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.
It was only in the twentieth century that the Urals, a chain of low and very ancient mountains running approximately 2500 kilometres from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppes of northern Kazakhstan, became the most widely accepted convention used to define the notional boundary between Asia and Europe. As a result, these mostly unspectacular but soothingly beautiful mountains demarcate no great physical or cultural divide in the Eurasian continent, representing only a subtle transition to the great wilderness of Siberia. Up against the western flanks of the Urals however live a patchwork of non-Russian nations, descendants of the region’s aboriginal inhabitants, now assimilated to varying degrees into contemporary Russian society. This stage of the Odyssey would take me from the western frontiers of Russia through this chain of federal republics strung along the Upper Volga River, into the forested ridges and industrial cities of the South Urals and on to the edge of the Kazakh Steppe. As the long Russian winter finally eased its grip on the land, my 4500 kilometre eastward journey to the edge of Central Asia would complete a fascinating year spent travelling in and out of Russia.
It’s the 19th March 2011 as I enter Russia from Belarus with nothing more than a cursory check of my vehicle registration document from a traffic police officer. As if to confirm my re-entry into Russia the weather, which in Belarus had been showing signs of impending spring, reverts firmly back to winter with snow falling steadily as I drive through stands of mixed forest towards the city of Smolensk. Turning off the main M1 highway in the early evening, I stop in one grimly notorious patch of forest just outside the village of Katyn. Here, in 1940 the NKVD, predecessors of the KGB, murdered approximately 22,000 Poles, both army officers and civilians, in what became known as the Katyn Massacre. To compound this genocidal act, the Soviet authorities long blamed the Nazis, who came across the mass graves early in 1943.
After spending a cold night in the forest, I am the first to enter the memorial site in the morning. Here, beyond a small museum complex, amidst beautifully tranquil pines, walkways pass mass graves, marked by crosses and huge steel-plated memorials bearing the names of some of the deceased. It was not until 1990, following glasnost, that the USSR finally admitted their guilt in the massacre. Katyn represents not only a war crime, but is typical of the kind of official falsification of history which was routine in the USSR. In a country where people seldom reflect on the darker episodes of a brutal past and have been taught a history edited to fit both Marxism and Soviet propaganda, the Katyn Massacre is a rare example of the open revision of Soviet historiography.
A little later in the morning I arrive in Smolensk, which despite the cold, damp weather, I soon judge to be one of Russia’s lovelier cities. Smolensk is set amidst rolling hills astride a young Dnieper River and despite its strategic position on a logical route from central Europe, feels like a gently time-worn backwater. Walking north on Soviet Street, down towards the river through the falling snow, I have in front of me a scene which could be the subject of many a Russian watercolour. My eye is lead down a curve in the street, lined by bare trees and damp, pastel yellow nineteenth century buildings. Beyond the roofs of these lie first the rather plain Trinity Monastery and then the peppermint green of the exuberant, Renaissance-inspired Assumption Cathedral, unusually square in plan with three large porthole windows on each soaring slab-wall. This unusual piece of Russian church architecture took more than a century to complete and according to local legend, was spared harm during Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, with the French Emperor threatening to personally kill any man who dared desecrate it.
As might be expected of a large and ancient city on the frontiers of a huge empire, Smolensk has a long history of invasion and destruction, having twice slipped beyond the frontiers of the Russian state. Nevertheless, as I walk downhill into one of the city’s small valleys, attractively dotted by dark brown timber houses with colourful wooden-framed windows, I am surprised to find a huge and magnificent sixteenth century kremlin (fortress) looming out of the falling snow on the opposite hill. It’s a beautiful structure with long red-brick walls and defensive towers of alternately square and round in plan, covered by steeply pitched wooden roofs; a real icon of Russian defensive architecture and a symbol of Russia’s western defences. The modern centre of Smolensk somewhat less remarkable, with tall and imposing Stalin-era city blocks, parks celebrating the important role of the ‘Hero City’ during the Second World War, and a grandiose philharmonic hall named after the composer Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian classical music, who was a born in the city.
As charmed as I am by Smolensk however, I opt to leave in the afternoon, heading east towards Moscow – a city I have very little affection for – in order to visit the Embassy of Tajikistan the following morning. The thought of driving into the vast congested sprawl of Europe’s largest city leads me to stay instead in the satellite city of Podolsk, a rather dull industrial city which is separated from Moscow’s sprawl by just 500 metres of open land. I am hosted here by Katya, a student with impeccable English who lives with her parents in their self-built house, in a slightly unusual middle-class suburbia. My visit to the embassy annoyingly coincides with Nowruz celebrations in Tajikistan, meaning I have to wait several days to see the consul. I spend a day relaxing at home with Katya’s father who is a carpenter and seems grateful for some male company; together we drink beer and watch ‘White Sand of the Desert‘ a classic Soviet film of a chivalrous Red Army soldier set in the deserts of Central Asia during the Russian Civil War. It’s refreshingly free of Soviet propaganda, an innocent and timeless film seen by virtually every citizen of the Former USSR.
I make an excursion from Podolsk to the city of Tula, leaving the truck at Katya’s house and taking an elektrichka, (a short-distance intercity train). The train journey offers an interesting glimpse of Russian society. As we pull out of what are effectively suburbs of Moscow, the train is full of a rag-tag bunch of students (who run from one carriage to the next at each stop to avoid paying the fare), workers and all-sorts. Dark, gypsy-faced Tajiks from around Samarkand pace the train selling fruit; other hawkers sell clothes, toys and other low quality Chinese-made items. We roll through utterly bland, inconsequential satellite towns of Moscow Region, which become ever less prosperous looking. At some point, beyond reasonable commuting distance the towns break into the familiar, unending Russian countryside dotted by occasional damp, tumbledown villages which could be anywhere in the country. The train empties of students and commuters, leaving a crew mainly of drinkers; lone fishermen who board unsteadily at small, half-deserted stations along the line. Here is a peculiar type of Russian drifter; fairly clean-looking, if pallid of face, well spoken, conversing with his neighbour in a string of expletives known as mat (which is at one eloquently poetic and obscene) but whose frayed clothes reveal the underlying poverty and social decay which he represents.
