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.
Ordinarily, the frontier with the European Union marks the western boundary of my area of interest as a traveller. While the countries west of this line are generally more prosperous and stable than those to the east, their dull, over-regulated order, numerous tourists and high prices make them far from inspiring travel destinations to me. However, compelled by their former incorporation into the USSR, I decided to briefly pass through the three independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on my way to the rather intriguing Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. In the context of the Soviet Union these three countries seem insignificantly small, yet they were instrumental in its collapse, with all three regaining independence before the union was formally dissolved. Having been incorporated into the USSR only in 1940 as part of the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, Soviet occupation here was brief (and never formally recognised by most Western governments) but has left the region with simmering demographic problems. Personally, while I would not find anything as compelling as the rugged wildness of Russia, the Baltic states made a pleasant break from the rigours of winter driving as I waited out the worst of the weather, waiting to head east once more through Belarus, the Urals and into Central Asia for the summer.
It’s the 28th December 2010 and I have just crossed the Russia – Estonia border and am in the city of Narva. Throughout history, Narva has been a trade and border post between various states and empires; Danish, Swedish, Russian and Estonian, and today remains one of the principal border crossings between the EU and Russia. The two empires even face off architecturally across the Narva River, with the originally Danish, thirteenth century Hermann Castle looking across to the somewhat larger Ivangorod Fortress in Russia, built by Tsar Ivan III in the fifteenth century.
I am unable to buy car insurance at the Estonian border, and here my problems begin. Being in the EU with an EU-registered vehicle, I may only purchase a policy issued in the country in which the vehicle is registered (i.e. the UK). However, in order to purchase a valid insurance policy for the truck, it must be in the UK at the time at which the policy is taken out. By exercising my right of freedom of movement, one of the founding principals of the EU, and the right which I most cherish as an individual, I am stuck in a dead-end; my circumstances do not fit in any of the pre-described tick-boxes or spreadsheets by which Western life must be organised, the computers cannot process me and I am in fact, by driving at all in Estonia, breaking the law. Fuck the EU.
I drive cautiously for a kilometre or so to the home of my host Alexander, an ethnic Russian whose parents moved to Estonia during the time that it was part of the USSR, and now finds himself in a country where he does not speak the local language, and has little wish to integrate into Estonian society. For Alexander, his EU passport allows him far greater travel opportunities than most Russians but nevertheless his cultural homeland is undoubtedly east of the Narva River. Alexander is quite typical of the generation of Russians who now live in the independent Baltic states, a demographic anomaly which raises politically sensitive questions of citizenship and equal rights.
On New Year’s Eve I take a bus to the capital, Tallinn, located on the Baltic coast just across from Helsinki in Finland, a country with whose population ethnic Estonians have both cultural and linguistic ties. I spend the evening in the company of my Estonian host Barbara and a number of other people from across Central Europe. It’s a very enjoyable New Year’s Eve, watching fireworks in the central square, then joining a house-party thrown by a member of the US Embassy in Tallinn, back in Western culture for the first time in more then three and a half years, but it simultaneously feels very odd indeed; I feel I have very little in common with people around me and my mind seems still to be somewhere in the wilderness of inner Asia.
Tallinn is a strikingly attractive city. Whilst Narva still has strong echoes of the USSR, feeling like a cleaner, more tranquil and less policed version of Russia, Tallinn is absolutely European and the attractive, tall and narrow buildings of the city with their steeply pitched roofs are beautiful pieces of Hanseatic architecture, quite reminiscent of northern Germany. Long known as Reval, Tallinn came under the influence of the Teutonic Knights during their Northern Crusades of the thirteenth century, and became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League in 1285. Coming under (albeit rather loose) Russian influence early in the eighteenth century, Reval eventually became Tallinn in 1920 when Estonia was formally recognised as an independent country, something which would last just twenty years. It was in the Baltic capitals such as Tallinn that some of the most vehement protests emerged in the 1980s USSR, calling for the legalisation of national flags, recognition of national languages, non-communist leadership and ultimately full independence from Moscow. There are virtually no signs of the Soviet Period visible in central Tallinn and with its crowds of tourists and souvenir shops, it feels rather tame. After a couple of days of exploration, I’m ready to leave.
I take a bus south across the centre of the country to Viljandi, a neat and charming small town of multicoloured wooden houses on narrow streets filled with around a metre of snow. The elegant, cream-coloured Lutheran St. John’s Church, whose crisp and simple lines contrast with the extravagance of many of the Russian Orthodox Churches I have seen over the last few weeks, serves as another reminder of just how culturally different Estonia is from Russia, for here I am already in a traditionally Protestant area. Estonians are clearly not like many of the other non-Russian minorities of the USSR who have been assimilated to various degrees into the modern Russian State; this is a vibrant and clearly wholly independent nation both in culture and in language.
I’m hosted here by Silja, who works at the Viljandi Culture Academy which revives traditional Estonian music and theatre, earning Viljandi its reputation as the country’s cultural capital. It is with her brother however that I indulge in a more universally Nordic tradition; having a long session in their integrated bathroom-come-sauna, eventually getting very drunk and rolling around naked on the snow-filled balcony. Altogether this makes Viljandi a very pleasant and relaxing stop.
