Eastern Europe lying between the Prut and Dniester Rivers. It is a small country on the margins of the Former Soviet Union and the European Union, distinguishable from greater Romania (with which it has close cultural and linguistic ties) only by its history of Russian influence; obscure even to most Europeans and famed only as being Europe’s poorest country. As an area over which empires have long clashed, Moldova remains divided despite its modest size, incorporating a number of ethnic minorities and the de facto independent (though internationally unrecognised) state of Transnistria, where ethnic Slavs (Ukrainians and Russians) outnumber Moldovans. Having left neighbouring Romania with rather negative impressions in 2007 on the outward leg of the trip, I would be pleasantly surprised by Moldova; a friendly, calm and bucolic little corner of Europe which would be the final ‘new’ country on the initial four-and-a-half year part of the Odyssey.
It’s early in the evening of the 17th October 2011, and I’ve just left the far south-east of Ukraine. Ahead of me is a one-kilometre stretch of Moldova and beyond that, across the Danube, is Romania and the EU. I however turn north in the port and border town of Giurgiuleşti and drive on quiet country roads passing small villages and long stretches of open agricultural land, soon entering the autonomous republic of Gagauzia. I stop for the night in the Gagauz capital of Comrat where I am hosted by Adam, a Fullbright Fellow from Indiana who is studying the Gagauz language.
Comrat is a quiet, though rather bland and impoverished provincial town, but through Adam I am introduced to a number of locals including Anna, an ebullient widow well into her sixties who is something of an adoptive mother to Adam, and who serves us endless quantities of good home-made wine in her cottage on the edge of town. I’m also introduced to a local TV cameraman who films a short piece on my journey by car through Moldova, which starts with me staggering around Anna’s garden looking at the grapes from which the wine I have been drinking is made, then cuts to me pulling out of town in the truck two days later. The piece went on to air on the national evening news.
Adam and I take a minibus south out of Comrat to the village of Beşalma, which is Gagauzia’s cultural capital and home to the Museum of the Gagauz People. It’s located in rolling, bucolic autumnal countryside planted with vineyards and maize, a seen which typifies rural Moldova. We walk from the main road past horsecarts and post end-of-life European cars to reach the village, which has a few administrative buildings, the Soviet-era museum whose mosaic-work of Gagauz designs is slowly collapsing from its walls, and a beautiful six-bladed wooden windmill on a gentle rise overlooking the rambling village houses and surrounding fields.
We are shown around the village museum by a Gagauz lady who has a very Turkish face, with lumpen features, thick, masculine eyebrows and a heavy nose, and hands stained purple from recently pressing grapes. We’re directed to the history of the Gagauz people, who are Turkic Orthodox Christians. Although their origins are obscure, as is the origin of the term ‘Gagauz’, they are thought to be descendants of Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchak or Seljuk Turks who had migrated to the Balkans centuries ago. In the early nineteenth century the Gagauz migrated into Bessarabia from north-eastern Bulgaria in face of religious persecution from the Ottomans. Following the ceding of Bessarabia to the Russian Empire in 1812, the Orthodox Gagauz were encouraged to settle in place of expelled Muslim Tatars and Nogays. As a linguistic and ethnic minority, the Gagauz became somewhat Russified and highly assimilated into Soviet society, and resisted independence on the grounds of promotion of Moldovan (Romanian) as the only national language, and amid fears of Moldova joining Romania. Though initially calling for outright independence, following negotiations with the Moldovan parliament the Gagauz accepted autonomy within Moldova in an essentially peaceful process quietly lauded as a successful resolution to ethnic conflict.
I leave Adam and Gagauzia after three very pleasant days and head north towards the centre of Moldova, through gently rolling hills, vineyards and muddy, geese-filled villages on quiet, tree-lined roads. I’ve immediately come to like Moldova which, without the hordes of tourists of Crimea or Odessa feels like a slice of pre-modern Europe, similar to Romania but without the pervading air of seediness. Moldova is certainly not a country full of sights of interest, but after stopping for a night in Chișinău I continue north, getting lost on rough country roads but eventually being steered by friendly locals to the village of Trebujeni and the archaeological site of Old Orhei, which might possibly pass as Moldova’s prime tourist attraction. Old Orhei is set within the gentle sweep of a time-smoothed limestone escarpment above a deeply incised meander of the Răut River, not far from its confluence with the Dniester. In this naturally defensible location, meagre remains can be found from throughout Moldova’s history; from the Palaeolithic, through to the Dacians, Mongols and on to the modern period.
Old Orhei is an enchanting place and I walk up onto the escarpment to find a very picturesquely sited orthodox church and just beyond, an almost pagan looking carved stone cross against which a rather grief-stricken woman is leaning for strength. It’s a mild late-October day, surely one of the last mild days of the year and the long, reddish sunlight has an air of benign finality, casting the surrounding landscape in pastel shades of yellow and brown. Below me in the sweep of fields enclosed by the escarpment, peasants busy themselves gathering in maize, transporting the remaining stalks on trotting horse-carts to be stacked in conical ricks in the village. In the rock below me, very well hidden, is a cave monastery dug out by orthodox monks in the thirteenth century, though I find the door closed and so scramble down the steep bank for a view. Here, in the rock face are a number of glazed windows and a door, out of which a slightly grizzled-looking elderly priest emerges, who rinses his hands and then asks me in English where I am from. Clambering back up a narrow trail, I find the door now unlocked, and descend through the rock into the Stygian chambers of the monastery. The priest leads me around, pointing out eleven rock-hewn sleeping cells for the monks who had previously used the monastery until the eighteenth century, after which the monastery had fallen out of use until restoration work commenced in 1996.
Savouring this Moldovan experience, I return to Chișinău, the national capital. Chișinău, known as Kishinev to Russian speakers, was transformed from a small town to provincial capital upon the ceding of Bessarabia to Tsarist Russia in 1812, which set the stage for the emergence of an independent country. Moldova’s statehood may be traced yet further back in time; to the fourteenth century when the principality of Moldavia was established, incorporating Bessarabia and areas of what is now eastern Romania, and whose leader from the mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth century, Stephen The Great, is now the national hero of independent Moldova. Despite putting up an initially successful resistance, Moldavia eventually became an Ottoman tributary in the mid sixteenth century, until incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1812 as part of Russia’s gains against the Ottomans. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Bessarabia returned to Romanian control, was then ceded back the Soviet Union in 1940 as part of the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, only to be re-occupied by Romania in 1941, finally returning to Soviet control at the end of the war.
Chișinău gleams like a vision of the future as one approaches it from the timeless, rolling Moldovan farmland. As one enters the city however, the quaint rural squalor of muddy streets and tumbledown cottages gives way to a rather less attractive urban squalor; of broken asphalt, ageing apartment buildings, reckless traffic, alcoholics, poverty and screaming inequality. But these shabby suburbs conceal a far more upbeat centre which I soon find myself warming to.
I spend two days exploring Chișinău, walking from my host Artur’s apartment to the Eternity Memorial, a pyramid made up from five red, stylised rifles in remembrance of the years 1941 to 1945, built by the Soviets and pointedly neglecting the early war years when Moldova’s fate was secretly decided between the Soviets and Nazis. Adjacent to the memorial is a beautiful, leafy cemetery, entered through a crumbling Neoclassical arch and containing an intriguing cross-section of Chișinău’s former residents. Numerous Jewish graves are scant evidence that Chișinău was at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the major centres of European Jewry, though through pogroms, the Holocaust and emigration from the USSR the community has almost vanished today. Subtle reminders of their presence persist however in a distinctly Moorish appearance to some of the windows and doorways of the city’s more elegant central streets.
Chișinău’s main focus is Stephen the Great Boulevard, along which one finds Cathedral Square with the Triumphal Arch built in 1840 to commemorate the Russian victory over the Ottomans, and behind this the Nativity Cathedral, centre of the Moldovan Orthodox Church. Opposite is the huge, Soviet Government Building and statue of Stephen the Great, bearing a cross as ‘True Champion of the Christian Faith’ for his victory against the Ottomans, an image featured on every Moldovan banknote. A number of grandiose building projects can be found further along the boulevard, which do a good job of giving Chișinău the air of a national capital, though on close inspection some of these appear to be unfinished; long-stalled construction projects with falling, tattered veils and peeling siding.
As capital of the Bessarabian Region of the Russian Empire, Chișinău experienced rapid population growth in the nineteenth century and despite heavy destruction in the Second World War, retains an elegant centre with avenues lined by plane, poplar and walnut trees, to which I find myself often returning to stroll in. Away from here much of the city bears the architectural hallmark of the rapid post-war Soviet expansion, such as the towering fourteen-storey apartment complexes which flank Dacia Boulevard in the south-east of the city and are known locally as the ‘City Gates’. Other relics of the Soviet era have poignantly gone to seed, such as the abandoned circus with its grimy windows and broken front steps. Nowhere however do I feel any real sense of iniquity and despite the obvious poverty and inequality, the atmosphere of the city is friendly, relaxed and fun. Chișinău has more grace than most Soviet cities, with a hint of European flair, though has far fewer pretensions than most Eastern European cities. I could almost imagine myself living here.
I leave Chișinău on a beautiful autumn day passing through the ‘City Gates’ on a wide, divided road heading south-east towards the Dniester. My destination is Tiraspol, officially Moldova’s second largest city though in reality the capital of the wholly unrecognised state of Transnistria, which has its own government, police, army, customs, postal service and even currency, despite being a tiny sliver of land lying mostly between the left bank of the Dniester and the nearby Ukrainian border. I pass an outer checkpoint just beyond the Moldovan city of Anenii Noi, then shortly after arrive at the Transnistrian Border. My initial impression, as I am asked to fill in a migration card, is of how unusually polite and professional the immigration staff are. Next, a female customs officer who speaks perfect English asks for my vehicle registration document and begins to enter details into a computer system to calculate an entry tax. Frighteningly large numbers are displayed, but I finally pay just fourteen US Dollars, valid for two months, and after a cursory inspection of the truck I am free to enter Transnistria. I soon stop on the edge of the city of Bender which, though lying on the right bank of the Dniester and officially a buffer-zone, is in reality Transnistria’s second largest city.
Bender’s one and only sight is a striking fortress which marks the city’s historical position as a customs post between Moldavia and the Crimean Tatars. The fortress lies on the edge of a large base of the Transnistrian military and has only very recently been opened to foreigners. To reach it I must double back from the bridge across the Dniester, then find an unmarked side road leading to a trolleybus factory which is emblazoned with large and well preserved Soviet murals of a worker and a map of the Soviet Union. From here I must walk along a muddy, overgrown path escorted by a guard, past large, neglected factories lined by fir trees and dank, abandoned barracks whose roofs support mature poplar trees. After several minutes I reach the fortress, in front of which are busts of heroes from the Russo-Turkish wars, with fine views east across the Dniester. Initially a Moldavian fort made from wood, the current structure, which is undergoing restoration, dates from the sixteenth century and its construction under the Ottomans is said to have been overseen by Mimar Sinan, the architect responsible for many of İstanbul’s most beautiful buildings. The outer walls of the fortress have largely disappeared, but its inner keep, despite the rather clumsy restoration work remains very striking, with thick, high crenelated stone walls and towers of round, square and octagonal section topped by fluted terracotta-tiled roofs.
Back in the truck, I re-navigate the overcomplicated Soviet traffic system on the outskirts of Bender and cross the bridge into Transnistria proper, where I am very soon in the capital, Tiraspol. That Transnistria exists as a de jure part of Moldova, rather than Ukraine (which would seem more logical when looking at national boundaries) is due the the creation of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in the early twentieth century, which was carved out of the Ukrainian ASSR with a view to the Soviet Union re-acquiring Bessarabia. Thus, when the Soviets finally regained Bessarabia in 1940 and created the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the precursor of modern Moldova, it included the thin sliver of land along the left bank of the Dniester known as Transnistria.
During the final years of the USSR, as Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost set the course for greater autonomy of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, Moldovan became the only official language of the Moldavian SSR in a move highly unpopular with the republic’s Slavic and Turkic minorities. With independence looming, the expectation for the Moldavian SSR to re-join Romania was widespread and highly unpopular with non-Moldovans. Much like the Gagauz in the south, Transnistria’s Slavic majority claimed independence, but whereas the Gagauz conflict was resolved peacefully, tensions between Transnistria and Moldova escalated to violence in 1990 and into full-blown civil war for five months of 1992, which ended in a cease fire and Transnistria’s status as a de facto independent state.
Tiraspol’s name derives from ancient Tyras, the Greek name for the Dniester River and also the name of a long-gone nearby settlement. The city’s history officially begins with its establishment in 1792 by Alexander Suvorov, the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire, famous for his victories against the Ottomans, and for having never lost a battle. My first impressions of Tiraspol are of manicured Soviet order, with meticulously maintained Soviet-era administrative buildings, monuments and nomenclature in Cyrillic script. Outside the large red and grey parliament building is a pink granite statue of Lenin with a billowing cape, and across the street a Soviet T34 tank from the Second World War. Next is an equestrian statue of Suvorov who, despite being born in Moscow, is the Transnistrian national hero and features on all Transnistrian Rouble banknotes. A little further along 25th October Avenue, Tiraspol’s main drag, comes the House of Soviets; an imposing masterpiece of Soviet architecture, outside of which is another bust of Lenin on a pedestal. At the end of this rather grandiose strip the road turns past the entrance to Victory Park, which is now in riotous autumnal colour, then soon enters the semi-rural suburbs which surround Tiraspol on all sides.
My host in Transnistria is Vova, who is of mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage, and who works for the Transnistrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tiraspol, but lives with his grandparents in the nearby village of Karagash where I arrive in the evening before Vova gets home. Here I am met by Igor, Vova’s jolly grandfather who welcomes me into his garden, showing me his beloved doe goat, his pigs, chickens and other goats, their cat Terry and their smart Belgian shepherd who doubles as a doorbell. Inside, the house is extremely comfortable and my lasting memory of Transnistria is of long evenings at the dinner table eating Vova’s grandmother’s home-cooked food, drinking young home-made red wine and eating home-grown walnuts.
I make a short trip out of Tiraspol, taking a footbridge over the Dniester and then a minibus which drops me outside another Lenin bust in the large village of Kitskany, one of the oldest villages in the region. Here I visit the Holy Ascension monastery with its candy-cane red and white door and window pillars, then walk up out of the village to an obelisk commemorating the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, whereby the Red Army recaptured the Moldavian SSR from the Axis Forces in 1944. It’s a beautifully serene spot overlooking the sloping farmland above the Dniester. Transnistria seems quite unlike the other frozen conflict zones of the Former USSR which I have visited; there is no obvious hatred or even animosity, no tensely sealed border or fanatical national rhetoric. Instead, I find a welcoming, safe and peaceful country with a gentle atmosphere of removal from the rigours of the outside world. From Kitskany I catch another minibus on to the centre of Bender, where bullet holes from the civil war are still visible in some buildings. After stopping in a bar for a bottle of local beer one of the cheapest I have ever drunk, I take the trolleybus back across the Dniester and into Tiraspol.
After saying farewell to Vova and his lovely grandparents, I spend my last day in Transnistria driving through much of the country, following the Dniester upstream through the villages and towns along the left bank of the river, which separates Transnistria from Moldova proper in long, sinuous meanders. I stop in Dubossary, where the Civil War broke out, then later in Ribnitsa, Transnistria’s third largest city where in the late afternoon I re-cross the Dniester, with a final view of the city’s apartments reflected in the blue water of the river.
On the far side of the river is the town of Rezina, situated on three terraces overlooking the river, where I stop for the night. In the morning I take a minibus south to the village of Saharna where the Holy Trinity monastery nestles in the limestone escarpment alongside the Dniester. Behind the monastery I walk up into the hills, past cave cells and a cold, spring-fed baptismal pool, up into the hills where locals claim there is a footprint of the Virgin Mary in the native rock. It’s a beautiful autumnal walk through yellowing oak forest under deep blue skies, with sweeping views back across into Transnistria, and I spend more than an hour dozing in the sun.
I leave Rezina the following day, driving initially south to the cave monastery in Ţipova. Like Old Orhei the monastery here is hewn out of limestone cliffs, this time in a slightly less dramatic location overlooking the Dniester, but it is said to be older, dating from the tenth to twelfth centuries, and also to be the place where Stephen the Great was married. Turning north from Ţipova I head for the Ukrainian border, passing more bucolic villages on the way to Soroca, which overlooks a historical crossing point on the Dniester. Soroca has another beautiful fortress smaller but more unusual than that of Bender. Built initially out of wood by Stephen the Great in 1499, it was rebuilt in the following century to be a perfect circle with five equally spaced towers, forming a part of the line of defences along the Dniester from Akkerman (Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, in Ukrainian Bessarabia), through Bender, and continuing north, up into what is now western Ukraine.
I leave Moldova on a cool, foggy morning, driving the final stretch from Soroca north-west, parallel to the Dniester, to the border town of Otaci where I cross the bridge into Ukraine. Moldova has been a pleasantly surprising country; clearly very different from neighbouring Ukraine with its strong Romanian influence, friendly, welcoming and wonderfully tranquil, despite the obvious poverty and the frozen conflict with Transnistria. Ahead of me lies the very final stage of my initial four-and-a-half year trip, through the medieval cities and Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, before I must make my rather dreaded return to Western Europe.
I drive across the Dnieper River on 10th September 2011 and enter Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital where I am hosted my Mykola, a paramedic who lives with his mother in the extreme north of the city. Back in June 2007, a night spent in Kyiv on my way east at the very beginning of the Odyssey had been my first encounter with the Former USSR and the Russian-speaking world, and I imagine what it would be like to bump into myself, now at the end of my trip, four years, four months and four days later, having become so familiar with the former Soviet world.
Kyiv grew up as a city on the trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople and was part of the Khazar Khanate, a semi-nomadic Turkic civilisation which controlled much of the western Silk Road in the Volga – Don region during the seventh to tenth centuries. The city was then seized by the Varangians and became capital of Kievan Rus’ in the ninth or tenth centuries, the progenitor of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus which would give rise to the first Rurikid Dynasty of Russian Tsars. Kyiv would have been one of the world’s largest cities prior to the Mongol invasion of 1240, when it was completely destroyed and would remain relatively obscure throughout the following period of incorporation into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russian Empire, only regaining prominence during the nineteenth century industrialisation of Imperial Russia. Kyiv was the third largest city of the Soviet Union and became the capital of Ukraine following independence in 1991, and plays an important role as the cultural capital of the pro-European Ukrainian identity whose proponents are very keen to distance themselves from the Russian-dominated past.