Tula, 180 kilometres south of Moscow is somewhat less attractive than Smolensk. Despite an striking central kremlin housing the beautiful, gold-domed Assumption Cathedral, Tula’s centre feels rather sprawling and its proximity to the capital seems to have infected the city with a rash of unplanned, ugly modern buildings and an excess of advertising boards on every street. Like Smolensk, Tula was one of the Soviet Union’s twelve ‘Hero Cities’; and the heroics and hardware of the forty-five day siege in which the city held out in the winter of 1941, defending Moscow from the south, are remembered in a surprisingly modest Victory Park. Other parts of Tula are quite shabby; walking towards the city’s busy market I descend a street of decrepit wooden houses; a few appear to be well maintained, while others have been deliberately burnt by property developers – the fate of many wooden structures across Russia – in order to build modern houses and thus ruin the aesthetics of an entire street. I also come across the large, wooded All Saints Cemetery which is both a picture of decay and ruin, and an intriguing timeline of Russian history. Ornately carved eighteenth century tombstones sink slowly into the snowy ground; small nineteenth century obelisks lean gently, and twentieth century secular steel grave markers with red five-pointed stars slowly rust away. My favourite however is a memorial to soldiers of the Second World War; a brutal piece of Socialist-realism executed in coarse, rendered concrete which somehow manages to be quite delicately moving in its portrayal of an unknown, falling Red Army soldier.
Back in Moscow I manage to enter the consular section of the Tajikistan Embassy and join a truly unimaginable scrum of people all shouting and waving towards a counter at the far end of the room. Never have I seen such a crush of humanity; these are desperate migrant workers collecting documents in order to renew their residency in Russia; something they must do monthly in order to send back money earned in tough, menial jobs to their impoverished home country. I push through the crowd shouting ‘visa!’ and over the course of several minutes – at one point with a small boy clinging to my leg – I make it a few metres to a door where I am glad to be whisked into the calm of the back-offices. The visa process is a sham, and I end up bargaining with the consul as if I were buying an antique rug, arguing the price according to duration of stay and number of entries. I get a three month, double entry visa for 120 US Dollars, the consul puts the money in his pocket, and I walk out with a visa in my passport. Simple and efficient.
Long ago, before the massive Russian expansion into Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the embryonic Russia state expanded from its heartlands around Kyiv, Novgorod and later Moscow into territories populated by indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples and Turkic peoples who had themselves migrated fairly recently from the east and south. Today a multitude of federal republics exist along the upper Volga and around the Urals; ostensibly home to these various nations, some of whom are culturally and linguistically severely endangered.
Driving east from Podolsk, away from the orbit of Moscow, past the city of Ryazan which was the first to bear the thirteenth century invasion of the Mongols, I am in the Republic of Mordovia by early afternoon. I drive through a blizzard shortly after leaving the main M7 highway and turning north-east towards Saransk, the capital of the republic; it might be late March, but I am still within the depths of winter, which has lasted for around five months so far. I reach Saransk after dark, and am hosted by Stas and Larisa, a couple of young Russian journalists. Mordovia is named after the Mordvin people, a Finno-Ugric nation distantly related to Finns, Estonians and Hungarians. The Mordvins are split into two main groups (indeed the term ‘Mordvin’ may well be an exonym); the Moksha and the Erzya, and like all Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia, they have been heavily russified and are highly assimilated into contemporary Russian society. Although the Mordvins are quite numerous, their language is endangered and little-used by the urban population; their original animistic religion has been largely replaced by Orthodox Christianity and in dress and appearance they are not readily distinguishable from Russians. Indeed, there are no outward signs that Saransk is anything other than a small, if quite pleasant Russian city; only the striking late-Soviet Seat of Government building hints that this is the capital of an autonomous republic in anything more than name.
From Saransk I drive due east through a beautiful wintry landscape of gentle, low hills and patches of birch forest, until I reach the Volga in the city of Ulyanovsk. Established as Simbirsk, a fort during the eastern expansion of Russia in the seventeenth century, it was renamed after its most famous resident; Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. In Soviet times ‘Old Simbirsk’, which amounts to the area immediately around the house in which Lenin was supposedly born, was something of a pilgrimage site, but today its draw is very much diminished. Indeed, I’m surprised to find just a simple street of wooden houses rather than any of the heroic gigantism of which the Soviets were so fond. Aside from Old Simbirsk, Ulyanovsk is a slightly noxious industrial city, albeit with a certain gritty charm and a magnificent view over part of the Kuybishev Reservoir which turns the Volga into a huge expanse of frozen water, stretching in some directions to the horizon.
Driving north-west from Ulyanovsk, I cut across the inside of a large bend in the Volga to reach the city of Cheboksary, several hundred kilometres upstream. Cheboksary is the capital of the Republic of Chuvashia, and I am hosted in the city by Dimitry and his family, who are Chuvash. The Chuvash are of Turkic origin, thought to be descendants of the Volga Bulgars, ad-mixed with indigenous Finnic tribes. The Chuvash are spread widely across this Volga – Ural region and many cities here have their own separate names in the Chuvash language, which branched off long ago from the Turkic language family, is unintelligible to speakers of any other Turkic language, and is closely related only to extinct languages such as Bulgar or Khazar. Unlike the neighbouring Mordvins or Maris, the Chuvash are a majority in their titular republic, regularly use their own language (which is nevertheless considered endangered due to the dominance of Russian), and generally seem more culturally robust. Dimitry speaks to his mother and father in Chuvash, and tells me that there are villages not so far away where people speak only Chuvash, which I find reassuring in the face of centuries of russification efforts.