I take another bus, south again to the cross-border town of Valga, whose Latvian half is known as Valka. Here I board a train and slip into northern Latvia without anything more than a sign; I am back in the Schengen Zone whose borders have been dismantled; a great pleasure for someone who regularly spends hours crossing borders. Immediately I hear a difference in the language, with the distinctively long vowels of Latvian coming over the train’s announcement system. Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving members of the Baltic languages, only very distantly related to Slavic languages and seemingly retaining elements of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language, though their precise evolution is unclear.
I get off the train in the town of Cēsis, described as ‘Latvia’s most Latvian Town’, which I have chosen over Riga as my one stop in the country. As I step out of the station building, I notice for the first time in roughly two months that outdoor temperatures are above zero, though the prospect of spring is still depressingly far off. Cēsis is an immediately likeable place however, located in the hilly Vidzeme Upland and noticeably less manicured than Viljandi, with a centre full of colourful, pleasingly faded (or decrepit) pre-Soviet buildings, and in fact the town bears no architectural trace of the hated occupation whatsoever.
While Tallinn seemed strongly Germanic, Cēsis has a more medieval Central European charm; a damp, brooding town of cats flitting into doorways and shabby courtyards glimpsed through street entrances. This atmosphere is enhanced by the Lutheran St. John the Baptist Church, a towering, buttressed thirteenth century basilica with a Gothic bell tower and spire which pierces the damp, grey clouds which hang over the town. Cēsis also has one of the Baltic region’s most impressive castles, dating back to the early thirteenth century and constructed by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, German warrior-monks who would eventually merge with the Teutonic Order and become the semi-autonomous Livonian Order, ruling what is now Latvia until the Polish-Lithuanian takeover in the sixteenth century.
I find Cēsis an atmospheric and charming place to visit, and it also feels very slightly more Slavic-influenced than Estonia, more Polish than Finnish. But I also find that people are a little cooler here than in Estonia, and far more so than in Russia; people seem to prefer to stay out of each others’ business, often looking away if one catches their gaze.
On my way south to Lithuania I need to spend a few hours waiting for a connection in Riga, which gives me ample time to reflect on the misery of using public transport. Riga’s bus station is as foul a place as I have found myself in for quite some time. It has the air of villany and seediness that such places have in Russia, though partly disguised with an (admirably) efficient cover which would be utterly out-of-place in Russia; clear information, internet access, no queues, helpful service, and no police. Still, this façade of decency somehow makes it all the more repellent. It’s full of pigeons, flapping up to ledges under the roof, males chasing females, presenting the ever-tantalising prospect of having one defacate on my head. Each dustbin has a sullen, puffy-faced tramp rifling through its contents which I can only imagine are far too meagre to support much of a drinking habit. Inside is the gentle smell of the unwashed; gaunt heroin-addicts patrol around looking for unattended bags; most of the non-vagrant / addict patrons of the waiting room (including myself) appear to be dressed from charity shops, and a good number have the pasty grey-yellow appearance of career alcoholics. Very few people here look like particularly decent individuals.
Perhaps this is normal for bus stations and not a reflection on Riga in particular, but it further embitters me towards the EU and the bureaucratic black-hole it has put me in. I take my scruffy self and my woven nylon bag (which I had to purchase in Narva to carry my belongings) into a shop and purchase a can of larger to further camouflage myself into the human environment.
It’s cold and damp when I arrive in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. In contrast to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has a long history as a major regional power (largely in union with Poland), and to an even greater extent than modern Poland, is today only a small scrap of its former self. In the thirteenth century, enduring raids and Christianisation by the Teutonic Knights and Livonian Order, the Grandy Duchy of Lithuania emerged in this region of the Baltic coast, spreading southwards into the eastern lands of the early Eastern Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ as it was fragmented by Monogl and Tatar attacks. Later, the Grand Duchy declared a union with the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, creating in the fifteenth century the largest state in Europe, covering modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and parts of Estonia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Moldova. This union persisted as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the very end of he eighteenth century, when it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Since this time, the history of Lithuania has very closesly followed that of the other two Baltic states.
Vilnius is a fairly attractive city, though it seems rather depressing; a city where nobody appears to smile, an aspect hardly improved by the grey weather which hangs endlessly above the entire region. It’s a grim fact that Lithuania has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, though social and economic problems are usually cited as the cause. As capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for more than 450 years, Vilnius has a centre whose scale and grandeur are slightly striking in a city with a population of little more than half a million. From the remains of the ancient castle complex which occupies a hill on the banks of the Neris River, one has a most impressive view of a sea of terracotta-tiled town buildings around Vilnius University, tree-lined avenues and grand plazas such as that in front of the Neoclassical Presidential Palace and Cathedral. What is also evident is the influence of Catholicism here, with the gaudy, candy-coloured Baroque façades of basilicas such as the Church of St. Catherine giving the city a splash of colour.
After Vilnius I spend a few weeks in Poland, firstly with Karolina (whom I had last seen in Kazakhstan in July) in Warsaw and then with Maciej (whom I had last seen in Mongolia in November) in Gdańsk. It is from Gdańsk on the 14th February that I take a bus east, crossing into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad which makes up something of a fourth Baltic ‘state’, and a very intriguing little region of Russia.