Kyiv is an immediately likeable place, attractively sited next to the deep blue Dnieper River on a number of hills, with a centre of wide streets of often elegant city blocks, squares and parks. It’s a far nicer city than Moscow for example, with a more upbeat and laid back atmosphere, though it is visibly more European and rather less exotic, with crowds of tourists and English frequently heard on the street. I start a walk around the city from the very centre, in Independence Square where a tall column topped by a statue of Berehynia, a female spirit from Slavic folklore which has recently been adopted as a symbol of the Ukrainian independence movement has replaced Lenin on his plinth. North-east of the square I pass through the Soviet-era Friendship of Nations Arch and enter the long city park which is spread along the right bank of the Dnieper with beautiful views across to the left bank and the city’s smaller eastern segment. Here the city’s bright high-rise suburbs look almost like an island, surrounded by an uninterrupted sea of green, arboreal endlessness spreading to the horizon. Looking east across such a wide open space causes me to pause for a moment and imagine the wild expanses of steppe which stretch off for thousands of kilometres to the east, a magnificent landscape I will surely miss on my return to western Europe. Back in the centre, to the north and above Independence Square is the beautiful St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, originally built in the eleventh century, but totally destroyed by the Soviets in 1935, having only recently been rebuilt. Facing the monastery down a wide street several hundred metres in length is the slightly older, though less visually arresting Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, with both structures being considered masterpieces of Ukrainian Baroque. Outside Saint Sophia’s this showcase of Ukrainian independence is completed with a large statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman (head of state) of the Zaporizhian Cossack Host who led an uprising against the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the seventeenth century and effectively established an independent Cossack State, a mooted progenitor of an independent Ukraine.
I leave Kyiv and Ukraine to spend just over two weeks with Karolina in Warsaw, during which time I decide upon a subject to study for a master’s degree upon returning to the UK at the end of the year; a decision which would come to dictate my future career. When I return to Kyiv in late September, I find that late summer has transitioned into autumn, with warmth and deep blue skies replaced by cool, damp weather and glorious autumnal colours. I return to the Dnieper’s right bank, to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, an eleventh century cave monastery which has become one of the most important centres of Eastern Orthodoxy, chief monastery of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and residence of its metropolitan. Beyond the lavra lies a sculpted Soviet-era park celebrating victory in the Second World War with monolithic, brutalist concrete architecture, bronze dioramas of valiant Red Army soldiers and the sixty-two metre high Motherland Monument; a mother of Ukraine holding up a shield with the Soviet coat of arms and a sword, later truncated so as not to stand higher than the highest cross of the nearby lavra.
From the park I return to the city centre, past the lavra and on to the memorial and museum dedicated to the Holodomor, the Ukrainian term for the Soviet famine of 1932-33 which killed perhaps six to eight million people in what is today Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, of which four to five million are thought to have been Ukrainian. Holodomor, literally meaning ‘extermination by hunger’ has become a contentious international (and domestic) issue, raising the issue of whether the famine was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Ukrainian people. The museum contains graphic images of the sufferings of Soviet Ukrainians during the famine years, but what lingers in my mind most is the pointedly anti Russian sentiment, with the famine being blamed roundly on Russians, rather than Soviets, and the whole museum has more than a touch of fanatical nationalism. Continuing through the park, I end up in the riverside district of Podil, one of Kyiv’s oldest, which I also recognise to be the neighbourhood in which I spent a night in a hostel in 2007 after blindly navigating my way across the city. From Podil’s slightly gritty, riverside charm I walk past a number of churches which have survived the Soviet period, climbing finally along Andriyivskyy Descent, lined by stalls selling tat to tourists, past the striking though gaudy Baroque of St Andrew’s Church, down Volodymyr Street to the Golden Gates, the completely restored (largely from imagination) main gate of the eleventh century fortifications of Kievan Rus’, where I get onto the Metro back to Mykola’s apartment.
I leave Kyiv having experienced the assertive character of the modern though deeply-rooted Ukrainian identity, something I had barely encountered in the east of the country. I make my way south-east on a cool Sunday morning, following the corridor of the Dnieper River which bisects the country, passing through the pleasant, tree lined centre of Cherkasy, crossing the river in Kremenchuk and cutting slightly inland, through rolling farmland which seems to be bracing itself for the impending winter. This region south of Kyiv, on the left bank of the Dnieper was historically known as the ‘Wild Fields’, and was an area depopulated by raiding semi-nomadic Nogays, and a warpath across which Imperial Moscow and the Crimean Tatars would invade each other’s territory. Cossacks first tamed the tribes in this area, but it was Catherine the Great who incorporated it into the Russian Empire in 1764, renaming the area ‘Novorossiya’, literally ‘New Russia’. I stop for the night in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city originally named Yekaterinoslav and proclaimed capital of Novorossiya. A closed city during Soviet times, Dnipropetrovsk was famous for its nuclear, arms and space factories, collectively known as Yuzhmash and ostensibly manufacturing tractors and kitchen appliances.
Dnipropetrovsk remains a thoroughly industrial city, a commercial and political powerhouse, rather more down-to-earth though far less charming than the capital. The city centre is a mix of grandiose early Soviet blocks, wide avenues, squares, and shining new glass-fronted skyscrapers, and it is only at the regional museum, whose courtyard is filled with balbals (kurgan stele) from the surrounding countryside, that I am reminded that this region was until relatively recently, culturally far closer to the steppes of Central Asia than of settled Europe.
I leave the city heading due south on a busy, divided highway which parallels the Dnieper, making the short journey to the city of Zaporizhia after dark. Like Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia is a largely industrial city, though without the same air of dynamism and prosperity. Zaporizhia grew up as a modern Soviet city around the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, built with the assistance of American engineers during the period of heavy Soviet industrialisation in the 1920s and 30s, though it has a far more prominent role in Ukrainian history as the base of the Zaporizhian Host, or Cossack Hetmanate, founded by Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. The origins of the Cossacks are thought to lie in serfs and criminals escaping feudalism and incarceration during the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which, once the Cossacks had allied with the Tsardom of Russia, they would help to drive out of this region on the left bank of the Dnieper in the seventeenth century. Later, under Catherine the Great, the Cossack state would be ruthlessly disbanded, with Cossacks fleeing to the Danube and Russia’s Kuban Region. The Zaporizhian Cossacks traditionally lived on the riverine island of Khortytsia, close to the rapids on the Dnieper (now submerged by the dam) and which today separates the eastern and western halves of modern Zaporizhia. Here one finds their beautifully reconstructed sich (military encampment), though the island’s kurgans (burial mounds) and stele hint at a history which extends into the Scythian and period, far pre-dating the Cossacks.
In Zaporizhia’s spread-out and rather down-at-heel centre, I take a walk along the shore of the reservoir which the Dnieper has become, looking out on this mild but grey day across to the cranes and docks of the far bank. It is here that I encounter Nikolay, a bright-eyed old street sweeper with a few days’ of stubble and a battered hat, who immediately engages me in conversation; stating that former president Yulia Timushenko is a bandit, along with a number of her cronies, though he is most visceral about Russian-Jewish oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whom he maintains was the mastermind of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Nikolay claims he was a general in the Soviet Army, and tells me of fast breeding nuclear reactors and prototype laptops during Soviet times. Finally, he asks me: ‘You know how the Soviet Union collapsed?’ ‘No’ I say, lacking the Russian to explain my understanding of the root causes of the matter. ‘It was me! There was a Lenin Statue there’ he says, pointing across to the port. ‘I was there. I went to a small cafe in 1987 and bought an ice cream and lemonade with five roubles. Then I got in my tractor, gunned the accelerator and smashed the statue.’ ‘And what happened then?’ I ask, unable to contain my laughter, though Nikolay is also laughing at his animated story. ‘The KGB came, but when they saw who I was, they got a fright, and that was the end of that. They picked it up and threw it away!’ At no point in our conversation does the fact that he is a shabby street sweeper smoking the cheapest papyrosa (unfiltered cigarettes) reduce his credibility, and he’s obviously an intelligent person, which makes me wonder, upon pulling myself away from his wild stories, if there might be an element of truth to them.
Beyond Zaporizhia I soon leave the Dnieper and head due south through Melitopol towards the coast of the Azov Sea, where in a scrubby area of sand-spits and salt marshes I cross onto the Crimean Peninsula, an autonomous republic within Ukraine. Historically poised between the classical world and the civilisations of the steppe which spread almost endlessly to the east, Crimea has long been a nexus of various empires and has an exceptionally rich and varied history. Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Genoese, Venetians and Ottomans have all settled the Crimean peninsula, in addition to numerous semi-nomadic empires from the surrounding steppe, most notably the Crimean Tatars who founded an independent Crimean Khanate following the Mongol withdrawal, and ruled until the Russian takeover in 1783. Most recently, in 1954, Khrushchev transferred the majority Russian Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR for reasons which are not entirely clear, and perhaps even controversial.
The atmosphere of Crimea is noticeably different from that of the rest of Ukraine. It’s not because of the landscape; the rolling, barren grasslands in the north which evoke Kazakhstan or Mongolia. Nor is it the forlorn or even half-derelict villages of the interior which sit largely quiescent, like small, forgotten kolkhozes (collective farms) out on the torrid steppe of Central Asia. It’s also not the glut of tourists and seedy amenities provided for them, which makes it about the most obviously touristy part of the Former USSR I have yet seen. What really makes a noticeable impression are the faces of the people; hard, weather-beaten faces with a melting pot of features from pure Slavic to Asiatic, and a slightly coarser, less European street attitude which makes Crimea feel far more like Russia than Ukraine. Small observations such as Ukrainian road signs which have been changed to Russian spellings by peeling off a letter or alteration with spray paint hint at an underlying tension and resentment of Ukrainian nationalism from some of the Russian population.
My first stop in Crimea is the city of Kerch, a slightly shabby but charming port city overlooking the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from the westernmost point of Russia’s Black Sea coast. I’m hosted here by Vlad, a tallyman for a French shipping company, who shows me his city and it’s surroundings. Kerch is one of Crimea’s oldest cities and was founded twenty-six hundred years ago as Panticapaeum, a Greek colony whose sparse fragments of toppled limestone pillars and temple floors dot Mount Mithridates in the centre of town. From this ancient hill one can look across Kerch, to a view damaged by war and neglect, over the attractive, pure Byzantine eighth century church of St John the Baptist towards the still busy docks. In the vicinity of Kerch Vlad shows me a string of noteworthy sights, starting with the huge ‘Royal Tomb’, a well preserved kurgan (tumulus) thought to date to the fourth century BCE during the time of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Roman client state. One enters the kurgan along an impressive, steep limestone dromos which, rather like a huge birth canal, leads to the magnificently vaulted, though empty central chamber. Further to the north east we take Vlad’s Zhiguli off-road across the steppe to reach a group of mud volcanoes which gently spew cold mud to the surface in a barren moonscape of dessicated mud, then return to the coast to finish our tour at Yeni Kale, a neglected Ottoman castle built overlooking the Kerch Strait in the early eighteenth century during the time of the Crimean Khanate. For early October the weather is beautifully warm and sunny, with views across to Port Kavkaz in Russia, and I start to see why Crimea was one of the prime holiday destinations of people from across the USSR and Eastern Bloc.
Vlad is half-Russian, half-Ukrainian, though clearly identifies Russia as his homeland. He’s sceptical of Ukrainian nationalism, something he very clearly wants to distance himself from, and views Ukraine as something of an artificial country. ‘Those people in the east are totally different from us, we can’t live with them.’ ‘So what is the solution?’ I ask. ‘We should be apart, two separate countries. They will have their capital in Kyiv, which is a den of nationalists, and ours will be in Kharkov’ (not Kharkiv, the Ukrainian appellation).
I’m beginning to see the extent to which Ukraine is divided regionally and question the identity of the country as a whole, with Vlad’s word’s in my mind as I head west across the steppe, entering more fertile territory beyond Feodosia where vineyards run up the mountain slopes. I stop in the small town of Staryi Krym, once perhaps capital of the Crimean Khanate and with a fine, beautifully carved though partially ruined Ottoman-style mosque which looks to be straight out of rural Anatolia. Heading south, I cross the rugged limestone peaks of the Crimean Mountains whose slopes are ablaze with magnificent autumnal colours, dropping down to the famed Crimean Riviera and the attractive resort town of Sudak, where I am hosted by Rimma, a Russian-Jewish woman originally from Vorkuta in the frigid polar north of European Russia.
Sudak is understandably a popular tourist resort and buzzes with holidaymakers from across Ukraine and Russia. The town shares in Crimea’s long history of successive empires, but was famed as a staging post and trade centre of the Silk Road in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, giving it a tantalising link to the desert cities of Central Asia from which I have recently arrived. Without doubt, the town’s main attraction is its magnificent Genoese fortress with walls and towers of serried battlements draped over the dramatic, grassy limestone cliffs, evocative almost of the Great Wall of China at the farthest end of the ancient Silk Road. The fortress overlooks a beautiful bay, but it is a few kilometres to the west, in the village of Novyi Svit (literally ‘New World’) that one sees some of Crimea’s most magnificent scenery. Novyi Svit is a beauty spot famed throughout the Former USSR both for its views and for sparkling wine, and is a little more upmarket than many of Crimea’s resorts. There are still hordes of tourists around, though I manage to steal myself away from the trail across the coastal cliffs, scrambling down to the shade of an emerald-green Austrian pine for a blissful hour or so, looking across the azure waters of the Black Sea to towering outcrops of jagged limestone. I walk back all the way to Sudak, enjoying the last warm evening of the season whilst passing vertiginous limestone cliffs popular with climbers where ornate, straggling pines cling to the sheer slopes like pieces of Chinese miniature art.
Heading west, the road winds up into the hills, dropping down occasionally past vineyards and through the coastal town of Alushka, climbing once again before dropping slowly down into Yalta, which I immediately dislike for its downmarket resort atmosphere. On the city’s southern edge I pull in to visit the Livadia Palace, the summer retreat of the last Russian Tsar where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin shaped the post-war world, but the tourist hordes and parking mafia cause me to flee. I stop briefly in Haspra, a nondescript coastal settlement famous only for the ‘Swallow’s Nest’, the iconic pleasure castle of Baron von Steingel, a rather underwhelming Neo-gothic folly which nevertheless draws crowds. Indeed, so far I’m rather disappointed, though hardly surprised at the volume of tourism here, even in mid-October, and so continue directly on the city of Sevastopol. My vision of Sevastopol as I enter the city’s eastern suburbs is one of neglect and decay; of broken, litter-filled streets through slum neighbourhoods where children and adults busy themselves in the litter bins.
Despite all the romance attached to the city’s name, Sevastopol is in fact a relatively young place, founded in 1783 by a Scot in the service of Russia. The bay around which the city is focussed has however long been a strategically important port and it is here, on the coast to the west of the modern centre, that one finds Chersonesus, the most impressive Greek ruins in the Former USSR. Founded in the sixth century BCE by the ancient Greeks, Chersonesus passed to the Romans, Huns and then Byzantines who used the far-flung port as a place to monitor the barbarian tribes who lived beyond, and as a place of exile for deposed popes and emperors. Its most important moment in history came in the 980s when the city was absorbed in Kievan Rus’ and is where, legend has it, Vladimir the Great, the Varangian prince of Novgorod who conquered a huge swathe of land from the Baltic to what is now Ukraine, was ordained into Christianity, thereby largely ending the pagan era of Kievan Rus’ and sewing the roots of the modern Eastern Slavic Orthodox Church. The spot where this supposedly happened is commemorated with a modern church, but the ruins of ancient Chersonesus are far more attractive, presenting a view which is pure Greek; of low remains of buildings and walls and tall, lonely Corinthian columns of white limestone set against an azure sea.
On the southern side of the peninsula, just beyond the outer suburbs of Sevastopol lies the small town of Balaklava, infamous for the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ which took place in the valleys immediately to the north; a botched cavalry charged which saw huge losses for the British during the Crimean War of 1853-56, when France, Britain, the Ottomans and Sardinia fought to stop Russian expansion into lands of the weakening Ottoman Empire. Balaklava is centred around a beautiful harbour, far more refined than anything in Sevastopol proper and with a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere. Small, quiet, streets wind past the whitewashed buildings of the harbour which is packed with colourful wooden fishing boats and beyond, millions of dollars worth of yachts and cabin-cruisers belonging to the rich, though the atmosphere remains surprisingly down-to-earth. On the far side of the harbour is the astounding submarine base, built into the mountainside and supposedly capable of withstanding a direct nuclear attack, whose only opening is a tiny aperture in the sheer cliff, totally hidden from the open sea. Completed in 1957 after years of searching for a suitable location, the submarine base was one of the most strategically important military installations in the USSR, ensuring that Balaklava was for years a tightly closed place. Today the base is a museum, one of the more romantic relics of the Cold War, but Balaklava is refreshingly free from tourists compared to the resorts to the east. I climb up above town to the ruinous Genoese fortress, from where there are magnificent views across the glimmering ultramarine of the Black Sea, though the view towards town is rather marred by Soviet concrete. It strikes me here just how ugly Soviet architecture is when put against such benignly beautiful surroundings, rather than the harshness of the great steppes of Siberia or Central Asia.
Although rough around its edges, Sevastopol soon grows on me as a characterful and even charming place, though in spite of having seen the more elegant parts of the centre, I can’t help but feel that Sevastopol has the seediest air of any city I’ve visited in the Former USSR with plenty of pale, yellowing citizens of various facial features, alcoholics, vagrants and cigarette beggars. It’s a city associated almost singularly with war and the centre is awash with monuments to navies, armies, sailors and soldiers. It is one of the twelve Hero Cities of the USSR, complete with a typically brutalist Soviet memorial square in memory of the destruction wrought by the Second World War. Today the Russian and Ukrainian navies exist rather uneasily together in the city’s bays, and Sevastopol was in fact subject to Russian territorial claims (as a separate territorial entity to the rest of Crimea) until 1997 when a long-term lease agreement was reached. Nevertheless, the Russian tricolour can be see all over the city buildings, making Sevastopol feel distinctly un-Ukrainian. Huge blue-grey warships prowl across Sevastopol Bay out into the open sea amidst considerable harbour traffic, and the cheap passenger ferries which cross from the city centre on the southern side of the bay to the scruffy suburbs on the north side make for a nice way to see the city. There’s even a touch of the bustle of the Bosphorous about Sevastopol Bay, though the city itself could hardly be compared to İstanbul. In the late afternoon a brief storm breaks, streaking the sky with magnificently coloured and textured clouds at sunset, against which Sevastopol’s testaments to centuries of conflict are magnificently silhouetted, a pleasant final image of this romantic port.