Cheboksary, named Shupashkar in Chuvash, was established as a Russian city in the mid-sixteenth century, on the site of what was most likely an earlier Bulgar settlement. Dimitry shows me around his native city which is attractively sited on the right bank of the Volga, here an endless white plain across which a few souls make the three kilometre hike from the opposite bank while large snow-clouds move in from the east. Unusually for a Turkic nation, the Chuvash are largely Orthodox Christian (with a minority following the traditional Chuvash animist religion) which results in a proliferation of churches in the city, especially in the now frozen Cheboksary Bay area, though all are purely Russian in style (and rite). While there is nothing in Cheboksary’s urban architecture which obviously distinguishes its non-Russian character, there is nevertheless at least something palpably vital about the Chuvash culture, lying somewhere between the near assimilation of the Mordvins, and the outright cultural assertiveness of the nearby Tatars.
Just east of Cheboksary I drive across the Volga and am immediately in the Mari El Republic. The Mari, together with the Mordvins, are the only surviving Volga Finns (other such as Murom, Merya and Meshchera are now extinct) and like the Mordvins are heavily assimilated. Driving north from the Volga I soon reach the capital Yoshkar-Ola, where I find, as in Saransk, no real sign of Mari language or culture. Indeed, the republic’s president, an ethnic Russian, has been implicated in the closing of Mari language newspapers and the repression of Mari leaders, rights groups and the traditional Mari religion.
I’m shown around Yoshkar-Ola by my Russian host Yulia and am bemused to find a rash of new buildings which remind me of the vulgar urban construction projects favoured by Central Asian dictators. The most striking of these is the mechanical clock on the outside of the National Art Gallery, a garishly coloured and incongruous piece of Venetian Gothic on the city’s central square. As the clock chimes the hour, the Virgin Mary appears in an upper door on the large, square clock-face. Piped choral music begins, and a donkey walks a semicircle with unbending legs from one lower door to another, with Mother and Child finally appearing in the opposite upper door. The whole display lasts over three minutes, during which I fail to conceal my laughter at its crassness. This rash of new development spreads along the banks of the Kokshaga River which runs through the city, and although this does give the capital of Mari El a certain distinctive character, it is in no way representative of Mari culture, reeking instead of being a pet project of the president (no doubt enriching certain of his cronies) which is of no use to the general populace of an economically stagnating region.
Perhaps however, I am being a little naive in expecting to find a series of truly federal republics of different nations living side-by-side. Indeed, what is really more impressive is the fact that these nations – and many others – are blended with the Slavic ancestry of Russians to create the very essence of the Russian nation, whose genome reflects the territorial growth of Russia over the last millennium and shows the true meaning of racial integration.
From Yoshkar-Ola I rejoin the Volga and make some real progress east, through the comparatively distinctive republics of Tatarestan and Bashkortostan; two Turkic nations descended from the Volga Bulgars, both of which have strongly preserved their language and individual cultures. Here Russia begins to change noticeably; mosques start to appear in the villages of colourful wooden houses, where dwellings are clustered around each other more haphazardly in closer communities, as in much of Asia. Physically, the gently undulating fields and woodlands of European Russia start very gradually to gather into ridges and, almost imperceptibly, I enter the ancient folds of the Urals. The M5 highway, Russia’s main road artery into Siberia narrows to single lanes and becomes choked with lorry traffic as it winds across the low, forested mountains, so as I enter Chelyabinsk Region, I turn off and continue on a series of backroads which wind through the small towns either side of the highway.
I make my way east stopping first in Asha, an iron mining city which is beautifully set below steep mountains, with tall outcrops of banded pink and grey limestones running to Minyar, along the Trans-Siberian mainline. Rejoining the highway briefly I pass above the town of Sim which spreads across the snowy landscape in rows of colourful low houses and is the birthplace of Igor Kurchatov, father of the Soviet atomic bomb. Soon after I turn south towards the highest peaks of the South Urals, topped by Mt. Yamantau which can be seen from the road’s end at Verkhny Katav, still completely covered in snow. Further east the land climbs into uplands and a rather indeterminate Europe – Asia border, through more mining and metal-working towns such as Yuryuzhan, Satka and Zlatoust, all established in the eighteenth century to take advantage of the abundant mineral riches of the Urals. The landscape alternates between quaintly colourful lake-side towns and grim, crumbling factories belching smoke from filthy towers into the beautiful landscape.
I stop in the city of Miass, a centre of copper and gold extraction, which is set amongst beautiful mountain scenery. The weather is well above zero and although the crystal-clear waters of Lake Turgoyak are still frozen, with ice fishermen sitting patiently next to their small holes, the surrounding hillsides are yellow with recently exposed grass, and the lakeside pines add some green to a landscape which for months has been a winter monochrome. With my host Sergey I walk up a steep hillside on the eastern side of Miass, through snow-filled forest and onto a broad ridge of basalt dotted with still-bare larch trees. To the east is lake-dotted Ilmen National Park, marking the beginning of Siberia and an inconceivably huge wilderness. To the west a succession of low ridges fade away into the afternoon sky, marking at some point the boundary between Asia and Europe. This quasi-continental divide is in reality, merely a political and cultural concept; a modern-day expression of an ancient Greek conceit. Here it seems faintly ludicrous to call this low and ancient mountain chain deep in the Eurasian continent a cultural boundary between west and east. None of this of course detracts from the beautiful views all around, with the warm air and slightly milky skies suggesting the onset of spring.
I leave the city heading south, past the Miass pond, on the frozen surface of which children are skating and playing ice hockey, backed by colourful, pitch-roofed wooden houses; a slightly timeless scene which might be a century-old oil painting. I cross the M5 one final time, leaving Siberia for a future trip and drive south on a series of small roads, keeping the Urals to to my right, weaving in and out of Bashkortostan. Large rain-bearing clouds sit just above the mountain peaks as I pick my way through Bashkir villages with beautiful wooden mosques, combining traditional Russian wooden architecture with simple octagonal minarets. I’m driving roughly along the Ural River, which here demarcates the Asia-Europe border all the way to its endpoint at the northern edge of the Caspian Sea.