Kaliningrad was long known by its German name of Königsberg and was founded in the thirteenth century by the Teutonic Order, becoming capital of its Lutheran successor state, the Grand Duchy of Prussia following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Königsberg became a thriving, multi-ethnic port city and cultural hub, passing into the German Kingdom of Prussia, then the German Empire and into modern Germany. By the outbreak of World War II, save for a five-year occupation in the mid eighteenth century, Königsberg had no historic connection to Russia whatsoever. However, the city was something of a spoil of war granted to the Soviets at the Potsdam Conference, and was renamed in 1946 to Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the most senior of the Bolshevik cadres who also had no connection to Königsberg. Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the small region of Kaliningrad has found itself a tiny exclave of Russia, wedged inside the EU between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.
My first impression of Kaliningrad is of a standard Russian city with a few more European touches; there are fewer Soviet cars on the streets, for example and a better range of goods available in the supermarkets. Very soon however, I realise that Kaliningrad is actually a very unusual place indeed. The upheavals of the twentieth century are all too evident in modern Kaliningrad; visibly there is virtually nothing physically remaining of Königsberg, which was very comprehensively bombed by the British, during the Second World War. Even for a fan of Soviet Architecture, the modern cityscape of Kaliningrad is not easy on the eye; rows of peeling, pale-grey apartment buildings, broken pavements and the all too visible ‘House of Soviets’ an ugly pile of an unfinished administrative building which was recently painted ahead of a presidential visit. Some of Königsberg’s old gates have been rather carelessly restored, but there are only faint vestiges, in the occasional old apartment building or factory walls, of the old red-brick cityscape.
Certainly the most impressive building in the city is the very well restored Königsberg Cathedral, located on a lovely, tranquil island (formerly known as Kneiphof) in the Pregolya River. Kneiphof was once a central district of Königsberg, containing amongst its narrow streets the University of Königsberg where Immanuel Kant, one of the key figures of Western Philosophy and a native of the city, both studied and taught as a professor. Today only the red-brick Gothic cathedral remains, originating in the fourteenth century, left a bombed-out shell in 1945, only to be restored in the 1990s following Kaliningrad’s declassification as a closed city. Kant’s grave and mausoleum still remain, adjoining the cathedral.
Equally as striking as the physical aspect of the city are its demographics; any and all Germans unlucky enough to find themselves in the region at the end of the war were soon expelled from Soviet territory, and Kaliningrad repopulated with Soviet citizens. Since the fall of the USSR, Kaliningrad has been designated a Special Economic Zone and has become something of a manufacturing hub, encouraging further inward migration of Russians from further east. With its tragic history, fall from grace, devastated cityscape and glaring and absolute demographic change, Kaliningrad has a very deeply melancholic air.
I make a short trip west to the Baltic coast, to what was the westernmost settlement of the USSR, the port of Baltiysk, main base of the Russia Baltic Fleet. It’s a cold but sunny day and I enjoy a short walk along the coast which is covered thickly by large concrete tank traps, themselves partly coated in ice from sea-spray. Like many previously heavily militarised areas of the USSR, Baltiysk has clearly experienced a period of decline; rotting old watchtowers and rusting barbed wire attesting to the financial cutbacks in the Russian armed forces. Nevertheless, as Russia’s only true ice-free port on the Baltic, Baltiysk remains a vital strategic asset and the Baltic Fleet continue to occupy part of the town, including the crumbling, star-shaped seventeenth century Prussian Pillau Fortress which Napoleon stormed in 1807. Elsewhere in town I see old German houses, now owned and lived-in by Russians, giving Baltiysk the same odd, melancholic air as Kaliningrad. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been which has witnessed such a sharp demographic change.
I take a night bus out of Kaliningrad to Kaunas in Lithuania, then north to Tallinn and east to Narva where the truck has been parked. My plan to wait out the worst of the winter cold has backfired however and I catch a cold-snap in Narva, with temperatures dropping as low as -33ºC at night. Clear, sunny days of around -20ºC are not unpleasant, but are far from ideal for the car maintenance I need to carry out. The truck has been sitting outside for over seven weeks and is just a large pile of snow when I return and it takes a couple of hours of digging to clear the area around it. I then need to purchase a blow-torch from a hardware shop in order to melt the thick crust of ice and open the rear tailgate and load covers in order to extract my tools. I’m waiting for a shipment from the UK, which will contain a new radiator and new front springs, things which broke beyond repair during the months of rough driving in Mongolia last year, but this involves quite a few days of waiting.
During my days in Narva I come to rather like the place, which seems much like Russia but with a few civic improvements. I’m graciously hosted by Sergei, an ethnic Russian and I spend several days with him smoking and drinking great Estonian beer. On one very mellow afternoon we drive out with a friend of his to the nearby seaside town of Narva-Jõesuu. It’s a perfectly clear, bitingly cold day and the colours of the fresh sea ice and low, reddish sunlight, the crisp fresh air and the light crunching of my footsteps on the ice are especially vivid and memorable impressions.
I meet a number of Sergei’s friends in Narva, all Russian but in different social circumstances. Some, like Sergei hold Estonian passports and are happy integrate into the culture, speak the language and generally seem to be prosperous and worldly. There are also those who choose to take a Russian passport, speak only Russian and are far more like the Russians I know in Russia. There are also members of a third group who I meet; those with neither nationality, but with grey ‘Alien’s Passports’ of a stateless citizen. These are invariably ethnic Russians who do not qualify for naturalisation in Estonia (often due to a lack of language competency) and make up a little publicised human-rights issue in the EU (the situation is actually worse in Latvia which has a larger Russian minority), another demonstration of the demographic problems which the Baltic region has been left with.