I leave the Crimean coast the following day, driving north-east into the low limestone outcrops which dot the surrounding farmland and are covered by mixed forests of oak, beech, chestnut and pine, beginning in their higher, cloud-wreathed reaches to show spectacular autumnal colours. The natural softness of the limestone, and defensive qualities of these towering white cliffs have led to the creation of several so-called cave cities, hidden away among the forests, far from the busy coastline. I stop first to visit Mangup, thought to be the historic Doros, the city of the Crimean Goths. I leave the truck and begin walking through damp, overgrown forest, passing some long-abandoned gravestones bearing Hebrew inscriptions, graves of either Krymchaks or Karaites, obscure groups of Crimean Jews whose origins are not clear, though Jews have been recorded in the region since the days of the ancient Greek colonies. Reaching the top of the escarpment the forest ends and I’m on a windswept moorland dotted with remains of buildings and a very impressive castle wall in an advanced state of decay, but still showing a beautiful and strongly Celtic-looking frieze around one of its remaining doorways. In nearby Eski Kermen, which I visit the following day, there is no castle but instead an impressive array of rock-hewn dwellings, two churches and even an ancient cart-road cut through the limestone and showing signs of the passage of wheels.
My last stop in Crimea is the former capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, Bakhchysarai, with its beautiful Khan Saray, the only surviving palace of the Tatar Khans (military rulers) which has been carefully restored and sits in a leafy, autumnal courtyard, looking to have been lifted straight out of Turkey. Having started as the cave city of Chufut Kale, carved from the limestone cliffs above town, Bakhchysarai is a likeable place with small streets, mostly untouched by Soviet urban planning and dotted with iconic, needle-like minarets of Ottoman-style mosques. Indeed, wandering these back streets, where women return from shopping wearing hejab, it would be easy to forget that one is still in Ukraine. Nevertheless, with its rundown, provincial air, Bakhchysarai is clearly a shadow of it’s former self, highlighting the long-troubled relationship between the Crimean Tatars and the Russian state.
The Crimean Tatars are thought to have formed as a group from the various Turkic tribes who moved into Crimea from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. In the fifteenth century the Crimean Khanate emerged as an Ottoman vassal and successor state to the Golden Horde incorporating Crimea and parts of what is now Ukraine and Russia, around the Azov Sea. With a history of leading raids into Russia and clashing with the Cossacks of Zaporizhia, the Crimean Tatars were incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1774, but remained a majority in Crimea until the mid-nineteenth century. The Crimean Tatars suffered greatly during Soviet times, with famines in 1921 and 1931-33, and disastrous collectivisation in 1928-29 decimating the population and driving them into exile. Finally, in 1944 Stalin, suspecting the Crimean Tatars as potential fifth-columnists, deported almost the entire population to Central Asia. Although officially allowed to return since 1967, relatively few have done so and little state support has been offered. Many Crimean Tatars today live as a diaspora in Turkey and Central Asia.
I cross the northern reaches of the Crimean Peninsula through flat, open farmland very different from the dramatic southern coast, back into mainland Ukraine, crossing the Dnieper River one final time in Kherson (whose name is a shortening of Chersonesus), re-entering the fertile Black Soil region and passing the shipbuilding city of Mykolaiv on my way to Ukraine’s fourth largest city, Odessa.
Odessa was founded by Catherine The Great in 1794 on the site of an earlier Tatar settlement, became the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire and later the most important port in the USSR. Among cities in the Former Soviet Union Odessa seems to evoke considerable romance in the Western imagination for its fine streets and cosmopolitan, Bohemian atmosphere; a roguish port city poised somewhere between Europe and Russia. I myself have considerable expectations prior to my visit, which takes place more than four years later than initially planned. What I find however comes rather short of expectations; though not unpleasant, Odessa is a city heavy with western influences in its Baroque, Renaissance, Fin de Siecle and Art Nouveau architecture, reflecting long-gone days of cosmopolitanism. Any atmosphere of intrigue or debauchery seems heavily diluted by the vulgar Ukrainian business class in their black SUVs and hordes of tourists erupting from a German cruise ship which has recently docked. There are few specific sights, though despite my now peevish attitude towards the hype, I’m still impressed by the Potemkin Stairs, the 192 steps which lead up from the harbour to the heart of the city, ending below a statue of the Duc de Richelieu, the prominent French statesman who became governor of Odessa in the early nineteenth century and was responsible for much of the early design of the city.
I leave Odessa feeling rather disappointed, driving out of the city’s southern suburbs through the sprawling port of Illichivsk on rough roads. I cross the huge estuary of the Dniester River, recently emerged from Moldova and enter Bessarabia which immediately feels far from Ukraine’s dynamic cities and from the tourists of Crimea; a far-flung frontier, a neglected borderland which starts to blend into Romania and central Europe. I make a brief detour to the town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, an ancient city with a history similar to that of Crimea’s older cities, and the last Black Sea port to be incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. I stop to explore the imposing Akkerman Fortress on a windswept bank of the Dniester estuary, built in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries to defend this strategic access point to the Black Sea. Continuing west, I aim for the Danube which here marks the Romanian border.
Not far beyond Tatarbunary I turn south, aiming for the Danube Delta and reaching Vylkove, the last settlement on the river. Here, amid the endless willow stands and reed beds of the delta is a small town whose houses are linked as much by canals as by roads, with locals taking motorboats from jetties outside their houses out onto the river to fish. Despite its isolation in the far south of the country facing Romania across the Danube, much of the population of Vylkove is actually Russian; Lipovans, a group of Old Believers who settled in this area when it was part of the Principality of Moldavia following persecution in the Russian Empire for opposing the reforms made to the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid seventeenth century.
I drive west on broken roads roughly parallel to the Danube through the sleepy towns of Kiliya and Izmail to Reni, the last settlement in Ukraine. Ahead of me lies Moldova, my next destination, and less than a kilometre beyond that Romania and the EU.
In the weeks I’ve spent driving through Ukraine, I’ve been very surprised by the diversity of the country; though equally surprised to leave without any clear impression of a Ukrainian identity between the russified borderlands of the east, the rural beauty of the north, the nationalist fervour of the capital, the Soviet industrial cities and Cossacks of the centre, and the absolutely heterogeneous population of Crimea. I would in fact see a totally different country on my next visit, en-route to the EU and UK. First however, I was looking forward to a completely new country, my fourteenth of the Former Soviet countries; Moldova.
West of the dry steppes of Central Asia lies the Chernozem, the fertile, black earth region of Russia and Ukraine which constitutes the breadbasket of Eastern Europe, and has historically been a melting pot of Slavs, Cossacks and peoples from the Black Sea region and steppes beyond. After transiting the agricultural heartland of Russia, I would enter Ukraine and begin a lengthy tour of the country, more than four years after my original plans on the outward leg of the Odyssey had been scuppered by a robbery in Romania. Exploring Ukraine for the first time, from the industrial Donbass Region of the east, small towns of the far north, then to the capital and down the Dnieper River, south to Crimea and west through Odessa to the Danube Delta and the Moldovan border, I would find a highly divided country, one which at once had fostered the Eastern Slavs, a civilisation who gave rise to modern-day Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians, yet at the same time one which had only existed for twenty years as a united and independent entity. Having for centuries existed as something of a frontier territory of a far larger, Russia-centred empire, this eastern half of Ukraine would reveal a surprisingly diverse country, set against beautiful, rolling countryside and the spectacular coastline of the Crimean Peninsula.
In the very early hours of the morning of the 9th August 2011 I leave the Kazakhstan – Russia border at Ilek and drive north-east parallel to the Ural River, reaching Orenburg at around 04:00, where I am happy to meet Ruslan, with whom I had stayed in April. I stay three lazy days with Ruslan, each night accompanying his friend Oleg delivering pizzas through the early hours, stopping frequently to smoke and enjoy the mesmerising passage of sodium-yellow street-lights as we drive the city’s empty streets. With just a ten-day transit visa however I am conscious that I do not presently have the luxury of time, and so my thoughts are on crossing the country to the Ukrainian border. West of Orenburg I drive through fields of ripe sunflowers towards the Volga, bypassing Samara on roads choked with lorry traffic, driving around the Samara Bend and stopping in the city of Tolyatti.
Named after a secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Tolyatti is a disjointed industrial city set attractively amidst leafy hills on the banks of the Volga, and is Russia’s motor city, home to the AvtoVAZ (Lada) plant, where the iconic Soviet Zhiguli was manufactured from the 1970s in cooperation with Fiat. I’m hosted in Tolyatti by Dmitriy and his wife Alena, who live in a fourteen-storey apartment block overlooking the city’s central park and golden domed Transfiguration Cathedral. Tolyatti is a nice example of a Soviet city, and I spend an enjoyable day walking along the sandy banks of the Volga. On my second day I am am interviewed about my long road journey by a friend of Dmitriy’s on Lada FM, the radio station broadcast in the AvtoVAZ factory, but my most lasting memory of Tolyatti, and indeed of the entirety of this short journey across Russia, is on my final evening. With Dmitriy and Alena and a group of their friends, we sit out in the warm evening on the grass in the park, next to the church, playing guitars and drums, drinking beer and simply enjoying the genuine company of friends in a free and unpretentious environment. Such simple and human experiences as these would make up my most lasting memories of Russian people, and their spontaneity and simple honesty would only serve to highlight the paucity of social life in western society.
From Tolyatti I proceed westwards via Syzran and Penza, through the beautiful, rolling Russian countryside which, whilst rarely spectacular, is soothingly wild in its unmanaged endlessness and a real pleasure to drive through. In the afternoon I enter Russia’s Central Black Earth Region, an agricultural heartland which stretches south almost to the Caucasus, encompassing some of the world’s most fertile soil. I stop in the city of Tambov long enough only to witness a drunken fight in a city park. Indeed, as I head west in Russia it seems that ever increasing numbers of sullen, pallid, disaffected, track-suit-clad youth and ugly advertising hoardings on every street mark an erosion of traditional Russian culture with increasing proximity to Western Europe.
It’s a blissful drive west out of Tambov in the late afternoon on a quiet provincial road, and I pass the city of Lipetsk after dark, stopping for the night at the roadside and continuing in the morning to the charming town of Yelets, the oldest in the Black Earth Region. Set on a hill on the western bank of the murky Sosna River, Yelets is a provincial town which retains an air of ‘real’ Russia, with beautiful pastel buildings, ancient churches and wooden, chocolate-box cottages set aside quiet, sloping streets. Down amid the wild, rambling green vegetation of the riverbank, overlooked by the light green Ascension Church, bronzed Russians are swimming, sun-bathing and fishing from small boats, enjoying the late-summer warmth in an almost Mediterranean-like atmosphere of torpor and relaxation.
From Yelets I continue southwards, joining the M4 Highway which links the capital to Rostov-on-Don and Russia’s southern, Black Sea coast, roughly tracking the Don River on its way to the Azov Sea. I stop in the afternoon in Voronezh, a city of roughly one million which typifies many of Russia’s western cities; heavily rebuilt following the destruction of the second world war and somehow lacking the charm of many of the cities located between Moscow and the Volga.
Continuing southwards on the M4 the following day, amid the heavy summer traffic of Russian holidaymakers heading to and from the Black Sea coast, the landscape changes very gently from undulating fields and forests to the warm and verdant plains of Southern Russia’s Don Basin with its longer growing season and far milder winters. Trucks at the roadside selling melons remind me for a moment of Uzbekistan, though thankfully there is nothing like the terrible summer heat of Transoxiana. The area also feels more cosmopolitan with its proximity to the Caucasus and Black Sea, and as the homeland of the Don Cossack Host.
Although their origins are unclear, the Cossacks have long been a self-governing group of militaristic communities living in this southern region of what is now Russia and Ukraine, and have played a vital role in the history of both countries. Russia’s Don Cossack Host (one of several hosts) became allied with the Russian Tsars and were instrumental in the expansion of Russia in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, eastwards to the Volga, Urals and beyond across the entirety of Siberia, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Later, the Cossacks became a recognised military class and fought in numerous wars for Russia, forming a strong counter-revolutionary force against the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Revolution.
I stop in the afternoon in the city of Novocherkassk, founded in 1805 by the ataman (supreme military leader) of the Don Host, as capital of the then Don Cossack Region. It’s a pleasant and laid back city with leafy, divided boulevards and low Tsarist-era houses. At the edge of the centre, in a huge cobble-stoned park sits the striking Ascension Cathedral, and next to it a statue to perhaps the most famous Cossack, Yermak Timofeyevich, who following Ivan The Terrible’s defeat of the Tatar Khanate of Kazan, led the first Russian conquests into Siberia, laying the foundations for Russia’s vast territorial expansion. There are few other obvious signs of Cossack culture, but Novocherkassk is a very likeable place, built on a low hill with views down chestnut and mulberry lined streets to the bucolic, plaited fields of the Don countryside.
It’s just forty kilometres from Novocherkassk to southern Russia’s largest city, Rostov-on-Don, which lies on the right bank of the river, not far from its outlet into the Sea of Azov. The traffic is horrendous and I see several accidents as I peel off the M4 into the suburbs, though I am immediately impressed by the city as I drive through the afternoon rush hour to the apartment of my host Oleg.
The region around Rostov has been inhabited since ancient times, but the city itself is relatively modern, established as a centre of commerce and industry on the Don River which is still busy with shipping, with the Volga-Don Canal allowing passage from the cities of inner Russia out into the Black Sea and beyond. Though lying about thirty kilometres inland, the huge, slow Don River gives Rostov the character of a sea port with a certain air of seediness and debauchery and a reputation for organised crime, though I never detect anything close to a threatening atmosphere. I am indeed quite surprised to find Rostov to be one of Russia’s most characterful and charming cities.
Rostov’s raffish old centre stretches along a hill overlooking the Don in streets of old, damp, sometimes crumbling brick houses with a real, lived-in patina. The roads are broken and pot-holed, the tram lines are bowed and lifting from the road surface and bins overflow litter into the streets which are full of dogs and cats. The dogs are friendly characters; two sit patiently outside a pet-food shop, another admires his reflection in the broken glass of a ground floor window, and the cats are approachable and playful. I catch the central market as business is winding up for the day, the crowds thinning to leave behind the city’s alcoholics and madmen; one sleeps under the bench in a bus shelter, another dances jerkily to some awful Europop coming from a nearby music stand; others stagger aimlessly or sit on steps in front of shops. Amid this debauchery the general, sober populace of Rostov bustle on their way home, a colourful mix of Slavs, Armenians, other Caucasians and Asians, which together with the chaos and squalor give Rostov a character quite different from the cities of western and central Russia. I would gladly spend several days exploring Rostov, but my transit visa is due to expire, and so after just two nights I must move west into Ukraine.
The road to the Ukrainian border runs west parallel to the northern coast of the Azov Sea through intensively cultivated fields of black earth. The border crossing into Ukraine is swift and easy and leads me straight into the Donbass (Donetsk Basin) Region of eastern Ukraine, which in addition to agriculture is famed for its coal reserves and has been very heavily industrialised since the nineteenth century. I witness this industrialisation as I approach Mariupol where a huge, rusting, smoke-belching iron foundry sits on the coast amid piles of coal and grassy slag heaps which run straight into the sea. Once beyond the industrial suburbs however, Mariupol is a pleasant place, and I am lucky to be hosted by Pavel, or rather by his mother and mother-in-law, in Peschanka, a suburb of holiday homes at the western edge of the city overlooking the sea. I’m given a warm Ukrainian welcome with tea, ham, salo (cured pork fatback) and borscht, the classic Ukrainian beetroot soup.
Walking for a minute through walnut, cherry and apple trees brings me down to the beach which is a clean strand of yellow sand, though the Azov Sea is the dirtiest I have ever seen; my feet disappear in its murky green water long before my knees are wet. Not far beyond the beach are the cranes of the city’s docks, backed by smokestacks, and the sea is full of container ships waiting to dock, none of which deter the holidaymakers who are sunbathing on the beach. I meet Pavel the following day, an energetic self-made forty year old businessman and workaholic, though the three bullet wounds in his stomach (a ‘professional problem’) and pistol in his bag speak volumes of the way business is conducted in Ukraine.
Donetsk, the regional capital and my next stop lies a little over a hundred kilometres inland to the north of Mariupol and is effectively the centre of the Donbass. Founded in 1869 by the British industrialist John Hughes, and named Yuzovka until Soviet times, Donetsk is a thoroughly industrial city, centre of a sprawling conurbation of mining and heavy industry. Long renowned as a grim, dirty and polluted city, Donetsk was plagued by economic decline and organised crime following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has very clearly made a great transformation in recent years and appears clean and prosperous, if a little dull, with the overgrown slag piles which can be seen throughout the city being perhaps its most distinctive sight. Judging by the number of expensive cars on the streets of Donetsk, there is certainly a lot of money here, though even more than in Russia, it seems very unevenly distributed.
This eastern region of Ukraine is predominantly Russian speaking with little assertion of Ukrainian national identity, and I notice that independence-day celebrations here are very low key. At the same time however, there are certainly differences from Russia; it’s noticeably less authoritarian, and there seems to be less state intervention in life; business seems freer, and prices are lower. People also seem slightly more European, smilier, more relaxed and a touch more worldly.
I drive north out of Donetsk, passing through a succession of run-down provincial towns such as Kramatorsk and Slavyansk which are set amidst moribund Soviet industry; places which have certainly not seen the same revival as Donetsk. Beyond these, the landscape changes as I leave the Donbass and return to the rolling fields of black earth which characterise north-eastern Ukraine, an area which has traditionally been a frontier of the Russian Empire, and from where the name Ukraine (from okraina, or borderland) may originate.
My destination is Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, which has a markedly more cultured and sophisticated air than Donetsk. I am hosted here by Tatyana, in what she describes as a ‘squat’ though which is really more of a private bar and social club which she runs with a group of friends, hosting local musicians and generally cultivating a free and unpretentious atmosphere. I’m greeted at the squat by Lyosha, Tatyana’s husband and quite a character, with whom I visit a local supermarket. Lyosha seems to have very poor eyesight, and walks the aisles muttering madly, looking for me and forgetting utterly what we came in for. Only later would I realise that this was largely was alcohol related, and this encounter would set the tone for the nine days that I spent in Kharkiv, with numerous and rather debauched all-day drinking sessions and bouts of melancholy, evenings of meeting young intellectual types and playing vintage video games, and one lunchtime barbecue with Misha, the squat’s barman and some friends in a garden on the edge of town, enjoying the last of the summer heat with plenty of vodka.
Kharkiv, which was capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1919 until 1934 has an elegant centre of grandiose, pre-war Soviet architecture. Walking north from the imposing regional administration building, one crosses cobbled Freedom Square, one of the largest squares in Europe, into a circular park from which streets radiate between the buildings of the National Medical University and the 1928 Derzhprom (State Industry) Building, a masterpiece of Constructivist architecture which combined technologically advanced construction techniques with communist purpose.