More than 150 years after the Tsarist Russian government started to exploit the mineral riches of the South Urals on a large scale, the area saw a second wave of industrialisation during early Soviet times, boosted especially by both the demand for raw materials and the Nazi threat itself during the Second World War, which caused many industries from European Russia to be relocated here, well away from the front. My next stop is a perfect example of such development; the city of Magnitogorsk. Located on the Ural River, Magnitogorsk was established as part of a system of forts along the Russian frontier, but the potential riches of nearby Magnitnaya mountain were soon realised, and ore extraction began in 1739. Later, Magnitogorsk became the industrial showpiece of Stalin’s five-year plans of the 1930s, which brought in experts from the US and Germany to make up for a lack of local knowledge in building the gargantuan Magnitogorsk Iron And Steel Works, until Stalin’s paranoia grew to the extent that the city was declared ‘closed’, and foreigners expelled in 1937. Today, despite the exhaustion of ore reserves in Magnitnaya Mountain, the metal works occupies the entire left bank of the Ural as it flow through the city; a hideous panorama of smokestacks belching multifarious colours of noxious fumes, so grim as to be quite morbidly attractive. The huge Tyl Frontu monument, consisting of two metal workers holding aloft an enormous sword occupies a promontory over the river from where the metal works may best be viewed and stands in remembrance of the efforts made by workers behind the front line, particularly important for the supply of Red Army tanks.
Metallurgy in the Urals is far from being a modern activity, and out in the sparsely populated steppe where the Urals, the Eastern European Plain and the Kazakh Steppe all come together, a series of archaeological sites of the Sintashta Culture show that metal production was prolific here in the Bronze Age. Far more interesting however are the similarities between burial practices observed by archaeologists here and those described in the Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text (in fact the world’s oldest religious text). It is therefore hypothesised that the Sintashtans were speakers of Proto-Indo-Aryan (which may itself have been influenced in part by local Finno-Ugric languages), and may have been a stepping-stone on the migration of the Indo-Aryans from the Lower Volga region to the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamia. The best preserved Sintashta site yet discovered is Arkaim, around 150 kilometres south-east of Magnitogorsk. Leaving the Ural River, I drive out into the steppe; that endless expanse of rolling grassland which I find so comforting, past forgotten small towns and villages to reach Arkaim, only to find the area flooded, and the site itself inaccessible. Nevertheless, climbing a nearby ridge I get a good view over the site. It’s truly fascinating to think that these people, from this barren and forgotten area, may have gone on to seed one of the world’s great civilisations, pre-cursors also to many of the cultures through which I have travelled for the past four years.
I make a final crossing of the South Urals, heading east from Magnitogorsk through the Bashkir towns of Abzakovo and Beloretsk, where low cloud boils over the mountains, then through beautiful forest-covered hills, where bare, wispy birch trees grow amongst occasional green sprigs of pine, revealing the snow on the forest floor. After several hours of this glorious scenery, I emerge in farmland just south of Ufa and turn south, passing through the industrial cities of Sterlitamak, Salavat and Kumertau. As I progress southwards, the snow-cover recedes and I enter the yellowish steppe, leaving behind both the winter and the mountains.
My last stop in Russia before entering Kazakhstan is Orenburg. Rather whimsically, the name of this city had long been in my mind and for no other reason I was keen to visit. Orenburg was in fact the name of several settlements initially named after the Or River. The first became the city of Orsk, around 250 kilometres to the east; the second was destroyed, and the current Orenburg is in fact the third incarnation of the city. Established as a frontier fort for Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, Orenburg lies off the country’s main road and rail conduits, out on the fringes of the windswept Kazakh steppe, though its gas industry and large student population neutralise any forlorn or frontier atmosphere that one might anticipate.
The highlight of my stay in Orenburg is my host Ruslan, a local with whom I immediately strike a lasting friendship. We sit smoking and drinking tea in his kitchen, then go to explore the city, walking down Orenburg’s elegant, tree-lined main boulevard to the Ural River, which is marked on either side by ceremonial posts labelled ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’. The river is in flood, its surface a huge, glacier-like mass of broken ice and fallen trees, something Ruslan says he has never seen before. Sadly, the famous Orenburg Fortress, from which many of Russia’s expeditions into Central Asia were mounted is long-gone, though there are many charmingly shabby backstreets still to explore. After having another smoke in the ruins of a Tsarist-era electrical supply building, we are driven to Gagarin Park where we happen upon a huge fireworks display to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first man being launched into space, one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet Union. Although Gagarin hailed from Smolensk region, it was here that he spent much of his time training as an air force pilot. The colours are especially vivid, and I feel it’s a fitting celebratory end to my year spent in and out of Russia.
After two very enjoyable, mellow days with Ruslan I have to say farewell to both him, and to Russia. My year-long visa, obtained in Tehran last year has come to an end, and I must finish this ninth trip into Russia which I have made with it. I drive south, past the town of Sol-Iletsk, home to Russia’s infamous Black Dolphin Prison, then turn south east to the border at Sagarchin. Despite a year of travel, I’m sad to be leaving Russia – the north and far east of this country are still unknown to me – but for now I am heading south, into the vast steppe of Kazakhstan, and a summer in Central Asia.
Belarus, whose name derives from the Belarussian Beliye Rosi’ (White Rus’) lies between Russia and the EU and seems to be known largely by negative stereotypes; the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, an ‘outpost of tyranny’ and a museum of the USSR. While there is truth in these titles, I would find a very charming country of neat, clean cities, beautiful wild landscapes and friendly, worldly people. There are several theories as to why Belarus is referred to as White Rus’; that the area was populated by Christianised Slavs as opposed to the more pagan-influenced Balts of Black Rus’ (Black Ruthenia); in reference to the traditional white clothing worn by the natives, or symbolising the ethnic purity of this region which was beyond the limits of the Mongol and Tatar expansion. What is now Belarus was spared the destruction and subjugation of the Mongol Yoke during medieval times, but the twentieth century was certainly not as kind, with the country seeing almost total destruction during the Second World War, massive ethnic cleansing (particularly of the formerly very large Jewish minority), depopulation and Russian cultural domination during the time that the country was a republic of the USSR. Even today, the Belarussian national identity and language are at best met with official indifference; the country has changed little since independence in 1991 and its largely state-run economy remains somewhat dependent on Moscow. Nevertheless, Belarus survives as a country which is subtly quite different from Russia and an outpost largely free from Western Consumerism.