Eventually the terrible cold relents somewhat, my parts arrive and I fit the radiator despite the still freezing conditions. I charge the truck’s two totally flat batteries and then fire it up after eight weeks of being in the freezer of winter Estonia. It catches first on two, three and then four cylinders, shooting out clouds of unburned diesel until the engine smoothens out. I say my farewells to the numerous people who have hosted and helped me in Narva and head back to the Russian border, relishing my exit from the EU and the end of my stint using public transport. There is a queue system in operation at the border and a toll for entering (the first on my trip) and after waiting my turn I proceed to the border compound. My passport is very carefully inspected for twenty minutes before I am allowed to proceed back into beloved Russia.
I clear Russian customs at around 02:30 and drive south through the night roughly parallel to the Estonian border, reaching the attractive city of Pskov early in the morning. The snow here is thinner than in Estonia and I have a (quite false) glimmer of hope that spring might be on its way. Beyond the city I join the only toll road I have ever encountered in Russia, which is icy, extremely rough in places and outrageously expensive, an unpleasant re-acquaintance with the traditional Russian fact that the legalised mafia which runs so many private industries have almost limitless potential to screw the common man. There are no immigration procedures at the Russia – Belarus border just beyond the village of Dolostsy and after a brief look inside the truck by a customs officer, I am waved through into Belarus.
On this six thousand kilometre journey from the rugged mountains of western Mongolia to the Baltic Sea, I would pass straight through the very heart of Russia: into the centre of southern Siberia, over the Ural Mountains, along the Volga and through the most ancient heartland of the country to cities dating from a time when Russia was a far, far smaller entity. The trip would consist of a harsh and at times terrifying drive over several weeks through the onset of the infamous Russian winter, interspersed with the warmth and good company of the Russian people whom I would meet and stay with. As I slowly made my way ever westward, I would at once be effectively travelling backwards in time through Russian history, but at the same time would begin to see something less welcome come across the country; namely the increasing influence of more western values of commerce and consumerism replacing the wildness and rugged beauty of the east. Nevertheless, this winter crossing of a considerable slice of Russia would provide me with a greater understanding of the country’s historical and cultural roots than perhaps any other.
It’s the 23rd November 2010 and late in the day on by the time I clear the Russian border post at Tashanta and make my way to the district capital of Kosh Agach. The temperature is around -20ºC and falling, and after having dinner and filling the truck up with fuel I decide to continue driving, descending the glorious, winding Chuya Highway. Despite icy conditions and darkness and in full knowledge of the stunning mountain scenery which lurks in the dark, I continue driving cautiously through the night without stopping and by dawn I am in the snow-covered but comparatively warm lowlands of Siberia, reaching the small city of Biysk by mid-morning. After weeks of travel in Mongolia, my sudden arrival into the familiarity of urban Russia is something of a culture-shock, though a positive one, for it marks an end to the fear of becoming stranded in the trackless, snow-covered wilderness of Mongolia.
Biysk is a pleasant backwater, an eighteenth century trading post typical of the small Siberian cities which found themselves off the Trans-Siberian mainline when it was completed at the turn of the twentieth century. Time here appears to have moved more slowly than in the dynamic cities on the rail and road-conduits to the north, and there are plenty of examples of Tsarist-era buildings; timeworn structures of decorative whitewashed brickwork or of pastel coloured wooden panelling. Some, such as the City Library appear to be on the verge of collapse, but the city manages to retain a fairly dignified air nevertheless.
After two nights in Biysk I move north towards Novosibirsk, en route encountering the dangerous driving conditions which would underscore my journey all the way to the Baltic. It is in this early winter season that Siberian weather may be particularly unstable as weather systems clash from both north and south, bringing wild swings in temperature. I briefly encounter a phenomenon known as freezing rain: supercooled droplets of liquid water which freeze immediately upon impacting a surface; within minutes my windscreen becomes a sheet of solid ice.
I stop in the city of Akademgorodok, a suburb of Novosibirsk, location of Novosibirsk State University and the educational and scientific capital of Siberia. Rather than being an intriguing, previously classified Soviet research centre as I had perhaps imagined, Akademgorodok is little more than a large university campus, but my hosts would make my stay extremely memorable. They are Ilyas, a Kazakh from Almaty; Ivan, a local of Novosibirsk and his girlfriend Sasha who comes from the Commander Islands, the last of the Aleutians and surely one of the most remote places in all of Russia, lying well off the eastern coast of Kamchatka.
I am invited into the spacious apartment of my three student hosts and am immediately treated to a tea ceremony by Ilyas. Taking its roots in the Taoist-influenced cultures of China and east-Asia, the tea ceremony is a ritualised preparation and presentation of tea designed to bring out the best flavour of green tea and although certainly not native to Russia or Siberia, there are undertones of the New Age spiritualism which has a nascent following in the post-Soviet world. My three hosts are in fact members of the Tea Club, a social club based somewhat around tea ceremonies, and I am very glad to be invited to one of their meetings in central Novosibirsk one evening. This takes place in a dedicated cultural venue, where I form one of my fondest memories of Russia and Russian people. A small circle of friends gather, mostly academics and artists, bringing musical instruments and relaxing on cushions in a large open room. Tea is made ceremoniously and music played; the atmosphere is totally unpretentious, welcoming and relaxed, and I am infused with a very natural feeling of heightened awareness, something I have hardly felt before. It’s more refined and wholesome than typical western social activities which almost always revolve around drinking alcohol, and a perfect antidote to the stereotypical views of Russians being invariably heavy drinkers. I imagine that most people in the room refrain from drinking alcohol altogether. The music is earthy, imperfect and soulful, played at a volume which does not stifle conversation, and occasional mistakes are laughed off or ignored. Performers are not trying to prove themselves or fit into any pre-described social movement; it is simple, joyful socialisation of a kind which I have only ever experienced in Russia.