In contrast to Kharkiv’s architectural grandeur and youthful, educated population are rows of expensive black SUVs and sports cars (Porsches being especially popular), a sure sign of capitalism which here seems even more rampant than in Russia. While Kharkiv has a more worldly air than Donetsk, I am yet to be impressed with any real signs of a Ukrainian identity, though it is here that I see my first statue of Taras Shevchenko (who looks like a wild-eyed Nietzsche), the poet and ethnographer who was exiled in Kazakhstan for twelve years after insulting the wife of Tsar Nicholas I. As the father of modern Ukrainian literature and language, which are central to an independent Ukrainian identity, I would later see that Shevchenko has become something close to a national hero, his name for example often replacing that of Lenin in Ukrainian city streets.
I pull myself away from the squat and its lures of alcohol and indolence, and push further to the north-west, tracking the Russian border to Sumy where my host Borys accommodates me in the house of his grandparents who live on the edge of town. Borys’ grandmother produces wonderful home-cooked food, with vegetables grown in an impressive and meticulously tended cottage garden, while his grandfather, I am interested to learn, is a survivor of the 1948 earthquake in Ashgabat, which killed over one hundred thousand people. Sumy itself is an unremarkable and rather sleepy city, though from a war memorial on the city’s southern edge one gets a beautiful view over the flat, wooden countryside beyond the Psel River.
Beyond Sumy I enter the northernmost part of Ukraine, an area historically known as Severia after a native Slavic tribe, which was incorporated in the tenth century into the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, the progenitor of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Severia is a beautiful area of rivers, woodland and open countryside around sleepy provincial towns, such as Putyvl, which is overlooked from a forested hill by the gilt domes of the Movchansky Monastery, and Hlukhiv with its collection of churches and unusual Kyiv Gate, a Triumphal Arch which seems somewhat out of place in such a backwater.
Just after Hlukhiv I cross the highway leading from Kyiv to the Russian border along which I drove more than four years ago, on my way to enter Russia for the first time at the very start of the Odyssey. Shortly beyond lies my next stop, the delightful town of Novhorod Siverskyi, which sits on a hill overlooking the slow, overgrown Desna River, seemingly aloof from the modern world with quiet, rambling streets on which move more bicycles and horse-carts than cars, and small houses with burgeoning cottage gardens tended by stout peasant women. In the town’s low-rise centre there are a few Soviet-era buildings, though many are older, including a beautifully preserved example of trading arches, an Eastern Slavic version of an Asian bazaar which have long disappeared from most cities in Ukraine and Russia.
Novhorod Siverskyi is indeed an ancient place with almost a thousand years of history, and was once capital of the Severian Principality. The town’s importance has certainly waned, but it is still famed for its architecture, most famously for the beautifully sited Transfiguration of the Saviour Monastery, a serene Ukrainian Orthodox complex surrounded by a blocky, whitewashed sixteenth century defensive wall, crowned in it corners with pitch-roofed wooden towers, which give it something of a fairytale appearance. In the monastery’s grassy inner grounds monks mow the lawns and gather fruit, and I’m free to wander and climb up a restored wooden staircase to the wall’s upper galleries, then climb to the south-eastern tower. From here there is an impressive view of the Desna as it meanders through rambling, languid vegetation, beyond fields and vegetable plots where women dig potatoes and gather pumpkins. Only the thud of falling apples punctuates the silence in this enchanting spot. In addition to Novhorod Siverskyi’s charming atmosphere, it is here that I first start to appreciate a noticeable difference in character from nearby Russia, one which would become increasingly obvious and assertive as I travelled west. Without Russia’s vast, sparsely populated wilderness, there is not such a stark urban – rural divide; villages and small towns such as this are not forlorn, isolated places eking out an existence, but agrarian communities of living villages and peasants.
From Novhorod Siverskyi I turn westwards through sparsely populated farmland towards what is perhaps Ukraine’s most arresting geographical feature, the Dnieper River, which forms a backbone to the country. The Dnieper divides Ukraine roughly into two halves, with the territories lying either side of the river historically being referred to as Right Bank and Left Bank Ukraine. Both areas were formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, though Left Bank Ukraine was re-incorporated into the Russian state more than a century earlier than its counterpart on the right bank; a legacy which clearly continues to divide the now united country.
I stop short of the Dnieper, in the city of Chernihiv, which with more than a thousand years of history is one of Ukraine’s oldest cities, seat of the Principality of Chernihiv which historically vied for power with rulers of Kievan Rus’, and was later centre of the Cossack Hetmanate, the Ukrainian Cossack state formed by the uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman (head of state) of the Zaporizhian Cossack Host against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1648.
Chernihiv feels rather spread out, no doubt in part due to the destruction wrought upon it by the Second World War, but it has a number of striking churches standing as testament to its long history; from early, strongly Byzantine-influenced churches dating from the time of the ancient principalities, to the Ukrainian Baroque of the distinctive, heavy-walled Catherine’s Church which sits upon a leafy mound overlooking the Desna on the city’s southern edge.
I leave Chernihiv feeling that I am beginning to find a real, distinct Ukrainian historical and cultural identity, and make the short journey south to the Dnieper where I cross into Kyiv, undoubtedly the cultural, historical and economic hub of the country.
I arrive in Tashkent on the evening of the 4th July 2011, coming off the main road from the Fergana Valley, straight into the district of Lisunova. As in my three previous visits to Tashkent, I stay here in the vacant apartment owned by the family of Pasha, a Russian friend of mine from Novosibirsk whose family lived here until 1997. I am greeted by their former neighbour Gulya, who despite the late hour welcomes me with tea and cakes, as an old family friend.
Lisunova is in the east of Tashkent, located between the city centre and the Eastern Airport, and grew up as a residential district to accommodate workers from the nearby Tashkent Aviation Production Association, which produces large Ilyushin cargo aircraft, though has suffered greatly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has an uncertain future. The area has a distinctly aeronautical theme, with nearby apartments covered in murals depicting aircraft, wings and propellers, the Palace of Culture of Aircraft Builders, a beautiful piece of 1970s Soviet Modernism, and the nearby metro station named after Valery Chkalov, the Russia polar air pioneer who had a huge cult of personality during the pre-Space Age Soviet Union. In addition to these Soviet cultural touches however, Lisunova is somewhere I feel quite personally attached to through multiple visits, almost as a home neighbourhood. Previously, Lisunova was almost entirely Russian, though with a dwindling Russian population demographics are naturally shifting as Uzbeks come to replace the departed Russians. In Lisunova I am living in a safe, leafy, gentle, cosmopolitan slice of Soviet urban planning, and I spend each evening in a local bar drinking cheap, cold draught Qibroy beer, watching the world go by around me and pondering my strong attachment to this place.
Tashkent is by far the largest city in Central Asia, making other capitals such as Bishkek, Dushanbe and Ashgabat look like the glorified provincial towns that they are. Tashkent is a real metropolis, a mature and urbane city, an island of European-styled sophistication amidst the endless agricultural towns and villages of Transoxiana. With the near-total destruction wrought by an earthquake in 1966, whose epicentre was directly below the city, there is nothing of any great age in Tashkent. Nevertheless it is perhaps my favourite city in the Former USSR, for it is a true showpiece of Soviet architecture and urban planning; a living example of Soviet communal living, a spacious and (sometimes quite strangely) uncrowded city of monumental boulevards, (dated) modernist architecture, huge apartment blocks and watered parks. I take myself on a nostalgic tour of my favourite places in the city; starting up in the Khast Imam complex, a rather impotent centre of Islamic study whose totally restored complex includes a beautiful Grand Mosque and the dazzling Barakhon Medressa. From here I move east to the powerful Socialist-Realist Earthquake Memorial, commemorating both the dead, and the fraternal assistance in rebuilding the city from workers and engineers across the Soviet Union. Turning through the shady, plane-lined banks of the Ankhor Canal, I reach the massively remodelled Independence Square, the showpiece of post-independence Tashkent.
Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s despotic president, has a clear wish to homogenise life across Uzbekistan; to impose an unnatural degree of order across the country, which robs many cities of character. At once Tashkent is too large to be robbed of its Soviet character, but simultaneously it is the site of Karimov’s greatest attention, nowhere more so than in Independence Square. Here absolute control and absolute order are manifested in a heavily policed park, whose grass is trimmed by squads of scissor-wielding women, and may not be walked on. A facade of prosperity, of absolute order and calm must be projected to the people, who seem rather out-of-place in this soulless park. Economic stability and reasonable salaries would probably impress people more. I strike west along Uzbekistan Avenue, passing some monumentalist Soviet giants and the nasty smoked-glass Uzbekistan Banking Building, whose pseudo-national style is typical of post independence architecture. From the huge Soviet rotunda of a circus I turn south, reaching the magnificent Palace of Friendship of Peoples, an iconic piece of Soviet Modernism which sits in a large, strangely empty park, backed by what must be some of the longest apartment buildings ever constructed. South from here I venture into Navoiy Park, where the Uzbekistan Parliament Building is one of the few tasteful new buildings, though what use a parliament is in such a dictatorship is highly questionable. From here I take a stroll down Beshagach Street, which runs through Neoclassical columns back to the very centre of the city at Amir Timur (formerly Lenin) Square. Here lies the Hotel Uzbekistan with its mesmerising latticework in the style of Timurid mosaic-work, though I am saddened to see that the ancient plane trees which previously filled the park have been cut down for no apparent reason; a move very unpopular with many of the city’s residents.
I spend five full days strolling around Tashkent, indulging myself in the odd sense of nostalgia I have for the city, though I can’t quite fully explain to myself just why I am so charmed by it. I have happy memories of Tashkent; of getting the truck’s suspension fixed here in 2007; of an impulsive decision to get a Pakistani visa here in October 2007, perhaps the most pivotal moment in how this journey came to be so long; and of a rather debauched three weeks of alcohol-fuelled recuperation here with Duncan in November 2009, in between visits to Afghanistan. Tashkent also perhaps best fulfils a hopeless ambition to visit the Soviet Union for real, though through my visits I can feel that the city is very slowly moving away from this past. On my final melancholic day here I walk around the centre, finding a pleasant urban park above one of the exits of the fantastically decorated Kosmonavtlar metro station. I sit on a bench amidst the plane trees, overlooked by a nine-storey apartment block. Around me are old Russian babushkas (grandmothers), Uzbek youngsters, Ukrainians, Tatars, Koreans; often mixed families, all parading gently on this warm Saturday afternoon, after the worst of the daytime heat has abated. Here I see what I fancy is the Soviet dream; a secure, safe, predictable life in a modern, cosmopolitan city built in the European style, way out in the middle of Central Asia. Next to me, an old Russian lady shifts her weight and levers up a loose slat from her bench with a disapproving look. I too wonder how long this island will survive.
I leave Tashkent in an air of sadness, and a lingering feeling of finality, heading south early on a Sunday morning, out of the city and into the nondescript small farming towns which spread towards the mountains of Tajikistan. I arrive at the border crossing at Oybek to find a sizeable crowd of people being largely ignored by the Uzbek guards. Political animosity between the two countries makes it difficult for their citizens to cross from one country to another across an arbitrary border which divides people who have lived easily as neighbours for centuries. I am the only vehicle waiting to cross the border, though I too must wait, until eventually an idiot of a young customs officer deigns to poke through the contents of the truck; seemingly confounded by anything of industrial manufacture such as mosquito coils or a pot of petroleum jelly. After twenty infuriating minutes of watching his mindless rifling, he gets a call on his mobile phone, cannot be bothered to search any further, and I’m free to leave.
After some poor attempts at extortion on the Tajikistani side of the border, I’m free at midday on the newly built Chinese road which runs first to Khujand, crossing the Syr Darya then heading south past Istaravshan, climbing into the Turkestan Range. As the road climbs steeply, hugging the mountainside, I can see that the Tajiks share the same mindless, belligerent incompetence behind the wheel as their Persian cousins, and the road is lined by the mangled wreckage of lorries which have crashed off a precipice on one of the switchbacks above. The asphalt disappears as I begin the climb of the 3350-metre Shakhristan Pass, which then leads down to the village of Ayni, where after a delicious meal of fatty mutton shashlik, I turn off the main highway onto the rough road above the Zarafshan River.
Upon entering the Zarafshan Valley, the scenery is stunning, with small villages marked by patches of greenery squeezed onto narrow ledges above the river, and the road clinging onto the steep mountainside. I pass friendly villages with mixed Uzbek and Tajik populations on my way downstream along the Zarafshan, which flows eventually to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. After some distance, the valley starts to open up and the villages become larger, dotted with fields of sunflowers and even grapes, until I roll into Panjakent, the principal town of the valley. Panjakent is a bustling market town a with a friendly bazaar, but its main point of interest lies in the hills to the north. Here, I reach the ancient ruins of Panchekanth, which sit aloof from the modern town; a large, grassy terrace of well-weathered mud-brick buildings and walls with just the odd remaining arched doorway, perhaps the remains of ancient Zoroastrian fire temples. Panchekanth was a city of the Sogdians, who had existed in this corner of Central Asia since ancient times, Iranian peoples who formed a series of small states centred around nearby Samarkand, were incorporated into the empire of the Achamaenids and Alexander the Great, and were later famed as traders of the Silk Road until conquered by the Arabs in the eighth century. The legacy of the Sogdians remains however, with traces of Sogdian surviving in the Tajik language, and also in the name of the province in which Panjakent lies: Sughd. Opposite the site itself is an old, dusty museum, whose friendly curator Hikmatullah speaks to me for a long time, showing me a copy of the enchanting friezes unearthed here, whose beautifully coloured depictions of Sogdian kings, noblemen and woman show delicate Persian, Greek and Chinese influence; real art of the Silk Road. He also shows me a Sogdian jar burial, containing the remains of a human body whose bones would have been picked clean by vultures following a traditional Zoroastrian sky burial, and he points at a nearby dakhma (Zoroastrian ‘tower of silence’, where dead bodies were left) in the hills to the south-west.
Having stocked-up with provisions in Panjakent’s bazaar I head south, along a rough track which climbs up into the Fann Mountains, part of the Hissar Range which stretch west into Uzbekistan. As I drive ever upwards I start to pass a string of seven lakes, each of deep blue water held behind landslides which have blocked the river into this narrow valley. With increasing altitude, the scenery becomes ever more spectacular and terraces appear on the steep valley-sides, dry-stonewalls, irrigation channels, fruit trees and simple mud-brick homes of purely Tajik villages. Men smile and press their right palms to their chests as I pass; an idyllic mountain paradise untouched by modernity, which once again reminds me more of northern Pakistan or Afghanistan. It’s as if all the rigours of the twentieth century had simple bypassed this tranquil valley. In the afternoon I reach the end of the road in the village of Marguzor, which spreads across three valley-sides around the sixth of seven lakes, a truly beautiful place, though it’s clearly also impoverished and must be terribly bleak and isolated during winter. I politely decline an invitation from a gentleman to stay at his home, and instead park up at the lake-side for the night, watching a group of local boys fishing in the lake’s cold, clear water. For the first time since leaving the mountains of Kyrgyzstan I have a cool and pleasant night.
In the morning I leave the truck and begin walking on the well-worn village paths up to the seventh and final lake, known as Hazor Chashma (‘Thousand Springs’ in Tajik). Leaving the village houses, I climb past occasional shepherd’s huts and small, walled plots of crops, passing groups of children leading donkeys downhill carrying bundles of juniper wood from much further up the valley. I soon give up any idea of strenuous hiking up to a pass to view the snow-peaks which lie beyond the valley walls, instead enjoying the wonderful lakeside serenity and occasional donkey traffic, sitting in the cool shade and drinking in the beauty of my surroundings, in view of the ferocious heat I’ll be driving through in the coming days. With a touch of melancholy I realise this will be one of the last moments where I can witness such unadulterated magnificence before I return to the dull landscapes of Europe. There is no sound to pollute the tranquillity here, just the gentle lapping of the lake’s waters, and the occasional lament of a donkey in the surrounding valley. Up beyond the head of the lake is a steep hillside, which on close inspection I see is dotted with more mud-brick hovels, one of the most hidden and isolated settlements I have ever seen, totally without modern infrastructure. Two boys plod down on a donkey and we have a halting conversation in my few words of Persian, but they nevertheless manage to invite me back to their home, though wishing to remain where I am, I decline. Once again I’m faced with the uncomfortable truth that nicest people in the world – the friendliest, kindest and most trusting – are those that have the least.
I retrace my route back down to the road, which formerly would have led west to Samarkand, however Karimov’s dislike of Tajikistan has seen him close the border for no reason other than spite, stifling tourism and communication in this beautiful region of Tajikistan, which now lies isolated between the mountain passes which separate it from both Khujand and Dushanbe. Rejoining the main M34 Highway towards Dushanbe, I soon have a rather unpleasant experience. A car driven by a wild-looking young man passes me very close, grazing my bull-bars. There is no damage to the truck, but a crease in the bodywork of the other car, which stops, and whose driver demands payment, which I of course refuse. After perhaps half an hour of threatening and at times abusive behaviour, the driver’s father arrives in another car. Although he is a revolting, volatile, self-adoring fool with a squeaky voice, his son’s behaviour suddenly improves, and we drive to a police post some distance down the road.
The road winds up the green slopes of the Zarafshan Range, plunging through the infamous Anzob Tunnel, a botched Iranian engineering project whose unlit five-and-a-half kilometre interior is almost perpetually flooded, with holes in the road surface large enough to founder cars in waist-deep water. Reaching the police checkpoint, arguments continue, though I refuse to do anything without informing my embassy. By now in a rush, both the driver and his father agree to meet me at the British Embassy the following day in Dushanbe, telling me that the police will hold my driving license until the matter is resolved with the Dushanbe Traffic Inspectorate. However, once everyone else has departed, the police officer, perhaps sensing that I am not at fault, or perhaps not wanting the burden of starting an investigation, hands me back my license, and I leave.
Beyond the checkpoint the road winds down the Mediterranean-like foothills, dotted by the holiday homes of the capital’s rich, into the sweltering heat of Dushanbe. I had planned on spending a couple of days here but, having found the city rather dull on my first visit in 2007, and not wanting to run into my accusers, I bypass the city and head straight for the Uzbekistan border at Dusti. I leave Tajikistan without an issue, and am even given a melon by a customs officer who is a frustrated piano player, and asks me to invite him to the UK. However, here I am once again subject to the bad relations between the two countries, as vehicular traffic is reduced to a trickle through the Uzbek customs yard, with thorough and time-consuming searches. I have to spend the night in no-man’s land, under an old Soviet monument to fraternal relations between Soviet nations; something which seems in short supply here. I do make friends with the only other car driver here, Nazim, a Tajik who is driving to Almaty. When we are finally admitted to the customs yard mid-morning the following day, Nazim is first in, though I need to lend him some tools to start dismantling parts of his engine so that the Uzbek guards can read his engine number. After my own thorough search, I’m through ahead of Nazim and wait for him a short way down the road, taking a very refreshing dip in the cool waters of an irrigation channel. Before long Nazim arrives and we have a great late lunch together, which he insists on paying for, before we go our separate ways.