My journey around Belarus begins on the 19th February 2011 as I cross into the country from Russia. There are no stops or checks on the Belarussian side of the border and straight away I’m driving through small villages of colourful, fairytale wooden houses; the road is much improved compared to the Russian side of the border, free of ice and there is comprehensive signposting. The sun even comes out, making for a very pleasant first impression indeed.
My first stop is the city of Polatsk, allegedly one of the oldest cities of the Eastern Slavs and mentioned in the Norse Sagas. Initially part of the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, the city emerged as the Principality of Polatsk in the tenth century and like much of Belarus, has since come under control of Lithuania, Russia and Poland. My host in Polatsk is Ivan, who immediately invites me into his apartment where he introduces me to some of his friends with whom we have a smoke. Ivan turns the television on to check the sport results, and I get a glimpse of television in Belarus which has all the signs of dictatorship; mind-numbing sports coverage with lame, flag-waving crowds and the odd titbit of news comprising coverage of President Lukashenko (whom my hosts refer to derisively as a kolkhoznik, literally a ‘collective farmer’) making an official visit to some factory among sycophantic crowds. It is informative however to see live, state-fixed prices of fuel and basic foodstuffs scrolling across the screen.
Polatsk is located on the banks of the Divna River, which is still totally frozen and gives views onto the old heart of the city. Most striking is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, one of three (the others being in Kyiv in Ukraine and Novgorod in Russia) of the oldest Eastern Slavic churches, all modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, at the time the home of all eastern Orthodoxy. The Cathedral of Polatsk has been heavily modified through the ages and today has an imposing white Baroque facade, though bares no resemblance to its namesake in İstanbul. Nearby, the compact city centre spreads along the north bank of the Divna, dotted with churches and a mix of nicely restored Tsarist-era streets and some fine, if rather faded Soviet Neoclassical buildings, while on the south bank are streets of colourful wooden houses.
I find Polatsk very charming indeed, quite different from the gritty towns of western Russia; it’s cleaner, more orderly and people seem more immediately friendly and smiling, even if there is a slight air of torpor. A few kilometres to the east of Polatsk is the modern and totally Soviet town of Navapolatsk where I go to register with the Migration Police, and where one finds all the vast, grey concrete apartment buildings thankfully largely absent from Polatsk. I do however spot a magnificent Futuristic Soviet Socio-realist mural on a wall here depicting mankind charging forth into the cosmos under the banner of communism, celebrating one of the Soviet Union’s greatest achievements; putting the first human into space in 1961.
On my way south to the capital I stop at the monument complex of Khatyn, a moving tribute built in the 1960s to commemorate the incredible losses which Belarus endured during the Second World War. Khatyn was one of more than five thousand Belarussian villages which were burned and destroyed by the Nazis, in this particular case by a group composed largely of Ukrainian nationalist collaborators who in 1943 killed every man, woman and child in the village by burning them alive in a barn, gunning down any escapees. Twenty-six concrete obelisks symbolise the location of each house in the village which was looted and destroyed, on which the names and ages (in the case of children) of the occupants are listed. A bell tolls every thirty seconds in unison from each of these to represent the rate at which Belarussians were killed during the Nazi occupation. A square memorial consisting of three birch trees and an eternal flame further symbolises that one in four Belarussian Citizens, a total put officially at 2,230,000 people, were killed during the Second World War. In this rueful, beautiful snowy landscape surrounded by birch forest, it is quite staggering to contemplate the abject horrors which were unleashed by the forces of nationalism here.
Minsk, today a city of two million, has its origins as a provincial town under the Principality of Polatsk in the tenth century, becoming an important regional capital following Russian annexation in the late eighteenth century. The city was almost totally destroyed in the Second World War and was reconstructed and greatly expanded during the post-war Soviet Period. Today a city of two million inhabitants, the Belarussian capital is a grand and harmonious city of Soviet Neoclassical buildings, wide avenues and parks. It’s a city which bears its Soviet past proudly, and remains visually much as the original designers must have intended.
I spend several days in Minsk, acquainting myself with what is perhaps the best preserved large city of the USSR, a tantalising glimpse of the Soviet Union complete with much of its architecture, art and symbolism, though lacking the communist political ideology. From my host’s apartment in the south of the city, I walk past the imposing twelve-storey Stalinist city gates towards Independence Square where the city’s main thoroughfare, Independence Avenue begins. Formerly Lenin Square, here there remains (somewhat ironically) a large statue of Vladimir Ilyich, gazing masterfully towards the east, propping himself on a railing with his cap in hand. Behind the Soviet leader is towering House of Government, a fine piece of Stalinist architecture dating from the 1930s, one of the few buildings to survive the war and one which manages to blend Soviet gigantism with a few touches of Art-Deco. Also in the square is the red brick, neo-Romanesque Church of Saints Simon and Helena from the turn of the twentieth century and a recently constructed shopping mall whose comparative vulgarity has been tastefully hidden underground and connected to the Lenin Square station of the Minsk Metro. Other of the metro stations retain prosaically socialist names such as Traktarny Zavod (‘Tractor Factory’) and Pralyetarskaya (‘Proletarian’).
Heading north-east, Independence Avenue passes the beige Central Post Office, then comes upon the pale buff of the KGB headquarters, a perfect example of Soviet Neoclassicism; a mock Roman Temple behind which lies the heart of the security apparatus of what is undoubtedly a repressive police state. Opposite the building, aptly, is one of the few remaining statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Cheka, forerunner of the KGB and a key participant of the ‘Red Terror’ which saw the ruthless pursuit and execution of tens of thousands of counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War. Dzerzhinsky would probably be reassured by the number of uniformed police on the streets of Minsk, who in my experience are unobtrusive, yet still visible from almost any point. The number of plain-clothed officers and informants is of course left to the imagination.