I’m sad to have to leave my hosts in Akademgorodok, but I am constantly hurried by the impending depths of winter which could leave me stranded (due to diesel fuel waxing, leaving the truck unusable). I drive west through the night on the M51, the western part of the Trans-Siberian Highway which crosses the snow-covered clearings and patches of now bare birch forest of southern Siberia, to the city of Omsk. Omsk lies on the Irtysh River which here is almost frozen solid and is Siberia’s second city, once briefly acting as the capital of the Provisional All-Russian Government, a final attempt to counter Bolshevism in the chaos of the Russian Civil War. During the Second World War, Omsk (after Samara) was prepared to become the Russian capital in the event of a German occupation of Moscow. Despite these brushes with greatness, Omsk has long-lived in the shadow of Novosibirsk and remains a city of very modest attractions. Temperatures of -25ºC don’t deter some of the locals from drinking vodka at tables outside the market, but I prefer to wait for warmer temperatures, and foolishly set off at midnight, westwards towards Chelyabinsk.
A couple of hours into the journey, out in the endless Siberian plains as I am driving along a nearly empty road at perhaps sixty kilometres per hour, the rear of the truck suddenly slides gently to one side, then immediately pirouettes 180º. In the moments that I am travelling backwards I anticipate disaster, but I merely leave the road and sink with a gentle impact into a snow-drift a few metres below the elevated road surface, without any damage at all. Every car which subsequently passes offers assistance, another admirable trait of Russian people, and after little more than an hour a large truck finally arrives which has the power to pull me back up onto the road. No money is asked for; I am merely wished luck in my onward journey. At this point I realise that the sudden increase in temperature to just above freezing has made the road surface a polished ice-rink on which I can barely even stand still without sliding. My summer-rated tyres have almost no grip whatsoever on such a surface.
With great caution and the truck now engaged in four-wheel drive, I resume my journey. The road is rough in places, coated in ice pounded into washboard-like ruts by heavy trucks. Through the day the temperature drops which has the advantage of reducing the amount of dirty brown slush being thrown out by vehicles. I detour via Tyumen through beautiful pine forests, avoiding a section of the M51 which crosses what is now the northern tip of Kazakhstan, rejoining it in Kurgan after dark where I encounter and the very first ripples of the Urals and yet more treacherous driving conditions; the roads are regularly lined by wrecked lorries which have spun off into the thick Siberian snow. At around 01:00 I finally reach Chelyabinsk, at -26ºC. In my state of hyper-awareness following spinning-off the road, I have driven twenty hours non-stop, my personal endurance record.
I’m hosted in Chelyabinsk by the Mayarov Family in their large lakeside house. The Mayarov’s are a good example of ‘Old Money’ in modern Russia, living in a self-built house with a front door like a bank vault and a heated underground garage. The welcome is typically Russian however, with long meals in the family kitchen, great home cooked food and only a little vodka. Chelyabinsk is a large industrial city typical of the Ural region to which industry was evacuated and subsequently developed to counter the threat of a Nazi invasion of western Russia, and I spend five days in the city relaxing and making friends before continuing my journey west.
West of Chelyabinsk is the infamous M5 Highway which winds over the low ridges of the Urals into European Russia. The road is choked with lorry traffic and is a mess of brown salty snow and slush, creating endless visibility problems for me with my windscreen washer bottle having frozen solid weeks ago somewhere in Mongolia. The trip is however largely uneventful and I arrive without incident in Ufa, capital of the Bashkortostan Republic. I am hosted here by Alina and Milya, two beautiful, intelligent, English-speaking mixed Bashkir/Tatar sisters who live in the city with their mother. The Bashkirs and their neighbouring Tatars are the two dominant nations of a heterogeneous group of Kipchak nations, Turkic nomadic groups with both Caucasian and Mongoloid features who spread into the Ural and Volga regions in the 11th and 12th Centuries and subsequently became swept up in the Mongol and Turkic nations which made up the Golden Horde, led by Ögedei Khan, second son of Chnggis Khan, who invaded and conquered ancient Rus’ (the forebear of modern Russia) in 1237-40.
The Golden Horde subjugated Rus’ for almost 250 years, until a new generation of Russian tsars (ceasars) emerged following the breaking of the Tatar Yoke, with leaders such as Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) ruling over a new Russian Empire which began to reconquer lands inhabited by the various Kipchak groups. Despite merely extracting a tribute rather than being a fully occupying force, there was naturally a degree of inter-marriage between the occupiers and the natives of Rus’ and hence comes the expression ‘scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar’. Today the Tatars are, after Slavs, the largest ethnic group in Russia and are well-integrated into Russian society, as demonstrated by Ufa, the vibrant and dynamic capital of the Bashkirs. Here there is not the atmosphere of racial animosity one finds in parts of the Caucasus, instead there is a more genuine blending of Tatar and modern Russian identities. Such is the extent of assimilation however that, despite concessions to national identity such as the Lala Tulpan (flowering tulip) mosque, the third-largest in Russia, one wonders how long an independent Tatar identity will survive in the modern Russian state before facing total assimilation, perhaps the ultimate reversal of the haunting Tatar Yoke which remains, deeply, in the Russian people’s collective psyche.