After passing the city of Denov I turn off the M41 Highway, heading west on small roads, bypassing Termez down on the Amu Darya where I had crossed in and out of the country from Afghanistan almost two years earlier. The road climbs through small villages of mud-brick houses, decorated sometimes with floral motifs and far more modern than the hovels I had seen in the Fann Mountains. Shepherds on donkeys move their herds across the landscape which is a near uniform brown but for the occasional low limestone outcrop; the air is thick with dusty haze and the heat torrid, giving these low southerly outliers of the Hissar Range the look of the Judaean Hills of Palestine. I stop in the early evening in the pleasantly green hill town of Boysun which is somewhat different from the typical lowland cotton-farming towns which dot most of the country, then move on to find a wonderful camping spot just out of town, overlooking the road which heads west towards Samarkand and Bukhara in this Biblical landscape, where I enjoy a pleasantly warm night under the stars, relieved to be out of Tajikistan.
In the morning I soon join the M39 Highway, which climbs gently to the ‘Iron Gates’ a natural defile in the Hissar Mountains through which traffic must pass; rather like the Khyber Pass, this transport bottleneck has a long history, linking Balkh and Samarkand, and has long-witnessed the passage of the armies, trade caravans and pilgrims which define the region’s history and culture. Today the traveller is delayed here by traffic jams caused by the authorities checking vehicles and passengers arriving from the Afghanistan border region, though I manage to pass without significant delay, turning north in Guzar towards Shahrisabz, hometown of Tamerlane (Timur).
After around thirty kilometres however I turn east, back into the foothills of the Hissars, winding up a narrow valley of powdery orange-brown rocks and scattered mud-brick houses to the large village of Katta Langar, where on a flat-topped hill sits the red-brick mausoleum of the sixteenth century Sheikh Muhammad Sadik. Said to be an adherent of a minor Sufi sect which was pushed into this small valley by the Naqshabandi Order (who spread from Transoxiana to the Indian Subcontinent at around this time), the mausoleum is restrained, lacking the dazzling faïence of the country’s most famous shrines, but of very elegant, Timurid proportions and set amidst a delightful cemetery of pistachio trees and ancient gravestones with Arabic inscriptions. Across the valley, where the bulk of the village houses lie along winding, unpaved alleys, is the Friday Mosque which, while plain on the outside, has a dazzling interior; a floor covered in aged carpets, walls of blue, geometric and floral tiles and a beautiful faïence frieze of Arabic below a decorated wood-beam ceiling supported by finely carved oak pillars. The mosque is said also to date from the sixteenth century – though I wonder how much of what survives is original – and is unusual for reversing the typical combination of exuberant exterior and plain interior.
Back on the main road I stop in Shahrisabz to admire again the crumbling ruin of Timur’s fourteenth century Ak Saray Palace, whose impossibly vast proportions surpassed the technologies of its time and soon crumbled, leaving evocative ruins which have thankfully thus far been spared the insensitive ‘restoration’ of many of the country’s other great architectural monuments. Only the soaring remains of the palace’s huge fallen arches remain, with great swathes of the never-finished exterior tilework, some of the most magnificent in the entire region. Elsewhere in town are beautiful mausolea containing members of Timur’s family, and a simple tomb thought to have been intended for Timur himself, though none have the same air of decaying and derelict megalomania as his fallen palace. Shahrisabz is otherwise a pleasant, bustling market town relatively unspoiled by tour groups and stopping at a tyre repair shop on my way out to get a puncture repaired, I am invited for lunch by the friendly Uzbek family who run the shop, and am not even charged for the repair.
North of Shahrisabz the road climbs a rocky hillside to reach the cool Takhtaqaracha Pass where I am delighted to find a spring whose cool, clean water is invigorating after days of driving through the torrid heat of the plains. The road descends gently to the north, through charming villages of ancient walnut trees and open water channels, dropping into the farming villages around Samarkand. The temperature is still noticeably cooler compared to the south side of the pass, and on a whim I decide to camp on a hill near the airport, overlooking Samarkand whose dusty skyline of low houses and mulberry trees is dotted by turquoise domes and huge portals; the heart of Transoxiana.
In the morning I check into Bahodir’s B&B in Samarkand, an old haunt from 2007 and 2009 where the family welcome me warmly, though are worried that I have been travelling for four continuous years rather than getting married. Bahodir’s is perhaps the greatest node for travellers in Central Asia, and I spend twelve days here relaxing, meeting other travellers and exchanging stories from the road, in a manner similar perhaps to the merchants who paused in caravanserais along the Silk Road centuries ago. The old centre of Samarkand seems to become ever more sanitised and charmless as the years advance, though the ensemble of medressas (seminaries) around the Registan (central marketplace) remain a magnificent sight; some of the the finest Islamic architecture on the planet. I make a few forays into Samarkand’s modern city, which is refreshingly down-to-earth and retains architectural traces of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Mostly however I spend days lounging in the courtyard at Bahodir’s, drinking cold Pulsar lager whilst chatting with fellow travellers.
Eventually I extricate myself from the amiable torpor of Bahodir’s and start my final journey towards Russia and Europe. I drive north-west from Samarkand towards the city of Navoiy and the fearsome heat of the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) Desert. I divert north-east briefly towards the Kazakhstan border, in order to find some petroglyphs on the desert-varnished rocks which lie in the hillsides above the road, then turn back and begin my journey into the heart of the desert. Away from the country’s main transport artery, this road exists to serve the remote mining towns of the Kyzyl Kum, and my first stop is in the gold mining town of Zarafshan. A modern, planned town founded in the late 1960s, I’m surprised to find that perhaps half the population are Russian, and Russian language is found on signs and shop-fronts, as if it were a preserved bubble of the USSR. As I drive out of town in the late afternoon, I am again surprised to see occasional yurts (nomad tents) dotted in the desert, inhabited presumably by once nomadic Karakalpaks, an ethnic group closely related to the Kazakhs to the north. As the sun approaches the horizon, and the heat finally starts to subside, I pull off into the sandy desert and make camp, spending a glorious night under a star-filled sky, lying on the back of the truck in nothing but my underpants.
I reach the uranium-mining city of Uchkuduk in the morning, and need to find diesel. As in most parts of the country, the fuel pumps here are dry and diesel must be sought out on the black market; in this instance I befriend a minibus driver who leads me back to his home, where he pumps forty litres of diesel for me from an unseen source below a trapdoor in his garage. At a checkpoint on the edge of Uchkuduk the police stop and advise me to carry plenty of water and extra fuel, and then I am off into the depths of the Kyzyl Kum Desert on a road which I have long wanted to drive. I enter a landscape of endless, undulating desert, usually sandy, though always vegetated, and it is more than an hour before I pass another vehicle. Only once do I pass a remote settlement near an old irrigation canal, and as I enter into the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan the landscape starts to alternate between sand and the wasteland of muddy plains which typify this blighted republic. By mid-afternoon I reach an unexpected roundabout in the middle of nowhere, where I turn south towards the Khorezm Oasis on the Amu Darya River, briefly rejoining the main road and then heading to the ancient city of Khiva.
Khiva, which I had previously visited in 2007, was the capital of the Khorezmian State, and later the Khanate of Khiva, famed for its trading of Russian slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Modern-day Khiva is visited by hordes of tourists and feels like a large open-air museum, but it’s my last glimpse of Central Asia and I’m content to spend a nostalgic morning wondering the streets of the Itchan Kala; the much restored, walled old-city, before taking to the road once more. I drive north-west through the Khorezm Oasis, crossing the muddy Amu Darya on a heavily patched steel pontoon bridge as the sun lowers towards the horizon. Not far from here I leave the highway and drive into the desert, to camp at the foot of the beautiful Chilpyk Dakhma, a Zoroastrian ‘Tower of Silence’ where the deceased were laid out to have their bones picked clean by vultures, thought to be more than two thousand years old and with views over the Amu Darya as it makes its way through the utterly barren landscape, with the irrigated fields of Khorezm in the distance.
In the morning I make my way to the city of Nukus, which feels more than ever (on my fourth visit) to be at the edge of the world. There is no fuel for sale, no ATMs, the city’s only internet cafe is closed, the tap water is undrinkable, and I fail even to find a place to eat anything more than limp, warm, fried matter. It’s this extreme isolation however which gives Nukus its character, as capital of the once fertile, but now desperate Karakalpakstan Republic, which feels the full effect of the Aral Sea Disaster. It was here that artist Igor Savitsky managed to secrete an astounding collection of paintings from zealous Soviet censors, and the modern Savitsky Museum is an astounding collection of non-conformist twentieth century Russian realism and impressionism which has been preserved in this far flung outpost of a city.
I leave Nukus in the afternoon, passing through an increasingly desolate landscape of dying irrigation canals and salinified fields, until I reach the twenty-five metre high cliffs of the Ustyurt Plateau; a stony, desert wasteland which stretches to the Caspian Sea. Here I break my journey, camping next to the Davit-Ota Necropolis on the edge of the plateau, spending another warm night under the stars in a starkly beautiful and rueful environment. From here it’s a three hundred kilometre drive following railway tracks to the border post, passing utter desolation, at most times with nothing whatsoever to catch the eye. Occasional, impossibly isolated, sun-beaten, fly-blown settlements loom on the horizon to the left; small railway staging-posts of oblivion, where life must be near unbearable. Around one hundred kilometres short of the border a camel which has been killed by a truck lies sprawled at the roadside, where in the 45º C midday heat its poor owners are scooping its insides out in a swarm of dust and flies. Karakalpakstan is certainly one of the most desperate and stricken regions of Eurasia which I have seen.
I have an arduous three-hour wait at the border crossing which is shadeless and plagued by flies and dust-storms, though when I am waved through in the late afternoon I am conscious that the crowds of friendly Uzbek migrant workers on their way to Russia have been waiting far longer than I have. On the Kazakhstani side the road is an appalling washboard, but in the first town of Beyneu I am re-acquainted with the delights of civilisation; a well-stocked supermarket, a simple restaurant and an ATM. I leave Beyneu well after dark, deciding in view of the terrible heat and some noises from the truck’s front axle against heading south towards Aktau and the pilgrimage sites of the Ustyurt Plateau (which I would visit in 2014) and heading instead north towards Atyrau, camping next to the railway tracks and reaching the unlovable city of Atyrau late the following morning. I spend five comfortable days with Akmaral in Atyrau, contemplating my return to Europe. My plan is to drive to Ukraine; however I have no visa for Russia, and after being unable to obtain a visa in either Bishkek or Tashkent, I have only one last chance at the consulate in Oral, five hundred kilometres to the north, close to the Russian border.
Whilst in Atyrau I meet a group of Slovakians who have been robbed at gunpoint during daylight hours in the middle of the city, and James, an American cyclist who is also staying with Akmaral is knocked off his bicycle in a hit-and-run accident by a local driver. This seals my impression of Atyrau as perhaps the most unpleasant city I have visited on the entire trip, and I am glad to leave, heading north parallel to the Ural River across featureless steppe, which fades gently from semi-desert to sub-Siberian rangeland as I approach Oral. If I cannot obtain a Russian visa here, then I will need to make a very long detour through Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey in order to reach Europe, and will need to double back to Almaty immediately to start obtaining visas. It is to my great relief then that I am able to get a ten day transit visa same-day, and in the late afternoon I am driving north-east, crossing the border on the Ural River at midnight and heading towards Orenburg.
And so concluded my 2011 journey through Central Asia, which had shown me so many more parts of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and some new places in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; meaning now that I had seen almost every part of Central Asia. This region, still relatively recently opened up to the outside world, with an alluring mixture of magnificent history, crumbling, atmospheric monuments, gorgeous scenery and welcoming people roughly book-ended the beginning and the end of the initial four-and-a-half year section of the Odyssey, and remains perhaps my favourite region of the world. Ahead of me now was the final drive back through Russia, Ukraine and Moldova, to finally return to the UK at the end of the year, after fifty-five months away.
Transoxiana, literally meaning ‘Land beyond the Oxus’ is a swathe of long-settled territory at the heart of Central Asia, stretching from the Pamirs in the east to the Aral Sea in the west. It was this region which had initially drawn me towards Asia instead of Africa, and it was the first which I had explored in any real detail, on the outward leg of the trip more than four years earlier. For this reason I felt particularly attached to these fascinating and colourful cities and landscapes, and found myself on several occasions feeling quite nostalgic, considering all that I had learned and experienced in the intervening years of continuous travel, looking back on a journey of more than 120,000 kilometres around the continent. Perhaps it was rather ironic, or perhaps quite logical, that it was here that I finally decided to conclude the trip. I had plenty of money remaining, the truck was still in fairly good condition and I was still fit and healthy, but I had almost run out of places to visit, and my seemingly endless curiosity was finally being (temporarily) sated. The thought of returning to the dull mundanity of Western Europe, after years of exhilarating freedom held no appeal whatsoever, but it seemed a logical choice. So, as I toured the backroads of Transoxiana which I had missed in 2007, in the sweltering summer heat, I was both physically and mentally beginning a return journey, to somewhere I could scarcely call home. Far from being melancholic however, this five thousand kilometre journey from the Tien Shan Mountains, down through the lowlands and jigsaw-borders of the Fergana Valley, through the barren wastes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert and on to the Caspian Sea, would give me one last, lingering view of the Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Russian and Kazakh societies of modern-day Transoxiana.
On the 8th June 2007 I enter Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan at the cross-border town of Korday, and head straight to Bishkek. The Kyrgyz capital was where I had made my first real rest stop of the trip, and now, years later I would repeat this. Modern Bishkek was established as a Russian garrison in 1865 and is certainly not one of the region’s great historical cities, but it makes for a pleasant place to relax. Despite last year’s revolution, which unlike the ‘Tulip Revolution’ of 2005 descended briefly into violence and anarchy, the city seems not to have changed and retains, by day at least, a pleasant and friendly atmosphere. Tree-lined avenues separate long urban parks and are filled with pretty girls and street food stalls giving a strong hint of Asia; unsurprising given that China is just a few hour’s drive away. In slight contrast to this free market atmosphere stand some polished examples of Soviet architecture, such as the genuinely impressive Parliament Building, or the 1980s modernist National (formerly Lenin) Museum. All streets slope gently upwards towards the magnificent mountainous backdrop in the south, a reminder that one is close to the heart of the ruggedly beautiful Tien Shan Mountains. A touch faded, and shabby at the edges, Bishkek is something like a poor, country cousin of Almaty, though far less pretentious and no less pleasant to spend time in; something I do thanks to the hospitality of a Simon, an ebullient Frenchman who works for an environmental NGO.
Leaving the comforts of Simon’s downtown apartment after two-and-a-half weeks, I leave the city, following the Chu River upstream towards Issyk Kul, stopping off at the village of Balasagun. Originally a Sogdian city, then one of the capitals of the Kara-Khanid Khanate, a pre-Mongol, Turkic tribal chiefdom, the scant remainder of the city, which consists of just a lone, truncated and heavily restored red-brick minaret, is one of very few pieces of historical architecture in Kyrgyzstan. Balasagun was, like so many others, attacked by the Mongols, after which it fades from history. Much more interesting however is a collection of balbals, anthropomorphic stone stelae which were carved as some sort of tribute to the dead by a succession of steppe cultures of Central Asia, Siberia and Eastern Europe. Here, the balbals have been rescued from around the country, and make up a fantastic array of different humanoid proportions, with different qualities of posture and expression.
From Balasagun I continue east, turning off the highway just short of the toll gates at Balykchy, where a swingeing toll charge is extracted from foreign motorists; instead crossing on gravel tracks through a mine to emerge on the lumpy highway which heads through the centre of the country on its way to the Chinese border. As dusk approaches I turn west onto a dirt track and wind up and over a 3450-metre pass as darkness falls and a dramatic thunderstorm breaks, dropping down to the shores of Song Kul, a magnificently beautiful, jewel-blue lake at the very centre of the country. In the morning light the views are immense; of the even bowl of yellow-green grass which sits, ringed by mountains and dotted with distant white yurts and herders on horseback corralling sheep and horses. Memories of the days spent here in 2007 with Oliver come flooding back as I drive towards the south-western edge of the bowl, climbing briefly to a ridge where the land falls away to the south in a dramatic, cloud-filled canyon, its steep and inaccessible sides still dotted with dark conifers. The track descends this spectacular chasm in nine long, vertiginous switchbacks which drop seven hundred metres into the canyon floor, then descends further to parallel a river, which brings me to an area dotted with crumbling mud-brick mausolea. Like the Kazakhs to the north, the Kyrgyz are are traditionally nomads and mausolea such as these are the only lasting mark they leave on the landscape. Here however, I am slightly surprised to find mausolea somewhat more elaborate than those which dot the Kazakh Steppe; often built in the form of a small citadel, with corner towers, crenelated walls, domes and basic Islamic ornamentation picked out in the brickwork.
Just beyond the mausolea, the track crosses the Naryn River and turns east again, winding slowly over another mountain pass into sparsely populated country of badlands and irrigated fields, through the bleak and unloved mining town of Kazarman, then slowly ascending over hills of powdery loess covered in a thin, velvety carpet of grass. As the grassy ridges start to gather into mountains, the track begins the steep and at times rough climb up the 3000-metre Kaldama Pass over the Fergana Mountains, whose western slopes are covered in lush, tall grass and shrubs. In the late afternoon, the sun is just descending over the snowcapped peaks to the north-west, picking out sharp ridges of emerald-green in a spectacular mountain vista. Stretching away below me into the haze to the south-west lies the region at the very heart of Transoxiana; the Fergana Valley.
More than two-and-a-half millennia of history are contained within this broad, mountain-ringed lowland at the western edge of the Tien Shan, where the Naryn and Kara Darya Rivers join to form the Syr Darya. It was along this river that Herodotus’ knowledge of the world ended; the edge of civilisation. It was here that Alexander the Great established his most far-flung city, and where the Chinese first encountered the Indo-European civilisations to west, establishing the Silk Road in the first century BCE, and later making Fergana a centre for silk production in a tradition which endures today. This was the stomping ground of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan and Timur (Tamerlane) and Fergana’s most famous scion, Babur, patron of Kabul, who went on to found the Mogul Empire in India.