Not far beyond the KGB I reach the Minsk Univermag or department store, a typically Soviet institution which has become largely obsolete in the new market economies of other parts of the Former USSR. Lying in the very centre of the city, the department store has a small attached ground-floor bar; not a pretentious and overpriced street-side cafe where one is waited on and pressured to leave as soon as possible, but a simple bar where one can buy a bottle of beer or a coffee at normal shop prices and watch the outside world go by, something I find myself doing several times during my stay in Minsk.
Despite being the capital of an authoritarian and politically isolated country, Minsk does not have the feeling of being cut-off from the outside world, nor of being trapped in time. While the city remains architecturally true to the Soviet era, there are touches of sophistication; period Soviet shop fronts conceal modern bars and restaurants and the traffic outside consists overwhelmingly of cars of European or Japanese origin rather than Russian. What is lacking here, gladly, is the glaring inequality one sees for instance in Russia or Ukraine where the privatisation of the economy allowed certain individuals to quickly amass great wealth, often through highly questionable actions. It is also highly refreshing to finally find respite from global consumerism, in a city where international brands and advertisements are almost absent and there are shops still simply called ‘Shoes’, ‘Bread’ or ‘Bar’. Belarus is not Turkmenistan, fighting to keep any influence of the outside world safely beyond its borders; it is trying more to distance itself from the vices all around.
Also slightly different from neighbouring Russia are the people, who seem a touch more European in mindset, more like the Poles or Lithuanians who long dominated what is now Belarus, lacking the Russian xenophobia bred by centuries of isolation. In appearance people are also somewhat more European looking, lacking perhaps the Tatar blood of Russians; judging by watching the people passing by, Belarus’s reputation for beautiful women is certainly not undue.
Continuing along Independence Avenue, I pass the post-independence Palace of the Republic, built in 2002 in the old Soviet style on the far side of October Square, which has been filled with water and allowed to freeze into an ice rink on which people can freely come and skate. The avenue then descends past the small, teal-coloured wooden museum-house where in 1898, in great secrecy, nine delegates of various revolutionary parties, including Lenin, held the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, then past Yanky Kupala Park to the Svislach River. Crossing a bridge I pass the apartment where Lee Harvey Oswald lived from 1959 to 1961, then climb to the tall granite obelisk of Victory Square, in front of which four soldiers stand guard throughout the day. Bronze reliefs cover the base of the obelisk, depicting the struggle of the Red Army, the population of Minsk and the Belarussian partisans, for which Minsk later received the honour of becoming one of the Soviet Union’s twelve ‘Hero Cities’.
Beyond Victory Square I pass numerous further examples of grand and often elegant Soviet architecture, then walk to the far side of the city where the recently finished National Library of Belarus is located, in a twenty-two storey futuristic blue-glass rhombicuboctahedral building. Many people I would meet in Minsk and in Belarus would sneer at the Library as something of a folly of the President, a hugely expensive project of little use to the average person, a repository of Belarussian literature in a country which actively promotes the Russian language over Belarussian, and stifles national identity in order to appease Moscow from where vital energy subsidies and economic support come. Indeed, despite my overwhelmingly positive impressions of the country, it is clear that many Belarussians are unhappy with the situation the country is in; perhaps feeling left behind in an anachronistic dictatorship with a stagnating, state-run economy whilst its neighbours extract themselves ever further from the hangover of the Soviet Union. My delight at finding a country free from the glorification of consumerism seems not to be shared with its general populace. Nevertheless I leave Minsk feeling deeply impressed, even imagining that it is a place I would enjoy living in.
I drive out of Minsk one morning, joining the old Soviet M1 Highway south-west, formerly connecting Moscow with Brest and Warsaw. Soon turning south, I leave the highway to visit the town of Nyasvizh, home of the Radziwiłł Family whose castle still stands, though has been rather carelessly restored and is currently closed to visitors. North of Nyasvizh I cross the M1 and continue to the village of Mir with its sixteenth century Gothic Mirski Castle which later also came under the ownership of the Radziwiłłs, who added a stately home. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the castle in Nyasvizh) and one of very few historical buildings still standing in Belarus. West from Mir, I drive on good roads through quaint villages and small towns, stopping again in the town of Navahrudak which is located around a small hill. Atop the hill are the desolate ruins of what was once one of the key strongholds of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a fourteenth century which was attacked by the Teutonic Knights, Crimean Tatars and finally the Swedes during the Great Northern War in 1706, leaving the castle in ruins. Today just a few walls and stumps of the towers remain but the views over the snow-covered Belarussian countryside are beautiful, with the colourful wooden village houses of the town receding to snow-covered fields and then thick forest. In the town of Lida, which has another heavily restored castle, I join the highway west to Hrodna, reaching the city after dark.
Hrodna lies in the far western corner of modern-day Belarus and through its long history has been part of Black Rus’, Lithuania, Russia and like much of western Belarus was part of Poland between the two World Wars. The city is attractively set high on the banks of the Neman River, and is noticeably less Russified than eastern Belarus with a strong Catholic influence visible in a number of beautiful Baroque churches and monasteries. The old city and central square have a number of restored and beautiful historical buildings, though together they fall slightly short of creating a genuinely historic atmosphere; the effect of twentieth century destruction and insensitive Soviet urban planning are all too visible.
One most noteworthy building however is the small twelfth century Kalozha Church dedicated to Saints Boris and Hlib, the first saints to be canonised in Kievan Rus’, early in the eleventh century. The church, which is the oldest in Hrodna, stands near the old castle on the edge of a high and steep bank of the Neman, into which its southern wall collapsed in the nineteenth century. Bearing the Byzantine cross-form of early Eastern Orthodox churches, its remaining red-brick walls are uniquely decorated with faceted slabs of blue, red and green stones, sometimes arranged into crosses and it is indeed the only extant piece of Black Ruthenian architecture.