From Ufa I drive south-west towards the Volga, to the city of Samara which sits on a long, looping bend of the river, on its left bank. In the late sixteenth century Samara was established as an eastern border post of the Russian Empire and in the Soviet period, renamed as Kuybyshev, became a major industrial centre for the manufacture of aircraft and firearms. Today, despite being the country’s sixth largest city, Samara retains a slightly faded charm and comes as a pleasing surprise in a country where many western cities have been architecturally marred by bland and inconsistent modern architecture. The old centre, which spreads down to the sandy beaches of the Volga has a slightly untouched feel with Tsarist-era wooden houses with elaborately carved window frames, often showing a distinct lean and once grand apartment buildings in pastel shades of yellow, pink and green, decorated with often crumbling stucco architraves and balconies. The streets are lumpy, with the asphalt pushing up between the tram lines, and there is a general air of classy neglect.
Samara’s riverside setting also lends it a slight air of port-city seediness, with a long embankment running above sandy beaches packed with sunbathers in summer, past occasional clumps of trees and a number of ferry terminals from where boats depart on pleasure cruises. Across the river are the low Zhiguli Mountains, occupying the inner radius of the Samara Bend, a large loop in the Volga once famous as the redoubt of pirates who would prey upon river traffic. These mountains give their name to the ubiquitous Zhiguli car made in nearby Tolyatti, as well as the Zhigulevskoye Beer which was universally famous in the USSR and was first made here by an Austrian in the red-brick riverside brewery, where locals queue to buy beer in large plastic bottles and can even take river cruises from a dedicated brewery-jetty. Now, in mid-December the river is still unfrozen but the beaches and ferry terminals are quiet and there is only a gorgeous, deep-red sunset behind the smokestacks of nearby Novokuybyshevsk to admire. Samara, lacking the flimsy ostentation of many of the country’s more westerly cities feels authentically Russian, an easy-going, unpolished worker’s city, and quite possibly my favourite in Russia.
After four days in Samara I continue west and then north one afternoon, cutting out a large dog-leg in the Volga and driving via Syzran, Saransk and Arzamas through the night to arrive in Russia’s fifth-largest city, Nizhny Novgorod, one morning. Lying at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhny (Lower) Novgorod was newly-founded at the time of the Mongol invasion, and like Moscow and Tver manage to avoid destruction on account of its insignificance. As the medieval state of Rus’ slowly detached itself from the economically draining Tatar Yoke throughout the fifteenth century, Nizhny Novgorod served as a bulwark in the Russian expansion into the Khanate of Kazan, one of the successor-states of the Golden Horde. Later, in the crisis and chaos which followed the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 with no real successor (he had murdered his only intellectually-able son in a fit of rage) known in Russia as the Time of Troubles, it was from Nizhny Novgorod that Minin and Pozharsky rode to remove the Polish from Moscow, restoring the dignity of the nation once again and ultimately establish the Romanov Dynasty, which lead Russia until the Bolshvik takeover in 1917.
At the centre of Nizhny Novgorod, as in many Russian cities, lies a kremlin (fortress), here one of the country’s oldest; a bulky, red-brick sixteenth century structure which seems to convey well the medieval power of the emerging state of Russia, and still houses the city administration. From the kremlin there are pleasant views over the Oka to the heavily industrialised right bank where during Soviet times, when the city was known as Gorky, the presence of military research and production facilities caused the city to be closed to outsiders. Outside the kremlin however, the city is thoroughly modernised and while by no means unpleasant, it lacks the antiquated charm of Samara.
It’s under 250 kilometres west from Nizhny Novgorod to the city of Vladimir, which marks my entry into the ancient heartland of medieval Russia, an area now known as the ‘Golden Ring’, and more traditionally as Zalesye (‘beyond the forest’) in Russian. Here lie the cities of the ancient principalities of Rus’, which defined the protoypal Russian state between the times of the earliest waves of Slavic migration from Kiev until the Mongol invasion. Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest cities and together with the nearby town of Suzdal made up the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, one of the successor states to Kievan Rus’ and the forerunner of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, from which the modern Russian state was born. Vladimir is an unusually beautiful city set on a number of hills, separated by bare deciduous forest now dusted with fresh snow.
From this white landscape rise the famous White Monuments of Vladimir; the spectacular Dormition Cathedral with its golden domes so typical of Russian Orthodox architecture and the nearby Cathedral of St Demetrius, both masterpieces of the twelfth century, carved in fine white stone. St Demetrius is particularly eye-catching; a restrained, single-domed cross-Church with the simple, neat proportions and hemispherical dome heavily borrowed from the Byzantine Church architecture which apparently so awed the first Slavic envoys to Constantinople in the ninth century. The walls of St Demetrius are covered in beautiful stone carvings of saints performing miracles and of mythical animals, whose survival through the Mongol invasion, subsequently tumultuous history of Imperial Russia, and often callous destruction of the Soviets is most surprising. The cathedral is almost certainly the most beautiful building I have seen in Russia and must rank with the finest masterpieces of Armenia as one of the world’s finest pieces of Christian architecture.