I descend into the sweltering Fergana Valley the next morning, stopping briefly in the uninteresting city of Jalalabad, where I join the M41 Highway and continue south to the smaller town of Uzgen. Like Balasagun, Uzgen was for a period a capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate, which lasted from 999 to 1218, and it is here that I find Kyrgyzstan’s greatest architectural ensemble. Next to the Kara Darya River sit three fine, conjoined, red-brick mausolea, one of which features an exquisite frieze of terracotta inlay around its arched entrance portal, said to be the precursor of the dazzling turquoise and lapis-tiled mausoleum complex of Shah-i Zindah in Samarkand. Next to the mausolea is an eleventh century minaret in the same red-brick, finer and taller than that at Balasagun with attractive, alternating bands of geometric brickwork. These buildings are some of the few architectural remnants of the Kara-Khanids; a dynasty who oversaw an important cultural syncretism during which Transoxiana becoming linguistically Turkic, but when simultaneously its Turkic inhabitants became more influenced and assimilated into settled, Persian and Arabian-Islamic culture. The Kara-Khanids were eventually weakened successively by the Seljuks, Kara-Khitans and Khorezmians, until the Mongols came in 1218 and swept away all that had preceded them. Nevertheless, the Kara-Khanids left an important cultural legacy, which can still be felt today.
Transoxiana was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century, and following the Bolshevik Revolution, the region became subject to Stalin’s hand when, as Commissar of Nationalities, he was responsible for drawing borders to delimit the titular republics of the Fergana Valley’s Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz inhabitants. What resulted was a hideous jigsaw of meandering boundaries and enclaves which paid no regard to topography, infrastructure or indeed ethnic considerations. Whether this was simply a botched attempt, conducted with the contempt for common sense beloved by totalitarian bureaucrats, at an admittedly difficult task; namely to segregate the inherently mixed inhabitants of the Fergana Valley, or, as in the case of the British drawing up the boundaries of the Middle East, a deliberate construct to foster ethnic strife and failure of nation states, is unknown. However, following independence in 1991, the Fergana Valley was divided between three sovereign states, whose absurdly impractical borders, coupled with mutual mistrust has seriously hampered regional economic development.
Perhaps worse than the impractical national borders however, is the legacy of the Soviet Union’s divide-and-rule policy, which saw all the region’s settled Turks labelled as Uzbeks, and all nomads and herders labelled Kyrgyz, leading to the Fergana Valley becoming an Uzbek ‘heartland’. Following the Soviet Union’s progression into economic stagnation under Brezhnev, Gorbachev’s perestroika (economic reforms) favoured liberalisation of trade, which benefited the settled, trading Uzbek population of the Fergana Valley far more than the Kyrgyz, who were typically herders. At the same time, Uzbeks were (and still are) severely under-represented in Kyrgyzstan’s government. A dispute over the division of land from a state collective farm was the spark which, as in so many other parts of the Soviet Union in its dying days, ignited ugly inter-ethnic violence and riots in the summer of 1990, which left a figure of between several hundred and a thousand people dead in the cities of Osh, Uzgen and Jalalabad. The riots recurred last year in Kyrgyzstan’s portion of the Fergana Valley, when civil order broke down during the 2010 Revolution resulting in perhaps two thousand people, mostly Uzbeks, being killed and up to one hundred thousand fleeing into Uzbekistan.
It was with this as a backdrop that I made my first visit to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, a very ancient settlement poised between nomadic and settled worlds, a city which grew with the ancient Silk Road and is still renowned today for having one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia. Babur described Osh with fondness, though I find little reason to favour it. My first impressions are of a city with strong, almost South Asian squalor; chaotic traffic, stalls encroaching onto the streets, taxis stopped at the roadside obstructing traffic, pedestrians walking without regard to traffic, roadside gulleys stinking of sewage-tainted stagnant water, filled with decomposing rubbish and plastic garbage (here mostly beer bottles) and feral street children in tattered clothes holding their hands out hopefully to passers-by. Everywhere is broken, crumbling concrete, peeling paint and plaster, wild flowerbeds and lawns, and parks gone to seed, amidst some semblance of old Soviet order in the ranks of grey, ill-maintained apartment blocks and other architectural remnants of this epoch which sit rather awkwardly amongst the chaos. The city must have been far nicer in Soviet times.
I check into a flophouse popular with backpackers near the city centre, run by a Kyrgyz who wears flowing Islamic garb and a long beard, but who has a rather false air of piety about him. On the communal noticeboard is a doleful, recent message of warning from a Belgian male tourist, who was out alone in the city at night and beaten-up by a group of locals. Out on the streets, the evidence of last year’s orgy of ethnic hatred is still abundant, with burnt-out buildings in the area around Osh’s dirty and frankly disappointing bazaar. It’s slightly chilling to think that some of the Kyrgyz of the city so eagerly slaughtered their Uzbek neighbours just a year earlier. In comparison to Jalalabad and Uzgen, I see few obviously Uzbek faces here, and the atmosphere is more tense. Groups of young, cocksure Kyrgyz adolescents roam the streets and I fancy that I detect a slight hint of barbarian gloating on their faces. Perhaps I am inflating things somewhat in my mind, but it is a long time since I have come across a place of this size which has such a raw and lawless atmosphere. I don’t venture far after dark, and ensure that the car is in a locked, secure parking lot.
Osh’s only real attraction is the striking, barren hill which rises above the dusty plains immediately to the west of the city, known as Suleyman Mountain, for legend has it that the Islamic prophet Suleyman (Solomon) was buried here. For millennia the mountain has been considered holy, and together with James, a very intelligent, affable and well-travelled British Army Officer who I meet in town, ascend the ancient rock-cut steps up the mountainside. On the summit are the familiar signs of pagan-influenced Central Asian Islam, with colourful votive prayer rags tied to tree branches and local women crawling through an opening over a holy rock in hope of giving birth to healthy offspring. Babur is said to have built a small mosque on the summit, though what remains today is rather plain and modern. The cooling breeze and views in the lengthening evening light are wonderful however, giving a beautiful view over the edges of Osh, which fade away in a rabble of disorderly, pitched-roof houses and mulberry trees into a dusty horizon, a typical and rather timeless Fergana scene which Babur might have recognised.
Beyond Osh, the road takes me to the far west of Kyrgyzstan, along the southern margin of the Fergana Valley, here delineated by the Turkestan Range, part of the greater Alay Mountains which drop down to the west from the central Pamir Knot in eastern Tajikistan. Leaving the environs of Osh, the country soon reverts to gentle, rural lassitude, and as I push further west, the settlements become increasingly sparse. It is here that Stalin’s irrational gerrymandering of the borders of the three republics reaches its zenith, and the road on which I am driving must negotiate around the meandering Uzbekistani border, passing the the exclave of Shakhimardan, then making a long detour around the exclave of Sokh. The landscape becomes increasingly pretty, a classical scene of lowland, rural Central Asia, with irrigated villages nestling between barren low hills, a swathe of green fields and streets lined by dry stone walls and tall poplars. I stop in the early evening in the provincial capital of Batken, which is little more than a large village, the result of the creation of Batken Region in 1999 to increase security and law enforcement in this far-flung arm of the country, in face of a threat of Islamic extremism and drug trafficking crossing the mountains from Tajikistan in the south.
Batken has a far more pleasant and tranquil atmosphere than Osh and I enjoy a good laghman (Central Asian noodle soup) in an outdoor chaikhana (tea house) under what is perhaps the largest apricot tree I have ever seen. The Kyrgyz here seem a touch softer and more refined than their up-country cousins, mellowed perhaps by settled life in such a splendidly fertile valley. Beyond Batken the road climbs, and the scenery becomes spectacular, with glimpses of snowcapped mountains. I pass the Tajikistani exclave of Vorukh, a mountainous redoubt accessible only by a single cleft in the surrounding wall of rock, then climb steadily to the west through a mountain paradise of green villages fed by crystal clear mountains streams, reminding me of the Hindukush of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Finally, the road drops down back into the Fergana Valley, to the slightly shabby town of Isfana, at the very far end of Kyrgyzstan, where I stop for another night. The following morning I follow the road out of town which roughly parallels the jagged border with Tajikistan through sleepy, forgotten kolkhozes (collective farms). At times I am genuinely unsure which country I am in, but after one false turn, I make it to the town of Kulundu and cross into Tajikistan. As per my first visit to the country, I leave Kyrgyzstan with rather mixed feelings; a country which seems to lack much spirit of nation building or ethnic identity, though is a mostly pleasant and laid back place to visit. Stunningly beautiful in parts, yet depressing, squalid and even rather hostile in others, Kyrgyzstan is not a country which I feel any great sadness in leaving.
Both sides of the border crossing are friendly and painless, though the guards are unused to seeing a foreign vehicle. On the Tajikistani side, where the immigration and customs buildings are part of the main street in the small town of Ovchi-Kalacha, Boburjan, one of the Tajik immigration officials learns of my interest in Asian history and points to a defile in the distant, rust-coloured mountains which lie to the north, beyond the city of Khujand. He tells me that it was from that the armies of Chinggis Khan arrived and laid siege to the city, until certain of its traitorous populace opened the city gates and allowed the great Khan to enter, only to immediately be dispatched for their treachery. To this day, despite a period of almost eight hundred years having passed, and despite the destruction he wrought, the legend of Chinggis Khan is massive in Asia, and he seems to be universally respected.
It’s a short drive to Khujand, Tajikistan’s second city and western gateway to the Fergana Valley. Attractively positioned astride the gleaming turquoise waters of the Syr Darya, Khujand is an ancient city, which might either have been founded as Cyropolis, the city of the Persian empire-builder Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) on his expedition against the Saka, on the very edge of his empire, or as Alexandria Eschate or ‘Alexandria The Furthermost’ by Alexander the Great, as the most far-flung of his Macedonian settlements. Modern Khujand does not quite live up to such romantic, edge-of-the-world notions, but is nevertheless a very pleasant place, noticeably more refined than the cities of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan through which I have been travelling for the past few months. I enter the city on a visually striking six lane Soviet triumphal avenue, with immaculate flowerbeds in the central reservation, lovingly irrigated in the forty degree summer heat. This is however a neat trick; a Potemkin facade that post-Soviet autocrats like to put on to impress visitors and natives alike. A quick look beyond the polish however soon reveals considerable poverty in Khujand, and this sleek avenue is where the civic spending seems to end. Indeed Khujand, which might be thought of as the country’s cultural and intellectual capital, lost its power during Tajikistan’s bitter civil war of the 1990s and remains opposed to the current regime, which naturally marginalises the city, and the province of Sughd (named for the earlier Sogdian Empire) of which it is the capital.
Khujand is a lively market town and activity, as in much of Asia, revolves around the city’s central Panjshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar, which is a marvellous edifice of bright, pastel Stalinist architecture with colourful touches of Qajar-era Persia. Inside is a kaleidoscope of faces; Persian, Aryan, Turkic, Mongol and Gypsy, reflecting the full spectrum of Transoxianian humanity. After weeks of guttural Turkic, it’s also pleasing to hear the soft tones of Persian, albeit with the strange Tajik accent, and people here seem far gentler and more culturally secure than their historically nomadic neighbours to the north. I spend my days in the city slowly making my way round the bazaar, the scant remains of the ancient nearby citadel, and along the river banks, frequently stopping in chaikhanas to drink hot green tea, to fend off dehydration from the terrible heat.
My personal highlight in the city is my host Javohir, who graciously accommodates me in his apartment, where he lives with his wife and two young sons. I get on immediately with Javohir, who is educated and intelligent, fluent in English and has experience of living abroad, yet who lacks the connections required in this country to secure well-paid employment and exists on a very meagre salary, with which he struggles to support his family. Javohir is a Tajik, and a Muslim, but a man who is less concerned with petty ritual than with the true social message of his faith. We spend afternoons swimming in the warm, clear waters of the Syr Darya with his kids, and have long discussions into the night, bemoaning the corrupt and useless government which does nothing for common folk, and discussing the state of the greater outside world.
I make a side trip into the hills to the south of Khujand, to the provincial town of Istaravshan, which takes me slightly by surprise, for it is perhaps the nicest town I have seen in the country. Like Khujand, Istaravshan has a long history, and legend has it that it was near here that Alexander won his bride Roxanne by conquering the seemingly impenetrable citadel of a local ruler. Beyond a rather drab modern city, Istaravshan has a marvellous Old Town with wonderful, winding kuchei (alleys) with central, open sewer troughs, and traditional Central Asian family houses whose open gates and doorways reveal large walled courtyards with fruit and vegetable plantations. The people here are a real highlight; some of the friendliest and most welcoming whom I have met in the region, and I receive numerous invitations to tea, or to just to come inside and view their beautiful houses, some of which have century-old, colourfully painted wooden interior beams and columns. It’s a real treat to walk the backstreets and encounter people who seem genuinely interested to meet a foreigner.
Aside from the wandering lanes and rural ambience of the Old Town, Istaravshan has some specific points of interest. There are fine, Bukharan-style open-fronted mosques with carved wooden pillars, and the beautifully tranquil Sar-i Mazar ensemble, set amongst pools of open water and huge six- and eight hundred year old chinar (plane) trees. Two separate mausolea, their portals covered in tile mosaics and whitewashed stucco cover the main graves, in addition to a fine open-fronted mosque with the peculiar, colourfully painted ceiling beams which seem to be characteristic of the region. People are curious to see me, and take the time to show me specific details, and explain a little about them. The town’s jewel however is the Abdul Latif Medressa with its magnificent Timurid kok gumbaz (blue dome) of turquoise and lapis, every bit as fine as the domes of Samarkand or Bukhara, if slightly more restrained. Inside the buff brick of the medressa (seminary), a class of young boys study the scriptures on this peaceful Sunday afternoon, making the building all the more alluring for not being simply a polished but lifeless museum-piece. I later make my way back back to Khujand in the cooling evening, feeling quite serene and rather impressed with Tajikistan as a country.
After three thoroughly enjoyable days in northern Tajikistan, I drive east again out of town, past the turquoise water of the Kairokum Reservoir, towards the centre of the Fergana Valley. Once again however, a national boundary blocks my path, and I arrive mid-morning at the far end of the sprawling market town of Konibodom, where the road reaches the border crossing into Uzbekistan. Relations between the two countries are highly volatile, and cross-border traffic is a mere trickle, another example of Stalin’s foul legacy in Central Asia. Formalities on the Tajikistani side are fairly brief, though not without an (unsuccessful) request for a bribe, but I am met by a locked gate when reaching the Uzbekistani customs post. Here I am eventually let in, the only traveller save for an old Uzbek lady. The Uzbek border staff are very friendly and welcoming however, and intrigued to see a foreign vehicle crossing at this nearly deserted post. Unusually for Uzbekistan, where customs officers typically all but take apart vehicles in search of narcotics, not so much as a glance is made inside the truck.
It’s shortly after mid-day by the time I’m through the border, and drive to the city of Kokand in the sweltering heat. Soon after arriving, I set about acquiring one hundred US Dollar’s worth of Uzbekistan’s farcical currency, the Som; a transaction which is best carried out on the black market, in a country with a serious cash shortage and where ATMs are almost useless. A friendly bread seller whom I ask about this slightly shady deal immediately leaves his business and walks me down to the roguish street money-changers, making sure I am not ripped off, with no intention of personal reward. I acquire 246,000 Uzbek Som in 1000 Som notes, which approach the size of a small loaf of bread. Compared to Tajikistan however, I see immediately that Uzbekistan, despite its crippled monetary economy (run by a President who claims to have an education as an economist) is comparatively quite advanced; Kokand looks prosperous and organised, with better roads and traffic consisting almost entirely of new-looking, locally made cars. It’s also a reminder that, although Kazakhstan is certainly the economic leader in today’s Central Asia, in Soviet times this title very much went to Uzbekistan.
Kokand lies at the heart of the Fergana Valley and has a long history as a trading centre on the Silk Road. It is most famous however as the former capital of the Khanate of Kokand, an Shaybanid Uzbek tribal chiefdom which was an offshoot of the Khanate of Bukhara, established in 1709. The Khanate of Kokand, under the ruthless leadership of Alim Beg came to dominate the Fergana Valley in the early eighteenth century, becoming a pawn in the Great Game, a period when Imperial Russia and Imperial Britain vied for dominance in Transoxiana, with Russia eventually taking the last Kokand Khan’s territorial possessions and sending him into exile. The last Khan’s palace still stands today, a rather gaudy and crassly restored edifice which well defines the excesses of Asian wastrel leaders through the ages. More restrained attractions in town include a sprawling necropolis in which I spend an hour or so looking at the various graves and mausolea, and the beautiful nineteenth century Friday Mosque, with a simple, tapering, turquoise-domed, free-standing minaret set on a beautiful green lawn dotted with tall chinars and surrounded on four sides by open prayer galleries.
With this brief re-introduction to Uzbekistan complete, I head for the mountains to the north-west, leaving the Fergana Valley and making the long climb up to the Kamchik Tunnel which, at 2150-metres above sea level, links the Fergana Valley to the rest of Uzbekistan. I drop down through the sprawling towns of Angren and Almalyk as darkness falls, heading north east to what is undoubtedly my favourite city in the region: Tashkent.
Until the disastrous Soviet program of forced collectivisation in the 1920s, the Kazakhs were an almost entirely nomadic society, who by their very nature left little mark on the land they inhabited. In the month I had just spent in Kazakhstan, making my way from the Russian border in the north-west to the extreme south of the country, I had passed many of the country’s oldest cities, some reduced to lifeless piles of dust, others surviving to this day. All however were the product of the settled societies which stretched south to Persia. Having made a brief side-trip into Kyrgyzstan to renew my visa, I had four more weeks of travel ahead of me in Kazakhstan, during which I would penetrate the very heart of the country, to see the subtle yet fascinating legacy of the successive nomadic nations who have inhabited the steppe. Beyond this, I would head for the far south-east of the country, along the Chinese border, where I would find some of Central Asia’s most haunting landscapes.
I re-enter Kazakhstan in the early hours of the 14th May 2011 in the town of Korday, after a sixteen hour side-trip through Kyrgyzstan. I drive east for two more hours before pulling off the highway at the turning north to Kopa, where I continue in daylight after a few hours’ rest. Now in late spring, the steppe is still green and covered in places by huge patches of striking red poppies and purple wild flax flowers. My destination is an isolated spot out on the steppe know as Tamgaly. Here, on the edge of the huge grasslands which stretch north to the edge of Siberia are a series of step-like rocky outcrops with large, smooth blocks and boulders covered in shiny black desert varnish. Tamgaly has a comparative abundance of springs, vegetation and shelter compared to its surroundings and has attracted successive pastoral communities for millennia, who since the Bronze Age have left striking petroglyphs describing their culture and customs.