The more modern parts of Hrodna are not the kind of showcase of Soviet architecture that Minsk is, but I do find myself having a quintessentially Soviet experience when eating in a stolovaya (canteen) located on the ground-floor of an office block in the north of the city. The establishment is named simply ‘canteen’, and has a utilitarian decor with touches of 1980s kitsch. Beer is served, but no hard alcohol so as to keep out the sallow alcoholics or men in wellingtons who march into cafes and wordlessly down a hundred grams of vodka before marching back out. There is no menu until one reaches the front of the queue, for this is not a bourgeois restaurant and dishes are typical Soviet staples with a running theme of mushiness; kotlet (rissole), grechka (buckwheat), kartofelnoye pyure (mashed potato) and a thick soup; nothing for which a knife is required, and indeed there are no knives available. Portions are modest and not quite hot, encouraging patrons to eat quickly and return to their work, but the food is fresh, wholesome and tasty. Such institutions are rapidly disappearing across the Former USSR, even becoming novelty restaurants in Russia, but here in Belarus this is another Soviet institution which is still going strong.
Through my host Ivan I am introduced to a number of the city’s residents; young, well educated and intelligent Belarussians and even a British artist who has taken up temporary residence here in this oddly endearing city. One of Ivan’s friends mentions that he is Jewish, which leads me to scratch a little into the city’s history. Jews are thought to have lived in this part of Europe since the eighth century and after the Russian annexation of the late eighteenth century, the area became part of the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire in which Jews were legally allowed to reside (in cities). At the turn of the twentieth century many cities in what is now Belarus had majority Jewish populations and Hrodna, which was economically dominated by Jews, was considered one of the Jewish intellectual capitals of Europe.
During the Second World War an estimated 90% of Belarussian Jews, some 800,000 individuals, were exterminated by the Nazis. Most remaining Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union after the 1970s and today Jews make up perhaps 0.1% of Belarus’ population. Hardly any monuments stand to this incredible demographic, economic and cultural loss; even Minsk’s Holocaust memorial is tiny and located out of the city centre. Hrodna’s imposing Baroque Great Synagogue, which was looted by the Nazis in 1941, today sits forlornly overlooking a bend in the Neman River among general dereliction and graffitied walls of other abandoned buildings. Its rendering and plaster are slowly peeling off, windows are barred or boarded-up and one of the six-pointed stars from the rooftop has slumped into the guttering; a somnolent monument to one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century. The cities may have been rebuilt, the rubble cleared, the landscape healed, the protagonists have died off and the children have forgotten, but this part of Europe will remain forever changed.
I drive south from Hrodna, roughly tracking the Polish border past sovkhozy (state-owned farms) still marked by red stars and hammer-and-sickle signs, then turn onto small roads through beautiful, primeval European forest. Near the village of Novy Dvor I see a herd of what look like cattle in an empty field to my left. Closer inspection however reveals that these are indeed a herd of about thirty wisent, or European bison, the largest wild mammals in Europe, which are slightly taller, though less hairy than their more famous American relatives. Wisent were actually hunted to extinction in the wild with the last populations surviving in these forests until 1919, becoming totally extinct in the wild in 1927. However, as part of one of the oldest programmes of captive breeding from zoo stock, the wisent has since been successfully introduced into a number of countries in the region, with Belarus having perhaps a thousand individuals. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see these magnificent animals in a part of the world hardly famed for ‘big game’ sightings.
Brest is the most westerly city in Belarus, lying just east of the Bug River which forms the Polish border. Here one finds the Brest Hero Fortress Complex, which after Volgograd’s Mamayev Kurgan is surely the most important of the memorials to the Soviet fight against the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War, the celebration and remembrance of which became practically a state religion in the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Polish-Soviet War in 1921 Brest had been part of Poland, until being annexed by Germany, then soon handed over to the Soviet Union as part of the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In June 1941 the Nazis attacked Brest and its fortress in one of the first battles of Operation Barbarossa; the Fortress was held under siege for eight days, with the Red Army suffering terrible losses. For this the title ‘Hero Fortress’ was later conferred, as it was to the twelve ‘Hero Cities’ of the Soviet Union.
One enters the fortress through a stylised gate; a huge block of concrete with a star-shaped tunnel covering the walkway, through which one walks past murals and listens to a recording of the 1941 news broadcast announcing the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union. One then proceeds down a walkway, passing the monument ‘Thirst’ which depicts an injured Soviet soldier crawling towards the river for water. In the central complex of the shrine is the hundred metre high obelisk of the Bayonet Memorial and its centrepiece; a huge, 33.5 metre-high mountain of a concrete Red Army soldier painted grey, sternly bearing down upon visitors. All around are mostly unrestored remains of the red-brick nineteenth century fortress, still pock-marked from the battle and partially derelict. The memorial has the classic Soviet monumentalist pathos, though one cannot help but feel a slight sense of irony given that many of the native population of this region which the Soviet Union only officially reacquired in 1945 would have been shipped into the Gulag system as Stalin’s monstrous paranoia worsened in his later years, seeing anyone who had previously lived under foreign rule as a threat and sending them off to a life of hard labour or premature death far from their homeland.
I find the modern city of Brest rather bland and uninteresting, perhaps a touch infected with consumerism from the West and so begin my journey east towards Russia. Not far from Brest I stop in the tranquil town of Kamyanyets with its famous thirteenth century red-brick tower, the only remaining frontier stronghold of the medieval Principality of Volhynia which is now mostly within the borders of modern Ukraine. It’s a pleasure to drive east on good roads, through a landscape completely devoid of snow; despite the grass being a dull and tired-looking yellow-brown, it’s a great pleasure to see the world without the blanket of snow which has covered it for the past four months.
In the afternoon I arrive in the small city of Pinsk, located where the Pina River meets the Pripyat, both tributaries of the Dnieper. Pinsk is delightfully provincial, a touch faded and rather trapped in time. Soviet mosaics can be found on many of the apartment buildings, and many of the shops still have colourful 1980s window livery and potted plants favoured in the late Soviet period. My host Andrei is a student of German and is extremely keen to show me his home city and introduce me to his friends and classmates. If Belarus has a tourist circuit, then Pinsk is definitely not on it, and I have the feeling of being a rare foreigner visitor, despite being in a city less than two hundred kilometres from the EU.