I make a day-trip from Vladimir to the small nearby town of Suzdal which was part of various principalities during the early stages of Russian history, eventually joining the Grand Duchy of Muscovy (like nearby Vladimir) in the fourteenth century. Suzdal subsequently became something of a religious centre and remains packed with churches, cathedrals and monasteries, mostly from the eighteenth century and notable more for their sheer number and diversity of form and styles than for the beauty of any particular example; certainly there is nothing to compare to the cathedrals of Vladimir. It’s also something a tourist trap, quite unusual in a country where domestic tourism is rather under-developed, and foreign tourism hardly encouraged. Nevertheless on a cold weekday the number of tourists is modest and it’s very enjoyable to walk through the surrounding countryside, taking in the myriad examples of Russian religious architecture.
From Vladimir I continue west until I just enter Moscow Region, stopping in the town of Sergiev Posad which lies just off the outermost of Moscow’s five concentric orbital roads. Sergiev Posad (posad referring to a usually fortified settlement attached to a kremlin or monastery) is famous for the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, today the most important Russian monastery and home of the Russian Orthodox Church. Built initially in the fourteenth century, then rebuilt during the fifteenth century following destruction in a Tatar raid, the lavra (a type of monastery complex) was patronised by Ivan the Terrible who heavily fortified it in the sixteenth century as part of the defences of Moscow. The grounds of the lavra throng with pilgrims and visitors who come to see the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the ancient painted icons and take away bottles of holy water. Architecturally it is an impressive fortified complex, marked by its soaring baroque bell-tower and the iconic blue onion domes, painted with golden stars, of the Assumption Cathedral. This gaudiness combined with the fervour of the pilgrims seems to have as much in common with the dazzling, colourful faïence and ritualistic shrine-worshipping of the Islamic cultures of the east, as it does with the grey and restrained Protestant rite of much of Western Europe. After years of Soviet repression, the Russian Orthodox Church has made a considerable comeback, with its higher members closely linked to the Russian government and priests all-too-often mimicking the new Russian business-class, conveying themselves in black SUVs with blacked-out windows.
Not wishing to get any closer to Moscow I make my way anti-clockwise around the city, through Dmitrov and Klin (where Tchaikovsky spent his final years) on terrible roads lined with spun-off vehicles, onto the M10 Highway which links Moscow to Saint Petersburg. I stop for the night in the city of Tver, another once powerful principality in Medieval Russia, only to be eclipsed in importance by Moscow like Nizhniy Novgorod or Vladimir. The Soviet period robbed Tver of the last of its remaining ancient monuments, though the distinctly faded travelling palace of Catherine the Great remains, harking back to a time in Imperial Russia when Tver was a rest-stop on the road between the two great cities. Tver is also the final city on my route which lies on the Volga, whose source is around 150 kilometres away to the west. Here the Volga, already almost two hundred metres across, has frozen solid, allowing me to walk across the surface of Europe’s largest river, just a week after leaving Samara where it was still completely open.
Beyond Tver I continue on the M10, covered in snow and packed with impatient lorries whose drivers take particular exception to my self-imposed speed limit of fifty kilometres per hour. One flings a plastic bottle at me as he passes, another sounds his horn angrily while overtaking, though I see him crashed head-first into the forest soon after. This endless carnage of twisted wreckage, the long hours of intense concentration and the constant proximity to disaster are starting to show on my nerves, and driving becomes rather wearisome. In one small town a policeman stops me and holds out his radar-gun, showing a reading of eighty-one kilometres per hour. My incredulous laughter seems to immediately dampen his hopes of a pay-off, and I continue my fifty kilometre per hour journey north.
My destination is the city of Veliky Novgorod, the most historic city in Russia proper. It was in this region that Russian civilisation began; where the earliest Eastern Slavic state emerged from an area populated by tribes of Slavic and Finnic / Uralic people. While the precise events of the Russian foundation myth are lost in semi-legendary and sometimes controversial histories, the balance of evidence suggests that a ruling class of Varangian (Viking) origin established the earliest settlements of Rus’, lead by a cheiftan known as Rurik who quickly assimilated the customs and language of the native Eastern Slavs, and whose successor Oleg of Novgorod went on to found Kievan Rus’, the cultural foundation-stone of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The original settlement in the region was known as Holmgard, which was superseded by nearby Novgorod, thus explaining why the name of Russia’s oldest city ironically means ‘New City’. In 1136, when Kievan Rus’ was in decline, the city-state known as the Novgorod Republic was established, stretching from modern-day Estonia to the Urals and constituting one of medieval Europe’s largest states. Novgorod also survived the Mongols, but would eventually lose its power when absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in 1478 by Ivan III, forever to live in Moscow’s shadow.
Novgorod is a beautiful city, in some ways one of the nicest in Russia, filled with ancient monuments to attest to its long history. Particularly striking is the central Kremlin dating from the late fifteenth century and very finely executed in red brick, my favourite kremlin in the country. Within the Kremlin is the Cathedral of St. Sophia, burial place of Yaroslav the Wise, a leader of the principalities of both Novgorod and Kievan Rus’ dating from the mid-eleventh century, making it the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in the country. Also within the kremlin are Russia’s oldest palace, bell-tower and clock tower, and a huge bronze sculpture dating from 1862 and known as the ‘Millenium of Russia’, which glorifies a thousand years of Russian history. Opposite the kremlin, beyond its moat and a small forested park is the city’s modern central square and a huge, imposing Soviet regional administration building, adding an example of Soviet gigantism to the catalogue of Russian architectural styles.