Tamgaly is indeed perhaps the most interesting of Central Asia’s many petroglyph sites, for it appears to have a central cult area where the stylised rock inscriptions are most prolific and expressive; an area which may have been sacred, with altars used for sacrifices. Alongside the common images of hunting and various images is a true masterpiece of rock art; a pane showing several large, solar deities (‘sunheads’), animals being enchanted by shamans, and a group of men dancing around a woman giving birth. Dated to the second half of the fourteenth century and thirteenth century BCE, in the Middle Bronze Age, they are a fascinating and deeply intriguing testament to the customs of the distant, steppe-dwelling ancestors of Eurasians.
I return to the main road, doubling back to Taraz where I stop for a few days, then continue towards the low, twisted peaks of the Karatau Mountains, a north-westerly spur of the Tien Shan which also roughly delineates the boundary between historically settled and nomadic civilisations. I pass through the desolate town of Zhanatas, a phosphorite-mining centre which was evidently in the process of expansion when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it the market for phosphorite, leaving a town full of huge, empty, decaying apartment buildings around a run down centre, where I am hauled in for passport registration by suspicious police. Beyond Zhanatas the road enters the steppe again, curving through isolated towns such as Sudakent and Chulakkurgan, crossing the low, broken massif of the Karatau Mountains then dropping down via Kentau to Turkistan and the broad Syr Darya Valley. Here I rejoin the main highway down which I had driven last month, retracing my steps to Kyzylorda where I stay for a night before turning north, to the very centre of Kazakhstan.
The road out of Kyzylorda leaves behind the near-desert of the Syr Darya Valley, entering country which fades imperceptibly into scrubby steppe dotted with saxauls and wormwood, from which tortoises emerge to make the hazardous crawl across the highway. The asphalt soon runs out, but the track has been recently graded and seldom slows my progress. Off to the west I see a low escarpment of brilliant red-orange sandstone, but other than this there is nothing to catch the eye and the journey becomes mesmerising. After several hours I pass a lonely Kazakh cemetery to my right, on the banks of the Sary Suu River. Not long after this the smokestacks of an industrial city loom on the horizon and large, whitewashed concrete letters at the roadside announce my arrival in the city of Zhezkazgan.
Founded in 1938 principally to exploit deposits of copper, and made infamous by Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of the nearby Kengir Gulag, Zhezkazgan is a surprisingly pleasant city surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of steppe in each direction. Its neat, Khrushchev-era city blocks are dotted with numerous Soviet murals and sculptures, and the city has become associated with space exploration, with returning cosmonauts landing in the vast openness of the nearby steppe and ceremonially planting a tree in the city. I’m hosted in Zhezkazgan by Laura, a Californian Peace Corps Volunteer who immediately takes me to the home of her Kazakh ex-host family where two new volunteers are being welcomed with a traditional dastarkhan (feast) of Kazakh specialities such as baursak (deep fried dough pockets), sweets, fruit and vodka, though thankfully no sheep’s head.
North of Zhezkazgan is the region of Ulytau, located centrally both in the country, and in the identity of the Kazakh people. On the main road I pass a tall monument to the unity of Kazakh peoples, signifying both the geographical centre of the country and (conveniently) the point where the three Kazakh zhuzes (clans or hordes) came together to fight their common enemy the Dzungars, who came from China in the eighteenth century. The small, nondescript town of Ulytau itself is set amongst low basalt mountains, something of an oasis in the surrounding dry steppe, with rich green grass and even stands of birch trees. With such an attractive steppe environment it is not surprising that the area is of historical importance, with an abundance of archaeological sites. Out in the steppe just east of town are stone kurgans (barrows), which in each case are part of a larger construction, with two curving lines of stones running roughly parallel away from the kurgan to end in a larger standing stone. It is not clear whether these constructions, known as ‘moustachioed’ kurgans are observatories, grave markers, or ritual constructions.
The precise origins of Kazakh people are not entirely clear, complicated by the fact that the term ‘Qazaq‘ had been used for centuries to denote a free wanderer (the term ‘Cossack’, for an entirely unrelated ethnic group is likely to come from this root). What does seem firmly routed in truth is that Abu’l-Khayr Khan, a descendent of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) united the nomadic Central Asian tribes in the mid-fifteenth century, and that it was Janibek Khan and Kerei Khan who rebelled from this union to found the Kazakh khanate (tribal chiefdom). What is far less clear is the unification of the three Kazakh zhuzes under a legendary figure known as Alasha Khan.
The day after visiting Ulytau I drive north and east from my night stop in the dull mining town of Satbayev, into the steppe, which here is dotted by beautifully eroded, softly multicoloured hills. Just outside the village of Malshibay is the mausoleum complex attributed to Alasha Khan. It’s a striking building with beautiful (restored) geometric brickwork, thin bands of turquoise tiles and a striking vaulted interior. A thin passageway runs around the chamber between inner and outer walls, and a stairway leads up to the roof. From here there is a fine view overlooking a number of mausolea belonging to lesser notables, some poignantly decayed with broken domes and scattered, fallen masonry. With the main mausoleum dated to the tenth to twelfth centuries, it seems unlikely that Alasha Khan was a real person who united the Kazakhs, but this seems of only minor importance. Groups of locals arrive at the site, saying their prayers standing up, facing the mausoleum’s portal, or sitting on the ground in groups outside one of the smaller mausolea. This is the living continuation of a thick fabric of legends attributed to this area, passed down through generations orally by these wandering, nomadic people of the steppe.
From Malshibay I leave the road and head south on tracks back towards Zhezkazgan, reaching another group of mausolea. Here the principal shrine is also red-brick, though coarser than that of Alasha Khan, with a modern turquoise-tiled dome and a plain interior covering two graves, said to be that of Jochi Khan and his wife. Jochi was the first son of Chinggis Khan (quite possibly illegitimate, as his wife Borte gave birth soon after returning from the rival Merkit tribe who had kidnapped her in an earlier battle) and campaigned with his father as the Mongols spread east. However, he seems to have become estranged, possibly following his father’s choice of his younger brother Ögedei as successor, and he never returned to his father’s court in Mongolia, later dying in February 1226 in a hunting accident. It’s tempting to think that this plain mausoleum contains the grave of a son of one of the greatest men in history, but like so many of the scant historical remains on this huge steppe, it is in reality an intriguing mystery.
Turning away from Ulytau and Zhezkazgan in the morning, I continue through a similar landscape of rolling green steppe, pulling off the road at a scrubby spot and driving briefly north to see the petroglyphs at Terekty Aul; here carved deeply into the soft pink basalt, rather than the usual picketing into dark, desert-varnished rock. This area too seems to have had some spiritual significance as there are a number of large nearby mausolea. Indeed, all along the road east towards Karaganda the landscape is regularly dotted by ancient graves and shrines, and I find myself drawn to stop at each of them. In one particularly ancient burial ground I find graves spanning right across time; from the most ancient kurgans, through megalithic slab graves, to mud-brick mausolea and finally recent graves, each with a headstone and small perimeter fence. At another stop near Kyzylzhar there are two very large mud-brick mausolea whose flutes have been softened by years of exposure to the elements, giving them the look of two giant lemon-squeezers. I find these silent, deserted burial grounds quite wonderful; perched out on the beautiful green, wormwood-scented steppe, the only visible legacy of a civilisation; nameless graves whose identity has passed into obscurity just like the generations of departed nomads, yet whose very presence on the plains, visible from afar, provides a reassuring ancestral link between the people and their homeland.
Shortly beyond the town of Atasu, where I stop for dinner, I turn south-west off the main highway into an area of beautiful, table-flat steppe defined by distant low mountain ridges, seemingly good, green pasture yet strangely devoid of population. Continuing the following day, through the isolated town of Akadyr and more marvellously empty terrain, I join the country’s main highway, which connects the new capital Astana with Almaty, it’s largest city, and is in refreshingly good condition. I stop briefly at the beautiful pink-orange basalt massif of Bektau Ata, whose softly-sculpted, lichen-covered volcanic rocks are dotted with lakes and imbued with legends, before continuing to the city of Balkhash. Lake Balkhash is one of the largest in Asia, a shallow, sickle-shaped smear of bright blue water, saline at it’s eastern end yet composed of freshwater in its larger western section. The exploitation of nearby copper reserves has overtaken fishing as the main economic activity and Balkhash, the principal lakeside settlement is, like Zhezkazgan, a neat and attractive mining city. Streets of colourful Stalinist buildings (many built by Japanese prisoners of war) run down to the turquoise waters of the lake where a sandy beach is dotted with families, giving the city the air of a friendly, unpretentious seaside resort, albeit with a background of smokestacks and other heavy industry, and highly polluted water.
I continue my journey south through the semi-desert along the curving western edge of the lake, with beautiful views across its reedy shores and peppermint blue waters, passing the site of the Soviet-era Saryshagan Missile Testing Range and reaching the southern edge of the lake in the late afternoon. Beyond the lake, the highway skirts around a barren sandy wasteland, which I enter on a nearly deserted road turning north acutely from the main highway. I cross a bleak area of undulating scrubby dunes for around fifty kilometres before suddenly entering the delta region of the Ili River, which runs from the eastern Tien Shan in China to Lake Balkhash. The delta is a real paradise; a bird-filled wonderland of ponds, reeds, trees and dunes, and after stopping for the day in the waning light, the cool night air is alive with the sound of frogs and buzzing insects; wholly unprecedented given the barren wastes I’ve been driving through for much of the day. This fertile region is known as Zhetysu (Seven Rivers) and until 1864 was part of Qing Dynasty (Manchu) China, with Lake Balkhash forming the border with the Russian Empire.
The following day I make my way upstream along the Ili River, passing through small farming communities towards Lake Kapchagay, crossing the river on the highway to Almaty then turning downstream briefly, where Ili flows through a broad grassy valley between low hills. Here, on the left bank of the river, beside a natural historical crossing point, is a rocky outcrop known as Tamgaly Tas, which bears the inscriptions of several cultures, from ancient Turkic runic, the instantly-recognisable sharp characters of Tibetan script to very beautiful vertical verses of Dzungar script. The main attraction however are three large carved images of the Buddha on a lotus leaf, the largest, central image in the teaching position, as if giving a sermon on the bank of the river. The exact origin of the Buddhas is unknown, and while a Kazakh legend dates them to the tenth century, it is likely that they are of Dzungar origin. The Dzungars were an Oirat (western Mongol) tribe and the last nomadic civilisation to threaten China. They were also Buddhists from the sixteenth century onwards, and displaced Kazakhs from this area in the mid-seventeenth century, only to be chased back out in the early eighteenth century when weakened by Qing Dynasty China to the east, and thus the carvings are likely to date from between these dates.
My next destination is Tekeli, an attractive small town set amidst the lower slopes of the Dzungarian Alatau, a 450 kilometre-long range of mountains which define part of the Kazakhstan – China border. I’m hosted here by Thomas, a French expatriate who works in the town’s malting plant, the only one in Central Asia. Tekeli is a pleasant place, and in the nearby Kora Valley we see an ancient carving of a Buddhist stupa on a large rock next to the river, but it is the grassy mountains immediately above town that are truly unforgettable. We drive partway up in Thomas’ company 4×4, then set out on foot heading east and up across rolling hills. Soon we encounter huge flower-filled hillsides, shaded with bright orange poppies, yellow buttercups, blue forget-me-nots, white daisies and purple asters. As we climb higher, we can see into a yawning valley, with long-range views over a succession of emerald-green hills which, on their upper slopes fade immediately into a crest-line of glaciated and snowcapped peaks. Dotting one nearby grassy saddle is a bright-white Kazakh yurt (nomad tent), an iconic image of these once-nomadic people all but absent from the steppes; a vital part of Kazakh culture wiped out by Stalin’s collectivisation. We approach the yurt, inhabited by a friendly Kazakh family who offer us tea and milk. They explain that they spend the summer season here grazing their animals, returning to the nearby city of Taldykorgan for the winter. To glimpse the remnant of an ancient nomadic culture here, in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, makes it one of my favourite experiences in all my travels in Kazakhstan.
I make my way slowly south-east from Tekeli, crossing to a rough track on the far side of the Koksu River to find the ancient site of Eshkiolmes, where I park the car amongst unexcavatd grave mounds and content myself for several hours walking around the country’s largest petroglyph site, finding perhaps several hundred of the ten-thousand-odd petroglyph images said to be spread over several small side valleys. Continuing south-east I pass more magnificent grassy foothills of the Dzungarian Alatau on quiet back-roads, before dropping down into a corridor between the mountains and the Ili River which contains the main highway running east from Almaty to the Chinese border. Here, on this living remnant of the Silk Road, the landscape reverts very abruptly to the familiar dry plains of wormwood-scented grass, dotted by crumbling mud-brick mausolea in various states of atmospheric decrepitude. Occasional villages and small towns are lined by tall, brush-like poplars and leafy mulberry trees, giving a strong hint of Chinese Turkestan. Bactrian camels appear, corralled in stinking, screeching, indignant herds. I watch as one bolts and dashes with remarkable speed across the steppe, parallel with the road, chased by two horsemen who fail to apprehend it in the time it takes me to drive past the scene. This is classic Central Asia.
The busy market town of Zharkent is as far as I go towards the Chinese border, and the province of Xinjiang of which I have such fond memories from a 2003 trip across Asia (by public transport). Here, after finding lunch in a Uyghur cafe, I set out to look at the town’s only architectural attraction, which lies in a large, poplar-flanked courtyard amid the slightly chaotic market streets. The late nineteenth Yuldashev Mosque is a highly unusual Islamic structure created by a Chinese architect; with a tiered, wooden pagoda roof on the main hall and a similar minaret, colonnaded outer walkways and colourful Chinese-style paintings under the roof eaves, the mosque has a very strong resemblance to a Manchu-era Buddhist temple; at once rather attractive and novel, but at the same time lacking the pleasing geometrical grace of classical Islamic architecture. The mosque’s obstructive female caretaker accompanies my every step around the building with thinly disguised contempt, and so I soon leave.
From Zharkent I head south, crossing the Ili and heading straight for Almaty, where I am hosted by Dan, a British expatriate and his Kazakh fiancée Aliya, in their comfortable apartment overlooking the city centre. Dan, an English teacher and Russian speaker is a kind and sensitive guy, and I am glad to meet a fellow Englishman who has an affinity for this country and an appreciation of its history and culture. I was deeply saddened to hear of Aliya’s sudden death a little over a year later, just a few days after they had married in the UK.
I make one final trip east from Almaty, driving along the beautiful green valley at the foot of the Ili Alatau Range which marks the border with Kyrgyzstan. I find that, as suspected, the border crossing into Kyrgyzstan’s Karakara Valley is closed following major social unrest in the country last year. I make a side trip towards the village of Tekes in a beautiful high, flat valley, where the southern horizon is occupied by an endless chain of snowy peaks of the Tien Shan, which run off to the east, at some arbitrary point becoming Chinese territory. I park up for the night in a field, admiring the beauty of my surroundings, and through a brief gap in the high clouds glimpse the 7010-metre peak of Khan Tengri, the second highest peak in the Tien Shan, which marks the point where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China come together.
With the nearby border crossing closed, I have no alternative but to turn west once again, back to Almaty and the border crossing at Korday, where I had entered the country four weeks earlier. I stop en route to look at the dramatic Charyn Canyon, which drops down from the green mountain steppe in a beautifully eroded valley of red sandstone, highly reminiscent of the American south-west. The next day I drive to the busy border crossing of Qorday, thus completing a loop of almost six thousand kilometres over the last four weeks on the Kazakh Steppe.
I had entered Kazakhstan for the first time back in 2007, transiting along the eastern edge of the country to the most obvious points of touristic appeal in the south, with the impression that much of the rest of the country was empty, featureless steppe of no interest. On these two visits over the past eight weeks, during which I had crossed much of the country, it became clear that this widely-held impression of Kazakhstan is rather wrong. Indeed, as I explored the steppes and mountains of the country, with their traces of ancient history and magnificently beautiful and varying landscapes, it became perhaps my favourite in the region. With this large blank on my travel-map now reassuringly filled, I was prepared to make a final crossing of Central Asia, back to the Caspian Sea and on to Europe.
Between the great lowlands of Siberia and the long-settled oasis towns of Central Asia lies the Kazakh Steppe, almost wholly within the Republic of Kazakhstan, by far the world’s largest landlocked country. Larger than all of Western Europe and mostly covered with rolling grassland, I had twice made lengthy road journeys across firstly the east, and then the north of this country. I wished now to explore Kazakhstan more fully, rather than simply transit the country to some other, more obvious destination. Travellers often write-off Kazakhstan as lacking very much of interest, but in my seven weeks driving around this vast country I would discover the beauty, history and welcoming people which lie beyond the country’s main cities. Perhaps most rewarding however was the chance to indulge my love of wide, open spaces; feeling the freedom of moving independently around the steppe amidst lonely traces of ancient history.
It’s the 14th April 2011 and I enter Kazakhstan at the village of Zhaysan on the Ilek River, an arbitrary point on the wide, empty grasslands south of Orenburg. My arrival in Kazakhstan has coincided with the complete disappearance of winter snow-cover, replaced by springtime mud. The sudden presence of (albeit muddy) greenery after more than six months of winter monochrome is pleasant enough, but the feeling of being back out amidst the glorious endlessness of the steppe is more deeply soothing. I drive straight to the city of Aktobe, which I had visited with Karolina the previous year. Aktobe, which started life as a Russian garrison in the nineteenth century is a prosperous and upbeat place, but not a city that many people would purposely visit twice. Nevertheless, I spend a few days here relaxing before parking the truck in a secure car park (where there is a battered bust of Stalin hiding between parked cars) and take an overnight train to the city of Atyrau.
Atyrau, known as Guriev until 1992, is the centre of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industry. What was once a windblown trading post on the delta of the Ural River, established by Russian merchants and preyed upon by Cossacks is now a city of gleaming, glass-fronted buildings and wide avenues choked by a level of traffic for which the city was never designed. Straddling the Ural River makes Atyrau technically a trans-continental city, but comparisons with İstanbul should stop there. In amongst the ministries and headquarters of international joint-ventures, an old city of crumbling early twentieth century housing shows that in the not-so-distant past the city was a forlorn fishing outpost eking out a living in this harsh and parched environment. It also hints at the inequality that such a sudden influx of wealth creates, leading to a rate of robbery unheard of in other parts of Kazakhstan.
My host in Atyrau is Akmaral, a Kazakh from the north of the country who works as an interpreter for a large multinational, and so speaks excellent English. With a dry, British sense of humour perhaps picked up from colleagues and a hint of Russian melancholy; she’s excellent company, and shares Kabardine lamb and Dagestani brandy brought back from a recent trip to the Russian Caucasus. Also feeling something of a foreigner in this unlovable city, she explains that the locals in this arid western part of Kazakhstan are from a different zhuz (clan) and are rather ‘wild’, something we would both experience when I re-visited her later in the year.