Pinsk however is an ancient city and its old centre is dominated by restored buildings, most strikingly the large, Baroque Jesuit Collegium and nearby Franciscan church and bell tower set overlooking the Pina. The ice on the Pina has recently thawed and the bare poplars on the far bank whose branches are speckled with green bunches of mistletoe, are reflected in the dark flowing water of the river which runs past the southern edge of town. Among the shop fronts in the streets of the centre are patches of unrestored whitewashed masonry still bearing old Latin-script names of Jewish and Polish businesses, survivors of the war and reminders of the combined efforts of the Nazis and Stalin in ethnically cleansing the region.
As much as I enjoy Pinsk and the genuine friendship I make with Andrei, I must continue my journey east towards the Russian border. Heading south from Pinsk I am immediately in the wild Pripyat Marshes, which lie around the Pripyat River as it flows east through Polesia in endless meanders. The marshes are one of the largest wetland areas of Europe and are conjectured to be the place from where the Slavs originate, as a tribe of shifting cultivators in the fifth century. The road east is a beautiful succession of thick, primeval woodland, mires and open marshland which has been drained in places for agriculture. I watch a couple on a horse cart taking a path parallel to the road and come across small, isolated villages in woodland clearings, places untouched by time which are easy to imagine as a Slavic homeland.
I stop in the small, sleepy town of Turau, seat of the medieval Principality of Turau (which once included Pinsk) and famous for its mythical stone crosses, one of which I find in a local graveyard, and another in a small church. The crosses, which look rather pagan in form, apparently floated upright up the Dnieper and then Pripyat Rivers from Kyiv following the forced baptism of the populace of Kievan Rus’ in the late tenth century. The crosses were allegedly thrown into the river in the 1930s to save them from destruction by the Soviet authorities, only to float to the surface some years later. Two were stored in the local church, while another, which was buried in a local cemetery has since allegedly emerged from the ground of its own accord, and is said to be continually growing in size.
I stop for a night in the city of Mazyr, attractively located on a hill overlooking the Pripyat River which is in flood, flowing through a beautiful landscape of birch and pine forest. Like Pinsk, Mazyr is something of a provincial backwater, but a very likeable city focussed on the Pripyat River where there is a wonderfully kitsch Soviet port building. In the city’s central square is a monument consisting of a single block of polished black granite carved into the number ‘1986’ in memory of the Chernobyl Disaster, when on the 26th April 1986 a fire and explosion at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now Ukraine caused a reactor meltdown and the release of large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. With the radioactive dust heading initially north, Mazyr was one of the first cities which the radiation reached.
East of Mazyr I leave the Pripyat River, which turns south towards Kyiv and drive to the edge of the Polesia State Radiation and Ecological Reserve, the Belarussian extension of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. With the dust cloud moving north, the Soviet Airforce was deployed to seed clouds and rain out radioactive particles over this sparsely populated area, resulting in the modern state of Belarus having received far more of the radioactive fallout than either Ukraine or Russia, with two highly radioactive hotspots in the country’s south east. Entry to the reserve, which seals off one of these hotspots is of course restricted, but I do wander into the village of Brahin on the reserve’s edge, where most houses are abandoned. There’s nothing to see of course; if anything the unmolested nature is more vital than elsewhere with an abundance of storks nests on top of the telegraph poles and the locals who I meet are warm and friendly souls.
In the evening I reach Homyel’, the second city of Belarus, which is located on the Sozh River, another tributary of the Dnieper. Homyel’ is architecturally elegant in places, with the striking Neoclassical Homyel’ Palace complex on the riverside and some nice pieces of Soviet architecture, but the city feels much like a provincial Russian city, and lacks the charm of, for instance, Hrodna or Pinsk. Altogether more charming is my Belarussian host Masha, born in 1986 shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster, whose mother works in the local nuclear institute.
On my second day in Homyel’ Masha and I, armed with a dose-meter borrowed from her mother, drive together north-east out of Homyel’, through Vetka to the centre of the second radiation hotspot in the country. Instead of a total exclusion zone, here the main road remains open, but the villages lining it have been evacuated, and in most cases destroyed to prevent anyone from returning, leaving just a few foundations, or a poignantly overgrown graveyard. In a few of the villages, such as Bartalameyowka which is identifiable only by its bus-stop on the main road, buildings still stand: crumbling concrete shells of apartments, clinics or administrative buildings where we defy the ban on entry and furtively park the truck to explore. Many of these villages were not evacuated until years after the accident and it is interesting to see just how localised the radiation is; in some areas levels are almost at natural background, while a few metres away doses may be several microsieverts per hour; less than having an X-ray and not a short-term exposure risk, but unsafe for continued inhabitation. Very little remains of the homes and lives which were once here. The devastation of the Chernobyl Disaster is one legacy of the Soviet Union which Belarus has no option but to preserve.
I’m deeply grateful to Masha for indulging my curiosity, especially given that she is a so-called ‘Child of Chernobyl’ and has lived with the effects of the disaster throughout her life. After a morning looking around Homyel’ alone, I drive north through beautiful dark, wintry pine forest to the city of Mahilyow. Here I’m hosted by Alex, who shares some photos and experiences of summer trips driving around Belarus in his Soviet Ural side-car. Mahilyow however has little of the charm of western Belarussian cities and feels heavily Russified, not surprising given how close it is to the border. In the morning I drive due north to the town of Orsha where I rejoin the M1 Highway and drive straight into Russia.
I’ve fallen in love somewhat with Belarus; perhaps for its engaging and worldly people, or for being so quaintly clean and orderly, perhaps for its well preserved Soviet architecture, or for the gently beautiful rolling landscape of forest, fields, rivers and marshes. Or perhaps it is just the sheer surprise at finding somewhere unexpectedly different, right against the borders of the EU.