Despite all its historical appeal, it is in Novgorod that I start to feel in earnest the insidious approach of Western Europe, with dull, imposed order replacing the natural spontaneity and disorder of life, over-manicured spaces taking the place of the endless wilderness intrinsic to much of Russia. The buildings have been restored to perfection and there is a touch of soullessness which rather negates what could be a highly atmospheric city.
My next and final destination in Russia is perhaps the country’s most celebrated city, the physical embodiment of Russia’s western, European face. The unsettled period of Russian history known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ ended with the establishment of the Romanov Empire in 1616, a dynasty who would rule the country for 301 years, transforming it into a vast empire even larger than today’s Russia, building the Russian economy with the introduction of serfdom which bound the previously wandering peasants to their landowners for life, thus greatly increasing agricultural output. Perhaps the most important scion of the Romanovs, and one of the few uncontroversially great rulers in Russian history was Peter the Great, a driven and ambitious young king who was captivated by the West and by the people and ideas of the Enlightenment. Peter was particularly obsessed by shipbuilding and the idea of naval power, and devoted immense resources to the establishment of year-round ports on the Black Sea and the Baltic. Employing the kind of ruthless militarism which permeates Russian history, Peter seized a swathe of the Baltic Coast from Sweden during the Great Northern War and built his own capital from scratch: Saint Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg, Russia’s so-called ‘window to the west’ is unique among Russian cities; an elegant and harmonious imperial capital poised on the Baltic and looking outwards towards the wider world. Peter the Great was the first monarch to leave Russia, and true to Russian style, his extravagant capital was built to be larger and grander than anything in Western Europe, including Versailles. The city would become synonymous with the Romanovs, and only lost its status as capital in 1917 when Lenin returned from exile in Finland and led the Red Guards in the October Revolution, soon having the entire Romanov family murdered, and moving the capital back to Moscow. Nevertheless, Saint Petersburg remains in many ways Russia’s cultural capital and is a far more appealing city than the dismal sprawl of Moscow.
As I drive into Saint Petersburg late in the evening, a city different from any other in Russia emerges with tall, long avenues of Baroque buildings instead of the standard Soviet apartment blocks, built in long, continuous rows set aside wide, gently curving roads and elegant canals. Immediately I feel a slight atmosphere of iniquity, a touch of fallen empire, a city with plenty of character. My hosts Alexei and Ksenya live in the very heart of Saint Petersburg, alongside Griboyedova Canal, very close to the location of the old woman’s house in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. From the exterior, the apartment building is a fine example of faded grandeur, damp-looking and raffishly unkempt, but the interior is comfortable and modern with high ceilings and in all likelihood better build-quality than the elsewhere ubiquitous Soviet apartment buildings. Alexei and I step out into the street together the next morning; him cursing the the mayor for not clearing the knee-high mounds of filthy snow from the streets, and me cursing the appalling cold. Despite being just -11ºC, the damp air from the Baltic is truly numbing and feels far colder than -25ºC in dry, continental Siberia.
With only a few days to spend in the city I limit myself to an overview of the centre; passing the imposing Baroque Vorontsov Palace, now the Museum of Russia; onto Nevsky Prospect, named after Alexander Nevsky, a Grand Prince (later saint) of ancient Rus’; looking down the far end of Griboyedova Canal to the slightly gaudy Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, named for and built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Turning north I cross the Neva River, looking back to a magnificent view across a frigid expanse of wind-sculpted snow and ice to the vast Winter Palace and Hermitage, seat of the Romanov Tsars and Tsarinas. The damp, bitterly cold wind makes the waterfront almost unbearable and together with the short, dark days where the sun hardly seems to climb above the rooftops, I decide that Saint Petersburg would better be visited one summer in the future, and I am soon ready to leave.
I leave Alexei and Ksenya one morning, ready to drive the very final stretch of my trip across Russia to the Estonian border. Shortly after starting however, in the middle of rush-hour traffic, the truck starts to splutter and lose power as if it is running out of fuel, then finally comes to a halt. In over 120,000 kilometres of often rough travel during the last three and a half years, this is the first time it has ever stopped. After trying in vain to locate the problem, I tie a rope to the front of the truck and wave it at passing traffic. Within minutes a van driver stops, tows me several kilometres across the city, helps me get the truck off the road and then refuses even the suggestion of payment. Saint Petersburg may be an outwardly Western city, but this single experience demonstrates that here, the spirit of the Russian people which so sets them apart from Westerners is clearly still present.
Despite having my faith in humanity confirmed, I am still left with the prospect of an immobile truck, and after a little more diagnosis, some beer-drinking and a little anxious thought, I suspect that my fuel has started to gel and has blocked the strainer in the fuel tank. My solution is Russian; to burn Alexei’s petrol stove under the fuel tank in order to melt the wax. It is whilst watching the roaring stove under the tank that I notice the real cause of my breakdown; a long, aftermarket copper brake pipe which has been poorly fitted by a previous owner has somehow fouled on the rubber fuel hose and starved the engine of fuel. I straighten the kink and am utterly delighted when the truck fires straight back to life.
Two days later than intended I leave Russia’s second city and drive the final 160 kilometres to Ivangorod, a Russian fortress established in the late-fifteenth century by Ivan III which has at times been part of Sweden and later Estonia. Across the Narva River is modern-Estonia and a beast perhaps more daunting than the Russian Winter: The European Union.