The Ural River runs slowly through the centre of the city, having meandered its way across the steppe from its headwaters in the South Urals, a muddy and rather unappealing continental river on its way to the Caspian. I follow the river downstream to the road’s end at Damba where the river starts to braid. Here fishermen bearing forty-centimetre long carp buzz up and down the river in motorboats against a backdrop of endless reeds, filled with nesting birds. I’m somewhat disappointed not to reach the shore of the Caspian, which degenerates into a quagmire of mud at this time of year, but it’s nice to see (almost) the end of this river which I left in Orenburg last week, where it was a cascade of broken ice and tree trunks.
I return to Aktobe on the train and head straight out of town on the arrow-straight road east, retracing my route from last June as far as the junction town of Qarabutaq, where I turn south-east. Here the road passes through steppe marked by very occasional, distant ridges of an ancient seabed, grazed by sparse herds of Bactrians seemingly roaming totally free. After several hundred kilometres I reach the outpost town of Aral. Once a prosperous fishing port on the Aral Sea, Aral’s decline was sealed by the Aral Sea Disaster which occurred due to the huge quantities of water siphoned off the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers for irrigation, the sole feeders of the endorheic Aral Sea. Starting in the late 1960s the level of the Aral Sea fell disastrously, to the point where the sea was around one hundred kilometres from the former port of Aral. I’m surprised therefore to find Aral moderately busy, with an active bazaar and plenty of people on the streets. For sure, the town has seen better days, but here is not the same kind of hopeless desperation of Moynaq, a similar former fishing settlement on what was once the southern shore of the Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, Aral’s former harbour is completely dry, the docks are a wasteland of rusting steel and broken concrete with sentinel cantilever cranes and the only boats in sight are rather poignantly hauled up onto platforms as monuments to a departed and prosperous past.
I drive north-west out of Aral, past the remains of an airport, turning west and dropping down onto what was once unmistakably seabed. Low hills around me still bear tide marks down their sides as sad testament to the slow death of the sea. Passing the camel-breeding village of Zhalanash I drive a few kilometres south and stop for the night in a beautifully tranquil setting on the former sea bed. Around me are the remains of three boats, once brought here alongside several others in an attempt to save them from the receding water; efforts made in vain as their long-stricken position out on this salt-dusted desert shows. Yet even these memorials to Soviet environmental callousness have not been allowed a dignified end; their long-rusted hulls and superstructures having in many cases been cut up by scrap merchants for sale to China, just leaving these three skeletons.
In the morning I continue south on sandy tracks past salt pans, hoping to return to Aral via a circular route. It is here that quite unexpectedly I see patches of reeds, and then am truly shocked to see the Aral Sea, or rather, a small northern remnant of its former self, known as the North Aral Sea. Deep blue water stretches to a horizon marked by low dry hills and while very shallow, the sea has nevertheless revived the natural environment here, evidenced by the presence of two fishermen and abundant spent shotgun cartridges lying on the ground. After the rather melancholic sights of Aral and Zhalanash, stumbling by accident upon the sea, just twelve kilometres from Aral’s long-dry harbour, is quite uplifting. There has also been reported a moderation in the harsh local climate and a reduction in the wind-borne aerosols picked up from the dry sea-bed, which are the cause of many health problems for local residents. I return to Aral on a rough track, then rejoin the main highway south-east.
After eighty kilometres I turn off the highway once again, passing the cerulean-blue waters of Lake Qamystybas, whose scrubby shores are grazed by motley-looking Bactrian camels. I pass a couple of small towns which are surprisingly good-looking in spite of their barren surrounds, then cross the thrashing waters of the Syr Darya River at a large sluice-gate, turning north on a dirt track to the southern shore of the North Aral Sea. From here it’s a short drive to the Kokaral Dam, a low concrete dike which is the reason that the North Aral Sea has come back from the dead. I surprise the security guards who keep watch over the dam in pairs and park up on the water’s edge, where I spend two very pleasant days camping. The Kokaral Dam is built near the outflow of the Syr Darya River into the Aral Sea Basin, and prevents water from escaping to the south, into the main body of what was once the sea. Thus the North Aral Sea is reborn at the expense of the southern portion which stretches into Uzbekistan. It’s a beautiful spot, with the deep blue water contrasting against the endless khaki colour of the desolate steppe. Groups of friendly fishermen are collecting the fish stocks which have returned in economically significant quantities. It’s a very pleasant place to relax, but even more beguiling for the genuine optimism which the returning waters of the North Aral Sea have inspired in local people.
As enchanting as the reborn Aral Sea is, I have an appointment to keep and so return to the main road, continuing my way south-east towards the long-settled southern reaches of Kazakhstan. Not far upstream from the Aral Sea lies Baikonur Cosmodrome, founded by the Soviet Union in 1955, launch site of both the first satellite and the first man into space, besides many others. Both the cosmodrome to the north of the highway and the service-town of Baikonur to the south found themselves part of an independent Kazakhstan following the breakup of the Soviet Union and are now leased by Russia, closed to outsiders without an invitation to enter. However, knowing that a launch is imminent, I park up on the highway overlooking the base. Winds are strong, and I wonder if a rocket launch will really take place, but on schedule to the second I see the distant, and surprisingly noiseless sight of an unmanned Soyuz Progress rocket lift-off on its way to re-supply the International Space Station. After less than a minute of steady climbing the rocket disappears into the sparse, high strata of cloud, leaving just a white exhaust trail from the ground. A brief but unforgettable sight.
A little further along the highway, as the sun is setting, creating a dusk of vivid orange and magenta, I pull in at the shrine complex of Korkut Ata. A legendary soothsayer and bard, Korkut Ata is known throughout the Turkic world in the ancient epic Dede Korkut, which describes the ethnic history, identity, customs and value systems of nomadic Turkic people. With its roots in the pre-Islamic Turkic societies of the steppe, the epic would have been passed on orally across the steppe for generations, only being written down as late perhaps as the fifteenth century. Korkut Ata is said to hail from the Syr Darya region and, at least in the Kazakh version of the legend, was a player of the kobyz, a traditional Kazakh instrument with two horse-hair strings and a goatskin resonating cavity. The centrepiece of the beautiful modern monument complex consists of four stylised, inverted concrete kobyz, sculpted such that the wind coming off the steppe is funnelled over a group of metal tubes to emit a doleful kobyz-like sound. Combined with the glorious atmospherics, I find this a highly enchanting spot and ask the site caretaker if I can sleep here. The friendly guardian, after initial confusion is very welcoming, though insists that I stay inside his simple house just outside the complex, rather than camp nearby. This genuine hospitality, as well as the knowledge that I am at the shrine of a great Central Asian mystic, make me feel almost like an ancient pilgrim on the Silk Road.
Kazakhs tell that Korkut Ata was plagued by a vision of his own demise at the age of forty and took to playing the kobyz to ward-off death, only to eventually become exhausted and die of a snakebite on the banks of the Syr Darya. In the morning I walk to the edge of the great river, known as the Jaxartes to the Ancients, its muddy waters heavily depleted by irrigation upstream in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Here there used to be a mausoleum to the sage, washed away in the twentieth century by a flood, the site now marked by a simple modern gravestone and some scraggly saxauls tied with colourful votive prayer rags. The surrounding area is dotted with graves, buried near the great man in the Islamic tradition; some quite ancient piles of stones, others collapsing mud-brick structures as ephemeral as the lives they commemorate. The fluted brick mausoleum of Korkut Ata’s favourite consort Aksakys sits nearby, needle-like on the steppe, a faux Persian tomb tower. It is in magnificent, tranquil places like these that one feels most keenly the culture of the Kazakhs and of the steppe, far away from the often rather vapid cities.
Not far beyond the monument complex the land starts to change, from barren steppe to irrigated farmland reminiscent of Sindh or the Lower Nile Valley, which is dusty and rather bland after the pristine steppe. I make an overnight stop in the city of Kyzylorda which was briefly the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan in the 1920s, but is of no immediate interest. The irrigated agricultural towns continue for several hours beyond Kyzylorda until the land abruptly reverts to virgin steppe; it is at about this point that I am funnelled into a natural corridor between the Syr Darya to the south and the Karatau Mountains to the north. This natural trade route marks roughly my re-entry to the historical heartland of Transoxiana (western Central Asia) with its maudlin remnants of a world-changing past.
Before long, to my right appear the mud-brick walls of the great city of Sauran, lying silent a few kilometres away in the steppe. Sauran controlled the very trade route which I am currently driving along and was an outpost at the edge of settled civilisation, surrounded by seven towering city walls and served by a Persian karez type of underground irrigation system. First mentioned in the tenth century, Sauran was invaded by Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) and later became the capital of the White Horde under one of his grandsons. Timur (Tamerlane) took over the city in the fourteenth century, turning it into a fortress. However, as the nearby city of Yasi (Turkistan) grew in importance, Sauran’s prosperity waned and it was permanently abandoned in the nineteenth century. Today, Sauran’s heavily eroded walls, which hover on the grassy steppe, are perhaps Kazakhstan’s most evocative sight, speaking of the decay of Central Asia in the same way as the ruins of Balkh or Merv; of transient splendour slowly washing back into the earth. I have the entire city to myself and explore the remains of the thick perimeter walls, in places up to seven metres high and heavily eroded, walking among excavated tiles and stumps of walls, over ground still strewn with pottery shards, a ghost of thousands of lives lived, now forsaken by the outside world.
I stop the next morning in Turkistan, home to the shrine of the twelfth century Sufi mystic Khoja Akhmet Yassawi and one of the most magnificent pieces of Timurid architecture, at the sight of which I was rapt during my first visit in 2007, close to the beginning of the Odyssey. Seeing the glowing faïence of the shrine’s gorgeously fluted dome at the end of a torrid July day was one of my most formative experiences of Central Asia. I don’t wish to overwrite my initial memories however, so after a brief re-acquaintance with the site, I move on. Not far beyond Turkistan I turn south off the highway, towards the confluence of the Arys and Syr Darya Rivers, where lies the Otrar Oasis.
If Sauran is a romantic ruin of the past, then Otrar stands as a testament to a bitter lesson in history. Lying at a node of Eurasian trade routes, on the border between settled and nomadic civilisations, the Otrar Oasis has been settled since at least the sixth century, and in the past consisted of a number of individual settlements. Known before the thirteenth century as Farab, Otrar would have been a centre of Turkic culture and it is considered by many to be the birthplace of Al Farabi (Alpharabius), one of the greatest medieval polymaths and poets. In 1218, Otrar’s ruler, Khorezmshah Mohammed II, received news of an trade envoy sent from Chinggis Khan, a man he refused to treat as an equal, and sorely underestimated. He sent his governor Inalchuk out to rob, then arrest the leader of the envoy, who was finally put to death. This was to prove a fateful moment in history; for it was the following year that Chinggis Khan unleashed the fury of the Mongols upon Central Asia, later reaching as far as Arabia and Eastern Europe. After a five month siege, the oasis was razed to the ground and all its citizens slaughtered. Otrar was to recover in parts, until its final demise in the late eighteenth century, but never to its earlier extent. Otrartobe, the main archaeological site of the oasis, is now a vast pile of the detritus of civilisation, its collapsed earthen walls glinting with the white of broken bones and blue ceramic fragments.
South of Otrar I cross to the left bank of the Syr Darya and follow the river upstream on a road which soon looks as if had also been left to decay since the thirteenth century. These are the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, a desolate landscape dotted by occasional, desperate-looking fly-blown settlements. In places the track is so faint as to be hard to discern against the steppe, but before too long asphalt returns and I’m driving through a green, irrigated area towards the southernmost point of Kazakhstan. Reaching the large Shardara Reservoir, I cross the river again and drive east across beautiful, rolling green grasslands dotted with shepherds on horseback tending flocks of sheep, quite unexpected given the proximity of the desert. My destination is the small, modern cotton-processing town of Zhetisay, located in a salient of Kazakhstani territory surrounded on all sides by Uzbekistan. Zhetisay is a dull country town, but I have the good company of my host Katherine, a Peace Corps volunteers, and her affable Russian landlord Yura, who is only too pleased to help me finally fit the new front springs onto the truck, which I’ve been carrying for more than two months since leaving Estonia.
I stay a few days in Zhetisay where the summer heat is already building before resuming my eastward journey, tracking the border with Uzbekistan past the chaotic border crossing which I used almost four years ago, named rather romantically ‘Zhibek Zholu‘, or simply ‘Silk Road’. I stop in Shymkent, a slightly gritty, industrial city and the largest in southern Kazakhstan, where I am hosted by Kanat, a self-made businessman who spends his days checking up on various concerns of his and has built a large house for his extended family, acting as the head of the house in place of a father. I share a room with Kanat’s nineteen year-old brother who has recently decided to become a pious Muslim, though seems to be having trouble waking up in time for the dawn prayer. Kanat is openly disapproving of his brother’s newly found faith, dismissing it as something of a fad; an opinion I would often hear from older generations in Kazakhstan concerning the visible increase in religious posturing of the country’s youth.
Shymkent was founded in the twelfth century in the shadow of nearby Sayram and became a trading post between Turkic nomads and settled Sogdians. Aside from its heavily polluting lead smelters, modern Shymkent remains a bustling market city, more of a metropolis than most of the country’s provincial capitals, but it lacks singularly any visible evidence of its long history. It is still however a city based around trade and its bazaar is one of the biggest in the country with a range of goods from the farmland to the south and pastures to the north, and a range of faces reflecting both settled and nomadic ancestries.
Sayram, less than twenty kilometres from the centre of Shymkent is perhaps the oldest surviving city in Kazakhstan and one of the oldest in Central Asia; a relaxed country town populated almost entirely by ethnic Uzbeks and free from any Soviet urban architecture. As might be expected in such a long-settled place, Sayram is full of cemeteries and mausolea, including those of the mother and father of Yassawi (who was born here), drawing a steady trail of pilgrims. I’m not quite sure what to make of Sayram however; at once it’s a tranquil rural town with far more character than most of Kazakhstan’s settlements, whilst simultaneously being very obviously a shadow of its former self and lacking any particular focus. After visiting the visually unremarkable mausolea, I content myself with a brief wander along winding lanes, then head south towards the green mountains.
It’s not far from Sayram to the small town of Lenger, which though rather nondescript, is in an appealing setting of rolling green hills, backed by the snowcapped Ugam Mountains to the south; quite unlike anywhere I have been in the last few weeks. I’m hosted here by Serik in his spacious family home, where he lives with his wife and son. Serik is not part of the urban business class, or an employee of a multinational, but he has single-handedly taught himself English and through his generosity in opening his home to travellers, gives me a touching insight into rural life, a pleasant change from staying in the generally bland cities.
The following day I drive out of Lenger into the hills, reaching a road-head in the recently-established Sayram-Ugam National Park, where I leave the truck and strike out on foot. An outlier of the Western Tien Shan, here forming the border with Uzbekistan to the south, the slopes of the Ugam Mountains are a gorgeous carpet of emerald green grass, still filled with snow in creases and gulleys and dotted with dark green dwarf pines. I walk for a few strenuous hours up into the mountains, reaching a broad saddle still covered in deep winter snow, with magnificent views west across buckling foothills which soften into flat steppe in the far distance.
Just as enchanting as the views is the native flora; from wild apple-blossoms in the valley floors, to a beautiful range of wild tulips which dot the mountainsides. Some, such as Tulipa kaufmanniana have bright yellow, elongated petals and look quite unlike commercial European varieties, whereas others such as the beautiful Tulipa greigii have the iconic bulbous flower-head which caused so-called ‘Tulip Mania’ in seventeenth century Holland. It is however here, in these flower-dotted grassy hillsides of the Tien Shan that the tulip originates.
It’s two hundred kilometres to my next stop; the city if Taraz, founded two thousands years ago, devastated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, only returning to prominence in the early nineteenth century when re-settled by the Khanate of Kokand, and taken by the Russians not long after. Taraz has a nicer atmosphere than Shymkent and is also a bustling market city, as it was in ancient times. With a pair of restored Karakhanid mausolea, and extensive archaeological remains of the pre-Mongol city preserved in the modern centre, there is for once a palpable air of longevity about the place. Previously known as Talas (after the nearby river), from where its current name obviously derives, Taraz is perhaps most noteworthy for being the approximate site of the 751 CE Battle of Talas, in which the armies of Tang Dynasty China was routed by the Arabs (allied with Tibetans), thus keeping Chinese influence out of Transoxiana and establishing Islam as the dominant cultural force. In addition to the immediate, regional impact of the defeat, wider reaching effects included the wane of Buddhism in Central Asia, isolating it from its Indian base and fostering the development of the current, Mahayana schools of northern and eastern Asia, and the import of paper-making to the Middle East, from where it later spread to Europe.
One of the conditions of my two-month long Kazakhstan visa requires me to leave the country within thirty days, and re-enter in order to continue my stay. Thus after two days I leave Kazakhstan from the border crossing with Kyrgyzstan which lies just beyond the outskirts of Taraz, where indeed the great battle may well have taken place. As a result of a recent joint agreement between the two countries, I am able to enter Kyrgyzstan with my visa for Kazakhstan, though the suspicious Kyrgyz border guard seems never to have heard of it and I’m only stamped into the country after calls are made to superiors.
Kyrgyzstan is noticeably quieter than Kazakhstan and the landscape immediately becomes more mountainous. I pass the Kirov Reservoir, where a giant face of Lenin has been cast in concrete onto the mountainside, and begin climbing in an easterly direction up the valley of the Talas River. At first the landscape is agrarian, the road lined by small farming communities, but shortly after passing the small, modern provincial capital of Talas, I enter the high, rolling grasslands as the road winds up towards the snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan. Crossing the 3300-metre Ötmök Pass, I drop down onto the M41 Highway which runs south through the Pamirs to the Amu Darya and Afghan border; surely one of the world’s most beautiful roads. I turn north however, back towards Kazakhstan and descend slowly into the utterly glorious Suusamyr Valley, a broad, grassy plain dotted with Kyrgyz yurts and backed in the east by the gorgeous, smoothly snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan. I had driven this road almost four years earlier in August 2007, but seeing it now with the grass greener and the snow thicker, it seems even more enchanting than before.
The Suusamyr Valley section of the M41 ends with a steep climb to the 3180-metre Töö Ashuu Tunnel, bored three and a half kilometres through a mountain, then descends steadily to the Chuy Valley. It’s late in the evening before I reach Bishkek, where I turn north to the busy border with Kazakhstan at Korday. Here, after several hours of delays and searches by official most likely waiting for a bribe, I am stamped back out of Kyrgyzstan, concluding my sixteen hour visit. Ahead of me awaits three more weeks of travel on the huge Kazakh Steppe.